You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Afghan Resistance

A Journey Through Afghanistan: A Memorial
by David Chaffetz
(Regnery Gateway; $12.95)

The Struggle for Afghanistan
by Nancy Peabody Newell and Richard Newell
(Cornell University Press; $14.95)

by Louis Dupree
(Princeton University Press; $9.95, paper)

In 1975, midway in his journey by horseback across pre-Marxist Afghanistan, David Chaffetz encounters a lonely Afghan schoolteacher. "It's too bad the government allows these people to go on living the way they do," the young teacher tells him, "the khans robbing the peasants blind and the peasants living like animals." Chaffetz pays this bitter comment little mind and rides on. Earlier in his travels Chaffetz has made it plain that the government, so far away in Kabul, can hardly be said to have "allowed" these people in "the savage countryside" (as the teacher calls it) to do anything. Until the Marxist coup in 1978, the Kabul government was little more than a voice on the radio and a schoolteacher to be ignored, as far as the peasants of the back passes of Afghanistan were concerned.

Yet in the schoolteacher's bitterness, I think, lies one key to what went wrong in Afghanistan. The contempt the teacher had for his countrymen was shared by a few thousand other Afghans like him, and those few thousands took control of Afghanistan in April 1978. Reading about Chaffetz's schoolteacher reminded me of another Afghan, one who lived near the apex of Kabul society, a man—I'll call him Ali—related to the old royal family. Ali owned the only motorboat in the country, and was co-owner of its first nightclub. On the telephone Ali could lead you to believe he was British. I have been told that he also spoke faultless Russian. Ali was very good at roleplaying, so good that he seemed to have shed his Afghan identity. And Ali suffered from ulcers.

But not all educated Afghans were so lucky as Ali and the schoolteacher, who experienced relatively mild cases of alienation. In the early 1960s a brilliant young Afghan was sent abroad—to West Germany, the story goes—to study medicine. At the end of the decade he returned to Kabul and was assigned to a hospital there. Afghanistan is a dirty country, and the thought of all that dirt, those germs, those microbes, started to prey on him. He began to wash his hands frequently; then, like Lady Macbeth, incessantly. He was trying to remove the germs that plagued his country, germs he had never seen until he went to the West, but which he now believed were festering on his hands. He was removed to a mental hospital.

That the doctor, the schoolteacher, and Ali were alienated from their country by their Western educations is not unusual. Nor is the stress they felt at trying to bridge the two cultures. The disparaging term the British used for those so caught between two worlds was "wog"—an abbreviation for "Westernized Oriental Gentleman," according to the most plausible lexicographic derivation. This is not to say that any educated person from Afghanistan is a wog. Today the range of options is far wider than it was a century ago. When melting-pot America entered the arena, many third world students suddenly had the option of simply going over to the other side and, with their degrees as their passports, becoming US citizens. Others—Nur Muhammad Taraki, who once served with the Afghan embassy in Washington, DC, and Hafizullah Amin, an alumnus of Columbia University, come to mind—reacted in the opposite manner, turning their backs both on their own land and on the West, to embrace Marxism instead. But few actually went to live in the Soviet Union; returning to their native lands, they became Marxist Oriental Gentlemen—"mogs."

MUCH OF Nancy and Richard Newell's The Struggle for Afghanistan is a polemic padded with geopolitical gibberish, but their chapter on what the Afghan mogs did after seizing power in 1978 makes fine reading. As the Newells tell it, there were two factions of Afghan Marxists, the Khalq and the Farcham. The former, which led the April 1978 coup, made its first order of business an attack on the latter, whose members over the next few months were exiled. Imprisoned, tortured, and shot. 

With the Parchamis out of the way, the Khalq regime turned to reforming Afghanistan. That's when the trouble started. Khalqi actions in late 1978 revealed that their attitudes were like those of Chaffetz's schoolteacher, while their condition was not unlike that of the mad Afghan doctor. With his alienation internalized, the doctor wound up in an asylum. The Khalqis' alienation was externalized; it was aimed at the country they ruled.

In mid-1978, the Khalqis embarked upon a Marxist fantasy. They went by the book, not by what was obvious to any Afghan. In a country that is 75 percent desert, where the control of water and seeds determines who eats, they decreed simple land reform. They tried to liberate women by eliminating the bride price, a system which might seem repressive to us but which was for the Afghans a way of ending feuds and setting up alliances between families. They made education compulsory for both sexes. They introduced a Marxist curriculum. In an act of either pathetic misjudgment or foolhardy provocation, they did away with Afghanistan's flag of green (the color of Islam), red, and black and replaced it with a solid red banner that was modeled after the flags of the Soviet republics.

The Newells argue that the true purpose of the reforms was to shatter the social structure of the countryside, creating a vacuum the party would fill. There were no pilot programs to test what would happen when, say, land was redistributed: the reforms were meant to be sudden, sweeping, and universal. The abruptness of the effort to emancipate women leads the Newells to suspect that the regime's intention was to undermine the structure of authority in the family and destabilize relations between households.

As an American Marxist named Irwin Silber was later to lament, "Revolutionary decrees were obviously no substitute for an armed party structure in the countryside." As the people of rural Afghanistan—that is, 85 percent of the population—came to see it, Kabul had declared war on them. Within a few months of coming to power, the Khalq regime had violated the "Three Zs" of Afghan life: zar (gold), zan (woman), and zamin (land).

There were violent consequences: some young party member sent down from Kabul, his head swimming with his new power, would order the villagers to abide by the reforms. Olivier Roy, writing in a recent issue of Dissent, describes what happened next: "the male teacher wants to compel the girls to go to school; or the cadre wants to check on marriage arrangements; or he forcibly enters a house to take a census. A quarrel ensues; somebody fires; the Party man is killed." When such killings occurred, the Khalq regime overreacted, terrified by any sign of rural resistance. "If two people fired on them," an anonymous Afghan Marxist later told the Pakistani Progressive, "they bombarded the whole village." That village would have ties to those near it, and soon the entire tribe, or the whole valley, would go over to the resistance. In late 1978 and early 1979, this scenario was repeated again and again all over Afghanistan. This was the situation to which President Nur Muhammad Taraki, the first Khalqi ruler, was referring when he informed the Kabul Times that "Whoever stands against our revolution—whoever he may be—we will put him in jail and will really punish him." This was what the World Peace Council of Helsinki, Finland, described in 1979 as "the true and wonderful reality which is the new Afghanistan."

By March 1979 the Khalq regime was threatened. In western Afghanistan, the people of the lovely old oasis city of Herat revolted and massacred the Russian advisers resident there. In May, in the eastern part of the country, thousands of tribesmen attacked the city of Jalalabad. Gounting on the support of the Soviet Union, the Khalqis pushed on. But Moscow was getting nervous. In September 1979, the Soviets seem to have ordered President Taraki to eliminate Hafizullah Amin, the Khalq strongman who had organized the 1978 coup. With Amin dead, one supposes, Taraki would have slowed down the pace of the reforms and, as cautious Marxists say, learned to walk before he began to run.

The plan backfired: Amin shot Taraki. As long as Amin remained in office, the resistance would continue. The question was who would get to him first, the resistance or the Red Army. Here the Brezhnev doctrine loomed large: the Soviets would not allow a "socialist" nation to leave the Soviet camp, as Afghanistan appeared to be doing. At this point—late September 1979—the Soviets must have begun drawing up their plans for invasion.

WHEN THE Soviets took Kabul on Christmas Day 1979 the important thing for the West was not what was being invaded but who was doing the invading. Indeed, the Soviets could not have found a country less upsetting to invade. Among American journalists, Afghanistan had been something of an inside joke, a synonym for obscurity. Reporters writing about it went for laughs, perhaps because there was no other way to get an Afghanistan story into print. The Wall Street journal, for example, was better than most in its coverage of the country, but only eight months before the April 1978 coup, it ran an article which chortled that Afghanistan had "a gross national product of only $2 billion a year (about what the US spends annually on dog food)."

The Soviet invasion changed all that. It was the kind of story journalists love, an obscure subject with large implications. It offered something to every periodical from Time to the journals of Orientalia that noodle along with 250 subscribers- It had an aggressive superpower, a poor third world nation, communism, Islam, historical parallels, political lessons and linkages, subcontinental rumblings, and summit talks. It even—almost—had oil. Only a few people knew anything about Afghanistan, but everybody had something to say about it, and so it became one of those stories that sheds more light on its commentators than they do on it. The newsweeklies trumpeted "A New Cold War"; the Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars did not deign to discuss the invasion (in a display of non-eponymous unconcern, it still hasn't, a year and a half later); the New Statesman carried a letter complaining that "military and economic assistance to a progressive government" could hardly be labeled "imperialism"; Commentary's editor, Norman Podhoretz, wrote: "It may, as I say, already be too late."

The experts, such as they are, agreed with Podhoretz. In the New York Review of Books, Yale historian Firuz Kazemzadeh assured his readers of "the ultimate defeat of the insurgents, who cannot indefinitely resist the overwhelmingly superior forces now ranged against them." And Louis Dupree, in an epilogue to what the front cover of his book advertises as the "1980 Edition" (it seems to be a reprint of the 1973 edition, with two epilogues tacked on), concludes that "The hawks will pick the bones of the Afghan nation until nothing is left." Following the experts, most of the world regarded Soviet control of Afghanistan as a fait accompli, and in the year after the invasion, Japanese exports to the USSR rose by ten percent, and Western Europe's increased by twice that figure.

But Afghanistan is a land that confounds assumptions. As Dupree observes, only one of the country's four main rivers, the Kabul, carries water that reaches the ocean; the others either flow into the Aral Sea or evaporate in the desert. Today those in the Afghan resistance are reported to be showing "increasing confidence," to be "better armed and better able to confront the Soviet soldiers than they were a year ago." The past 18 months of successful resistance to the Soviets raises questions that were not important when the Soviet tanks first rolled over the Hindu Kush. What is this country? Who are these people?

FIRST, "these people" are most of the Afghan population. A year ago, the fighting in Afghanistan appeared to us to be a civil war in which the Soviets were aiding one side, but, increasingly, it is a war that the Soviet Union is waging against Afghanistan. When the Marxists came to power in April 1978, their two factions, Khalq and Farcham, had between them, according to most estimates, about 5,000 members. They promptly set to killing each other. Then when Taraki and Amin had their shootout in September 1979, Khalqis killed Khalqis. More than a few Khalqis must have died when the Soviets came in three months later to install the head of the Parcham faction, Babrak Karmal. In April of this year, a former Parchami official, Saddiq Farhang, told the New York Times that more than 10,000 intellectuals had been liquidated since the 1978 coup. Also in April, Babrak commemorated the third anniversary of that coup by promising to cleanse the civil service of "undesirable elements." (Whether or not this purge will occur remains to be seen: Babrak's Soviet masters have in the past forced the two factions to compromise and cooperate, so that at one point, the Newells report, the Khalqi secret police chief and a Parchami official he is alleged to have tortured both sat in Babrak's cabinet.) Meanwhile, the resistance has been picking off government officials, and 25 percent of the government cars on the streets of Kabul are said to have bullet holes in them. What this all means is that fewer than 10,000, and possibly just a few hundred, Afghan Marxists serve as a facade for Soviet domination, which takes the form of 85,000 Red Army soldiers plus 30,000 or so Afghan troops of doubtful loyalty.

There is no way of knowing how many Afghans are actually fighting the Babrak regime; estimates run as high as 80,000. This would mean that the Afghans are outnumbered by soldiers enjoying technological superiority. But the resistance has the home court advantage, and guerrilla warfare is almost the national sport of Afghanistan, which according to the CIA has a population of 14.7 million, of whom 1.8 million are males fit for military service. These numbers suggest that the Soviets cannot win through simple escalation.

THESE are people accustomed to battling powerful foes. Twice in the 19th century and once in the 20th the Afghans fought the British Empire, which at that time abutted Afghanistan, just as the Soviet Union does today. The most important of the three Anglo-Afghan wars was the first, which lasted from 1838 to 1842. In April 1839 the British placed their own man. Shah Shujah, on the Afghan throne. After occupying Kabul for two years, the British force decided to withdraw to Jalalabad, in eastern Afghanistan. Of the 4,000 soldiers and 12,000 camp followers who left Kabul, only one, a Dr. Brydon, reached the safety of the British garrison in Jalalabad. Most of the others died; a few were taken hostage; some wandered for months as beggars. Dead also in a few months was Shah Shujah, a fact Babrak Karmal would do well to remember. (Still, Shah Shujah's end was not exceptional. In this century there have been ten rulers of Afghanistan: Abdur Rahman died of gout in 1901; his successors have been, in chronological order, shot, exiled, shot and hanged, shot, exiled, shot, shot, and shot.)

In the 1840s the British learned what the Soviets seem to be discovering now—that Afghanistan is easy to invade invade but hard to hold. The British officials in India held responsible for the invasion were soon dismissed. This is how Lord Ellenborough, the new governor- general of India, summed up his predecessor's attempt to control Afghanistan: "Instead of making them [the Afghans] our friends, we have made them out implacable foes. The policy which we pursued was disastrous, because it was unjust. It was, in principle and act, an unrighteous usurpation, and the curse of God was on it from the first."

ELLENBOROUGH did not know just how disastrous the Afghan episode would prove to be. The Afghans had demonstrated to their flatlander cousins in India that the British were far from invincible, and were in fact capable of great cowardice. The sepoys of the British army in India heard stories of how, during the retreat from Kabul, mounted British officers had fled from the fight while their own men, left behind on foot, had fired on them in fury. Those stories planted the seeds of the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857.

There may yet prove to be another historical parallel here: thus far the Soviets have not suffered so humiliating a defeat as was inflicted on the British in 1842, but they have come in for a harder time than anyone, including the Soviets, expected. Who knows what stories are now circulating among the Afghans' flatlander cousins in Soviet Central Asia, and what effect these stories might have in 15 or 20 years? This is not so farfetched a possibility as it might seem. If present Soviet policies and population trends continue, the Red Army increasingly will resemble the army that mutinied against the British in 1857. Today, a according to demographer Murray Feshback, one out of every five Red Army conscripts comes from the "Soviet sunbelt," where most Soviet Moslems live. By the turn of the century, the proportion will be one in three. Yet, Feshbach writes, the Red Army's command structure "remains exclusively Slav, and mainly Russian." Ethnic Russians, moreover, have been known to call Soviet Central Asians chernozhopif, which is politely translated as "black bastards."

Understandably, the British came to develop a hearty respect for the Afghan people. Sir W. K. Fraser-Tytler, who fought in the third Anglo-Afghan war and later served as British minister to Kabul, characterized the Pathan tribes men of eastern Afghanistan as 

violently opposed to any infringement of their liberty of thought or action; divided and split by the devastating scourge of the blood feud, and united only in a fierce determination to defend themselves and their country from all forms of external pressure. Nowhere in the world are to be found better fighters among their own rugged hills than the Pathans.

The Afghans did not, however, reciprocate in their feeling toward the British. Even in the late 1960s, one Afghan wanting to insinuate that another was a liar would exclaim in mock surprise, "Oh, I didn't know you were English."

AFGHANS being Afghans—and they will be, unless the Soviets turn to genocide--it seems likely that the Soviets will be deprecated in a similar fashion a century from now. The Afghan memory is a powerful thing. In southwestern Afghanistan there is an outcropping of black rock that, from a certain angle and with a bit of imagination, looks like the statue of a woman. Afghan legend says the boulder is the petrified corpse of a woman who betrayed an Afghan army to Alexander the Great. Even today, 2,300 years after Alexander invaded Afghanistan, travelers passing the rock will throw stones and spit at it.

On his journey by horse, David Chaffetz, whose good eye and better ear make his book the most informative of the three reviewed here, noticed this emphatically non-Western sense of time. For the average Afghan, he writes, "History was no story, not a chain of causation, but part of the landscape, a sense of place." Chaffetz means that what we would consider the distant past is not distant to the Afghan, for whom it can hold just as much immediacy as last year or last week. One proverb captures this sense of Afghan time: "The Pathan waited one hundred years before taking his revenge, and cursed himself for his impatience."

While this view of time no doubt has been a source of strength for the resistance, I think that it is also, in an indirect way, the source of Afghanistan's troubles. A static view of history suits the farmer who follows the cycle of seasons as his fathers did and as he expects his sons will do. But it can be enormously disheartening to the young engineer who waits a decade for official approval of his plans to build a dam, or to the woman who would break with tradition and embark upon a career. Faced with this rock-hard view of life as unchanging, many young Afghans seized on the glittering promise of progress held out by Marxism, with its "scientific" description of the lockstep march of history from feudalism to capitalism to socialism. Their desperate faith in the inevitability of Marxist change may account for the blindness and seeming stupidity of the Khalq regime.

In the rural Afghan view of life lies also an explanation for the peculiarly tentative nature of the public comments made by Afghans in this country and in Europe. To be sure, many are restrained by fear of reprisals against relatives still in Afghanistan. Yet any Afghan educated enough to live and travel in the West and express his views in the Western press is likely to feel some qualms about siding wholeheartedly with the tribesmen who make up the resistance. Like those who have held power in Kabul since April 1978, expatriate Afghans are liable to feel that the people of the provinces will have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 20th century, and that modernization can be brought about only by decree. (Modernization, we are learning, usually flows not from laws but from circumstances; it occurs not by decree but by degrees.) While most Afghans in this country seem to believe the Babrak regime is manned by vicious quislings, they are not very much happier with many of those in the resistance, which includes men who, according to Dupree, sometimes tattoo their women with the same property symbols they use to mark their horses, camels, and sheep.

That the people of Afghanistan are hardly McGovernites does not mean we should watch them be crushed. The essential point here is the right to self-determination, a point that seems to have escaped the American officials responsible for lifting the partial embargo on the sale of grain to the Soviet Union. A century from now, if it comes to that, the sons and grandsons of today's resistance will be sniping at the Soviets, and cursing themselves for their impatience. That means there will be Afghan refugees in Pakistan for some time to come. At the very least, the US government should make sure those refugees do not go hungry, this year or 15 years from now. And if they have food, they will fight.

The last three years have been ugly for the Afghans. Ten to 15 percent of the population of Afghanistan has left the country; more than 100,000 Afghans have died in prison and in battle; the economy, never healthy, has been crippled. Yet there is a bit of irony in this tale of the failure of Afghan Marxism. One could say that Marxism works in strange ways. The Marxist fantasies of the mogs gave rise to a resistance cast in the classic Maoist mold, the people's war in the countryside. This resistance proved to be so strong that the Soviets had to intervene to rescue the regime, but that intervention only stiffened the resistance. A few months later, Poland erupted, but the Soviets had at least two good reasons not to go in—the Red Army was fighting on one front, in Afghanistan, and was ready to fight on another, with 50 divisions tied down on the Chinese border because of (among other things) an earlier quarrel over interpretations of Marxism-Leninism. Thus, because of one experiment with Marxism (China), and a second with Marxism (Afghanistan), a third experiment with Marxism (Poland) survives. Even though they have not yet pushed back the Soviets and achieved freedom for themselves, the Afghans have helped the Poles defy the Russians and gain a greater measure of self-determination. The result, then, is that the Soviet way of life has not been imposed in one country, and it has been lifted, and perhaps ended, in another.

Tom Ricks is a freelance writer who has lived in Afghanistan.