In Kabul’s bright sunlight, the Russian T-62 tanks are fresh khakigreen and formidable. They stand parked inside the walls of the parade ground of the House of the People, once the Afghan Royal Palace and from 1973 until April 1978, the Presidential Palace of Muhammad Daoud. The big tanks are a reminder of last April’s bloody events, when Daoud was overthrown and killed. They are still very much a part of the current chapter in Afghanistan’s long, violent history.
Since earliest times, Afghanistan, with its awesome mountains and desolate reaches of desert, has been a hotly contested crossroads. North to south, east to west across this country, the ancient worn paths of countless caravans and armies link India, Iran, Russia, Pakistan, and China. Controlling Afghanistan means controlling access to its important neighbors, and great conquerors and great powers in consequence have fought to dominate it. Darius I, Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, each in his time swept across and ruled this land. Before the modern period, Afghans endured a series of other fierce polities, among them the brilliant Ghaznavid Empire of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the Ghurid dynasty that followed, and a sixteenth-century Moghul dynasty.
During the nineteenth century, Great Britain repeatedly sought to control Afghanistan by force, as a buffer between British India and Imperial Russia. The extraordinarily bloody Anglo-Afghan wars that resulted in 1839-1842 and 1878-1879, as well as innumerable lesser actions, said much about the independent spirit of the Afghan people and the limits of colonial imperialism. Britain became Afghanistan’s traditional enemy and remained so until after the last Anglo-Afghan war in the 1920s, but was never able to bring Afghanistan under satisfactory control.
King Nadir Shah, whose four-year reign was ended by his assassination in 1933, tried to introduce Afghanistan to the twentieth century. His son, King Zahir Shah, carried on the effort for the next four decades, until he was ousted by his brother-in-law, Muhammad Daoud, in 1973. Under Zahir, Afghanistan maintained strict neutrality in World War II, and Britain, declining as a power, was no longer a significant enemy. Relations with Pakistan—a new country but an old enemy—continued to be strained. During the 1950s and 1960s, foreign aid and trade became increasingly important factors in Afghan life, with aid coming principally from the Soviet Union, followed by the United States. By the April coup of 1978, Afghanistan’s 80,000-man army and 6000-man air force were predominantly Russian-equipped, and the USSR was Afghanistan’s principal export market.
In his five-year rule Daoud—who suspended the royal constitution and assumed the titles of prime minister, foreign minister, and presidentseemed to be on good terms with the Soviets. In 1974, he and Brezhnev signed a joint statement of interest in an Asian collective security system, and Afghanistan continued to receive Russian aid.
Then, in 1977, Daoud’s planning minister, Avi Ahmad Khoram, was assassinated in Kabul. Rumors of future trouble circulated in the capital city. On April 17, 1978, Mir Akbar Khaibir, a leader of the Parcham (“Flag”) party, was assassinated, and large anti-Daoud demonstrations were staged at Khaibir’s funeral. Daoud ordered the arrest of Parcham leaders and of some 200 army officers who had taken part in the demonstrations.
His action triggered the military coup against him that began on April 27, 1978. Fighting continued between opposition and loyal military units on April 28, and reports that Daoud had been killed were confirmed the next day, along with news that his brother and four high-ranking military officers—as well as many other Daoud supporters—had been slain. On April 30, Noor Muhammad Taraki, a sixty-yearold former journalist and one of the founders of the People’s Democratic party (Khalq), was named president of the Revolutionary Council and prime minister of a newly proclaimed Democratic Republic of Afghanistan. The USSR instantly recognized the new regime.
Now, the open gates of the parade ground, facing one of dusty Kabul’s widest avenues, are guarded by Afghan soldiers who leave little doubt that they mean business. While their baggy tan uniforms and low black boots seem left over from World War I, their automatic rifles and submachine guns are clearly much newer. These soldiers look proud, rugged, and ready for action, and the brass buckles that close their tunics are shining and bright, even if the tunics themselves are threadbare.
The soldiers and serious-looking officers are visible nearly everywhere in the capital city. In the provinces, the military presence is not so conspicuous, but it is very much there. The headquarters of the new regime’s governor of the province of Parwan is like a small fortress. A half-dozen soldiers with submachine guns at port arms stand guard in his anteroom as he receives visitors.
The Taraki regime appears to have the power needed to stay in place. Moreover, the new regime is rapidly consolidating its control of social and economic affairs, and is driving hard toward its goals for national development.
The impact is felt in the bazaars, where merchants, many of whom have been called in for questioning, know how serious the Taraki regime is about socializing the economy. Along noisy Chicken Street—in the lively, ramshackle confusion of the Shari Nau district of Kabul—shops that were busy in former years are half empty. Traders in the shops and journeymen money changers on the street are at first guarded in what they say to a foreigner about the regime, and then openly pessimistic, full of thoughts about departing for Germany or America or elsewhere.
The “great Saur Revolution” (the month of Saur corresponds to our April) is certainly under way, even if the extent of its power base is not as yet fully clear, its control of things not complete, and its programs not yet tested.
The leftist civilian regime now in Afghanistan depends heavily on intensive military controls, such as the curfew imposed nightly in the capital and elsewhere from 11 P.M. to dawn. Travel by foreigners 50 kilometers or more outside Kabul requires several days’ prior clearance with the authorities, and many military checkpoints must be passed on the few paved highways, including the Russian-built road north through the Salang Pass. Other examples of military controls, direct and indirect, are everywhere.
To what extent does Soviet support of the Saur Revolution make such controls possible?
One view, attacked by Moscow as “malicious lies,” is that the April coup itself was engineered by the KGB, working closely with such Afghan leaders as Colonel Abdul Qadar. According to this analysis, KGB planners may have wanted a regime in Kabul that would support subversion in Iran and Pakistan. Certainly the shah found no ally in Taraki as Iranian disorders escalated. Instead, the Khalqi leadership ensured—for the time being at least— an Afghan regime friendly to Soviet interests and basically opposed to the political ambitions of conservative Islamic leaders. Taraki and the men around him thus far have provided a stable Afghanistan, while the Soviets’ Iranian neighbor has been racked by civil conflict and chaos. Whether this stability will continue is not wholly clear. Such planning for resistance to the Saur Revolution as has surfaced is closely related internationally to the kind of Islamic conservatism Khomeini has represented in the case of Iran. Occasional bloody clashes have occurred, for example, between government troops and conservative Moslem tribesmen along the eastern border with Pakistan. The resurgence of Islam in Iran is thus echoed to a degree in Afghanistan, even though Soviet influence is clearly dominant.
But the Soviet relationship to the Saur Revolution may prove to be considerably more complicated. Factors of geography, diplomacy, and economics place Afghanistan in an inescapably close interdependent relationship with Russia. For many years, the USSR has been Afghanistan’s principal supplier of capital goods, petroleum products, and sugar. More important, the USSR is Afghanistan’s largest customer. With the development of its fields in the north, Afghanistan’s largest export has become natural gas, and well over 3 billion cubic meters annually are piped into Russia. In addition, the Soviet Union is the major importer of Afghan cotton, wool, and oilseed, and has become an important market for Afghan dried fruits and nuts.
While Afghanistan has traditionally followed a policy of neutrality in its foreign relations, its geographic position-landlocked by Iran, the Soviet Union, China, Pakistan, and in a sense India—underscores its strategic significance. The country continues to be an important crossroads or gateway—for Russia in flanking Iran or having military access to the south and east, for India and Pakistan as a buffer between them and the Soviets, for the United States as part of the political system of the Middle East, a system we would like to see remain stable.
The Soviet Union, recognizing Afghanistan’s importance, provided the country with more than $1 billion in aid from 1954 to 1977. In addition, substantial Soviet military assistance went into training and equipping the Afghan army and air force. Under Daoud after 1973, a new $200 million Soviet program of aid to Afghanistan was begun, with projects focused on gas and oil development, trade and transport, irrigation, and factory construction.
United States aid to Afghanistan has been substantial too. Between 1950 and 1977, such aid came to a total of over $450 million in loans, grants, and surplus agricultural commodities. But Soviet assistance, considerably more than double U.S. aid, is much more visible in the country, and has had a far greater military and economic impact.
Thus Soviet encouragement of the Saur Revolution is hardly surprising. How many Soviet advisers are in Afghanistan, and in what capacity, is not clear, but their presence is felt. By midsummer of 1978, the Taraki regime had signed more than twenty-five new agreements with the Soviet Union on economic and technical issues and the whole range of government-to-government relations. In Moscow, on December 5, 1978, Taraki and Brezhnev signed a twenty-year treaty of friendship and cooperation which closely binds the two countries with economic and military ties.
Rumors abound in Kabul: as many as 4000 Russian advisers are in the country; every Afghan ministry has at least one senior Soviet adviser in its central office; the engineering faculty of Kabul University is to be merged with the Russian-sponsored Polytechnic Institute; open fighting against the new regime is going on near the Chinese border in the Pamir region.
But the conduct of the revolution itself suggests something more complex and perhaps less stable than simple Soviet domination. In headline after headline, story after story, the press attacks Afghanistan’s equivalent of the Gang of Four: “Lackeys of Reaction Condemned in Provinces,” “People Join State in Condemning Traitors: BabrakQadar Clique Cursed,” and so on. This Qadar, so cursed, is Abdul Qadar of the air force, main military organizer of the April coup, and reputedly on the closest of terms with Colonel Vadim Pechenko, head of Soviet military intelligence in Kabul, and Alexander Novokrechenkov, KGB officer in Afghanistan. The Babrak, vilified daily in the press, is Babrak Karmal, who in April and May was vice chairman of the Revolutionary Council, and also close to KGB officials. The fall of such men from grace, the purge of the Parcham group, the drive of the relatively small Khalqi (“masses”) faction to acquire exclusive power, the regime’s condemnation of “ultra-leftists” and “religious reactionaries” alike, are signs that the Saur Revolution is not yet a quiet servant of the Soviets. And, even in the Khalqi faction’s most vociferous propaganda, a strong element of nationalism remains, a flavor of the independence that seems intrinsic to Afghan character.
No central government of Afghanistan has ever had unquestioned control of all of the countryside. The provinces today appear to have a fragile stability clearly dependent on an active military presence. Reports of unrest pop up in various places, along with evidence—of desertions and other signs of disloyalty—that the military is not a wholly reliable instrument for Taraki’s purposes. Further, the new regime will likely have its most serious difficulty as it tries to press Marxist policies and programs on a Moslem people historically committed to Islamic conservatism.
Consolidating Khalqi control
In the first-grade classroom of an elementary school at Charigar, sixyear-old boys (no girls attend the school) stand at attention beside their shabby desks, looking vulnerable and small, but with their close-cropped heads held high. The teacher claps his hands. One little boy, his voice piping like a shrill fife, leads the group into an extraordinarily spirited song. His voice goes ahead, then the group responds, chorus after emphatic chorus, gesturing in unison, fists clenched and raised. The song is the revolutionary Khalqi anthem, sung now at nearly every Afghan gathering.
Songs, speeches, rallies, posters—a nearly continuous agitprop program is put before Afghans of every age, in the capital and in the provinces. Two themes prevail: pursuing the goals of the revolution for the welfare of the people, and putting down the enemies of the Khalqist cause —aristocrats, merchants, “pseudo-Moslems,” and others.
Active resistance to the Taraki regime, to the degree that it has surfaced, has come chiefly from the conservative Shi’ite Moslems. In Iran, where they are the majority sect, Shi’ites led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini exhibited strong anti-American bias in overthrowing the shah, in Afghanistan, where they are a minority in the face of overwhelming Sunni Moslem strength, the Shi’ites are deeply anti-Russian. To be a conservative Moslem in this part of the world at present is to be intensely opposed to domination of one’s country by outsiders, whether Soviet or American.
On the political side, the Khalqi leadership—which appears highly centralized in a small number of men who constitute the executive group of the Khalqi party, the inner core of the Revolutionary Council, and the cabinet— is moving with great speed to consolidate its grasp of as many aspects of Afghan life as possible. Civil servants who were regarded as loyal to Daoud have been replaced by Khalqists at every level from department chiefs to schoolmasters. While overall leadership of the revolution is tightly held in a few hands, Taraki and his associates have been remarkably successful in developing subordinate cadres quickly, and in assigning them throughout the structure of governmental operations.
Accompanying control, a kind of epidemic, realistic paranoia has developed among many Afghans, particularly those the revolution regards as bourgeois. The paranoia is evident in private conversations held with a number of Afghans, including a young man out of a job because he was a Daoudist. A Kabul University graduate with a master’s degree from a midwestern American university arranges to meet me “casually” on the street in front of a grocery at an appointed time. My errand is to give him a book sent to him by an Afghan friend in America. In order to avoid being overheard, we sit outdoors to talk. The young man is guarded in what he says, and eager to get away. His house, he reports, is under surveillance. He wants to leave the country, but has no passport and no money. And no prospects. The revolution, he says, is the first effectively organized political action his country has produced, and he is one of its victims.
The new regime clearly exercises strong police power. How many political dissidents are under detention, where, and under what conditions, is impossible for an outsider or an ordinary citizen to determine. But that the revolution has its political prisoners, and in substantial numbers, is not to be doubted. The likelihood of show trials in the future seems strong.
Except for a small urban population in a handful of cities, most of the people of Afghanistan live in clan and tribal groups on the land. Two majestic mountain ranges, the Hindu Kush and the Pamirs, divide the country southwest to northeast. Mountains and stark desert are interspersed with small valleys made green by irrigation from snowfed streams. Great desolate reaches of the country are without people, and look like something out of Frank Herbert’s eerie sci-fi novel Dune.
An area comparable in size to Texas supports a population variously estimated at 12.7 to 19 million —no real census has ever been taken. The people—who are Pathans, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras, Turkomans, and of other ethnic groups—are nearly all Moslem, speaking Dari (Afghan Persian) or Pushtu. Their life expectancy at birth is less than forty years; fewer than 10 percent of them are literate; per capita income ranges between $80 and $100 a year; 80 percent of the population over the age of five has never attended school (the proportion is 93 percent for females); maternal mortality is 64.2 deaths per 100,000 females, against 0.6 in the United States; infant mortality is 220 deaths per 1000 live births, compared to Western Europe’s eighteen. Afghanistan has no railroads, only some 2000 miles of paved highway; no health controls or sanitary regulations governing food in markets or restaurants; no modern general systems for sewage disposal. With a maximum of 15 to 20 percent of its land suitable for farming—and less than half of that actually tilled —Afghanistan is somehow able to sustain its people, but only at a harsh subsistence level.
The Daoud government formulated a Seven Year Plan for 1976-1983 which called for development expenditures to increase at about 16 percent annually during the plan period, totaling almost $4 billion. Daoud expected that about two thirds of this budget would come from foreign sources. The emphasis in development was intended to be on transportation, heavy industry, and major irrigation projects rather than on agriculture, health, education, and social services. The latter categories, per the plan, would receive increases but would decline in percentage of the total development effort.
World Bank officials, leaders of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), and USAID analysts agreed in their comments on the plan. They felt that agriculture could not be slighted, that Daoud had to recognize Afghanistan’s critical need for technical assistance and trained manpower if the goals of the plan were to be realized, and that the planning and coordination capability of the weak, inefficient civil service had to be improved. They said the success of the plan would depend on the government’s willingness to meet these needs effectively.
Now the Seven Year Plan is dead, abrogated by the Saur Revolution. The Taraki regime announced in the summer of 1978 that a new Five Year Plan, congruent with the revolution’s goals, would be called into being. As new cadres of Khalqi leadership were installed in ministries, departments, and institutions, their first programmatic goal was a new plan, but the Taraki Five Year Plan is still aborning. A common view is that Taraki’s development scheme will not turn out to be very different in substance from Daoud’s. The new regime may underestimate its need for technical assistance and trained manpower even more than the Daoud government did. And, in its ardent ideological enthusiasm, the revolution may espouse development steps that are naively overambitious. Among USAID officials, at least, deep pessimism persists about the future of American aid in Afghanistan.
Public pronouncements and actions indicate that the Taraki regime wants desperately to succeed within its own ideological terms and its own view of proper national development, and is persuaded that the USSR will help it do so. The new regime would also accept American assistance if ways could be found that did not compromise the revolution’s position.
However, the proposed budget for American aid was cut considerably after the shocking events of mid-February when the United States ambassador to Afghanistan, Adolph Dubs, was kidnapped and killed in a shoot-out between Shi’ite terrorists and security personnel of the Taraki government together with their Soviet advisers. The slaying of Ambassador Dubs, a warm and intelligent man who represented our State Department at its best, dramatized many of the issues that affect Afghanistan today, including questions about the involvement of Russian advisers, the fierceness of Afghan nationalism, and the value of a continued American presence.
The World Bank has an active program of financial assistance to development in Afghanistan, operating as busily under Taraki as under Daoud. World Bank loans to Afghanistan have risen from an annual level of roughly $40 million before the April 1978 coup to a current yearly level of approximately $70 million. Loans are now mainly addressed to rural development and agriculture, including assistance to small farming, irrigation, rural education, and other programs aimed at helping people in the lower 40 percent of the country’s income structure.
James Theodores, an American who is resident officer for the World Bank in Kabul has said that U.S. aid in Afghanistan might be acceptable both to the Taraki regime and to American interests if U.S. programs were operated with some flexibility and a responsiveness to the reality of Russian influence and to the fact that the country is Moslem, deeply conservative, and fiercely independent. The “ifs" are big, since the United States is barred by law from aiding communist countries without the approval of Congress. The Taraki regime, perhaps for this reason, studiously avoids calling itself communist or admitting to Soviet domination.
Arthur Holcombe, Jr., a young American who is acting resident representative of the UNDP in Afghanistan, directs sizable programs of international assistance to Afghanistan—at a level of $7 million or more annually in recent years, often for technical studies leading to World Bank loans. He feels that working with the Taraki regime is possible. Both Theodores and Holcombe say the new government appears to want to pursue economic development on Afghan rather than Russian terms. Neither assumes that the regime can be worked with on a rigid old-line formula, under which economic development is defined within guidelines or priorities set by or with an outside power. Their view is that the present is a time of major transition for Afghanistan, a transition still formative and filled with ambiguities. It is a time when American policy-makers have to keep alternatives to Soviet control visible for an ambivalent populace. As the history of Afghanistan’s fiercely independent people unfolds, that could be important.