The Seeds of the Afghanistan Disaster

A brief history of roughly five decades of death, catastrophe, and imperialism.


By Stanley Heller

Garnet Oak Contributor


To understand the catastrophe in Afghanistan you have to go back before the US invasion in 2001, before the rise of the al-Qaeda, before the Islamic guerillas defeated the Soviet puppet government in 1992, all the way back to the 1970’s. In 1973 a former Prime Minister named Daud Khan overthrew the monarchy and made himself Prime Minister and President. He was almost immediately opposed by Afghani Islamists who called themselves “mujahedeen” [those who wage jihad]. They opposed Khan for his “modernizations”. Most were driven out of the country and took refuge in Pakistan.

At the same time Marxist groups grew in urban areas and had a lot of influence in a military that had often been trained in Russia. For a while communists were part of Khan’s government, but he purged many of them. In 1978 an important Marxist was assassinated, thousands on the Left demonstrated and an angry Khan decided to arrest the leaders of the two big communist parties. He moved slowly, however, and the communist party, the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) launched a military coup and took over the government.

The PDPA claimed they had come to power in a workers’ revolution, but in fact it was a section of the government and the army that had taken power. This very narrow group then created a frankly mad program to immediately remake Afghanistan into country modeled after the Soviet Union. Looked at in isolation many of the things they wanted were praiseworthy. For instance the PDPA planned to impose free schooling, rights for women and equality of all ethnic groups. Yet the PDPA had no support at all among farmers who were the majority of Afghans. With arrogance of their supposed place on the tide of history the PDPA decided they would force progress on the people. Officials of the PDPA and an army escort would just arrive in a village and tell the population what was going to happen. When people complained or resisted the PDPA used ever growing force to repress them.

After a while the resistance to the PDPA turned violent. In Pakistan dictator Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq encouraged the mujahedeen to go back to Afghanistan and to make war. The United States started helping the mujahadeen, too, hoping to give the Soviets their own “Vietnam”. Officially and secretly US aid to the mujahadeen began on July 3, 1979 under a directive signed by President Jimmy Carter. The PDPA cracked down harder and harder. Human Rights Watch reported that “12,000 people were executed just in one prison in Kabul during this period; as many as 100,000 people may have been killed in the countryside”. Still the mujahedeen grew stronger. By the summer of 1979 the rebellion in Afghanistan was in full swing, the army was disintegrating and PDPA leaders were fighting among themselves.

The Soviet Union which had aided the PDPA government in many ways grew alarmed and according to Human Rights Watch tried to stage a coup against Hafizullah Amin in order to put in a more moderate regime in September of ‘79. That failed. Then on December 24 the Soviets airlifted thousands of troops to Kabul. They killed Amin, occupied Afghanistan and installed a PDPA leader named Babrak Karmal. Soviet strategy flopped. Afghans grew even more angry because of the Soviet occupation. The Soviet army made war on the mujahedeen with no holds barred. The number of killed Afghan fighters and civilians was immense. As the years went by the US gave billions of dollars of supplies and equipment to the “mujahedeen”, especially the “Stingers” (shoulder-fired missiles) that could shoot down Soviet helicopters. Soviet troops were taking heavy casualties, but nothing like the horrific Afghan casualties. By one estimate they suffered as 90,000 mujahedeen killed along with one million civilians.

In 1985 Mikhail Gorbachev became President of the Soviet Union. He met with Karmal and told him that he needed power sharing with the opposition and that he (Gorbachev) was going to begin withdrawing Soviet troops. The Soviet troops exited Afghanistan completely in 1989 leaving a government headed by former head of the national police, Mohammad Najibullah. Thought their troops had pulled out the Soviets still gave Najibullah massive support including fuel for his air force. Najibullah put an end to leftist measures trying to satisfy religious conservatives. His PDPA was renamed the Homeland Party and made open only to practicing Musllims! But these efforts were useless. His monstrous record as torturer and killer was well known and the mujahadeen pressed on. In 1992 they conquered all the Afghan cities and Najibullah fled to a UN building which gave him refuge.

Then the mujahedeen fell out among themselves and fought each other bitterly, destroying much of Kabul in the process and totally discrediting themselves. A new group of “idealistic” fighting “students” emerged in Kandahar pledging an end to corruption and a society ruled by the principles of Islam. These were the Taliban. Saudi Arabia and Pakistan gave them support with a Bill Clinton wink. By 1996 the Taliban took over most of the country, conquering Kabul (and gruesomely executing Najibullah). Former mujahedeen leaders still controlled parts of the country, acting as war lords.

For a while it looked like Clinton’s strategy was a winner, but in 1996 the Taliban gave refuge to Osama Bin Laden. Bin Landen’s Al-Qaeda plotted and executed the 9/11 attack. Bush invaded. He rejected Taliban offers to give up Bin Laden and stop fighting, demanding unconditional surrender. The US imposed a government on Afghanistan made up of war lords and others who would create “democracy”, meaning elections and neoliberal economics. For 20 years the US claimed progress while US and NATO soldiers smashed in doors, bombed wedding parties and killed by drones. It all fell apart this August.

Was there a chance in 1985 for the start of an alternative history?

Could the leaders of the West had met with the Soviets and work out a compromise government for Afghanistan the war? In theory, yes. In fact, a paper agreement was achieved, the so-called Geneva Accords. But the US was run by Ronald Reagan and the UK by Margaret Thatcher. Both were intent on defeat of the Soviet “evil empire”. They smelled blood and they wanted complete “victory” in Afghanistan. They continued to arm the mujahedeen. Gorbachev, not wanting to the tarred as the man who “lost Afghanistan” continued aid to Najibullah. By 1992 the Soviet Afghan project went down in flames (and indeed the Soviet Union was no more). For a while the US subcontracted things to the Pakistanis and Saudis, but after 9/11 the US government took charge with its own project. It has now collapsed.

May all imperial projects be confounded.


^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^Stanley Heller is Administrator of Promoting Enduring Peace and host of TSVN “The Struggle Video News” . He can be reached a mail@pepeace.org

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