Canadian Dimension, November/December, 2001

Afghanistan: A Forgotten Chapter

By John Ryan

I was in Afghanistan on an agricultural research project in October and November of 1978. Through Kabul University I conducted my research project with the assistance of an agriculture professor. A Marxist government had come to power only six months before, so I was there at a significant period in the country's history.

The bulk of Afghanistan's people in the 1970s were farmers, but the landholding system hadn't changed much since the feudal period. More than three quarters of the land was owned by landlords who comprised only three per cent of the rural population. The king was deposed in 1973, but no land reform came about and the new government was autocratic, corrupt and unpopular. On April 27, 1978, to prevent the police from attacking a huge demonstration in front of the presidential palace, the army intervened, and after firing a single shot from a tank at the palace, the government resigned. The military officers then invited the Marxist party to form the government, under the leadership of Noor Mohammed Taraki, a university professor.

This is how a Marxist government came into office -- it was a totally indigenous happening -- not even the CIA blamed the U.S.S.R. for this. The government began to bring in much-needed reforms, but with restraint and prudence. Labour unions were legalized, a minimum wage was established, a progressive income tax was introduced, men and women were given equal rights, and girls were encouraged to go to school. On September 1, 1978, there was an abolition of all debts owed by farmers. A program was being developed for major land reform, and it was expected that all farm families (including landlords) would be given the equivalent of equal amounts of land.

Everywhere life seemed peaceful and there were few police and soldiers on the scene. This was a genuinely popular government and people looked forward to the future with great hope. Admittedly, the issue of women's rights and education for girls was controversial, and fundamentalist mullahs conducted campaigns against this. It was these people and their converts, along with landlords, who migrated to Pakistan, as refugees.

But there was a much more powerful opponent to the government -- that was the U.S., which objected to it because it was Marxist. The CIA, along with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, almost immediately began to provide military aid and training to the Muslim extremists.

Afghan Marxists have claimed that one of their countrymen, Hafizullah Amin, while on visits to the U.S., had been "converted" by the CIA and became their agent in the Taraki government. He worked his way to the top, and, as defence minister, in September, 1979, carried out a coup, took over the government, and had Taraki killed. All his loyal supporters were killed, jailed, or exiled. He then proceeded to undermine and discredit the Marxist government. He enacted draconian laws against the Muslim clergy, to purposefully further alienate them. Progressive reforms were halted and thousands of people were jailed.

Meanwhile, the CIA's trained and armed mujahedeen came in by the thousands to attack parts of the country. In a matter of three months, Amin had essentially destroyed the Marxist government and had planned to surrender to the mujahedeen, and become the president of a fundamentalist Islamic state. But at the end of December, 1979, Amin was overthrown by the remnants of Taraki supporters, and, under the leadership of Babrak Karmal (who had been in exile in the U.S.S.R.), they invited the U.S.S.R. to send in a contingent of troops to help ward off the well-armed mujahedeen invaders, many being foreign mercenaries.

The advent of Soviet troops on Afghan soil tragically set the stage for the eventual destruction of the country. President Carter's national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinske, saw this as a golden opportunity to fire up the zeal of the most reactionary Muslim fanatics -- to have them declare a jihad on the atheist infidels who defiled Afghan soil -- and to not only expel them but to pursue them and "liberate" the Muslim-majority areas of the U.S.S.R. And for the next ten years, with an expenditure of about 40 billion dollars from the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, and with the recruitment of 30,000 non-Afghan Muslims into the jihad (including Osama bin Laden), this army of religious zealots laid waste to the land and people of Afghanistan.

The Soviets succumbed to their Vietnam and withdrew their troops in February, 1989, but the war raged on. Somehow it is generally thought that the Afghan Marxist government collapsed as soon as the Soviets left, but that's not true. Seeing the viciousness of the mujahedeen, the bulk of the Afghan population, especially the women, supported the Marxist government, and without a single Soviet soldier on their territory, they fought on for another three years. (In fact, their government outlasted the U.S.S.R. itself, which collapsed in December of 1991.) But they couldn't match the unending supply of superior American weapons, and after the Marxist defeat in April, 1992, the mujahedeen fought amongst themselves until the Taliban captured Kabul in September, 1996.

During the years of war, Kabul was totally destroyed, as were most other cities -- with the greatest damage occurring after the Marxist defeat during the internecine fratricidal conflict. The Taliban introduced a horrific reactionary regime. The landlords came back, and a virtual war was declared on women, who were not allowed to work or have doctors treat them, and girls were forbidden to go to school. Terror, in all its forms, became the basis of the regime -- a regime of fascist Muslims.

So, who is to blame for this? Both the USA and the USSR. What stupidity for the Soviets to send in troops to try to salvage a Marxist regime that was under attack by hordes of religious fanatics. Their mere presence on Afghan soil intensified American resolve and mujahedeen fanaticism. If the Soviets had simply provided weapons for the Afghan Marxist government, they may have survived the "barbarians at the gates" -- because ordinary Afghan people were not fanatics and they had supported the government's progressive reforms. And even if they lost to the mujahedeen, in time they might have prevailed and restored a progressive secular government. But now, because of the protracted war and the complete destruction of the country, and a Nazi-type regime in control, ordinary Afghan people are indeed defeated and without hope.

But if the Soviets are to blame, how about the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Pakistan? The U.S. "Communist paranoia" was such that they supported and recruited the most reactionary fanatic religious zealots on the earth -- and used them as a proxy army to fight Communism and the U.S.S.R. -- in the course of which Afghanistan and its people were destroyed. As for the mujahedeen that this conflict created, they took on a life of their own, and have now spread throughout the Muslim world and are apparently in cells everywhere. Having defeated what they called Soviet imperialism, they have now turned their sights on what they perceive to be American imperialism.

For decades the U.S. has interfered in the affairs of countless countries in the world -- Afghanistan is only a case in point. And all the while, U.S. foreign policy makers felt that they could act without any adverse consequences to the U.S. land and its people. They were a superpower, and they felt invulnerable.

But now, ironically, a creation of their own making has turned on them -- and despite America's overwhelming technological, economic and military power, this force has shown that America is vulnerable. So, foreign policy decisions do have consequences but despite what has happened, it may still take a while for this truism to sink in.

If we are to learn anything from this, it is important to understand that if the U.S. had left the Marxist Taraki government alone (in the same way that they should have left Iran alone in 1953), there would have been no army of mujahedeen, no Soviet intervention, no war that destroyed Afghanistan, no Osama bin Laden, and no September 11 tragedy in the U.S.

John Ryan is a retired professor of geography and senior scholar at the University of Winnipeg.

From http://www.canadiandimension.mb.ca/v35/v35_6jr.htm