Reprinted from Militant 931 (10 February 1989)
Afghanistan after the Russians
As it became clear that the Russian forces would actually be out by the deadline, the Western powers, led by the US and fervently supported by Thatcher, have stepped up their efforts to destabilise the regime of president Najibullah. The withdrawal of all Western diplomatic missions, for example, was obviously a calculated attempt to help precipitate the collapse of the Kabul regime.
Exaggerated propaganda stories have always been a feature of reporting from Afghanistan, and this undoubtedly continues. Nevertheless, the picture of chaos and deepening collapse which emerges from television reports and from serious capitalist journals is too consistent to ignore.
Najibullah defiantly claims that he will fight the mujaheddin to the bitter end. He asserts that he will not step aside to make way for a compromise government. Rejecting claims that his regime is on the verge of collapse, he states that the Afghan army has been strengthened. Kabul, he asserts, will continue to be supplied, with Russian help.
The mujaheddin, however, despite their internal rivalries, have stepped up the drive to put Kabul and other cities under siege, and to cut off Kabul’s lifeline, the Salang highway. Reports indicate shortages of bread and petrol. The city is swollen by over a million refugees. The severe hardship of sections of the population has been made even worse by an exceptionally cold winter. Some reports, undoubtedly hostile to the regime, claim that civil servants and Afghan army personnel are increasingly deserting their posts. Najibullah recently told journalists: "Sure, sure - I’m confident." The spokesmen of Western governments, however, are claiming his days are numbered.
Whichever way things go, there is no doubt that the situation has reached a critical point. The various mujaheddin groups, encouraged by the Russians’ exit, have stepped up their offensive. United in their opposition to the Najibullah regime, they are now intransigently opposed to the participation of the ruling party, the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), in any provisional assembly or transitional government. With the PDPA stripped of Russian military support, the mujaheddin see no reason for compromise.
Apart from this, however, the mujaheddin are totally divided. There are seven groups with leaders based in Pakistan, and eight groups with leaders in Iran. They represent different sections of Afghanistan’s old ruling strata, and have different reactionary paymasters and patrons abroad (though most of them take a share of US cash and arms). They are divided on local ethnic and tribal lines. Some are Sunni and others Shia, many of them extreme Islamic fundamentalists.
Rival groups have been fighting amongst themselves for control of areas and loot as much as against the regime. Until recently, some groups had a long truce with the Russian army. These ‘heroic resistance fighters’ are responsible for a large proportion of the one million dead. Many of the seven million Afghans now living as refugees were forced to flee from their home areas by the barbarous activities of the mujaheddin.
In the mujaheddin imperialism has created a monster. The leader of one faction, the ‘moderate’ Pakistan-based National Islamic Front, denounced its Shia rivals as "more savage than the Communists because they loot and kill under the cloak of Islam. If they take power, the bloodbath will continue for another ten years".
Now, with signs that the Kabul regime is in serious danger of losing control of key cities in the south and of strategic highway routes, the ‘resistance’ movement threatens the country with a violent and barbarous reaction. Far from guaranteeing peace and stability, the ‘accords’ between imperialism and the ruling bureaucracy of the USSR will usher in a period of civil war in which Afghanistan will be torn apart between rival warlords.
HOW HAS THIS situation come about? Why, after invading over the Christmas of 1979, has the Russian leadership pulled out its forces so precipitately? What will be the fate of the regime and the fundamental (but distorted) social changes begun in 1978-79?
When the Russian bureaucracy invaded Afghanistan, Militant came out in opposition. Any gains achieved through defending measures to abolish landlordism and capitalism in Afghanistan, we argued, would be completely outweighed by the adverse effects on the consciousness of the working class internationally.
Nevertheless, once the Russian forces had gone in, we argued that it would be a mistake to call for their withdrawal. This would have meant, in effect, to support the mujaheddin – whose programme was to reestablish medieval reaction.
This analysis has been confirmed by events. The mistaken strategy of the Kremlin leadership, together with the bureaucratic methods used in Afghanistan, have resulted in the worst of all worlds.
When Brezhnev ordered the invasion of Afghanistan he did not expect the furious reaction which came from US imperialism and its allies. After all, even under the previous bourgeois bonapartist regime of Da’ud, Afghanistan had been within Russian’s sphere of influence.
The coming to power of a proletarian bonapartist regime (one based on a nationalised, planned economy but presided over by a totalitarian elite) under Taraki in April 1978 evidently took the Kremlin by surprise. But when the new regime’s survival was threatened by its own internal discord and its autocratic measures to impose revolution from above, the Russian leadership felt impelled to move in to defend a client regime.
The bureaucracy had recently sent arms and economic aid to consolidate the proletarian bonapartist regimes that took power in Angola and Mozambique. And in that period Washington was still constrained from active intervention against revolutionary movements by the effects of its defeat in Vietnam.
The invasion of Afghanistan, however, came when there was a shift in the position of US imperialism. Under Carter, and especially under Reagan, the US was striving to overcome the ‘Vietnam syndrome’ and reassert its power on the world arena.
The invasion was a golden opportunity, a propaganda gift, which could be used to denounce ‘Communist aggression’ and justify a new spurt of building up US military arsenals and strike-forces. Under Brezhnev the Russian leadership was prepared to ride out both the cost of the war and the international repercussions. But since 1979 the position of the bureaucracy has also changed. Under Gorbachev, it has been forced to grapple with the consequences of declining economic growth due to bureaucratic mismanagement of the nationalised economy.
Military spending, which has been consuming about 15 per cent of the USSR’s national output, has become an enormous burden. The bureaucracy has to find the resources for the modernisation of industry, while trying to maintain the living standards of the working class.
Thus Gorbachev is striving to reach an accommodation with US imperialism. He is desperate for agreements that will slow down the crippling escalation of arms spending. In the last few days, he has announced a 19 per cent reduction in the USSR’s official defence budget (though the real budget is much higher). Half a million troops will be demobilised, and 10,000 tanks decommissioned. These cuts are aimed both at reassuring capitalist leaders and also influencing public opinion in the West to exert pressure on their governments for arms reductions.
In Gorbachev’s calculations, holding on to the position in Afghanistan is of secondary importance to the possibility of achieving agreements with the US superpower and its capitalist allies.
However, his belief that it will be possible to achieve a lasting agreement with imperialism is an illusion. In spite of all the talks and Russian concessions so far, the US is still stepping up support to the mujaheddin in Afghanistan. When the crisis in world capitalism intensifies, the fundamental social antagonism between imperialism and Stalinism will inevitably mean a return to openly hostile policies.
Afghanistan is not the only retreat on the part of the Russian bureaucracy, either. The Kremlin is exerting pressure to achieve an agreement with the US and South Africa over Namibia. It has witheld significant backing to the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua, which is near to economic collapse. In South-East Asia the Russian leadership is pushing for the withdrawal of Vietnamese forces from Cambodia/Kampuchea.
IN THE CASE of Afghanistan, however, the Russian bureaucracy is withdrawing without decisive success in consolidating the regime. In some areas, particularly the north, land reform has been successfully carried through. Sanitation and health have been improved, and the position of some sections of women improved enormously. Education has begun to tackle the overwhelming illiteracy of the Afghan population. But the advances are patchy, and only the support of quite a thin layer of society has been firmly secured.
The Russian bureaucracy intervened in the first place because of the clumsy bureaucratic methods of the Afghan regime.In areas where there were big estates, the land reforms received general support. In other areas, however, the situation was more complicated, with many different forms of land tenure, share-cropping, tribal pasture rights, and so on.
The regime attempted to force the changes through without building mass support amongst the peasantry and tribespeople, and without the necessary material support to ensure the success of the reforms.
Afghan society has always been divided by tribal loyalties, and Kabul’s bonapartist methods aroused ferocious opposition in many areas. No government in Kabul has ever exercised more than a loose suzerainty over the whole country. Then the intervention of a foreign invader to prop up the new regime in Kabul provoked even more widespread opposition from the different national groupings and tribes.
The Russian bureaucracy has provided enormous economic and military support. They forced Najibullah to abandon the ‘Marxist’ label, in an attempt to broaden his support. But they have still not been able to consolidate a firm base for the regime. This failure has opened up fertile ground for imperialism to foment religious and nationalistic resistance.
The Russian withdrawal, under these circumstances, is a defeat for the bureaucracy. This has been admitted, implicitly, in recent statements by Gorbachev and foreign minister Shevardnadze. Rank-and-file Russian soldiers are leaving without any sense of ‘revolutionary achievement’.
But comparison between this defeat for the bureaucracy and the defeat of US imperialism in Vietnam is entirely false. Despite the cost of the war, the 15,000 Russian dead and many more casualties, the bureaucracy is not being forced out by military defeat. Gorbachev and company have decided that, given their global political objectives, it is not worthwhile holding on to Afghanistan.
In Vietnam, moreover, the US faced a united national struggle, based on the social interests of the peasantry, particularly their demand for land. The rag-bag of religious and tribal groups which make up the ’Afghan resistance’ are incapable of unifying themselves into a coherent national movement with common objectives.
With money and arms from foreign patrons, they have been able to cripple the regime in many areas. They now threaten to plunge Afghanistan into a new and even bloodier phase of civil war. But they are incapable themselves of forming a new regime.
Will Najibullah’s regime survive? Its fate is clearly in the balance. Gorbachev and Shevardnadze are still pledging unwavering support. Yet in recent weeks the Kremlin’s diplomats have been negotiating intensively with mujaddehin leaders. They have been pushing the idea of a shura (assembly) representing all groups, including the ruling PDPA.
In return for a new government including ‘good Muslims’ (present non-PDPA ministers) and one or two PDPA members, they have indicated they would have been prepared to abandon Najibullah, airlifting him and his cabinet out of the country to the villas already prepared for them in the USSR.
While some mujaheddin leaders are ready to accept ‘good Muslims’, however, none is prepared to accept PDPA participation. Thus the Kremlin has little choice but to stick with Najibullah. Pulling the rug from under him now would undoubtedly precipitate the regime’s total collapse.
Najibullah, moreover, still has the support of those who have a direct stake in the regime, especially soldiers, policemen and state officials, whose necks will be on the block if the regime falls. Whatever their doubts, many Afghan soldiers will fight it out if the only alternative is bloody revenge at the hands of the mujaheddin.
There is little doubt, however, that Moscow has already begun to implement contingency plans in case Kabul falls. There are reports indicating that, even while withdrawing, the Russian forces are consolidating a fortified enclave - in which a truncated Najibullah regime could be defended - around the northern town of Mazar-e-Sharif, close to the border with the Soviet Union.
MANY GOVERNMENT OFFICIALS and their families have been moved there, together with a large concentration of Afghan soldiers. Russian arms and supplies have been concentrated there, and some Russian personnel may be staying in that area.
This is the region in which the land reform and other changes were most successful. Agriculture is relatively fertile, and the area has natural gas reserves. This is also where most of the recent industrial development has taken place.
If Kabul falls, the Russian bureaucracy, if only to protect its crucial strategic interests in this region, would most likely support the continuation of the Najibullah regime in this enclave. In effect, this would mean the partition of Afghanistan.
The zone in the north would be controlled by a proletarian bonapartist client of the Russian bureaucracy. The rest of the country could be divided between rival war lords, in turn the clients of the US, the Pakistani ruling class and the Iranian regime.
Moves from within the Afghan army’s officer corps to oust Najibullah are also possible. A new bonapartist government, repudiating the PDPA, might well be able to draw in some of the mujaheddin leaders. Much as they want to take Kabul, a frontal assault by divided guerrilla groups would lead to an horrendous massacre.
A military coup, with the support of sections of the officer corps, the professional strata, merchants and some of the mujaheddin leaders, might be able to establish a new regime in Kabul. The Russian bureaucracy has already canvassed the idea of a broader government. It cannot be ruled out that, provided their strategic interests on the Afghan/Soviet border were safeguarded, they would support a new bonapartist regime.
In such an unstable situation, with many unknown factors involved, it is impossible to predict the likely course of events with any certainty. But whatever happens, it now seems unavoidable that the revolutionary changes inaugurated in 1978/79 will be rolled back in a large area of Afghanistan. Responsibility for this setback lies with Stalinism, which has nothing in common with genuine Marxism or internationalism.
If the present regime is undermined, even in part of the country, social progress will be thrown back by many decades. Mujaheddin domination means a return to barbarism. In time, after a period of painful reaction, conditions will develop for a new movement to change society.
But the lesson of the last ten years is that a new movement must be based on a movement from below, mobilising the workers, peasants and tribal people of Afghanistan around a Marxist programme. The revolution in Afghanistan must be linked up, through an international perspective, with the struggle of the workers and peasants throughout Asia.
To ensure a revolution on healthy socialist lines, the Afghan revolution must also be linked to the programme of political revolution in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and China, to overthrow the bureaucracy and establish workers’ democrac