Socialist Worker

Afghanistan—first the Russians, then the US

by Isabel Ringrose
Issue No. 2769

Russian soldiers round up prisoners in Vardak, Afghanistan, in 1987. The repression was ruthless.

Russian soldiers round up prisoners in Vardak, Afghanistan, in 1987. The repression was ruthless. (Pic: Wikimedia)


Afghanistan has suffered through 43 years of war as a result of a series of imperialist interventions.

Revulsion at that is the central reason why Kabul and the country’s other major cities were captured by the Taliban in such a short space of time.

Even many of those who don’t back the Taliban’s ideas are not prepared to fight alongside the forces that have visited such horrors on the country and its people.

Prior to the US invasion in 2001, Afghanistan had already been at war for 23 years—enduring civil wars, a brutal invasion by Russia, and the rise of warlords.

The country was ruled by a monarchy until 1973 when Mohammed Daoud Khan launched a military-backed coup to become the first ­president of Afghanistan.

But, in a riposte to those who think Afghans are ­naturally backward, he faced strong a strong challenge from the Communists.

West’s Afghan failures led to reborn Taliban
West’s Afghan failures led to reborn Taliban
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Communists wanted to modernise Afghanistan and took as their model the state capitalist Soviet Union. They saw its economic development without any need for democracy or popular participation as the blueprint to follow.

In April 1978 the Communist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) took power in a coup—known as the Saur Revolution. Nur Muhammad Taraki became president and prime minister.

The PDPA set out to bring in some social reforms, including greater equality for women, and land distribution that would break the power of big landowners.

They also confronted aspects of Islam and worked to ­undermine the influence of the mosques.

In line with the PDPA’s Stalinist politics, this was all done from above, without any sense of people in the rural areas taking part in their own liberation.

People who are told by some state official from on high that they should cast off a religion that provides some meaning and shelter in a heartless world are unlikely to welcome the messenger.

And the Communists were not transforming the lives of the poor. They were told to abandon their beliefs and traditions on the vague promise of later gains.

Only a movement that is linked to the poor themselves, and which delivers real ­material improvements at the same time, can win over people.

Instead the government was met with increasing opposition, both from fighters and ordinary people. The Communists responded with still greater state interference and repression against those who resisted.

Afghans fighting the Communists suffered arrest, torture and bombing—which only further fuelled their resistance.

In just over a year as many as 27,000 people were executed at Pul-e-Charkhi prison. And up to 165,000 fled to Pakistan. By 1979 the unrest led to civil war.

Groups of guerrilla resistance fighters across the country—the Mujahideen—fought the regime with, initially, support provided by the governments of Pakistan and the US.

The idea was to give Moscow “its own Vietnam,” in the words of US president Jimmy Carter’s chief strategist, Zbigniew Brzezinski.

But the anti-Communist resistance wasn’t manufactured by the West. It came directly from Afghans ­themselves. In March 1979 an uprising in the city of Herat in ­western Afghanistan, saw both a ­popular uprising and a mutiny by Afghan Army troops.

People stormed the prison, sacked and torched banks, post offices, newspaper offices, and government buildings, and looted the bazaars.

The rebels held the city for nearly a week, until they were defeated by aerial ­bombardment. The recapture left around 15,000 of Herat’s inhabitants dead

Meanwhile, the Soviet Union was increasingly aware the Communist government in Afghanistan was going to fall.

Its leaders feared the effect on the six republics— Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan—which had a Muslim majority.

The Soviet army invaded in December 1979, launching the Soviet-Afghan war. The Russians installed a new leader that they hoped would prevent a victory for Islamist forces.

The defeat of the West’s Afghanistan war
The defeat of the West’s Afghanistan war
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The aim was to smash ­resistance with total war. War crimes committed by Soviet troops and the Communist Afghan army included intentionally targeting civilians, rape and torturing anyone who resisted—from fighters to teachers.

The Russians bombed areas to drive out civilians and scorched the land to prevent them from returning if they lived near Mujahideen groups.

They set up booby traps and mines, and used chemical weapons. Some 10 to 15 million landmines were left ­scattered in the countryside. Some estimates say that 3 to 4 percent of the Afghan population was disabled due to ­landmines alone.

Irrigation systems that were crucial to agriculture in the arid climate were also destroyed. In 1985 half of all farmers who remained had their fields bombed.

By the end of the war the Russians had destroyed half of the country’s 24,000 villages.

Between half a million and two million Afghans were killed and a huge six to eight million people were displaced, mainly to Iran and Pakistan.

For a country with a ­population of just 25 million people at the time, these losses were absolutely devastating.

And the gains for women that the Communists said they wanted to achieve became entangled with the barbarity of the Soviet war that they had backed.

Despite the Russian ­invasion’s cruelty, the ­resistance was not broken. Instead Russian ­casualties mounted with ­eventually at least 15,000 soldiers killed.

Hostility to the war grew inside Russia, and opposition to the conscription of young men to fight and die in Afghanistan.

And the Soviet Union itself was coming under more and more strain itself as Mikhail Gorbachev tried to kick start the economy by opening the door to private capital and market mechanisms.

This meant clearing out some of the conservative bureaucrats, and the in-fighting helped to trigger national demands in the Soviet Union’s republics.

In December 1986 riots broke out in several Kazakh cities after a Russian was appointed head of the region.

The cost of the Afghan war was too much.

Soviet forces ­withdrew in 1987 but civil war ­continued until the Communist ­government fell in 1992.

The Soviet invasion that ­shattered Afghan society created the conditions for both entrenched poverty and ­resistance that were later accelerated by US and Britain intervention.

Different groups within the Mujahedin then rose to power, with local warlords fighting among themselves for ­whatever authority they could grab.

This unveiled their greed and corruption at the cost of ordinary people, despite much of the poor having supported the warlords in the battle against the Communists.

Civil war broke out again.

In the face of more unrest, the Taliban emerged in September 1994 in southern Afghanistan with a pledge to bring stability.

It grew and continued to spread its control until it finally took power in 1996 with the support of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

What does Afghan defeat mean for US imperialism?
What does Afghan defeat mean for US imperialism?
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Their peasant roots ­combined with the anger at the corruption and hypocrisy of the governing forces meant the Taliban could gain popular ­support, despite their brutality.

The US had helped the group to come to power. But the Taliban wasn’t simply ­following orders from Washington. It did not agree to the US plans to control oil and gas pipelines in the region.

This helped to make the Taliban a new US enemy.

The situation took a deadly turn after 9/11. In October 2001 the US invaded Afghanistan under the guise of hunting down al-Qaeda fighters. The Taliban had failed to hand over al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden.

In reality, the US wanted to demonstrate its vast military power and confirm its control over oil and the Middle East.

For two years there was no resistance to the American occupation. But in a grim repeat of the earlier intervention, the brutalities of the occupiers ­produced resistance that was then met by more violence.

The governments hoisted into control by the West showed themselves to be utterly corrupt. The elite guzzled aid money, bribes, handouts from the occupiers and the profits of the vastly expanded opium trade.

To see president Ashraf Ghani flee in a getaway helicopter with a reported £120 million next to him is no surprise to most people.

Neither is it a surprise to see US and British forces prioritising the evacuation of their embassy ambassadors and security dogs over the thousands of now desperate Afghans who assisted them.


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