Jonathan Neale


Afghanistan impasse

(March-April 1981)

From Socialist Review, 1981:3, March-April 1981, p.29.
Transcribed and marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for REDS – Die Roten.

It has taken the junket by three Labour MPs to remind us that real people are still fighting and dying in Afghanistan. One year after the invasion, it is time we looked at the consequences of the Russian intervention and the tragic impasse which now grips Afghanistan.

Immediately after the invasion the Russians installed Babrak Karmal as President. He was no puppet: he had long been the leader of the more moderate wing of Afghan Communism, the ‘Banner’ group. He pursued a strategy of trying to appease the rebels: he opened the prisons, he appeared on the television with mullahs, he began all his speeches with the name of god, he promised a gentle halt to the reforms.

All this gained him very little. The rural resistance grew to include almost every body. The mullahs had been saying that the civil war was a war against infidels and foreigners: the invasion proved them right. The different ethnic groups and tribes in their own mountain valleys fought against the Russians. Not, it would appear, in large set piece battles, but in small attacks on a patrol here, a tank there.

Moreover, the urban resistance was on a much larger scale than before. It started in the spring of 1980 in Herat. There they followed the example of the Iranians, just over the border when Fighting the Shah. The bazaar shops closed down on strike. At night the people went up on the roofs of the city and shouted ‘God is great’. The Russians could not gun them down for piety, and the point was made.

Fighting their base

The lorries and buses spread the news from Herat to Kandahar in the south, which saw similar demonstrations. And then the news came to Kabul. But Kabul was a different sort of city, with a tradition of mass demonstrations. There the bazaar struck, and the students and the civil servants and some of the workers followed them. The students demonstrated on the streets in broad daylight. Somebody shot them down. Rumour variously names the Russians, the Communist militia, the police. Nobody is rushing forward to claim the credit. It doesn’t matter much. What does matter is that the Communists were now fighting their own base. For the student movement had provided the cadres who fought the feudal government and Muslim reaction on the streets. The civil servants had provided the cadre for the Communist leadership.

The urban demonstrations eventually subsided. But the Communist’s base in the army continued to erode. Some units rebelled as a whole. But more commonly soldiers deserted as individuals and ran for Pakistan. And young men became refugees too to avoid the draft. By this winter the government had to extend the period of conscription and face draft riots as a result.

Army of occupation

The government has had to run to Russian troops to do most of the fighting. This cannot but mean that the Russians are seen as ever more of an army of occupation. And the Russians face the usual problems of a guerilla war. So far they have reacted in classic imperialist fashion. They bomb and burn out villages in retaliation for attacks. And along the Pakistani border and in some inland areas they have driven the population out to create free fire zones. There are constant rumours of mass atrocities. I don’t believe them (partly because I would rather not). But there is a logic to guerilla war which will eventually drive the Russians to such atrocities.

The Communists themselves are in disarray. Babrak Karmal’s moderation has not worked. The more militant, and larger, faction is the People group. They claim to have opposed the Russian invasion and regard Karmal as a puppet. But although there are constant rumours of them going over to the rebels they would not last long without Russian support. Still, tension is rising between them and the Banner group.

The rebels are also in disarray. In the countryside the resistance is chaotic and localised. People light for tribe or valley or language group. They do not fight as nationalists or even united Muslims. And the ‘leadership’ in Pakistan is split into many squabbling factions. Some are feudal lords with bandoliers, some sincere reactionary clerics, some modern Muslim bigots with clean white robes. All of them are different from the Afghan peasant, fierce but sloppy in both religion and clothing. The peasants doing the fighting regard these leaders with contempt, and in fact they are little more than groups of men organized to receive foreign aid. That is why they cannot unite: they do not really have anything to unite.


At the same time the resistance is stymied in military terms. The Afghans have never fought a modern war against helicopters and tanks, and their heroic traditions have proved of little use. What they need now, they say to anybody who is listening, is surface to air missiles and anti-tank bazookas. These they are not getting, and without them they feel helpless.

The Americans are not supplying such arms because they now have the Russians just where they want them. The UN disapproves, the Muslim world is appalled, and Afghanistan is a constant military and economic drain for the Russians. But were the Afghan resistance to win, the Americans would find themselves the sponsors of a government which would make the Ayatollah look like Mary Poppins. And one which would rapidly fragment under the centrifugal pressure of tribal and ethnic rivalry.

The Iranians have bowed to Islamic piety by denouncing the invasion. But they must stay friends with the Russians as long as they are enemies of the Americans. And along the border with Afghanistan sit the Turkoman and Baluch peoples who would like nothing better than to secede from Iran. So the Iranians do not smuggle arms across that border. They do not set up refugee camps near the border, provide offices for the resistance, or organize the million or so Afghan workers in Iran.

The Pakistanis do provide refugee camps and a nod and a wink to the resistance. They have little choice, since they do not control their own border tribes. But they cannot afford and do not dare to provide arms for the rebels.

The impasse

So the Communists cannot win the political battle and the rebels cannot win the military battle. The consequences are tragic.

Over a million refugees now sit in UN camps in Pakistan. They swelter in white tents, telling heroic stories and competing with the local poor for what few jobs there are. Another million have flooded into Kabul to escape the bombs.

They can largely still afford bread, but heating must be a problem in the mountain winter. And in the countryside there is the spectre of famine, for it is hard to raise your crops in the middle of a war.

This impasse could continue for years. Many things the Russian invasion may have been. It has not turned out to be a blow for socialism.


Last updated on 22.1.2005