The dramatic events in Afghanistan at the end of 1979, with the intervention of Russian forces and the fall of President Hafizullah Amin, come within two years of the uprising of April 1978, through which the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan gained state power. Whilst no-one can predict the outcome of these developments, it is evident that the Afghan revolution is in a gravely weakened condition: it is able to rely on Soviet military support for ultimate survival, but it is, by the same token, all the more vulnerable because of the identification of the new Babrak Karmal government with the army of a foreign power, and because of the dire factionalism within the pdpa that precipitated the new scale of Russian involvement. The key to this crisis lies in the intractable problems which the pdpa has encountered in implementing its revolutionary programme and in the mistakes which it has made in so doing. As in Russia after 1917 a relatively quick seizure of power in the towns has been followed by a much more protracted civil war, waged by counter-revolutionary forces, aided from abroad. Moreover, before the new regime could win the support of the peasantry with effective, and, to them, meaningful reforms, the counter-revolution has been able to mobilize large numbers of the rural poor, and indeed to attribute the chaos and violence of the civil war to the advent of the new regime to power. We know at what cost, and with what consequences, the Bolsheviks were able to defend their initial gains. The baneful effects of such a civil war are likely to be all the greater in Afghanistan, given some of the policies which the pdpa, allied to the ussr, has chosen to pursue. For although the Bolsheviks, including Lenin, engaged in indefensible forms of repression during the Russian civil war, the pdpa leadership has resorted to systematic violence much more extensively in its struggle to hold off Afghan counter-revolution. Moreover, political differences within the Bolshevik party were settled by votes not, as in Kabul, bullets.

The strengths and weaknesses of the pdpa and the manner of its advent to power have already been indicated in these pages and elsewhere.footnote1 It was a party committed to revolutionary transformation of one of the world’s most impoverished societies and could count, for political and strategic reasons, on substantial support from its northern neighbour, the ussr. Russia had already, in the 1950s, established itself as the main supplier of economic and military aid to Afghanistan and was its main trading partner—a relationship unique in the non-socialist third world. In international terms this was a marginal development given Afghanistan’s archaic social system and relative us disinterest. At the same time, the pdpa was a small party of probably less than 5,000 members, drawn almost exclusively from urban intellectuals and army officers, in a country with over 90% illiteracy, 87% of the population living in the rural areas and very strong tribal, ethnic and religious structures and ideologies. Whilst the pdpa’s triumph and the Soviet willingness to assist provided a very real opportunity for Afghanistan, there was also the danger that the urban-based party would, while expropriating the landowners, fail to win the mass of poor peasants by a bureaucratic imposition of reforms. There was also the risk that the potential for transforming Afghan society would be distorted by the imposition of political models, as distinct from economic or military aid, drawn from the ussr. The example of North Yemen, where, after the 1962 revolution, an urban-based radical regime was in the end drowned by a tribal rising, was a warning instance of what could occur in such instances.

In the North Yemen case, the strength of the counter-revolution derived from two mutually supporting circumstances. The first was the financial and military support given by the neighbouring state, Saudi Arabia, abetted by a range of other countries that included Britain (at that time entrenched in neighbouring South Yemen), Israel and Jordan. In neither case were substantial military forces of the sustaining outside power ever sent in, but Pakistan has provided the bases, both refugee and military, for the Afghan opposition, and has given military supplies and some direct support as well. This time the junior allies include China, which is helping to train the rebels; Iran, which provides financial, propaganda and some logistical support; Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, who give financial support. As yet no substantive evidence of us involvement has been revealed, but a joint position on Afghanistan certainly forms part of the Washington–Peking understanding, and the usa may be content to see its junior allies in Asia shouldering the main responsibility.

The other central factor is the social nature of the hinterland which presents special difficulties for socialist transformation. Although the leadership in Afghanistan is communist in orientation, it was socially even more isolated than the Republic in North Yemen. From the beginning, it faced a cruel dilemma: either to move forward cautiously, not implementing its major reform programme until it had consolidated its position, and thereby running the risk of appearing to be uninterested in the mass of poor peasants and landless labourers in the countryside; or to implement these reforms rapidly, in the hope of providing material benefit to the rural poor, and thereby running the risk of becoming embroiled in social conflicts in the countryside where its own cadre force was almost non-existent. To win the rural oppressed as active allies of the revolution it had to attack precisely those structures of class and tribal cohesion that could then, if antagonized, be used to mobilize a counter-revolutionary rural movement, a Vendée in Central Asia.

In particular, four aspects of the rural system that complicated any programme of social transformation can be identified. The first was that social relations in the countryside were not primarily perceived by the peasantry in class terms and were indeed ones in which divisions along lines of economic power intersected with ethnic, religious and tribal factors. Any attempt to reform such a system by appealing to the class interests of poor and landless peasants was bound to run into considerable difficulties, given the vitality of these other forces. This was true especially in the Pushtun areas of the south and east, where landownership differences were small, and where tribal loyalties were strongest, but it was also true for the northern plains where the greatest degree of differentiation of ownership and a longer tradition of settled agriculture existed. This difficulty was compounded by the survival of nomadism in Afghanistan, with up to 15% of the population still living mainly off its nomadic flocks and with very unclear ownership and social class patterns within this sector. The case of Outer Mongolia has shown that revolutionary regimes can successfully develop in nomadic societies, but these certainly require special strategies and sensibilities. A second vital factor was the traditional independence of the mountain tribes, who had in the past been paid subsidies by the central government, and among whom the bearing of arms was a natural feature of adult male life. Clearly, the moves by the pdpa to redistribute land, to extend its control and to limit smuggling across the border with Pakistan were seen as threats to these tribes, and their natural response was to resort to armed rebellion of a kind in which they were well versed. The traditional armed hostility to central government, which a revolutionary movement based in the countryside might have been able to use against a counter-revolutionary state at the centre, was here available for mobilization by the counter-revolution against the pdpa. A third problem was the weight of Afghan political traditions, which find their echo within the pdpa itself: Afghanistan is a country where political and social issues have tended to be settled by the gun and where the room for peacefully handling conflicts within the state, or between the state and its subjects, is extremely limited. The counter-revolution-aries quickly resorted to a policy of shooting pdpa members on sight, and the regime has for its part used widespread brutality against its opponents, real and suspected. Perhaps the nearest analogy in recent revolutionary history is Albania, again a country where tribal fighting traditions had prevailed until the moment of revolution and where a level of recurrent violence, within the party leadership itself, has marked it off from other Eastern European parties. A final and very potent counter-revolutionary factor is the simple fact that Afghanistan is a Muslim country, i.e. one in which there existed a popular ideology that could be mobilized by counter-revolutionary forces more effectively than is the case with any other religion in the world. Even leaving aside the other problems, this would certainly have made the pdpa’s task all the more difficult; yet the force of Islam as a counter-revolutionary ideology was greatly enhanced by the triumph of the Iranian Islamic movement in February 1979, just when the pdpa was encountering its first major internal opposition. As far as Afghanistan is concerned, the Shah’s regime would have been less menacing than that of Khomeini: although the organizational ability of the previous regime to assist the counter-revolution might well have been greater, the power of ideological mobilization would have been much less, especially if it is remembered how much the Shah’s previous interference in Afghan affairs had been resented.

The first ten months of the pdpa regime, up to around the end of February 1979, appear to have gone relatively well; the mass of the rural population seemed to be adopting a cautious position, neither actively opposing nor supporting the regime’s policies. They were, rather, waiting to see what would happen next. The regime pressed ahead with its various reforms, giving cultural rights to the nationalities, improving the position of women,footnote2 spreading educational and health facilities: by August 1979 the government claimed to have opened 600 new schools, and had launched a nationwide literacy campaign, aiming to teach one million illiterates by 1984.footnote3 Probably the two most significant reforms were those known as Decree No. 6 and Decree No. 8. The former cancelled the debts of peasants to richer farmers and landlords. The latter set an upper ceiling on land ownership, of between six and sixty hectares, depending on the quality of the land. By the end of the regime’s first year in office, it was claimed that 822,500 acres had been distributed to 132,000 families; by August 1979 the number of recipient families had risen to 300,000.footnote4 Some of these families were immediately grouped into co-operatives, and when the Five-Year Plan was announced later in the year, it was declared that by the end of the Plan in 1984, 1.1 million families would be grouped into 4,500 co-operatives.footnote5 One should not exaggerate the immediate impact of these measures, but officially, and to some extent in reality, the regime was embarking on an ambitious and enlightened attempt to reform Afghan society.

However, the reforms were administered in such a way as often to alienate the rural population they were designed to win over. The debt cancellation decree did not touch, nor could it have, the main area of rural debt, viz. debts to bazaar merchants and moneylenders. The latter were a substantial and initially irreplaceable force in Afghanistan, but despite pdpa appeals they early turned against the regime because of price controls and measures against hoarding and smuggling which the pdpa adopted. The land reform was not based on any cadastral survey of the Afghan countryside or even on a minimal preliminary investigation of land overship. It took little account of the variation in land holding systems and of the conceptions of land tenure in a tribal, and in some areas nomadic, society.footnote6 Far too often, a group of pdpa members and army personnel would arrive in a village and start commanding the peasants without proper awareness of local sensibilities and conditions. Moreover, by breaking long-standing ties between the peasants and landlords, the reform cut the poor farmers off from traditional sources of seed, water and implements, without the government being able to offer a practical alternative. Added to this were problems of rural honour and tribal loyalty against which the determined urban-based cadres soon collided. One can identify the particular social interests which were most directly hit by the reforms—the large landowners, of whom there are not so many in Afghanistan, and the tribal chiefs, who lived off the smuggling trade with Pakistan. But because of the way the reform was implemented they were all the more easily able to rally the wider mass of peasants. Even where the latter gained land through the new redistribution policies, they were probably unable to reap any material benefit from it, given the short space of time and the breakdown in rural support systems, and they seem in many places to have seen the appearance of military and pdpa personnel as a menacing intrusion from the centre. A rather dogmatic, and at times harshly administered, set of reforms therefore contributed to widening precisely that gulf between the party and the rural poor which at least some of the leadership had so feared.