The  Final Decade of the Cold War


In April 1978, the anti-democratic government of Afghanistan was toppled by a coup d'état of leftist, nationalist army officers influenced by  the ideology of the People’s (Khalq) Party and the Banner (Parcham) Party which had merged ahead of the coup, forming the left-wing People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan. The monarchy was abolished. 

In accordance with its program, the new government started to implement land reform and other reforms. The PDPA was notably dedicated to educational reforms, especially secular education, and the emanicipation of women.

Land reform antagonized the big landowners as well as Muslim clerics. The goal to achieve legal equality of sexes and empowerment of women in everyday life - something that had been attained only by a few women of the urban upper class so far - fanned opposition not only of clerics and conservative notables but also of peasants and artisans in small towns and in the countryside. As for the bazari or merchant class in the larger towns, it was hardly amused by the socialist doctrine pronounced by the new government, even though certain merchants had accumulated considerable capital thanks to official trade with Central Asian republics of the Soviet Union as well as by smuggling certain commodities across the Northern border. 

There existed only a tiny industrial working class in the cities; in other words, the basis for a socialist revolution did not exist. (In fact, such a revolution had not occurred, as the "April 1978 revolution" was only an army coup - comparable in some respect to previous coups in Egypt, Yemen, Libya, etc.)  If there was a numerous social stratum or a class that the new, reform-minded nationalist government might possibly lean on, defending their material interests, it was the class of landless peasants and rural owners of small plots of agricultural lands. It was this class or stratum that had previously engaged in a (finally defeated) "red" revolt in the Northwestern frontier region of neighboring Pakistan that was inhabited by a Pashtu population. But unlike their Pashtu brethren in Afghanistan, the Pashtu peasants in Pakistan had been exposed to socialist thought and to agitation in the countryside in pre-independence (British) India. And independent Pakistan was also much more secular and politicized than Afghanistan in the 1970s. If radical land reform was an issue in Pakistan that could mobilize peasants -  provided that surveillance and tight control by the state apparatus, the experience  of suffering repression and seeing revolts defeated did not make them duck and seek cover -, the traditional clientelist networks and the entrenched influence of mullahs in rural Afghan villages had up to that moment kept the revolutionary spark temporarily witnessed in the NEFA area from setting the tinder of preconscious discontent of Afghanistan's rural poor aflame.

It is debatable whether the new government was too impatient when it put women's liberation in the countryside at the top of the agenda, side by side with land reform. Like the issue of gay and lesbian rights in the United States, the issue of women emancipation could divert energy and attention from other, temporarily more pressing issues. And measures that benefitted women and contradicted old, male-chauvinist traditions, served the mullahs and large landowners as a propandistic tool in their effort to muster support among the oppressed classes. Perhaps only an awake peasantry, engaged in battle against the landlord-mullah-bazari alliance could begin to understand the vital importance of women's liberation and equality of all human beings.

It is also necessary to ask whether an atheist platform was of necessity counterproductive. It is very likely that both ideologically and due to their class background, most mullahs were opposed to a socialist agenda. It is difficult to say whether some could have been won over, if the government had abstained from an anti-religious policy. Basically, it should be clear that the position towards freedom of religion that Marxist as well as other leftist and  so-called Marxist parties opted for, helps to alienate many among the subaltern classes and has no relevance in other respects that would justify it. An anti-clericalist, secular stance that left-wing governments will defend does not need to be accompanied by militant atheism. 

Not surprisingly, the considerable problems experienced by the new government that had to face opposition from landowners and mullahs as well as economic difficulties, led to infighting in a very early stage. Similar dynamics have been observed in the beleaguered French Republic (in the wake of 1789) and in the Soviet Union (where infighting and terror culminated in the 1930s, when the rise of fascism in Central Europe could not be ignored, and a reappearance of the spectre of war could be feared with full justification).

The purges must have undermined the cohesion of left "milieus" in the big cities, notably Kabul. It seems absurd that the tension between the Khalq  and the Parcham faction of the party grew more intense, and it also weakened the progressive camp that those belonging to  Maoist, Trotzkyite and other left tendencies were persecuted (and often, killed). But it is also necessary to keep in mind the Societ-Chinese split and the fact that China supported right-wing and counterrevolutionary tendencies in a number of so-called Third World countries when the Chinese leaders feared that the left-wing national liberation movements of these countries were too close to, or received too much help from the Soviet Union (or Cuba). In Portugal after 1975, in Angola and Mozambique, the role of Maoist groups was hardly one of shoring up the revolution; the opposite was true. This may also have been the case in Afghanistan. Geopolitically, the country had a key position, both from the point of view of the Soviet Union and from that of China. It would have been much wiser if the new leadership had remained close to both countries, like Ho Chi-Minh in Vietnam, or if it had opted for "non-alignment," like India, Egypt and (before the American-backed Soehartoe coup) Indonesia.

The weak initial backing of the coup (mostly by a segment of the urban intelligentsia and progressive officers), economic difficulties, and a policy that alienated a large, traditional and conservative part of the subaltern classes almost of necessitydrove parts of the masses into the arms of the counter-revolution that was unleashed both by reactionary internal social forces and by the governments of Pakistan and the U.S.A.

Less than two years after the monarchy had been toppled, the left-wing nationalist government asked Soviet troops for help. By that time, it seems, the CIA had already been involved for some time, training and equipping the anti-government guerilla in a war that would cause heavy Afghan army losses and  Soviet Red Army losses. The counterinsurgency strategy, that the Soviet leadership and the military opted for, copied in many respects US counterinsurgency strategy in Cambodia and Vietnam which had been bent on "emptying the ocean to catch the fish" (i.e. forcing the rural population into strategic hamlets and evacuating it to the big cities, to cut off support for the guerilla movement). It increased the hatred of the masses for the interventionist force, and also for their dependent Afghan allies. As support for the leftist reform course rapidly dwindled, anger and hate felt for the interventionists and the government swelled the counterrevolutionary forces.  The strategy chosen by the Soviet military leadership thus turned intervention into a Soviet version of the "war in Vietnam" - in other words, a war that could not be won.  In February 1989, the Soviet troops were withdrawn. In 1992, the Left-wing government collapsed, and conflict between the counter-revolutionary tendencies ensued, with the so-called Taliban government deciding that conflict in its favor.

- Jane Halloway

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"Backed by the United States, the mujahideen rebellion grew, spreading to all parts of the country. The Soviets initially left the suppression of the rebellion to the Afghan army, but the latter was beset by mass desertions and remained largely ineffective throughout the war.
The Afghan War quickly settled down into a stalemate, with more than 100,000 Soviet troops controlling the cities, larger towns, and major garrisons and the mujahideen moving with relative freedom throughout the countryside. Soviet troops tried to crush the insurgency by various tactics, but the guerrillas generally eluded their attacks. The Soviets then attempted to eliminate the mujahideen’s civilian support by bombing and depopulating the rural areas. These tactics sparked a massive flight from the countryside [as in Cambodia]; by 1982 some 2.8 million Afghans had sought asylum in Pakistan, and another 1.5 million had fled to Iran."


"The mujahideen were eventually able to neutralize Soviet air power through the use of shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles supplied by the Soviet Union’s Cold War adversary, the United States."


"The mujahideen were fragmented politically into a handful of independent groups, and their military efforts remained uncoordinated throughout the war. The quality of their arms and combat organization gradually improved, however, owing to experience and to the large quantity of arms and other war matériel shipped to the rebels, via Pakistan, by the United States and other countries and by sympathetic Muslims from throughout the world. In addition, an indeterminate number of Muslim volunteers—popularly termed “Afghan-Arabs,” regardless of their ethnicity—traveled from all parts of the world to join the opposition."

Source: N.N., “Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, ”, in: