Afghan Reds

Darul Aman Palace. Kabul. 12 November 2009.

I’d said that Afghanistan’s future had been ruined by naive leftists. The analysis visibly bothered one of my classmates. Perhaps it wasn’t as subtle as it could have been. I still stand by it. Afghan Communists blew it. Not just because their missteps allowed for foreign meddling. But also because they failed to understand democracy.

The Saur Revolution of 1978, through which the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan launched a Leninist coup d’etat and established a transitional Marxist state modeled after Soviet bloc republics, ended up being the most tumultuous political event in the recent history of the region. Successive convulsions of autocracy, and military occupation, have trapped Afghanistan and its neighbors in ongoing cycles of violence that, at the very least, shame the principles of democracy that the PDPA sought to establish.

I could (and probably will) write an elaborate history of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan and its failings. But for now, I wish to focus on its anti-democratic excesses from the revolution itself, until the beginning of the Russian invasion in December 1979. It may seem facile to note that imported democratic models from Soviet Europe were totalitarian. However, in Afghanistan, there are specific lessons from the period that have still not been applied, such as the fact that democracy is about compromise, and that state violence is a counterproductive way to spread liberal values.

Democratic compromise was especially absent from the PDPA itself. The PDPA was split  between several factions, though the two main combatants after the Saur Revolution were the Khalq (“Masses”) which was led by Nur Muhammad Taraki and Hafizullah Amin, and the Parchams (“Banner,”) which followed Babrak Karmal. Among their differences was the fact that the Khalq, which was comprised mainly of tribal and lower-class members, followed a strict program of Marxist-Leninism by which socialist revolution could be achieved quickly through a vanguard party, while the Parchams, which had many urban-based and middle class members, believed that socialism had to be more gradual. Particularly in an underdeveloped state such as Afghanistan.

American forces. Location unknown. 8 October 2010.
American troops. Afghanistan, 2010.

These debates were nothing. However,  Afghanistan’s Communists were particularly unskilled at reaching a middle ground, particularly with the blind radicalism of the DRA’s first executive, Taraki, who pushed reforms violently even against the advice of the Soviet Union. Khalqis, first through Taraki, and then through Amin, managed to choke out the Parchams and exile them to ambassadorial posts, especially in the Soviet Union.

It’s  no coincidence that this coincided with massive democidal violence on the part of the Khalqis, as this type of hostility towards dissent inevitably translated to attitudes towards the Afghan public, and their opinions on how Afghanistan should modernize and approach democracy. It was a frustrating rehash of vanguard dysfunctionality that were observed in many earlier communist revolutions, particularly with Mao Tse Tung, where public discourse was rejected in favor of an increasingly dictatorial oligarchy. That makes one even more inclined to call Afghan communists naive, since there was no reason to ignore history in such a manner. Especially with the totalitarian conclusions of these approaches being contemporary realities, which lead Afghanistan to such bloodshed.

This incapacity for wider discussions on democracy also facilitated a divide that allowed for the Soviet Union to insert itself into Afghanistan, which eventually came to pass with an assassination of Amin, and his being replaced by the Moscow-sponsored Karmal, who came with the assistance of the Soviet military. This is a problem in many post-colonial states, which risk with political stagnation, and combativeness, the aggressively parental intervention of foreign powers, with all the obvious consequences.

Another lesson that continues to go unlearned from the Communist era is that state violence is not an efficient means to facilitate liberalism. This is especially true with Afghanistan, where a popularly-understood culture of skepticism of, and resistance against, central governance disqualifies such options.

This ties into my earlier point about democracy. The only way to transform tribal and feudal societies is to approach them with openness, with an understanding that anarchist options are likely the best way to build a new sense of Afghan community liberal in its scope. Bacha Khan understood this seventy years ago, which is why he and the Khudai Khidmatgar were always cautious about central authority. Judging by the strategies of progressive Afghans today, who seek to realize Afghan democracy with the assistance of NATO military forces, the lesson goes unlearned.

But democracy, and socialism, are about compromise, and an understanding that violence is exactly what consensus-driven politics seeks to resist. By rejecting those principles, especially during a historical period in which those lessons were present in many degenerating Communist revolutions, the Afghan Communists demonstrated their lack of savoir-faire. By recognizing their naiveté, we can learn to do better.


Photographs courtesy of Bruce MacRae and SS&SS. Published under a Creative Commons License.

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