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Tariq Ali on the Russians in Afghanistan

Andrea D'Cruz10 June 2011

The latest issue of the London Review of Books features an edited version of an essay by Tariq Ali that finds a warning for the current occupiers in two new books on the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Afgansty is by Rodric Braithwaite, a contributor to Verso's The Case for Withdrawal from Afghanistan. A Long Goodbye is by Artemy Kalinovsky.

Rodric Braithwaite, British ambassador to Moscow between 1988 and 1992, was in Russia when Soviet troops crossed the Oxus into Afghanistan in 1979. His fascinating account of the Soviet intervention is based almost entirely on Russian sources: interviews with participants, information from veterans' websites and from archives, although those of the GRU and the KGB remain mostly sealed. Each page reads like a warning to Afghanistan's current occupiers. Braithwaite wrote two devastating articles in the Financial Times opposing the Iraq War and the atmosphere of fear created by New Labour propaganda but Afgantsy is written in a very different register. The Soviet intervention is seen as a tragedy for both the Russians and the Afghans.

The principal aim of Soviet foreign policy in the region had always been to preserve Afghanistan as a neutral state. Lenin was too orthodox a Marxist to believe that tribesmen and shepherds could make the leap forward to socialism: ‘Herdsmen can't be transformed into a proletarian mass.' His successors were not at all pleased when, in 1973, Muhammad Daud toppled his cousin King Zahir Shah in a palace coup and proclaimed a republic. Moscow had enjoyed warm relations with the king, a genial old buffer who presided over the tribal confederation that constituted the Afghan state. The Soviet leaders were even less pleased when in April 1978 a group of communist army officers staged a coup and called it a revolution. A few months earlier, two rival communist factions, Parcham (Flag) and Khalq (People), whose members were mostly university graduates and urban intellectuals, along with a few dozen officers and their clansmen in the armed services, had with great reluctance reunited as the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan. Parcham followed an orthodox pro-Soviet line; Khalq was more independent of the Soviet Union and less in thrall to classic Marxist notions about the prerequisites for a transition to communism. Noor Mohammed Taraki, a Khalqi, was appointed general secretary, with Babrak Karmal of Parcham as his deputy. Hafizullah Amin, another leading Khalqi, was elected to the Politburo, but only after a struggle. Parcham claimed he was a CIA agent, recruited during his time as a student at Columbia.

Such accusations, intended to discredit a political opponent, were not uncommon on the South Asian left and were usually ignored. But Amin didn't deny them. According to Braithwaite he claimed that ‘he was short of money at the time and that he had merely been stringing the CIA along.' Heard that one before? Whatever the truth, in the two years that followed, no CIA agent could have done a better job of isolating and destroying the Afghan left and effectively offering up the country to its enemies. The PDPA claimed a joint membership of 15,000; Parcham, which claimed 1500 members, was in a permanent minority. Both figures were exaggerated and such political support as the PDPA did have in Kabul soon evaporated, forcing the Khalq leaders to rely on their tribal cronies in the army, while Parcham depended on support from the Soviet Embassy to prevent them from being politically and physically eliminated. 

Continue reading on the LRB website and visit Tariq Ali's website for the full version of the essay.

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