Afghanistan background

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sun Sep 16 14:59:50 MDT 2001

[From the chapter on Afghanistan in William Blum's "Killing Hope". To 
order a copy, go to]

Afghanistan 1979-1992: America's Jihad

His followers first gained attention by throwing acid in the faces of 
women who refused to wear the veil. CIA and State Department 
officials I have spoken with call him "a fascist," "definite 
dictatorship material."

This did not prevent the United States government from showering the 
man with large amounts of aid to fight against the Soviet-supported 
government of Afghanistan. His name was Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. He was 
the head of the Islamic Party and he hated the United States almost 
as much as he hated the Russians. His followers screamed "Death to 
America" along with "Death to the Soviet Union'", only the Russians 
were not showering him with large amounts of aid.

The United States began supporting Afghan Islamic fundamentalists in 
1979 despite the fact that in February of that year some of them had 
kidnapped the American ambassador in he capital city of Kabul, 
leading to his death in the rescue attempt. The support continued 
even after their brother Islamic fundamentalists in next-door Iran 
seized the US Embassy in Teheran in November and held 55 Americans 
hostage for over a year. Hekmatyar and his were, after all, in battle 
against the Soviet Evil Empire; he was thus an important member of 
those forces Ronald Reagan called "freedom fighters".

On 27 April 1978, a coup staged by the People's Democratic Party 
(PDP) overthrew the government of Mohammad Daoud. Daoud, five years 
earlier, had overthrown the monarchy and established a republic, 
although he himself was a member of the royal family. He had been 
supported by the left in this endeavor, but it turned out that 
Daoud's royal blood was thicker than his progressive water. When the 
Daoud regime had a PDP leader killed, arrested the rest of the 
leadership, and purged hundreds of suspected party sympathizers from 
government posts, the PDP, aided by its supporters in the army, 
revolted and took power.

Afghanistan was a backward nation: a life expectancy of about 40, 
infant mortality of at least 25 percent, absolutely primitive 
sanitation, widespread malnutrition, illiteracy of more than 90 
percent, very few highways, not one mile of railway, most people 
living in nomadic tribes or as impoverished farmers in mud villages, 
identifying more with ethnic groups than with a larger political 
concept, a life scarcely different from many centuries earlier.

Reform with a socialist bent was the new government's ambition; land 
reform (while still retaining private property), controls on prices 
and profits, and strengthening of the public sector, as well as 
separation of church and state, eradication of illiteracy, 
legalization of trade unions, and the emancipation of women in a land 
almost entirely Muslim.

Afghanistan's thousand-mile border with the Soviet Union had always 
produced a special relationship. Even while it was a monarchy, the 
country had been under the strong influence of its powerful northern 
neighbor, which had long been its largest trading partner, aid donor, 
and military supplier. But the country had never been gobbled up by 
the Soviets, a fact that perhaps lends credence to the oft-repeated 
Soviet claim that their hegemony over Eastern Europe was only created 
as a buffer between themselves and the frequently-invading West.

Nevertheless, for decades Washington and the Shah of Iran tried to 
pressure and bribe Afghanistan in order to roll back Russian 
influence in the country. During the Daoud regime, Iran, encouraged 
by the United States, sought to replace the Soviet Union as Kabul's 
biggest donor with a $2 billion economic aid agreement, and urged 
Afghanistan to join the Regional Cooperation for Development, which 
consisted of Iran, Pakistan and Turkey. (This organization was 
attacked by the Soviet Union and its friends in Afghanistan as being 
"a branch of CENTO" the 1950s regional security pact that was part of 
the US policy of containment of the Soviet Union.) At the same time, 
Iran's infamous secret police SAVAK was busy fingering suspected 
Communist sympathizers in the Afghan government. In September 1975, 
prodded by Iran which was conditioning its aid on such policies, 
Daoud gradually dismissed 40 Soviet-trained military officers and 
moved to reduce future Afghan dependence on officer training in the 
USSR by initiating training arrangements with India and Egypt. Most 
important, in Soviet eyes, Daoud gradually broke off his alliance 
with the PDP, announcing that he would start his own party and ban 
all other political activity under a projected new constitution.

Selig Harrison, the Washington Post's South Asia specialist, wrote an 
article in 1970 entitled "'The Shah, Not the Kremlin, Touched off 
Afghan Coup", concluding:

"The Communist takeover in Kabul (April 1978] came about when it did, 
and in the way that it did, because the Shah disturbed the tenuous 
equilibrium that had existed in Afghanistan between the Soviet Union 
and the West for neatly three decades. In Iranian and American eyes, 
Teheran's offensive was merely- designed to make Kabul more truly 
nonaligned, but it went far beyond that Given the unusually long 
frontier with Afghanistan, the Soviet Union would clearly go to great 
lengths to prevent Kabul from moving once again toward a pro-western 

When the Shah was overthrown in January 1979, the United States lost 
its chief ally and outpost in the Soviet-border region, as well as 
its military installations and electronic monitoring stations aimed 
at the Soviet Union. Washington's cold warriors could only eye 
Afghanistan even more covetously than before.

After the April revolution, the new government under President Noor 
Mohammed Taraki declared a commitment to Islam within a secular 
state, and to non-alignment in foreign affairs. It maintained that 
the coup had not been foreign inspired, that it was not a "Communist 
takeover", and that they were not "Communists" but rather 
nationalists and revolutionaries. (No official or traditional 
Communist Party had ever existed in Afghanistan.) But because of its 
radical reform program, its class-struggle and anti-imperialist-type 
rhetoric, its support of all the usual suspects (Cuba, North Korea, 
etc.), its signing of a friendship treaty and other cooperative 
agreements with the Soviet Union, and an increased presence in the 
country of Soviet civilian and military advisers (though probably 
less than the US had in Iran at the time), it was labeled "communist" 
by the world's media and by its domestic opponents.

Whether or not the new government in Afghanistan should properly have 
been called communist, whether or not it made any difference what it 
was called, the lines were now drawn for political, military, and 
propaganda battle: a jihad (holy war) between fundamentalist Muslims 
and "godless atheistic communists"; Afghan nationalism vs. a 
"Soviet-run" government; large landowners, tribal chiefs, 
businessmen, the extended royal family, and others vs. the 
government's economic reforms. Said the new prime minister about this 
elite, who were needed to keep the country running, "every effort 
will be made to attract them. But we want to re-educate them in such 
a manner that they should think about the people, and not, as 
previously, just about themselves-to have a good house and a nice 
car" while other people die of hunger."

The Afghan government was trying to drag the country into the 20th 
century. In May 1979, British political scientist Fred Halliday 
observed that "probably more has changed in the countryside over the 
last year than in the two centuries since the state was established." 
Peasant debts to landlords had been canceled, the system of usury (by 
which peasant were forced to borrow money against future crops, were 
left in perpetual debt to lenders) was abolished, and hundreds of 
schools and medical clinics were being built in the countryside. 
Halliday also reported that a substantial land-redistribution program 
was underway, with many of the 200,000 rural families scheduled to 
receive land under this reform already having done so. But this last 
claim must be approached with caution. Revolutionary land reform is 
always an extremely complex and precarious under the best of 
conditions, and ultra-backward, tradition-hound Afghanistan in the 
midst of nascent civil war hardly offered the best of conditions for 
social experiment.

The reforms also encroached into the sensitive area of Islamic 
subjugation of women by outlawing child marriage and the giving of a 
woman in marriage in exchange for money or commodities, and teaching 
women to read, at a time when certain Islamic sectors were openly 
calling for reinforcement of 'purdah', the seclusion of women from 
public observation.

Halliday noted that the People's Democratic Party saw the Soviet 
Union as the only realistic source of support for the long-overdue 
modernization. The illiterate Afghan peasant's ethnic cousins across 
the border in the Soviet Union were, after all, often university 
graduates and professionals.

The argument of the Moujahedeen ("holy warriors") rebels that the 
"communist" government would curtail their religious freedom was 
never borne out in practice. A year and a half after the change in 
government, the conservative British magazine The Economist reported 
that "no restrictions had been imposed on religious practice". 
Earlier, the New York Times stated that the religious issue "is being 
used by some Afghans who actually object more to President Taraki's 
plans for land reforms and other changes in this feudal society." 
Many of the Muslim clergy were in fact rich landowners. The rebels, 
concluded a BBC reporter who spent four months with them, are 
"fighting to retain their feudal system and stop the Kabul 
government's left-wing reforms which [are] considered anti-Islamic."

The two other nations which shared a long border with Afghanistan, 
and were closely allied to the United States, expressed their fears 
of the new government. To the west, Iran, still under the Shah, 
worried about "threats to oil-passage routes in the Persian Gulf". 
Pakistan, to the south, spoke of "threats from a hostile and 
expansionist Afghanistan." A former US ambassador to Afghanistan saw 
it as part of a "gradually closing pincer movement aimed at Iran and 
the oil regions of the Middle East." None of these alleged fears 
turned out to have any substance or evidence to back them up, but to 
the anti-communist mind this might prove only that the Russians and 
their Afghan puppets had been stopped in time.

Two months after the April 1978 coup, an alliance formed by a number 
of conservative Islamic factions was waging guerrilla war against the 
government. By spring 1979, fighting was taking place on many fronts, 
and the State Department was cautioning the Soviet Union that its 
advisers in Afghanistan should not interfere militarily in the civil 
strife. One such warning in the summer by State Department spokesman 
Hodding Carter was another of those Washington monuments to chutzpah; 
"We expect the principle of nonintervention to be respected by all 
parties in the area, including the Soviet Union." This while the 
Soviets were charging the CIA with arming Afghan exiles in Pakistan; 
and the Afghanistan government was accusing Pakistan and Iran of also 
aiding the guerrillas and even of crossing the border to take part in 
the fighting. Pakistan had recently taken its own turn toward strict 
Muslim orthodoxy, which the Afghan government deplored as a 
"fanatic," while in January, Iran had established a Muslim state 
after overthrowing the Shah. (As opposed to the Afghan fundamentalist 
freedom fighters, the Iranian Islamic fundamentalists were regularly 
described in the West as terrorists, ultra-conservatives, and 

A "favorite tactic" of the Afghan freedom fighters was "to torture 
victims [often Russians] by first cutting off their noses, ears, and 
genitals, then removing one slice of skin after another", producing 
"a slow, very painful death". The Moujahedeen also killed a Canadian 
tourist and six West Germans, including two children, and a U.S. 
military attaché was dragged from his car and beaten; all due to the 
rebels' apparent inability to distinguish Russians from other 

In March 1979, Taraki went to Moscow to press the Soviets to send 
ground troops to help the Afghan army put down the Moujahedeen. He 
was promised military assistance, but ground troops could not be 
committed. Soviet Prime Minister Kosygin told the Afghan leader:

"The entry of our troops into Afghanistan would outrage the 
international community, triggering a string of extremely negative 
consequences in many different areas. Our common enemies are just 
waiting for the moment when Soviet troops appear in Afghanistan. This 
will give them the excuse they need to send armed bands into the 

In September, the question became completely academic for Noor 
Mohammed Taraki, for he was ousted (and his death soon announced) in 
an intra -party struggle and replaced by his own deputy prime 
minister, Hafizullah Amin. Although Taraki had sometimes been 
heavy-handed in implementing the reform program, and had created 
opposition even amongst the intended beneficiaries, he turned out to 
be a moderate compared to Amin who tried to institute social change 
by riding roughshod over tradition and tribal and ethnic autonomy.

The Kremlin was unhappy with Amin. The fact that he had been involved 
in the overthrow and death of the much-favored Taraki was bad enough. 
But the Soviets also regarded him as thoroughly unsuitable for the 
task that was Moscow's sine qua non; preventing an anti-communist 
Islamic state from arising in Afghanistan. Amin gave reform an 
exceedingly bad name. The KGB station in Kabul, in pressing for 
Amin's removal, stated that his usurpation of power would lead to 
"harsh repressions and, as a reaction, the activation and 
consolidation of the opposition". Moreover, as we shall see, the 
Soviets were highly suspicious about Amin's ideological convictions.

Thus it was, that what in March had been unthinkable, in December 
became a reality. Soviet troops began to arrive in Afghanistan around 
the 8th of the month - to what extent at Amin's request or with his 
approval, and, consequently, whether to call the action an "invasion" 
or not, has been the subject of much discussion and controversy.

On the 23rd the Washington Post commented "There was no charge [by 
the State Department] that the Soviets have invaded Afghanistan, 
since the troops apparently were invited."

However, at a meeting with Soviet-bloc ambassadors in October, Amin's 
foreign minister had openly criticized the Soviet Union for 
interfering in Afghan affairs. Amin himself insisted that Moscow 
replace its ambassador. Yet, on 26 December, while the main body of 
Soviet troops was arriving in Afghanistan, Amin gave "a relaxed 
interview" to an Arab journalist. "The Soviets," he said, "supply my 
country with economic and military aid, but at the same time they 
respect our independence and our sovereignty. They do not interfere 
in our domestic affairs." He also spoke approvingly of the USSR's 
willingness to accept his veto on military bases.

The very next day, a Soviet military force stormed the presidential 
palace and shot Amin dead.

He was replaced by Babrak Karmal, who had been vice president and 
deputy prime minister in the 1978 revolutionary government.

Moscow denied any part in Amin's death, though they didn't pretend to 
be sorry about it, as Brezhnev made clear:

"The actions of the aggressors against Afghanistan were facilitated 
by Amin who, on seizing power, started cruelly repressing broad 
sections of Afghan society, party and military cadres, members of the 
intelligentsia and of the Moslem clergy, that is, the very sections 
on which the April revolution relied. And the people under the 
leadership of the People's Democratic Party,' headed by Babrak 
Karmal, rose against Amin's tyranny and put an end to it. Now in 
Washington and some other capitals they are mourning Amin. This 
exposes their hypocrisy with particular clarity. Where were these 
mourners when Amin was conducting mass repressions, when he forcibly 
removed and unlawfully killed Taraki, the founder of the new Afghan 

After Amin's ouster and execution, the public thronged the streets in 
"a holiday spirit". "If Karmal could have overthrown Amin without the 
Russians," observed a Western diplomat, "he would have been seen as a 
hero of the people."

The Soviet government and press repeatedly referred to Amin as a "CIA 
agent", a charge which was greeted with great skepticism in the 
United States and elsewhere. However, enough circumstantial evidence 
supporting the charge exists so that it perhaps should not be 
dismissed entirely out of hand.

During the late 1950s and early '60s, Amin had attended Columbia 
University Teachers College and the University of Wisconsin. This was 
a heyday period for the CIA-using impressive bribes and threats-to 
regularly try to recruit foreign students in the United States to act 
as agents for them when they returned home. During this period, at 
least one president of the Afghanistan Students Association (ASA), 
Zia H. Noorzay, was working with the CIA in the United States and 
later became president of the Afghanistan state treasury. One of the 
Afghan students whom Noorzay and the CIA tried in vain to recruit, 
Abdul Latif Hotaki, declared in 1967 that a good number of the key 
officials in the Afghanistan government who studied in the United 
States "are either CIA trained or indoctrinated. Some are cabinet 
level people." It has been reported that in 1963 Amin became head of 
the ASA, but this has not been corroborated. However, it is known 
that the ASA received part of its funding from the Asia Foundation, 
the CIA's principal front in Asia for many years, and that at one 
time Amin was associated with this organization.

In September 1979, the month that Amin took power, the American 
charge d'affaires in Kabul, Bruce Amstutz, began to hold friendly 
meetings with him to reassure him that he need not worry about his 
unhappy Soviet allies as long as the US maintained a strong presence 
in Afghanistan. The strategy may have worked, for later in the month, 
Amin made a special appeal to Amstutz for improved relations with the 
United States. Two days later in New York, the Afghan Foreign 
Minister quietly expressed the same sentiments to State Department 
officials. And at the end of October, the US Embassy in Kabul 
reported that Amin was "painfully aware of the exiled leadership the 
Soviets [were] keeping on the shelf" (a reference to Karmal who was 
living in Czechoslovakia). Under normal circumstances, the Amin-US 
meetings might be regarded as routine and innocent diplomatic 
contact, but these were hardly normal circumstances-the Afghan 
government was engaged in a civil war, and the United States was 
supporting the other side.

Moreover, it can be said that Amin, by his ruthlessness, was doing 
just what an American agent would be expected to do: discrediting the 
People's Democratic Party, the Party's reforms, the idea of socialism 
or communism, and the Soviet Union, all associated in one package. 
Amin also conducted purges in the army officer corps which seriously 
underlined the army's combat capabilities.

But why would Amin, if he were actually plotting with the Americans, 
request Soviet military forces on several occasions? The main reason 
appears to be that he was being pressed to do so by high levels of 
the PDP and he had to comply for the sake of appearances. Babrak 
Karmal has suggested other, more Machiavellian, scenarios.

"The Carter administration jumped on the issue of the Soviet 
"invasion" and soon launched a campaign of righteous indignation, 
imposing what President Carter called "Penalties"-from halting the 
delivery of grain to the Soviet Union to keeping the US team out of 
the 1980 Olympics in Moscow.

The Russians countered that the US was enraged by the intervention 
because Washington had been plotting to turn the country into an 
American base to replace the loss of lran.

Unsurprisingly, on this seemingly clear-cut anti-communist issue, the 
American public and media easily fell in line with the president. The 
Wall Street Journal called for a "military" reaction, the 
establishment of US bases in the Middle East, "reinstatement of draft 
registration", development of a new missile, and giving the CIA more 
leeway, adding "Clearly we ought to keep open the chance of covert 
aid to Afghan rebels." The last, whether the newspaper knew it or 
not, had actually been going on for some time. In February 1980, the 
Washington Post disclosed that while the United States was now 
supplying weapons to the guerrillas,

"U.S. covert aid prior to the December invasion, according to 
sources, was limited to funneling small amounts of medical supplies 
and communications equipment to scattered rebel tribes, plus what is 
described as "technical advice" to the rebels about where they could 
acquire arms on their own ."

US foreign service officers had been meeting with rebel leaders to 
determine their need at least as early as April 1979, and the CIA had 
been training guerrillas in Pakistan and beaming radio propaganda 
into Afghanistan since the year before.

Intervention in the Afghan civil war by the United States, Iran, 
Pakistan, China and others gave the Russians grave concern about who 
was going to wield power next door. They consistently cited these 
"aggressive imperialist forces" to rationalize their own intervention 
into Afghanistan, which was the first time Soviet ground troops had 
engaged in military action anywhere in the world outside its post- 
World War II Eastern European borders. The potential establishment of 
an anti-communist Islamic state on the borders of the Soviet Union's 
own republics in Soviet Central Asia that were home to some 40 
million Muslims could not be regarded with equanimity by the Kremlin 
any more than Washington could be unruffled about a communist 
takeover in Mexico.

As we have seen repeatedly, the United States did not limit its 
defense perimeter to its immediate neighbors, or even to Western 
Europe, but to the entire globe. President Carter declared that the 
Persian Gulf area was "now threatened by Soviet troops in 
Afghanistan," that this area was synonymous with US interests, and 
that the United States would "defend" it against any threat by all 
means necessary. He called the Soviet action "the greatest threat to 
peace since the Second World War", a statement that required 
overlooking a great deal of post-war history. But 1980 was an 
election year.

Brezhnev, on the other hand, declared that "the national interests or 
security of the United States of America and other states are in no 
way affected by the events Afghanistan. All attempts to portray 
matters otherwise are sheer nonsense."

The Carter administration was equally dismissive of Soviet concerns. 
National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski later stated that "the 
issue was not what might have Brezhnev's subjective motives in going 
into Afghanistan but the objective consequences of a Soviet military 
presence so much closer to the Persian Gulf."

The stage was now set for 12 long years of the most horrific kind of 
warfare, a daily atrocity for the vast majority of the Afghan people 
who never asked for or wanted this war.

But the Soviet Union was determined that its borders must be 
unthreatening. The Afghan government was committed to its goal of a 
secular, reformed Afghanistan. The United States was determined that, 
at a minimum, this should be the Soviets' Vietnam that they should 
slowly bleed as the Americans had at a minimum; at a maximum ... that 
was perhaps not as well thought out but American policymakers could 
not fail to understand - though they dared not say it publicly and 
explicitly - that support of the Moujahedeen (many of whom carried 
pictures of the Ayatollah Khomeini with them) could lead to a 
fundamentalist Islamic state established in Afghanistan every bit as 
repressive as in next-door Iran, which in the 1980s; was Public Enemy 
Number One in America. Neither could the word "terrorist" cross the 
lips of Washington officials in speaking of their new allies/clients, 
though these same people shot down civilian airliners and planted 
bombs at the airport. In 1986, British Prime Minister Margaret 
Thatcher, whose emotional invectives against "terrorists" were second 
to none, welcomed Abdul Haq, an Afghan rebel leader who admitted that 
he had ordered the planting of a bomb at Kabul airport in 1984 which 
killed at least 28 people. Such, then, were the scruples of cold-war 
anti-communists in late 20th century. As Anastasio Somoza had been 
"our son of a bitch", the Moujahedeen were now "our fanatic 
terrorists". At the beginning there had been some thought given to 
the morality of the policy. "The question here," a senior official in 
the Carter administration said, "was whether it was morally 
acceptable that, in order to keep the Soviets off balance, which was 
the reason for the operation, it was permissible to use other lives 
for our geopolitical interests."

But such sentiments could not survive. Afghanistan was a 
cold-warrior's dream: The CIA and the Pentagon, finally, had one of 
their proxy armies in direct confrontation with the forces of the 
Evil Empire. There was no price too high to pay for this Super 
Nintendo game, neither the hundreds of thousands of Afghan lives, nor 
the destruction of Afghan society, nor three billion (sic) dollars of 
American taxpayer money poured into a bottomless hole, much of it 
going only to make a few Afghans and Pakistanis rich. Congress was 
equally enthused-without even the moral uncertainty that made them 
cautious about arming the Nicaraguan contras-and became a veritable 
bipartisan horn of plenty as it allocated more and more money for the 
effort each year. Rep. Charles Wilson of Texas expressed a 
not-atypical sentiment of official Washington when he declared:

"There were 58,000 dead in Vietnam and we owe the Russians one ... I 
have a slight obsession with it, because of Vietnam. I thought the 
Soviets ought to get a dose of it ... I've been of the opinion that 
this money was better spent to hurt our adversaries than other money 
in the Defense Department budget."

Louis Proyect, lnp3 at on 09/16/2001

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