From the book: "The Price of Liberty: The Tragedy of Afghanistan"
by Sayed Qasim Reshtya,
Bardi Editore, Roma Italy (1984),
Part I, Section 3 (pages 31-42)
Contemporary Afghanistan - The Last Sixty
We have spoken of the history and historical role of Afghanistan,
and of its strategic geopolitical importance in that sensitive area of
the world. Now we shall study particularly the history of relations between
this country and its great northern neighbour, the Soviet Union, describing
the different phases of the relationship, said to be "good neighbourly",
which has ended in the invasion of the country by the Red Army in 1979.
King Amanullah, proclaiming unilaterally the independence
of his country in 1919 without waiting for the reaction of the English,
sent out a roving delegation to establish diplomatic relations with the
different countries of Asia, Europe, and America. The first stage of that
delegation's mission was in Moscow, where it was received in October 1919
with open arms by the leaders of the new regime. It was the first diplomatic
delegation to visit Moscow since the bolshevik revolution of 1917. So,
Afghanistan was the first country to recognise the new "state of workers
and peasants of all the Russia". The new regime in Moscow not only
recognised the independence of Afghanistan but even "hastened to offer
the young state of Afghanistan her moral and material support in her heroic
struggle against the English imperialists".
This was the beginning of a sort of "special relationship"
between the two neighbouring countries which lasted, with ups and downs,
for sixty years until the invasion of Afghanistan by the units of the Red
Army in December 1979.
In order to illustrate the evolution of Russian policy
towards Afghanistan over these sixty years, we may divide the period into
three distinct phases.
During the first phase (1919-1929) relations were very
amicable, but too hasty. The two countries needed each other. Afghanistan,
having broken her traditional bonds with Great Britain, turned towards
the Soviet Union for all kinds of support and assistance. In this way,
for the first time in the history of relations between these two countries,
many Russian technicians and instructors arrived in Afghanistan to set
up telephone and telegraph communications, and to train young Afghan technicians,
so that the first pilots of the Afghan air force were trained in the Soviet
Union. At the same time, Soviet goods came onto the Afghan market which
had, up to that time, been monopolised by the English.
This "flirtation" did not appeal to the English,
particularly as Bolshevik propaganda made its way slowly across Afghanistan
into India. The reaction of Great Britain was brutal. Nevertheless, the
ground had been prepared by King Amanullah himself. In his patriotic zeal,
he had started a series of reforms which were too bold and hurried, modeled
along Turkish lines, without taking into consideration conditions peculiar
to his own country, or the negative attitude of the religious factions
towards these innovations, or their influence on the tribes. The result
of this was the fall of the reformer monarch and the establishment of a
regime which was both conservative and favourable to British policy.
The accession of Nader Shah, in 1929, marked the beginning
of a new phase in relations between Afghanistan and the Soviet Union. We
shall call that phase the "closed borders era". In fact, under
the reigns of Nader Shah and the early part of Zaher Shah (who was King
until the 1973 coup d'etat organised by his cousin Daoud), the relations
with the USSR were limited to diplomatic representation and commercial
exchanges of no significance.
This was the situation until the end of the Second World
War, during which time Afghanistan was able to maintain its neutrality
because, at least during the last three years of was, its two powerful
neighbours were fighting on the same side.
In 1947, the political status quo in this area was fundamentally
changed by the withdrawal of the English from the Indian sub-continent,
an event which left a political vacuum for Afghanistan.
The impact was so strong that the conservative government
of Prince Hashem elder uncle of the young King Zaher Shah and a strong-minded
man, who as Prime Minister had ruled the country since the the assassination
of his older brother, King Nader Shah in 1933 fell, and his brother, Marshal
Shah Mahmud, came into power as Prime Minister. In order to fill the political
gap, the new government asked the USA to take the place vacated by the
English, at least in the economic and technical fields, by initiating research
works to explore the natural resources of the country, and by building
irrigation and communications systems. The Afghan government offered substantial
incentives to American commercial firms, in the form of very favourable
contracts, in order to develop large areas of so far unproductive land
in the Hilmand valley, in the south of the country.
Unfortunately, the Americans were not yet aware of the
political and strategic importance of Afghanistan, and looked on this approach
with great suspicion. The imperative reasons motivating the Afghan approach
were not apparent to the American government, which assumed it to only
a means of obtaining financial assistance and large investments to develop
doubtful resources in a backward country.
Washington's suspicions further increased when, in 1951,
Shah Mahmud personally presented a request to President Truman for the
purchase of American arms. The "cold war" was beginning and the
American government was already planning a strategy to curb the influence
of the USSR and Communist China. This strategy was drawn up and implemented
by General Eisenhower and the Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, in
the form of regional NATO, CENTO and SEATO pacts, covering the entire zone
from Europe to the Far East, in which Pakistan was to play an important
part as a link between Central and South East Asia.
Since 1947, Pakistan and Afghanistan had a political dispute
over the right of self-determination of the Pashtun and Baluch tribes who
live along the frontier between the two countries. The Indian government
was on the Afghan's side and these two factors led the American government
to consider the request for arms as a prelude to a new Kashmir situation
in the Area.
Faced with the negative attitude of President Truman,
Shah Mahmud made a very significant remark, which was widely commented
upon by the press. To a journalist, who had inquired whether the Afghan
government would turn to the USSR for arms, he replied: "Muslims are
forbidden to eat pork, except when a Muslim is dying of hunger!".
Although, it was at that stage only a bluff, but later
on Afghanistan had no alternative but to turn to Moscow.
Prince Daoud, a cousin of King Zahir, who meanwhile had
come to power, tried once more to convince the American government of the
Afghan government's good will and of its desire to settle the dispute with
Pakistan through diplomatic channels. He met Vice-President Nixon during
his short visit to Kabul in 1953. But another prerequisite was demanded,
namely that Afghanistan should abandon its long tradition of neutrality
to join Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, and Turkey as a party to the Baghdad Pact.
This was enough to push Prince Daoud, who was already
tired of American lack of comprehension, into the open arms of Moscow.
Thus the third phase had started and the Great Assembly
(Loe Jirga), at a special meeting convened to decide on the Pashtunistan
situation and the purchase of arms, unanimously, decided that arms "should
be bought wherever this was possible".
In Moscow, the new post-Stalin leaders were following
these events with great interest. They had already started their Peace
Policy towards the Third World and were eager to draw Afghanistan into
their sphere of influence.
In December 1955, Bulganin and Khrushchev stopped in Kabul,
on their way back from a trip to India, to assure their new client of the
full support of the USSR, not only in terms of arms, but also on the Pashtunistan
issue, and a long-term loan of 100 million dollars was granted to Afghanistan.
On the other hand, numerous Soviet experts started investigating
all over the country; thousands of young Afghans were sent to the USSR
to complete their studies in various fields, but mostly to get an army
training. Large projects were undertaken by the Russians, mostly in the
communication sector and the research of natural resources. Several main
roads and airports were built; gas, oil, iron and copper resources were
carefully studied. A large polytechnic institute in Kabul and several smaller
ones in the provinces were built. During the years 1958 to 1973, 50% of
the young officers and army technicians were trained in the USSR, or under
the supervision of Russian instructors in Afghanistan.
* * *
A long-term plan had been drawn up by the Russians and
each step had been carefully studied by qualified experts.
During the whole preparatory and transitional period,
the western countries which, in spite of the growing Russian influence
had maintained a presence in Afghanistan, did not suspect the intentions
of the USSR. On the contrary, they were quite happy at this unprecedented
peaceful competition with Russians. For example, Kabul's airport was built
by the Russians and the technical equipment was supplied by the Americans.
A few Afghans, who were familiar with the Russians' methods,
and in particular with their way of dealing with the Muslims in Central
Asia, voiced some doubts about their impartiality.
They were able to convince King Zaher that his cousin
was going too far in his relations with the USSR, especially after relations
with Pakistan were severed in 1961, making the country totally dependent
Already some signs of Marxist ideas were becoming apparent
and were reflected in the press. The King, who was quite slow in making
up his mind (this was due to the many years during which all decisions
were taken by his uncles and then his cousin), came to a drastic decision.
He "accepted the resignation" of Daoud and,
for the first time, appointed a Prime Minister who belonged neither to
the Royal family, nor to the aristocracy. Dr. Muhammad Yusuf, who was Minister
of Mines and Industry in the Daoud government, presented his cabinet, composed
of technocrats and intellectuals, in March 1963. He suggested that a new
Constitution be prepared with a view to changing the country to a constitutional
monarchy. The King agreed to that proposal, and the new constitution was
drafted by Afghan experts, in collaboration with foreign legal advisers
(a Frenchman, an Indian and an Egyptian). It was based on the principles
of classical democracy, but maintained the traditional values, so deeply
rooted in Afghan society, of Islam and monarchy. It also excluded all members
of the Royal family from the political scene.
The Constitution was adopted in October 1964, with only
one vote against it, and ratified by the King. General elections were due
to take place in October 1965, and, therefore, the interim government had
sufficient time to prepare and promulgate by Royal decree the laws for
the first democratic general elections.
For the first time in the history of Afghanistan, political
parties were allowed, on the condition, however, that their aims and activities
should conform to the fundamental principles of the Constitution: Islam,
constitutional monarchy and individual freedom. Therefore, the formation
of Marxist parties of any tendency was indirectly excluded. As the elections
were to take place prior to the formation of the political parties, it
was left to the elected Parliament to pass the law on the creation of political
parties, trade unions, and other political activities. But the leftist
groups were eager to start and did not wait until the legal formalities
were completed. On the contrary, they took advantage of the general authorisation
and started to organise themselves. Several groups, formed mainly of youngsters,
began their future political activities; the other groups, being much more
law conscious, waited until the promulgation of the law to form the centre
parties, which were to be the main-stream of the new Parliament.
The law on freedom of the press, prepared by the interim
government and promulgated by Royal decree, made things easy for the leftist
groups which launched an intensive campaign aimed at gaining the support
of young people - most of them inexperienced.
That is how the Marxist groups, with the help of their
Russian advisors managed to gain a strong position and overtake all the
other political groups, whose aim it was to play a positive and constructive
role in a democracy.
To a large extent, the Marxists were helped by some pressure
groups, who were ready to go to any lengths to retain their power. Instead
of stopping the illegal activities of the Marxist groups, they tried to
oust the group which had drawn up and defended the new Constitution before
the Constituent Assembly.
After the first student riots, organized by Marxist elements
after the opening of the first democratic Parliament, they suggested that
the government should be changed, in spite of the fact that the government
had just won a vote of confidence by large majority.
They accused the Prime Minister, Dr. Muhammad Yusuf of
incompetence in this matter, when they knew very well that the Prime Minister
and the members of his government were at the meeting of the parliament.
Muhammad Hashem Maiwandwal, a former Minister of Information
and former Ambassador to Washington, was asked to form a new government.
This event was the beginning of the failure of the experiment
in democracy in Afghanistan. The liberal group, which had been a promoter
of the constitutional monarchy, was excluded from the government and replaced
by persons who did not believe in the Constitution. As a result, the constitution
was only partly applied, and some important laws, which had been approved,
never came into effect. It was the case for the law on political parties
and the results thereof were that groups loyal to the Constitution could
not organise themselves, whereas the Marxist groups could expand.
So encouraged, the Marxist groups openly started their
activities and had representatives in the Parliament (Three during the
first legislation and two during the second).
Simultaneously, the Marxist parties were taking advantage
of the successive governments' policies of "laisser-aller, laisser-faire",
and were publishing articles in which their ideology and programmes were
explained; their newspapers were "khalk" (Masses) and "Parcham"
(Flag) and "Shola" (Flame), the latter belonging to the Maoist
The governments were too weak to stop the publication
of these articles, which were contrary to the letter and the spirit of
the Constitution. It was only through the pressure applied by the Parliamentary
majority on the government that, from time to time, the publication of
these illegal newspapers was stopped. The constitutional monarchy was already
condemned, and the last blow was soon to come.
Daoud's Coup and the Fall of Monarchy
Moscow had not easily accepted the replacement of Daoud
and the steps taken towards democracy. One positive result for the Russians
was that it provided an opportunity officially to create the Communist
The workers started to get organised and became very active
in the industrial areas of the country; the demonstrations, which had begun
on the campus of the University and in the secondary schools of Kabul,
soon spread to the provinces: riots became more and more frequent; the
King was openly criticized.
Moscow had a plan ready and in Kabul and army was being
infiltrated by the "Parcham" group. A period of transition was
necessary before a Marxist government could be established. Someone had
to be found, who could, at the same time, be trusted b Moscow and accepted
by the Afghan people, in order to replace the King who was gradually loosing
his popularity. Only one person met all the requirements, and that was
Daoud. After ten years away from the political scene, he was still ambitious
and eager to regain power. To achieve this goal, he was to take the King's
place, even if that meant as President of the Republic only. The Russians
were in a hurry to put an end to the monarchy, which they considered to
be a major obstacle to their objectives.
An agreement was reached in 1971 between two officers
belonging to the "Parcham" group (Moscow's favourite) and Dr.
Hassan Sharq who was acting on Daoud's behalf.
Prince Daoud was to lead an army coup which had been prepared
by the Parchami officers in Kabul and under the direct supervision of Russian
The opportunity came when the King traveled to Europe
for a medical check-up. The Heir Apparent, Ahmad Shah, was to replace the
King; the government was led by Muhammad Musa Shafiq, an intelligent young
intellectual but without experience, and General Abdul Wali, a cousin and
son-in-law of the King, who was the commanding officer of the armed forces
On 18 July 1973, Daoud made a radio announcement, informing
the Afghan people that the monarchy had come to an end and that a Republic
was being set up. The 1964 democratic Constitution was annulled; a temporary
government and a revolutionary council - both headed by Daoud - came into
power. Six members of the "Parcham" group were in the government,
and half of the members of the revolutionary council were Parchami officers.
The programme of the new government promised a fast and
revolutionary development of the country, based on democracy and socialism.
This programme was practically identical to the one published in the first
issue of the Parcham newspaper, four years earlier, especially with regard
to land reform, nationalisation of banks, large industries and social justice,
Daoud was not a communist, not was he a man to accept
orders from anyone, especially foreigners. It may be that he believed he
could get rid of his demanding allies... At any rate, he tried to keep
them to one side as he strengthened his own position. Two years later,
all the Marxist ministers were replaced. Some were sent abroad as ambassadors,
some simply asked to resign.
Moscow did not react immediately. Daoud had a new Constitution
drawn up, providing for one party only, on the model of Algeria and Egypt
(during Naser's time). Once more the Russians tried to reason with Daoud;
he was invited to Moscow, but would not yield on this point which, for
him, would have meant total surrender. After this eventful meeting, the
Russian leaders decided that Daoud should be removed from power, and the
first condition to achieve this was the reconciliation of the two Marxist
groups Parcham and Khalk.
After eight years of antagonism, the two groups united
to become the "People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan", under
the leadership of Nur Muhammad Taraki, the Khalk leader, who was to become
President of Afghanistan.
Babrak Karmal, the Parcham leader, would only be Vice-President,
and later, for a few months, Ambassador in Prague. This shows the irreconcilability
of the Afghans: once an enemy, always an enemy until death... as we were
After his visit to Moscow, Daoud became worried about
his own safety, and was ready, but too late, to follow the advice of other
political leaders. The machine of the KGB was already moving in his direction.
The new Constitution was accepted by the Constituent Assembly
and he was elected, in March 1977, as President of the Republic for a term
of six years. Daoud knew, however, that he could no longer count on either
Moscow's support, or the loyalty of the officers who had brought him into
power four years earlier. He had become unpopular after his open "flirtation"
with Moscow and his incredible tolerance towards the leftist groups which
had monopolised the political scene of the country.
His only chance was to turn to the Muslim countries, at
least to obtain financial and moral support in case of total break-up with
Moscow. His trips to Kuweit, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, in March and April
1978, and the reconciliation with the Shah of Iran, were desperate efforts
which only precipitated his fall.
The Russian plan was so well conceived and prepared that
Daoud did not have time to leave the presidential palace, where he, his
whole family, and his aids were killed, without even being able to call
on the half-a-dozen army camps which he had set up around the capital for
such an event [footnote: But according to the survivors of this bloody
massacre he was personally directing the defense of the Palace until and
end, and refused to surrender even when the marxist officers entered the
The plan had also foreseen the elimination of Mir Akbar
Khaiber, the theoretician of the party, who had opposed the total take-over
by the Russians. He was murdered on 18 April 1978, and his funeral provided
the opportunity for the members and sympathisers of the Marxist parties
to launch the protests and riots which were to last for several days. All
the communist leaders were arrested, and the open confrontation started.
The winner was the Popular United Khalk party, and the first Marxist government
was thus established in Afghanistan.