Contemporary Afghanistan – The Last Sixty Years (1919-1979)

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)

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.

First Phase:

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.

Second Phase:

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.

Third Phase:

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.


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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 on Russia.

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 a 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 ideology.

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 Party.

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 losing 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 military advisers.

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 in Kabul.

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, etc.

Daoud was not a communist, nor 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 to see.

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 Kuwait, 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 building.]

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.