Babrak Karmal was replaced as general secretary of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) six weeks after this series of articles first appeared. It was the first non-violent change in the party’s leadership since it came to power in April 1978.

There is some evidence that the new leader, Major-General Najibullah (the official media shortened his name to Najib a few days later) was not the Soviet Union’s first choice to replace Karmal. Shortly before the leadership change on May 4, the Prime Minister, Sultan Ali Keshtmand, visited Moscow where he was prominently received. Keshtmand had long been known as the number two man in the regime, and his visit was given generous coverage in the Soviet media.

The Soviet party leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, sent Najib a congratulatory telegram the day after his elevation, as protocol demanded. It was interesting that in his reply Najib pledged “to do all in my power” to strengthen cooperation with the Soviet Union; he stated “with firm confidence”=” that friendly relations between the two countries could continue. He seemed to be going out of his way to reassure Moscow about the change of leadership.

If Keshtmand had been Moscow’s favored successor to Karmal, he was probably ruled out by his Afghan colleagues on the grounds that he comes from the minority Hazara tribe.

There were other hints that the leadership change was not entirely smooth. In his resignation speech, Karmal gave four reasons for his departure: “In view of my sense of responsibility, health reasons, accurate assessment of my possibilities and giving consideration to international problems, after much contemplation, I decided to request you to excuse me from my post as general secretary of the PDPA.” He then urged his comrades “to honor party unity as the apple of your eyes.” His speech was followed by those of six central committee members before Keshtmand proposed Najib’s name. Karmal’s resignation was accepted but only, according to Keshtmand, on health grounds.

It is not yet possible to be sure exactly what prompted Karmal’s departure, but it seems certain that Najib will be a stronger leader. As head of the Khad, the security service, since the day of the Soviet invasion, Najib has been in charge of the most successful government department. In the last few months he has had considerable success in running the campaign to win over Pashtu tribes on the border with Pakistan.

Himself a Pashtu, Afghanistan’s largest tribe, Najib is a member of Karmal’s Parcham wing of the party—a rare combination which must give him a chance to be accepted in both main groupings of the party, and thereby reinforce its still precarious unity. In the first days after he took over as leader, he made several visits to the provinces. According to the official media, he spoke there about improving conscription rates and morale in the army.

It would be wrong to see Karmal’s departure from the party leadership as in any way a conciliatory move towards Pakistan or the mujahidin. Najib is even less acceptable. But his appointment and his emphasis on building up the country’s own defenses may indicate that the way is slowly being prepared for a Soviet withdrawal. There is no chance of the Soviets leaving unless they have first achieved better military control of the border zones through which the mujahidin come and, secondly, have organized Afghanistan’s security forces into a position where they can survive on their own. In this sense, Najib’s arrival may signal the beginning of the end of the Soviet military role in Afghanistan. It does not alter the general conclusion of this series that a Soviet withdrawal is far from imminent.

How to cite this article:

Jonathan Steele "Changes at the Top," Middle East Report 141 (July/August 1986).
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