Six years after they invaded Afghanistan and were condemned by virtually the entire international community, Soviet troops with their Afghan government allies have slowly begun to win the war.

Most of the reports received in the West over the last six years have come from journalists travelling with the rebels or from Western embassies in Kabul. It has been a mixed picture of heroism and incompetence, determination and disunity, courage and corruption, but the general tone has usually been upbeat. The mujahidin, it is argued, have right on their side and will ultimately prevail, even though no one knows what kind of government—reactionary, progressive, or Islamic fundamentalist—they would put in place.

Now the Afghan government has started to open the door again, to allow foreign reporters to see the picture from another angle. Not surprisingly, it looks very different. After 18 days in Afghanistan, travelling to Mazar-i-Sharif in the north, to Jalalabad in the east, beyond the outskirts of Kabul, and even close to the Pakistan border, my impression is that the area of government activity has widened considerably from my previous visit four years ago.

The mujahidin are still strong in many mountain areas, but in the more easily defended flat lands the government is showing more confidence and exerting greater authority. Although the rebels continue to mount hit-and-run attacks in every city, including Kabul, and can ambush traffic on the main roads, it is no longer enough to cripple the economy or prevent the Russians and their Afghan allies from keeping most of the major population centers under their control and pushing the security perimeter of each city gradually outward into the villages beyond.

It is not just a question of military success. Rippling out from the city centers into the surrounding countryside there is a sense of acquiescence in, and even welcome for, the government’s program of modernization.

How strong it is no one can quantify, but it is an aspect of Afghanistan’s new reality to which Western diplomats, confined to Kabul, have no access. Counting the noises of gunfire in the night, working partly on the basis of hearsay and rumors and acting mainly as military intelligence experts, they may be missing the less tangible but more important political story.

Take the case of Muhammad Feroz, in a village near Mazar-i-Sharif. Two years ago his three sons were with the mujahidin fighting against the government from camps in the mountains ten miles to the south. Occasionally they would slip into the village to see him and get food but their visits were always short and unannounced.

Now two of them are home again, and have joined the newly formed village militia. The third son has also abandoned his life with the resistance. He is doing his national service with the Afghan army.

Their story can be repeated in other villages near Mazar-i-Sharif. It is part of a trend under which—according to government officials—several thousand mujahidin have abandoned the anti-government struggle over the last few months.

Zabiullah Khan, the main guerrilla leader in the northern region and once the second most successful resistance commander in Afghanistan, was killed by a land mine in December 1984. His death, plus a government amnesty which allows anyone to give up with impunity, has had a major effect.

Reforms Outflank Rebels

When I first visited Mazar-i-Sharif in October 1981, just under two years after the Soviet intervention, officials would not take me out of the town. Now villages close to the main road can easily be entered and peasants describe the benefits which have arrived in the last two years—electricity, rural health clinics, and land reform.

Security is still highly visible, with frequent road blocks and armed police watching from newly built fortified towers, made of the local mudbrick, at strategic points along the highway. But what is important is that a government which was largely isolated at the time of the invasion has successfully encouraged hundreds of volunteers to take up arms in its name.

In the villages the new militia are called defenders of the revolution. I spoke to Muhammad Feroz in a small fort on the edge of Gulmuhammad about six miles east of Mazaar.

The new fort was like a larger version of a classic children’s sand castle. A square with turrets at three corners, it had a single entrance leading on to an open courtyard, and a staircase up to a parapet where sentries walked.

A room ran the entire length of one wall, with windows looking out on to the courtyard. Its floor was covered with rugs. At one end was a picture of the Afghan president, Babrak Karmal, and political slogans. At the other end a young man was on his knees in prayer when I came in.

The rest of the 31 “self-defenders” drifted in gradually. All but two of them had once been with the mujahidin. They are paid by the government for their hours on duty, but continue to do other work, mainly as peasants on family land.

The leader, Muhammad Anwar, said the village had no curfew because some peasants had to work in the fields at night with the aid of lanterns. The irrigation system operated round the clock and some peasants’ water ration came during the hours of darkness. The self-defenders patrol day and night. They began a year ago.

Muhammad Anwar joined the counterrevolution in September 1979, three months before the Soviet intervention, when the hardline Hafizullah Amin was still in power. “A lot of people including old people were arrested in our village. Mullahs were detained for allegedly being against revolution. People were forced into literacy classes,” he explained.

He went into the mountains to join Zabiullah Khan, a leader of the group known as Jamiat Islami. “I was the first from this area but later 40 or 50 others came. Zabiullah Khan told us to kill anyone connected with the government. Unlike some of the others who went to Pakistan for training, Muhammad Anwar spent his whole time in the Mazaar region, but he claimed to have seen American and French advisers who usually came for a month at a time, “They came in groups of eight or ten. They showed us how to use weapons and to kill with revolvers at short range.”

He was vague about what operations he himself had taken part in. “We tried to avoid doing anything in our own village, though I did help to set fire to the school,” he said. He claimed Zabiullah’s men, who once numbered 1,000, attacked mosques. But when pressed for details, he admitted that he had not witnessed any such incidents. He had seen an attack on a madrassah, or religious school, which was targeted because the teachers were thought to be from the government and were really giving anti-Islamic propaganda.

In December 1984, Zabiullah Khan was killed by a mine, possibly laid by another rebel group, though no one is certain. Soon after that, according to Muhammad Anwar, the drift of rebels back into government hands gathered pace. Now he claims there are very few left in the hills.

The defections had begun before that, according to another counterrevolutionary. Ismatullah Khan is at the opposite end of the social spectrum from Muhammad Feroz. A rich but illiterate landlord and clan-leader from Zori, a valley south of Mazar-i-Sharif, he walked with 72 followers several hundred miles to Pakistan in April 1979.

Even before the 1978 revolution he had been contacted by Jamiat Islami, which opposed the regime of President Daoud in power before the Communist coup. But in Peshawar, in Pakistan, Ismatullah Khan found Jamiat Islami suspicious because he had initially gone along with the revolutionary land reform.

The general picture in Pakistan, he said, was one of jealous rival groups whose leaders sold many of the weapons channelled through the Pakistani ministry of defense and pocketed the money. Some months after walking home and fighting, “I decided it wasn’t safe to continue,” he said.

“It would be better to go over to the government, which I did in January 1984 with 120 armed and 220 unarmed men. Ours was the biggest group to come over,” he went on. They have formed a self-defense group and are paid by the government.

A similar pattern of guerrilla war-weariness and government success in winning more hearts and minds is emerging around Kabul and in the southeast. Four years ago I was not permitted into the outskirts of the capital. This time I was shown ruined Paghman to north, and on the opposite side of the capital, towards Logar, I saw villages which showed no signs of recent destruction and where land reform was underway.

A group of Moscow-based Western journalists saw villages to the east of Kabul last month. A perimeter of at least ten miles beyond the city limits appears to have been set up. It includes a sizeable proportion of the country’s population.

After the first over-optimistic flush of 1979, when they thought people would welcome those who overthrew the hated Hafizullah Amin, the Soviet Union and the Afghan government of President Karmal long ago settled for a long-drawn-out political and military campaign. It is beginning to pay off.

Making Peace with Islam

“In here,” said the manager of the textile plant at Mazar-i-Sharif, as he opened a door beside the rattling looms, “is a literacy class.” Our visit had clearly not been announced in advance. Two rows of women in front and five rows of men and boys behind them were busy looking at reading primers, but the teacher’s place was empty.

Looking understandably flustered, she hurried in a moment later to explain the system. Workers have an hour a day on the factory’s time to learn to read and write. A third of the plant’s 750 workers are in the courses in shifts, and most of the classes are mixed—men and women together.

For Mazar-i-Sharif this is a rarity—as indeed are women factory workers. The town is one of the holiest places for Shi‘i Muslims. Its central square is dominated by the gleaming turquoise tiles and domes of the mosque and shrine of Hazrai Ali, who married the prophet Muhammad’s daughter and became the fourth Imam of Islam. In pre-war days it used to be a place of pilgrimage for thousands of Muslims from Iran and Pakistan.

The mosque’s influence hangs over Mazar. Almost every woman is completely covered in a veil with a small grille-work of less closely-woven cloth in front of the eyes to allow them to see but not be seen. The few women who wear western clothes are mainly government or party officials, and men and women never walk together in the street.

Out of almost 21,000 people taking part in the literacy campaign, only 700 are women. Although the campaign is being pushed forward, the revolution’s activists are no longer making the mistake of forcing women into the classes, as they did shortly after they came to power in April 1978. They have resigned themselves to a much slower process of modernization than they originally hoped.

What is called “the new and evolutionary phase” of the revolution began after the Soviet intervention in December 1979, when Babrak Karmal took over. By then the first phase under Hafizullah Amin, with its rush to change Afghan society, and its prison camps and firing squads for those who resisted, had managed to alienate the bulk of the population.

More than a thousand mullahs are officially admitted to have been killed during Amin’s rule, and it has been a slow process trying to rebuild the clergy’s trust. But the signs of the government’s efforts are visible everywhere. Two new constructions have appeared in the housing estate for workers at Mazar’s fertilizer plant, built with Soviet aid 16 years ago. One is a monument to the “victims of the counterrevolution” who have died on army or militia service against the rebels. The other is a mosque, one of 114 built at government expense since 1979.

Everywhere the government is anxious to demonstrate that it is protecting, preserving, and encouraging Islam. In the Soviet Union, no official tour round a town is complete without a trip to a kindergarten. In Afghanistan, the visitor is always asked, “would you like to see the mosque?” The government is also trying to win the support of the clergy with cash and the offer of a share in political power. Roughly a third of the 370 mullahs in the Mazar area get a monthly salary of 4,000 Afghanis (the average unskilled industrial wage is 2,400). All schools in Afghanistan have three hours of Islamic religious studies per week, and there is an hourly Islamic broadcast every evening on the radio.

With the start last year of a system of local elections in which non-party people are encouraged to take part, mullahs are being brought into government. Candidates are put forward by the National Fatherland Front, which aims to enlist and mobilize people from every social group provided they support the goals of the revolution.

In Mazar, the new provincial governor is a mullah who spent two months in prison under Amin. He was recently promoted onto Afghanistan’s revolutionary council. Another mullah on the revolutionary council is ‘Abd ul-Wali Hojat, who was a religious judge before the revolution and is now the minister of Islamic affairs. He is playing a large part in the government’s campaign to woo other Islamic countries, nearly all of whom condemned the Soviet invasion.

The expanding trend towards participation by mullahs in government angers the rebel mujahidin (the warriors of God). One of their main arguments had been that the revolution, and particularly the Soviet invasion, brought godless communism to power in Afghanistan. Mosques run by government-paid clergy have been a frequent target of rebel attacks on the grounds that they are collaborators. The government uses these attacks to argue that it is they, not the mujahidin, who are the real respecters of the Quran.

The Soviet Union’s advisers in Afghanistan have encouraged the government’s overtures to the clergy and post-1979 effort to achieve social modernization at a slower and more sensitive pace. Privately, they express some irritation that the government has not moved faster to broaden the base of the regime. They put it down to continuing arguments between the two historic wings of the party, the Parcham group led by President Babrak Karmal and the more radical Khalq group which were still active until 1981 and 1982, they say.

“Ten Theses”

Unity has now been achieved and last November Karmal launched a new approach to non-party people among the clergy, the intelligentsia, and the private business community in a speech described as the “ten theses.” It may have been inspired by Mikhail Gorbachev, as a way of achieving greater stability in Afghanistan, although this is denied by Afghan officials.

The “ten theses” embraced some measures which had already been taken, such as last year’s summoning of a national assembly (loya jirga)—a traditional Afghan convocation of tribal and political leaders—and an assembly of frontier tribes (high jirga). But it also adopted some new ones, such as the decision to double the size of the revolutionary council, and measures to give easier credit and tax concessions to private business. The “ten theses” gave the measures the authority of national party doctrine, binding on officials throughout the country.

The government has always permitted the bazaar merchants to carry on functioning, and makes their trade easier by importing goods in bulk from Japan and the Far East, which travel via the trans-Siberian railway to Afghanistan and are then trucked in Soviet lorries to Kabul. Roughly three-quarters of the merchandise is reexported, or in some cases smuggled, to Pakistan. The government is now trying to encourage investors—“national capitalists,” as it calls them—to manufacture goods in Afghanistan. Private businessmen say they welcome the government’s new approach.

In January the government appointed ten non-party people to the Council of Ministers, and 56 non-party people to the Revolutionary Council. Skeptics have argued that most of the new appointees were already working with the government. But this criticism underestimates the reality of post-revolutionary Afghanistan, where for the last eight years there has been little opportunity for professionals to find jobs independent of the government. The fact that the government is now willing to give some of them positions of greater responsibility is a sign that it is more willing to take independent advice. It also shows that technocrats and economists are readier now to be closely identified with the revolution.

The government’s conciliatory new approach does not mean that the party will give up its leading role, Babrak Karmal has stressed. In an interview he reaffirmed a promise to allow other parties to function, which he originally made when he took power in December 1979, but which has not been heard much of since. “If people want to establish parties that agree with the goals of the revolution and our national independence, and have no connection with imperialism and the CIA, they can,” he said. He added that under the monarchy and the subsequent republican government of Muhammad Daoud which preceded the revolution, democratic freedoms were restricted.

Afghan officials do not expect the “ten theses” will encourage many of the country’s emigre intellectuals and professionals to return. But they hope that the approach will prevent emigration by the next generation of the educated elite, which—thanks to the rapid post-revolutionary expansion of the education system—is more numerous. By offering exemptions from army service for doctors, engineers, and some other professionals, and by providing well-paid jobs in party and government work for national development, the aim is to appeal to the self-interest and idealism of younger Afghans.

Why the War Must Go On

“The only argument the counterrevolution has against this government now,” said one of Moscow’s most seasoned Afghan hands, talking in his Kabul villa, “is the presence of Soviet troops.” Islam, he went on, is fully respected by the revolutionary government. It has broadened its social base by bringing in non-party people and promising to maintain a mixed economy. It is preserving national cultures and has done more to develop broadcasting and education in Afghanistan’s many local languages than any previous government. It is giving money for much-needed development in health services, literacy and irrigation.

One could understand his point. In the six years since the invasion in 1979, the Soviet Union has worked hard to moderate the pace of the Afghan revolution, and to help it put down roots by becoming more acceptable to the population. Indeed, as the Russians themselves emphasize, the main motive for the invasion was to protect the revolutionary process—by ousting the detested and dogmatic Hafizullah Amin—who had won the internal party faction-fighting in the summer of 1978, and replacing him by a more sensitive leader, Babrak Karmal.

Yet the strategy of winning acceptance has not worked. Why? This is the question which the Russians ask themselves now. Though they do not put it quite this way, the fact is that whereas the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 toppled popular regimes, the invasion of Afghanistan toppled a highly unpopular one. The Russians hoped to be welcomed as liberators—which is why, at the beginning, they allowed so many Western reporters to stay and film the incoming tanks.

Things did not work out that way. The Russians have, broadly, two explanations. They point to the power of the propaganda of the counterrevolution and its foreign backers, which has successfully blurred the distinction between the present government and its vicious predecessor.

It has not been a difficult task, for the Russians themselves and Babrak Karmal both stress the continuity and, as they would hope, the irreversibility of the April 1978 revolution, as well as the dramatic change of course in December 1979 towards a new, more gradualist phase. For the counterrevolution and its Western sympathizers, it has been easy to discount the new course, and emphasize the links between the pre-December 1979 and post-December regimes.

One difference, of course—and this is the second reason the Russians put forward to explain why the regime has found it hard to gain acceptance—is the presence of Soviet forces. All the effort which the Russians and their Afghan allies have made to modernize Afghanistan since December 1979 is overshadowed by the starkly simplistic image which prevails abroad of a country which has changed in one way only: at the top it has a puppet instead of a tyrant.

In an interview, President Karmal told me he felt the United States was following two seemingly opposed strategies in funding the Afghan rebels. The aim in both cases was to destroy the Afghan revolution. One strategy—the minimalist option—was to keep Soviet troops in Afghanistan for propaganda purposes and divert attention from the government’s reforms. The other—the maximalist option—was to force the Russians to abandon Afghanistan in a chaotic manner which could allow the country to fall apart—or, to put it in his exact words, “be dismembered.”

In neither case, the president stressed, would the destruction of the revolution be permitted by him or the Russians. “Look at Vietnam,” he said. “There was fighting on the one hand, and the Paris peace talks on the other. What was the result? A socialist Vietnam was born.”

Four years ago, during my previous visit to Afghanistan, government officials and their Soviet advisers expressed confidence that time was on their side. Now they seem to feel this even more strongly. In the long term the guerrillas will grow weary of the war, they argue, and the government will consolidate itself in the cities and the flat lands where power matters.

Wearing Down the Rebels

Journalists who have had recent contact with the rebels report that their casualties last year were higher than ever, and that morale is consequently lower. The government, meanwhile, is working harder to persuade refugees to return. It no longer lumps the mujahidin together as simply “bandits.”

Brigadier-General ‘Abd ul-Haq Ulomi, the head of the Central Committee’s justice and defense department, classified what he called the “counterrevolutionaries” into three types. “First, there are people who lost their privileges with the revolution—feudal landlords and a few capitalists. They are a small percentage,” he said. “Then there are agents and elements of the CIA and other intelligence sources, some of whom were stationed in Afghanistan before the revolution.”

“The main group of counterrevolutionaries are the very people for whom the revolution was made: ordinary peasants, who are deceived by propaganda, and leave the country.” The government claims that hundreds of these people are returning to the country, either as civilians in the same way as they originally left, or as armed counterrevolutionaries who then give up.

In the mountain areas the government’s political strategy is to persuade tribal or religious leaders by means of financial inducements or promises of local autonomy to support it or at least stay aloof from the counterrevolution. It is the classic colonial district officer’s approach of winning over the village headman.

A Soviet journalist on his third tour of duty who speaks Dari, the main local language, and has considerable experience of pre-revolutionary Afghanistan put it this way (one can assume his view echoes those of official Soviet advisers): “In the mountain villages people mainly want to be left alone. That’s why self-defense militias are a good idea. They don’t want the counterrevolution to come in.”

If the Russians are confident that in the long term they will wear the mujahidin down by gradually winning over the “deceived,” in the medium term they are looking to the growing political turmoil in Pakistan to help their cause. They see political parties in Pakistan increasing in boldness against General Zia and a majority of them criticizing his close dependence on the US and his refusal to have direct talks with Afghanistan.

In recent months the Afghan government has successfully managed to stir the Pakistani pot by forming links with the independent tribes in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier province. In September it scored a political coup by hosting an assembly of tribal representatives (a high jirga) in Kabul. The 3,700 delegates included several hundred from across the Pakistan border in the “free tribe” areas of the Pashtu people (known as Pathans in Pakistan).

The jirga resolved to set up regional militias on the Afghan side and on the Pakistani side to block the passage of Afghan counterrevolutionaries into Afghanistan. Pakistan’s response was to send its army into the tribal areas on the pretext of stamping out heroin factories.

The Afghans say the coincidence between the alleged anti-heroin campaign and the high jirga decision to remove the Afghan rebel’s sanctuary is too obvious. Recently Islamabad has managed to win back many of the dissident tribesmen. But the Afghans will presumably try to woo them again.

Pakistan, they believe, is under American pressure to prevent any threat to the mujahidin’s passage into Afghanistan. Before the revolution and ever since Pakistan’s creation, Afghan governments often called for an independent “Pashtunistan” to split from Pakistan. Although President Karmal has not gone that far, his playing of the Pashtu card is already having an effect in Pakistan. Pressure is mounting there against treating the Afghan issue as an East-West clash and in favor of a regional compromise in which both superpowers would make concessions, and not just the Soviet Union.

Indirect talks between Afghanistan and Pakistan continue at irregular intervals. While the Afghan government and Chairman Gorbachev in his recent party congress speech insist that they want negotiations through a United Nations mediator, Diego Cordovez, there is little firm evidence that they are in a hurry. The format of the Geneva talks balances a Soviet troop withdrawal with an end to outside interference from Pakistan and Iran and, unlike the annual UN resolutions which condemn the Soviet invasion, does not mention self-determination for the Afghan people.

Although this is a realistic basis for negotiation, it can already be seen as a move in the Soviet Union’s direction, which has always said the invasion was justified by outside efforts to undermine the revolution.

Nevertheless, because they believe time is on their side, the Russians seem to be waiting for an even better deal to turn up. Meanwhile, the Reagan Administration and particularly the Pentagon is suspicious of the Geneva process because it feels it has already gone too far towards helping Moscow to withdraw with honor.

In neither superpower capital is there any serious pressure for an end to the war. In the Soviet Union, public opinion is never mobilized against government policy. In Washington, Congress is willing to approve on the nod for the Afghan rebels ten times the amount of CIA money which goes to the Nicaraguan contras, on the simple basis that they are freedom-fighters, without closely scrutinizing their goals, methods, targets, legitimacy or effectiveness. The war will go on.


Editor’s Note: This article first appeared as a series in The Guardian (London), March 15-17, 1986.

How to cite this article:

Jonathan Steele "Moscow’s Kabul Campaign," Middle East Report 141 (July/August 1986).

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