“Afghanistan cannot be allowed to set a precedent.”

An interview with Dr. Matin Baraki on the historical lessons from the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan

23 May 2023

Inter­view: Matthew Read

Flag of the People’s Demo­cra­tic Party of Afghanistan

When the People’s Demo­cra­tic Party of Afgha­ni­stan (PDPA) came to power in April 1978, it laun­ched a massive liter­acy campaign and land reform to lift the coun­try out of semi-feuda­lism and set it on a path of non-capi­ta­list deve­lo­p­ment. With the help of the socia­list camp, the young Demo­cra­tic Repu­blic of Afgha­ni­stan brought trac­tors and combine harves­ters to peasants who had previously relied on ox ploughs. It secu­red an educa­tion for those who had been syste­ma­ti­cally denied it and entrus­ted central socie­tal func­tions to count­less Afghan women.

But for the West, this natio­nal-demo­cra­tic revo­lu­tion in the Hindu Kush could not be allo­wed to set a prece­dent. Toge­ther with its allies, the USA soon set in motion an army of heavily armed and arch-reac­tion­ary “Muja­hideen” to over­throw the PDPA govern­ment and estab­lish an aggres­sive funda­men­ta­list state on the Soviet Union’s southern border. Zbigniew Brze­zinski, then Natio­nal Secu­rity Advi­sor to US Presi­dent Carter, later reve­a­led the USA’s ratio­nale: “What is more important in terms of world history? … A few Isla­mic extre­mists or the libe­ra­tion of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?” 1

In his recently published book, Afgha­ni­stan: Revo­lu­tion, Inter­ven­tion, 40 Jahre Krieg (“Afgha­ni­stan: Revo­lu­tion, Inter­ven­tion, 40 Years of War”), Dr. Matin Baraki revi­sits this history to show how the West plun­ged his home­land into deca­des of suffe­ring. Baraki, who was hims­elf active in the early clan­des­tine circles of the PDPA, also reflects self-criti­cally on the role of his former party, conclu­ding that inter­nal strife and ideo­lo­gi­cal imma­tu­rity left too many doors open for the coun­ter­re­vo­lu­tio­na­ries and led to the PDPA’s incre­asing reli­ance on Soviet support. Yet Baraki draws on a range of sources to show that the Soviet inter­ven­tion at the end of 1979 was by no means an act of aggres­sion, but rather despera­tely sought-after mili­tary assis­tance to repel the onslaught of foreign-backed Islamists.

As part of our exami­na­tion of the socia­list camp’s anti-impe­ria­list stra­te­gies in the 20th century, we first asked Baraki about the PDPA’s concep­tion of natio­nal demo­cracy and non-capi­ta­list deve­lo­p­ment. We then discus­sed how these stra­te­gies were concre­tely imple­men­ted in the Afghan context, before contras­ting the role of socia­list states with that of the West. The inter­view is accor­din­gly divi­ded into five sections.

I. The People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan and its political strategy

Can you start by telling us about your back­ground? You grew up in Afgha­ni­stan during the monar­chy and initi­ally worked in Kabul. How did you become politicised?

I was born in 1947 in a small Afghan village and grew up there. My father was a poor peasant and illi­te­rate, like my mother. After his father died when he was just five years old, my father was taken out of school and put to work. He suffe­red under this for his entire life and so made it his mission for me to attend school. I later star­ted an appren­ti­ce­ship as a precis­ion mecha­nic, but my father later fell ill when I was 16 and died shortly after­wards. I then had to try to feed my family of nine, so I drop­ped out and star­ted working as a semi-skil­led mecha­nic in a steel factory.

It was the era of the monar­chy. There were neither poli­ti­cal parties nor trade unions. But I became poli­ti­cised there in the factory: We workers orga­nised oursel­ves and tried to win a wage increase through a strike. The colle­agues dele­ga­ted me as spokesper­son for the strike at that time and, of course, I was then the first to be sacked by the manage­ment. After six months of unem­ploy­ment, I found a job produ­cing teaching mate­rial for a tech­ni­cal trai­ning school. Through this job, which was linked to the Minis­try of Educa­tion, I was lucky enough to be able to attend further educa­tion cour­ses after work to complete my secon­dary school diploma. 

I then became a primary school teacher but also contin­ued my studies. My goal was to study in the Soviet Union, so I applied to the Poly­tech­nic Univer­sity in Kabul, which was built by the USSR. There I worked as a tech­ni­cal assistant at the Faculty of Natu­ral Sciences.

It was at this time that the monar­chy was over­thrown. Ever­yone was eupho­ric. In Afgha­ni­stan, people had belie­ved that the king was the shadow of God: since God is perma­nent, his shadow must also be perma­nent. But now the shadow was gone. That in itself was a great success, even on this psycho­lo­gi­cal level.

A Soviet teacher with Afghan students at the Poly­tech­nic Univer­sity in Kabul. (1981)

And did you have cont­act with the People’s Demo­cra­tic Party of Afgha­ni­stan (PDPA) at that time?

Yes, of course. But the party was still ille­gal. We met secretly in tea houses to orga­nise the party work. The meetings took place there or at some comra­des’ homes. We always arri­ved at the meetings at 10- or 15-minute inter­vals so that no one noti­ced what was going on.

How did you end up doing your docto­rate in the Fede­ral Repu­blic of Germany (FRG)?

As I said, I wanted to study in the Soviet Union, but the Faculty of Natu­ral Scien­ces where I worked had a part­ner­ship with the Univer­sity of Bonn. As part of this part­ner­ship, I recei­ved a scho­lar­ship to study there in 1974. But when I arri­ved, I was told that I could only do an intern­ship and not a degree. That was out of the ques­tion for me because such an intern­ship would be super­fluous in Afgha­ni­stan. So, I turned it down and star­ted study­ing at the Univer­sity of Marburg at my own expense. I had to work during the semes­ter and holi­days to finance ever­y­thing. On top of that, I had to fight for the resi­dency permit. That was at the end of 1979, begin­ning of 1980, just when the Soviet inter­ven­tion in Afgha­ni­stan had begun. The FRG then allo­wed me to stay for the time being, but I was not allo­wed to leave the small town of Marburg. I actually wanted to go to the GDR for further educa­tion, but I was ulti­m­ately threa­tened with this expul­sion and had to finish my studies. 

As the war in Afgha­ni­stan worsened, my profes­sor in Marburg recom­men­ded that I do my docto­rate there and said to me: “By the time you finish the docto­rate, your coun­try will surely be at peace. Then you can go home.” I liked the idea at the time. But even­tually I was finis­hed with my docto­rate and Afgha­ni­stan is still not at peace today.

Retur­ning to the party, in your book you mention that the PDPA consis­ted mainly of members of the intel­li­gent­sia. Can you describe its class charac­ter in more detail? And, against this back­ground, also the split in the party that took place shortly after its founding?

The party was foun­ded in 1965 in ille­ga­lity. This foun­ding meeting took place in the house of Nur Muham­mad Taraki [1917–1979] in Kabul and Taraki was elec­ted as the party’s first gene­ral secre­tary. The member­ship and espe­ci­ally the leader­ship consis­ted almost enti­rely of urban intellec­tu­als with petty-bour­geois charac­te­ristics. There were virtually no oppor­tu­ni­ties for poli­ti­cal educa­tion in Afgha­ni­stan at that time. This meant that the party had only vague ideas about Marxism, and this was, of course, one of our weak­ne­s­ses. It was evident in the split in the party that occur­red two years after its founding.

The imme­diate cause of the split was the struggle for leader­ship posi­ti­ons. There were in reality few posi­ti­ons to distri­bute because the party was still working ille­gally, but ever­yone wanted their share. Two groups quickly formed. The first gathe­red around Taraki and Hafi­zul­lah Amin [1929–1979] and was called the Khalqi.2 The second group formed around Babrak Karmal [1929–1996] and was called the Parchami.3 The former was radi­cal, while the latter group around Karmal pursued a scien­ti­fic strategy.

The big debate revol­ved around the party’s stra­tegy and the ques­tion was: what do we do if there is a revo­lu­tion in Afgha­ni­stan and we have the chance to come to power? The Khalqi said we would start cons­truc­ting socia­lism straight away. The Parchami, on the other hand, said, no, this will be a natio­nal demo­cra­tic revo­lu­tion. And because it will be a natio­nal demo­cra­tic revo­lu­tion, we must make alli­ances, even with the natio­nal bour­geoi­sie. We even have to support the natio­nal bour­geoi­sie so that it invests in the coun­try and so that the working class and the workers’ move­ment can emerge. That, in short, was the ideo­lo­gi­cal point of conten­tion between the two factions.

Did the Khalq-faction deny the neces­sity of the non-capi­ta­list path of development?

No, they did not deny it. Neither faction denied the stra­tegy of non-capi­ta­list deve­lo­p­ment. But the Khalqi clai­med that the party should play the leading role. The Parchami agreed but argued that it was still neces­sary to form an alliance.

In the book I briefly show how the same ques­tion was dispu­ted in the Comin­tern during Lenin’s life­time.4 Comrade M. N. Roy from India and Comrade Sultan-Zade from Iran argued that in the former colo­nies the Commu­nist Parties alone should take power. Lenin said no, that would be wrong because these count­ries are mired in back­ward­ness. A broad, natio­nal, anti-impe­ria­list alli­ance must be formed first. And this discus­sion was then repea­ted in the PDPA. 

As a side note, in Afgha­ni­stan it was assu­med that 5% of the labour force was employed in indus­try. I worked in a factory and knew my colle­agues well: every noon after lunch the muez­zin called, and they all went to pray. The Afghan workers were mostly craft­smen who had fled from the villa­ges to the cities. Most of them were illi­te­rate and had no idea of socia­lism, let alone class consciousness.

“So, to speak of a working class in Afgha­ni­stan was a false percep­tion. It was pure theory.”

So, to speak of a working class in Afgha­ni­stan was a false percep­tion. It was pure theory; it was only in the minds of some comra­des. They talked about the working class, reco­gni­zed that only 5% of the working masses were prole­ta­ri­ans, and somehow that should be enough for a socia­list revo­lu­tion, for a dicta­tor­ship of the proletariat.

How did the Parcham-faction under­stand the role of the PDPA in a natio­nal demo­cra­tic state? Was it to be a workers’ party leading an anti-impe­ria­list front or was it to be a cross-class people’s party repre­sen­ting the whole natio­nal movement?

The PDPA called itself the vanguard of the working class. Karmal also clearly refe­ren­ced this concept in his spee­ches. He said we are the party of the working class, but in our stra­tegy, we want to create a broad alli­ance. The PDPA will play the leading role and give the orien­ta­tion, but on the way, we will need part­ners. And the part­ners must in fact be the entire Afghan people, from peasants and workers to the natio­nal bour­geoi­sie. The Parchami also argued that we need to support the natio­nal bour­geoi­sie so that we can free oursel­ves from the compra­dor bour­geoi­sie and foreign capital. 

One last ques­tion about the party, before we go into more detail about the stra­tegy of non-capi­ta­list deve­lo­p­ment: What links did the PDPA have with the inter­na­tio­nal commu­nist move­ment and the socia­list camp? The mili­tary offi­cers who helped over­throw the monar­chy in 1973 and then also carried out the Saur Revo­lu­tion of 1978 were members of the PDPA and were even trai­ned in the Soviet Union. How did this come about?

There were secret party circles in the mili­tary, just as I descri­bed our civi­lian circles. They orga­nised their own groups. And yes, many offi­cers were trai­ned in the Soviet Union. But first concer­ning the PDPA’s links to the inter­na­tio­nal commu­nist move­ment: This connec­tion was actually foste­red by the Tudeh Party of Iran. The commu­nist move­ment did not initi­ally reco­g­nise the PDPA because it was so divi­ded. Indeed, the inter­nal strife was so severe that the party split in two just a couple of years after its foun­ding. The commu­nist parties refu­sed to reco­g­nise these two factions and deman­ded that they must first come to an agree­ment. The Tudeh Party was given the task of media­ting between the factions to nego­tiate a unifi­ca­tion. The Iranian comra­des mana­ged to play this poli­ti­cal role. When the party came under pres­sure just before the Saur Revo­lu­tion, it reuni­ted nolens volens. But in gene­ral, we were a sister party of the inter­na­tio­nal commu­nist move­ment. The party’s repre­sen­ta­ti­ves took part in all the major meetings of the move­ment; they were present ever­y­where. At meetings of the CPSU or SED, and even at the party congress of the German Commu­nist Party (DKP [the commu­nist party in West Germany]) in Mann­heim in 1978.

The ties between Afgha­ni­stan and the Soviet Union were always very close, even well before the Saur Revo­lu­tion. The Russian Soviet Fede­ra­tive Socia­list Repu­blic (RSFSR) was the first coun­try to reco­g­nise Afghanistan’s inde­pen­dence from British colo­nial tutelage in 1919. It also imme­dia­tely annul­led all unequal trea­ties with Afgha­ni­stan and estab­lished quali­ta­tively new rela­ti­ons. When I addres­sed Afghan-Soviet rela­ti­ons as part of my docto­ral thesis, I prin­ted the letters between Lenin and the then King Amanullah. They are almost love letters… the terms and voca­bu­lary with which they address each other about the friendly rela­ti­ons between the Afghan and Russian people – it is phenomenal!

II. The path of non-capitalist development in the Afghan context

Can you describe socio-econo­mic condi­ti­ons in Afgha­ni­stan in the early 1970s? And how was the stra­tegy of non-capi­ta­list deve­lo­p­ment suppo­sed lift the coun­try out of this situation?

Afgha­ni­stan was an agri­cul­tu­ral coun­try. More than 80 % of the popu­la­tion lived in the coun­try­side. Although they made up only 5 % of the rural popu­la­tion, the big landow­ners had more than 50 % of the land. In the north of the coun­try, they made up only 2% of the rural popu­la­tion, but owned 75% of the land. Subor­di­nate to these large landow­ners were poor and land­less small­hol­ders and agri­cul­tu­ral labou­rers. There were also some state-owned agri­cul­tu­ral enter­pri­ses, but the vast majo­rity of agri­cul­tu­ral produc­tion was private.

In the cities there was light indus­try, some of which was owned by foreign capi­tal. There was a wool-proces­sing factory from Wupper­tal (Fede­ral Repu­blic of Germany), for exam­ple. But mainly this light indus­try was run by natio­nal capi­tal, that is, by Afghan capi­ta­lists. In addi­tion, state-owned enter­pri­ses opera­ted in heavy indus­try. Where I worked, for exam­ple, was a steel factory that belon­ged to the Minis­try of Indus­try and Mining. It was built and supported by the Soviet Union – my fore­man was in fact a Soviet specialist.

That was the econo­mic situa­tion in a nuts­hell. As for the class struc­ture, I have alre­ady mentio­ned that only 5% of the working popu­la­tion was employed in the indus­trial sector. The rest were mostly peasants or agri­cul­tu­ral labou­rers. And now, start­ing from this analy­sis, the ques­tion arises: how do we deve­lop the coun­try? How can a coun­try in which feudal and semi-feudal condi­ti­ons prevail be lead to socia­lism? For us it was clear that there is only one way, namely the non-capi­ta­list way. So, we reject capi­ta­lism, but reco­g­nise that we will need allies. One of the most important allies, as I said earlier, was natio­nal capi­tal: we need to support natio­nal indus­try and the commer­cial bour­geoi­sie in order to deve­lop the produc­tive forces in Afghanistan.

But above all, we must elimi­nate large-scale land owner­ship through a land reform, and this is what we initia­ted after the Saur Revo­lu­tion. The proper­ties of the major landow­ners was to be distri­bu­ted among the peasants and agri­cul­tu­ral labou­rers. Yet we would leave the previous owners enough land to live a good life, provi­ded they culti­vate it them­sel­ves. That is, they were no longer allo­wed to exploit the other peasants on their land.

The other central task was to over­come illi­ter­acy. In Afgha­ni­stan, over 90% of the popu­la­tion could neither read nor write. The figure was even higher for women.

Those were the three tasks: Liter­acy, land reform and support for the natio­nal bour­geoi­sie within the frame­work of a natio­nal alli­ance. In this way, we would pave the way to socia­lism in Afgha­ni­stan. Taken toge­ther, these measu­res were to acce­le­rate the process and econo­mic­ally under­pin our socia­list orien­ta­tion. Through liter­acy and the educa­tion of the people, the subjec­tive condi­ti­ons for a later socia­list revo­lu­tion were to be established. 

An instruc­tor teaches workers at the nitro­gen factory in Mazar-i-Sharif how to read and write. (Photo: РИА Новости, 1981)

What does it mean in concrete terms to support the natio­nal bour­geoi­sie and the commer­cial bour­geoi­sie? Is that not in fact promo­ting capi­ta­list development?

This discus­sion had also taken place in the Comin­tern since the begin­ning. There are a number of examp­les where parties that emer­ged from the colo­nial struggle and subse­quently took power were unwil­ling to form alli­ances. They were afraid that by support­ing the natio­nal bour­geoi­sie, the latter would become stron­ger and one day displace us. But Lenin said we need not be afraid of this because we still hold the power. We are in govern­ment, we have the mili­tary, and so on. We are the ones giving the direc­tion and guidance because we are at the head of the natio­nal move­ment. The natio­nal bour­geoi­sie is to be incor­po­ra­ted within the frame­work of this stra­tegy that we have deve­lo­ped. So the fear was unfounded.

The conse­quence of this fear was that the stra­tegy of non-capi­ta­list deve­lo­p­ment was often not imple­men­ted. And the parties that came to power became dicta­to­rial because of that. Let’s look at Alge­ria: Alge­ria was a model coun­try for the Third World. We read the Alge­rian consti­tu­tion in Afgha­ni­stan like the Bible or the Koran. It was a central role model for us. But what did the Alge­ri­ans do after they took power? They did not take the natio­nal bour­geoi­sie and the non-capi­ta­list path towards socia­lism seriously. They instal­led a dicta­to­rial regime.

One has to create robust struc­tures in order for the party and the system to conti­nue to deve­lop after the loss of indi­vi­dual leaders. For this, one must take the stra­tegy of the non-capi­ta­list path seriously and imple­ment it accordingly.

To briefly address another aspect: For a natio­nal indus­try to deve­lop in an agri­cul­tu­ral coun­try like Afgha­ni­stan, it was neces­sary to support the natio­nal bour­geoi­sie. You cannot make a revo­lu­tion with peasants alone. Our objec­tive was a socia­list revo­lu­tion, but a socia­list revo­lu­tion can only be led by the working class. And we also wanted to become a real workers’ party – we were, as I said, a party of intellec­tu­als with petty-bour­geois views. The workers have to come from some­where. Only through natio­nal capi­tal can the working class emerge and deve­lop into a class in its own right. That was a core idea behind this strategy.

III. The implementation of these strategies and the support of the socialist camp

Let’s turn to the events in Afgha­ni­stan in the 1970s to examine these stra­te­gies concre­tely. Five years before the Saur Revo­lu­tion, PDPA-affi­lia­ted mili­tary offi­cers over­th­rew the monar­chy. They gave power to Moham­med Daoud, former prime minis­ter [1953–63] and brot­her-in-law of the depo­sed king. Why did they do this? Was it an attempt to build the natio­nal demo­cra­tic state with Daoud at the helm?

Daoud had good cont­acts with both the mili­tary and the Soviet Union. To provide a little more context: Afgha­ni­stan joined the Non-Aligned Move­ment after World War II. The Afghan govern­ment initi­ally turned to the US for mili­tary and econo­mic aid, but US Secre­tary of State John Foster Dulles deman­ded that Afgha­ni­stan join the Bagh­dad Pact in return. The Afghans refu­sed and turned to the Soviet Union, which offe­red help without condi­ti­ons in rela­tion to the Warsaw Pact. Thus began the educa­tio­nal, econo­mic, and mili­tary coope­ra­tion between Afgha­ni­stan and the USSR after the war. This all star­ted during Daoud’s tenure as prime minis­ter and was inten­si­fied by him. A lot was done in agri­cul­ture and indus­try, along with important infra­struc­ture projects. Many roads were paved and, of course, the vital Salang Tunnel was built. Such projects were very popu­lar with the Afghan people.

So Daoud enjoyed great popu­la­rity and was known throug­hout the coun­try. The PDPA, on the other hand, had hardly made a name for itself at the time. Moreo­ver, it was Daoud who had initia­ted this coup; the mili­tary only helped him execute it. That is why he was appoin­ted presi­dent afterwards.

The 2.5 km long Salang Tunnel was built by the Soviet Union and connects nort­hern Afgha­ni­stan with Kabul and the southern regi­ons. In this 1975 photo, a portrait of Daoud hangs above the entrance.

Yet Daoud proved to be dicta­to­rial, he failed to bring about the promi­sed reforms, showed pro-impe­ria­list leanings, and even tried to elimi­nate the PDPA. How did these deve­lo­p­ments pave the way for the Saur Revo­lu­tion in 1978?

These dicta­to­rial tenden­cies did indeed deve­lop over the years. Daoud’s histo­ric mistake was to launch open repres­sion against the PDPA leader­ship in the spring of 1978. He had Taraki and Karmal arres­ted and wanted them execu­ted. It was announ­ced on the evening news that the party leader­ship would be held accoun­ta­ble and possi­bly liqui­da­ted. The PDPA-affi­lia­ted mili­tary inter­vened to save the party, other­wise it would have been destroyed along with the leader­ship. So, Daoud provo­ked the mili­tary upri­sing that took place on 27 April 1978, which we later called the Saur Revo­lu­tion. The mili­tary freed the PDPA leader­ship from prison and handed power to them — three days later the Demo­cra­tic Repu­blic of Afgha­ni­stan was declared.

In the book I specu­la­ted about the inter­nal discus­sions in the party at this time. Once again, it was about the diffe­rent stra­te­gies of the two factions. The Parchami held that the objec­tive and subjec­tive condi­ti­ons first had to mature before a revo­lu­tion could take place. The Khalqi around Taraki and espe­ci­ally Amin thought that the PDPA simply had to win over enough mili­tary offi­cers to bring about a mili­tary upri­sing. Amin expli­citly worked towards this end. Conflicts subse­quently arose among the members of the Central Commit­tee who were respon­si­ble for cont­acts with the mili­tary. Amin repea­tedly spoke out in favour of a mili­tary upri­sing, while the Parchami rejec­ted this as adven­tu­rism. Amin was there­af­ter to be dismissed from his position.

As I formu­la­ted in the book, Amin could well have been behind the assas­si­na­tion of rivals and one of the government’s minis­ters at this time in an effort to provoke Daoud into laun­ching open repres­sion against the PDPA. In this way, Amin would have had a justi­fi­ca­tion for carry­ing out a mili­tary upri­sing. I base this theory on his spee­ches and a history book he had commis­sio­ned. Amin wanted an upri­sing – he was merely looking for a pretext. Daoud’s histo­ric mistake was to give him just that by arres­t­ing the PDPA leadership.

As I said, Karmal and the Parchami wanted to wait until the objec­tive and subjec­tive condi­ti­ons were ripe for a popu­lar upri­sing. Only in a revo­lu­tio­nary situa­tion can one lead a revo­lu­tion. They rejec­ted Amin’s approach as adven­tu­rism, and they were right: the struggle against Daoud’s people lasted two days – the mili­tary upri­sing could have gone wrong.

How did the inter­na­tio­nal commu­nist move­ment react to this development?

The parties were of course surpri­sed. But I assume that the leader­ship of the CPSU knew what was going on in Afgha­ni­stan through reports from the KGB. Nevert­hel­ess, the Soviet Union was the first coun­try to reco­g­nise the DR Afgha­ni­stan and to warn all other count­ries that there must be no inter­fe­rence in the country’s inter­nal affairs.

Despite these unfa­voura­ble circum­s­tances that accom­pa­nied the foun­ding of the DR Afgha­ni­stan, the PDPA swiftly initia­ted profound reforms. How did these measu­res deve­lop in the cities and in the coun­try­side? What diffi­cul­ties did they encounter?

In the first phase, seve­ral reforms went well. Within six months, for exam­ple, 1.5 million people lear­ned how to read and write. But there were also mista­kes, parti­cu­larly in the land reform. The major landow­ners were dealt with too brut­ally and clumsily.

Afgha­ni­stan was still charac­te­ri­sed by tribal struc­tures. There were peasants, for exam­ple, who did not want to receive land from their tribal leader or cleric. So, the land redis­tri­bu­tion was then partly carried out through coer­cive measu­res. That was a mistake. One could have said: Well, if you don’t want to do it this way, then estab­lish an agri­cul­tu­ral coope­ra­tive. Then not only the land­lord will have the say, but all of you.

“The party and espe­ci­ally those of us who were young wanted to deve­lop the coun­try over­night. We did not have the revo­lu­tio­nary pati­ence that is requi­red under such circumstances.”

But we were too impa­ti­ent. This had to do with the fact that the situa­tion in Afgha­ni­stan was incre­di­bly dire. In 1971/72 there was a drought and almost 2 million people died. The party and espe­ci­ally those of us who were young wanted to deve­lop the coun­try over­night. We did not have the revo­lu­tio­nary pati­ence that is requi­red under such circum­s­tances. We made many mista­kes that ulti­m­ately left doors open through which the coun­ter­re­vo­lu­tion had easy access.

This is a crucial aspect of non-capi­ta­list deve­lo­p­ment in the former colo­nies, I would say. The persis­tence of pre-feudal rela­ti­ons such as tribal struc­tures made the tasks of natio­nal cons­truc­tion much more compli­ca­ted. There were simi­lar diffi­cul­ties in Mali, for exam­ple, where the contra­dic­tions between the diffe­rent clas­ses in the coun­try­side were initi­ally masked by patri­ar­chal and village commu­nity struc­tures. This greatly hinde­red revo­lu­tio­nary initia­ti­ves in the coun­try­side. So, land reform in the former colo­nies should be unders­tood as a quali­ta­tively diffe­rent task from those in the Eastern Euro­pean people’s democracies.

That’s right. And here, of course, it is essen­tial to have a capa­ble, expe­ri­en­ced, and pati­ent party.

A German profes­sor once asked me why the Afghan process failed. I replied that if the Afghan revo­lu­tion had succee­ded, then the social science of Marxism would have been refu­ted, because we as the PDPA had all the “infan­tile disor­ders” that have ever exis­ted in the commu­nist parties, as Lenin put it. We had all of these “infan­tile disor­ders” – petty-bour­geois secta­ria­nism was wide­spread among us. And we were inex­pe­ri­en­ced. Imagine it: The party was just 18 years old when it took power. We had no poli­ti­cal educa­tion, no expe­ri­ence of demo­cracy or revo­lu­tion. To give such a party power and the mandate to carry out a revo­lu­tion, that is a huge task.

At the end of Decem­ber 1979, Amin was over­thrown and Karmal’s group took over. They stop­ped some reforms that had gone too far. Some other reforms were slowed down and others contin­ued. The results were mixed. By the time of the Soviet inter­ven­tion, Afgha­ni­stan was like the child that had fallen into the well. The mista­kes of the Taraki govern­ment and espe­ci­ally the Amin govern­ment had made the situa­tion extre­mely diffi­cult. Amin, after all, killed 12,000 party members — he was like an Afghan Pol Pot. Karmal and the Soviets were then tasked with rescuing this child from the well. We were up to our necks in the mire. Slowly, mista­kes were correc­ted, and the situa­tion impro­ved, but the problems did not dimi­nish – support for the coun­ter­re­vo­lu­tion had increased massively.

Can you briefly describe the extent and charac­ter of the socia­list camp’s assis­tance to the DR Afgha­ni­stan during these years?

Previously, Afgha­ni­stan had only oxen and donkeys. For the first time we saw machi­nes like trac­tors or combine harves­ters. Agri­cul­tu­ral coope­ra­ti­ves were set up to enable farmers to borrow these machi­nes or to buy food very chea­ply in the coope­ra­tive shops.

Hardly anyone had had a fridge or a tele­vi­sion. The Soviet Union and other socia­list count­ries sent masses of supplies to us, and one could buy them very chea­ply. When my son went through the list of things we were to receive, he joked to me, “Father, the only thing miss­ing from this list is a wife!” Ever­y­thing else was listed on it. Addi­tio­nally, thou­sands of scien­tists and specia­lists came from the socia­list count­ries and thou­sands of young Afghans went to these count­ries to receive trai­ning in all kinds of disciplines.

As far as the GDR is concer­ned, the SED gifted the PDPA an entire prin­ting press. Before that we had books that were croo­ked and slan­ted, you could hardly read them. And the GDR gave us one of the most modern prin­ting works around. They also sent a group of comra­des to Afgha­ni­stan to advise on how to build a popu­lar front. These comra­des had worked in the GDR’s Natio­nal Front and could share their expe­ri­ence. This was at the time when the PDPA had begun to correct its past mista­kes – Amin had been ousted and Karmal’s group was now trying to build the Natio­nal Demo­cra­tic Alli­ance. The comra­des from the GDR were suppo­sed to support them. 

So, there was massive support from the socia­list count­ries in many diffe­rent areas, espe­ci­ally in the educa­tion of young Afghans.

IV. The counterrevolutionaries and their foreign patrons

Let us now turn to the PDPA’s struggle against coun­ter­re­vo­lu­tion and the rela­ted Soviet inter­ven­tion in Afgha­ni­stan that began at the end of Decem­ber 1979. In your book, you cite various sources to show that the US star­ted support­ing Isla­mic extre­mists in July 1979 at the latest, six months before the Soviet inter­ven­tion. Can you briefly describe the back­ground to the intervention?

We must begin with the Treaty of Friend­ship between the DR Afgha­ni­stan and the USSR. On 5 Decem­ber 1978, this treaty was signed by both sides. The fourth article contai­ned a mili­tary compo­nent: it stated that in the event of an attack on the USSR, Afgha­ni­stan was obli­ged to assist the USSR and vice versa. So, if Afgha­ni­stan was inva­ded by a foreign coun­try or if exter­nal forces attempted to over­throw its govern­ment, the Soviet Union was obli­ged to “take appro­priate measu­res”. This was also in line with Article 51 of the UN Char­ter.5 Both sides were thus legi­ti­mi­sed under inter­na­tio­nal law and obli­ged to provide mutual assis­tance, inclu­ding mili­tary support. This is a vital compo­nent of the rela­ti­ons between the USSR and the DR Afgha­ni­stan to begin with.

In the book I quoted the then US Secre­tary of State Henry Kissin­ger. He said that Afgha­ni­stan could not be allo­wed to set a prece­dent. If the Afghan revo­lu­tion was successful, it would inspire revolt across the whole region. This would threa­ten not only the stra­te­gic inte­rests of the USA but also “their” oil. So, Kissin­ger concluded that ever­y­thing possi­ble had to be done to ensure that this natio­nal demo­cra­tic revo­lu­tion failed. This was in fact a decla­ra­tion of war on the part of US impe­ria­lism and its NATO allies against Afgha­ni­stan. And they thus set this war in motion and prose­cu­ted it until 1992, when the succes­sor to the PDPA capi­tu­la­ted.6

They quite lite­rally destroyed the coun­try. It was the CIA’s largest covert opera­tion – toge­ther with the Paki­stani intel­li­gence service, they brought some 35,000 extre­mists from over 40 Isla­mic count­ries to Paki­stan, where they were trai­ned, equip­ped, and then smug­g­led across the border into Afgha­ni­stan. Every year, 65,000 tonnes of weapons were given to the Muja­hideen. By the end of 1983, they had succee­ded in destroy­ing 1,800 schools – that was half of all schools in Afgha­ni­stan – and 130 hospi­tals. Girls’ schools in parti­cu­lar were deli­bera­tely targe­ted. The total damage amoun­ted to about 50% of the country’s total invest­ment over the previous 20 years.

The People’s Repu­blic of China was also invol­ved, by the way. It sent Uighurs from Xinjiang to Afgha­ni­stan to fight against us on the side of the Isla­mists with the support of the CIA. Gulbud­din Hekma­tyar, the most radi­cal Isla­mist and leader of the Isla­mic Party “Hezb-i-Islami Afgha­ni­stan”, was the CIA’s favou­rite muja­hid. I have quoted a letter from him in which he asked for experts from “the friendly count­ries of the USA and China” to train “our muja­hideen” in the use of the weapons supplied by them.7 The muja­hideen had in fact recei­ved Chinese-produ­ced Katy­u­sha rocket laun­chers and had to learn how to operate them. These Katy­u­sha were broken down into smal­ler pieces, brought across the border on donkeys and camels and handed over to the Isla­mists for deploy­ment against us.

Zbigniew Brze­zinski visits a Paki­stani mili­tary post at the Khyber Pass, near the Afghan border. Here he inqui­res about a Chinese-made AK-47 assault rifle. (Febru­ary 1980)

Was this foreign support ulti­m­ately decisive for the success of the coun­ter­re­vo­lu­tion in Afghanistan?

No, the decisive factor was Gorba­chev. Afgha­ni­stan was Gorbachev’s first gift to the West. When it was deci­ded to with­draw Soviet troops from the coun­try, the comman­der of the Soviet army, Boris Gromov, said that this with­dra­wal was not mili­ta­rily neces­sary. They had achie­ved great succes­ses and had large parts of the coun­try comple­tely under control. Gromov argued that the coun­try would now begin to stabi­lise. Indeed, Kabul was more peaceful at that time than it had ever been before or since. It was possi­ble to enjoy a normal life in the capi­tal city. The with­dra­wal was a poli­ti­cal decis­ion, and it was taken by Gorba­chev. He gifted Afgha­ni­stan to the West, just as he later gave the GDR away.

“Gorba­chev gifted Afgha­ni­stan to the West, just as he later gave the GDR away.”

By the end of the 1980s, the Isla­mists were in fact almost finis­hed. This is shown by the fact that the Afghan mili­tary fought without the Soviet forces for three more years. There were three major opera­ti­ons by the coun­ter­re­vo­lu­tio­na­ries from Paki­stan against the DR Afgha­ni­stan and they were all crus­hed — without any Soviet troops at all!8 At one point in the book, I quoted an edito­rial from the Frank­fur­ter Allge­meine Zeitung [a West German news­pa­per] in Janu­ary 1990. They were frus­tra­ted that the Afghan muja­hideen had been unable to “capture a single signi­fi­cant city in Afghanistan”.

If the Soviets had stayed and contin­ued their support, the coun­try would have indeed stabilised.

What were the conse­quen­ces of the inter­ven­tion for the Soviet Union and the PDPA? Was there a signi­fi­cant loss of trust or pres­tige among the Afghan population?

The PDPA made a total of 21 pleas to the USSR to send mili­tary troops.9 The Soviets repea­tedly refu­sed: We cannot and will not do that. They said, we will support you econo­mic­ally, mili­ta­rily, propa­gan­di­sti­cally, ideo­lo­gi­cally, poli­ti­cally, and diplo­ma­ti­cally — but you have to fight for your­sel­ves. Yet the PDPA was unwilling.

One has to under­stand: NATO wanted this inter­ven­tion. Brze­zinski, US Presi­dent Carter’s Natio­nal Secu­rity Advi­ser from 1977 to 1981, said that they wanted to turn Afgha­ni­stan into a Viet­nam for the Soviets. OK, the USSR consis­t­ently refu­sed to send troops, so what chan­ged? There were two key developments.

Firstly, the Soviets wanted to wait and see if NATO was going to actually deploy Pers­hing II missiles – that is, first-strike weapons – in Western Europe. The Soviets tried to prevent this but failed. The master­mind behind this action was then Chan­cellor of the Fede­ral Repu­blic of Germany, Helmut Schmidt [Social Demo­cra­tic Party of Germany]. And on 12 Decem­ber 1979, it was deci­ded to station Pers­hing II missiles in Western Europe. Secondly, around the same time, a mili­tary opera­tion was being plan­ned for Janu­ary or Febru­ary 1980 in which armed Isla­mists were to be parach­u­ted into Kabul to over­throw the govern­ment. The Soviets knew that this was coming.

These two deve­lo­p­ments led the CPSU to decide to send a special mili­tary unit to Kabul – they made this decis­ion imme­dia­tely after the so-called NATO Double-Track Decis­ion was announ­ced. In his first state­ment to the Soviet news­pa­per Pravda, Brezhnev said that they wanted to prevent a second Chile.10 In addi­tion, there were other stra­te­gic conside­ra­ti­ons: The USSR could not allow a funda­men­ta­list Isla­mic state to be estab­lished by foreign powers right on their Southern border. So, they intervened.

Of course, this put great strain on the Soviet Union. Its repu­ta­tion in Afgha­ni­stan was dama­ged. Yet through their massive support, they were able to parti­ally make up for it. As I mentio­ned, the Soviets provi­ded a great deal and trai­ned thou­sands of young people. In the final phase of their support, women made up 80 % of the labour force in the educa­tion and health sectors. The illi­ter­acy rate among Afghan women had always been incre­di­bly high, but after the socia­list camp’s support, 80% of important socie­tal posi­ti­ons were mana­ged by women. Signi­fi­cant progress had thus been made in a very short period – you cannot forget that. 

A member of one of the women’s battalion during the annual parade marking the anni­ver­sary of the Saur Revo­lu­tion in Kabul. (Photo: Viktor Khaba­rov, 1980)

V. Historical lessons from the DR Afghanistan

What are the histo­ri­cal lessons from DR Afgha­ni­stan and its party, the PDPA?

After the Soviet Union inter­vened in Afgha­ni­stan at that time, a group of young students in West Germany invi­ted me to talk about the situa­tion. One comrade said to me: “There are 100,000 Soviet soldiers in Afgha­ni­stan now, why not send another 100,000 and then just build socia­lism?” I replied to her that socia­lism cannot be built by the mili­tary: “The mili­tary has the task of protec­ting us from outside attacks and from coun­ter­re­vo­lu­tion. Socia­lism must be built by the people, by the workers.” The working class is the main­stay of socia­lism. And in Afgha­ni­stan, it was exactly this that what was miss­ing. We Afghans, during the leader­ship of Taraki and Amin, unders­tood the situa­tion just as simpli­sti­cally as this West German comrade had.

We lacked an exact analy­sis of the class rela­ti­ons. We had not genui­nely asses­sed the condi­ti­ons in Afgha­ni­stan. Just take the exam­ple of the land reform: we should not have tried to simply expro­priate and redis­tri­bute the land of the landow­ners when they were at the same time tribal leaders and clerics. We should have sat down with the landow­ner and his tribe and said: “We want you to be better off. Not just only the tribal leaders and the clerics, but all of you. How do we do that?” Instead, we took a secta­rian approach. Our view of the world was marred by our own fanta­sies; we were too far remo­ved from Afghan reality. This is what one can learn from the history of the DR Afgha­ni­stan and the PDPA.

[1] Le Nouvel Obser­va­teur (N.O.), Paris, 15 – 21 Janu­ary 1998, P.76. Zbigniew Brze­zinski inter­viewed by Vincent Jauvert (own trans­la­tion, MR).


[2] Named after the first central news­pa­per of the DPDA.


[3] Named after their own news­pa­per, which this group published weekly.


[4] This refers to the debate on “the natio­nal and colo­nial ques­tion” at the Second Congress of the Commu­nist Inter­na­tio­nal (1920).


[5] Article 51 states: “Nothing in the present Char­ter shall impair the inher­ent right of indi­vi­dual or coll­ec­tive self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nati­ons, until the Secu­rity Coun­cil has taken measu­res neces­sary to main­tain inter­na­tio­nal peace and secu­rity. Measu­res taken by Members in the exer­cise of this right of self-defence shall be imme­dia­tely repor­ted to the Secu­rity Coun­cil and shall not in any way affect the autho­rity and respon­si­bi­lity of the Secu­rity Coun­cil under the present Char­ter to take at any time such action as it deems neces­sary in order to main­tain or restore inter­na­tio­nal peace and security.”


[6] In July 1990, the PDPA was rena­med Hesbe Watan (Party of the Home­land) and aban­do­ned Marxism-Leni­nism for social demo­cracy. Accor­ding to Baraki, after the resi­gna­tion of Gene­ral Secre­tary Moham­mad Naji­bullah in March 1992, the leader­ship around Foreign Minis­ter Abdul Wakil deci­ded to trans­fer power to the coun­ter­re­vo­lu­tio­na­ries – that is, there was no seizure of power by the coun­ter­re­vo­lu­tio­na­ries in 1992, but rather a capitulation.


[7] See Matin Baraki: Die Poli­tik der VR China gegen­über Afgha­ni­stan. (The PRC’s policy towards Afghanistan.)


[8] This refers to, for exam­ple, Jalal­abad (March 1989), Kabul (Octo­ber 1990), the city of Khost in Paktya province (March 1991) and Jalal­abad (July 1991).


[9] The appen­dix to Baraki’s book docu­ments some of the minu­tes of these meetings and communications.


[10] In Septem­ber 1973, the socia­list govern­ment of the Unidad Popu­lar in Chile was over­thrown in a coup supported by the USA.

The inter­view was conduc­ted on 10 May 2023 and has been lightly edited for readability.


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