The roots of communism in Afghanistan sprung up after the transformation of the country into a constitutional monarchy in 1964. From then until the fall of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) government in 1992, communism shaped the political trajectory of Kabul and was a catalyst for the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. The communist undertaking was countered by the Islamists, and their decades long struggle eventually led to the polarisation of both movements. The communists were ruthless and the Islamists were fundamentalists. Both eventually became members of the Taliban. The rise of the Taliban in 1996 can also be associated with the ineffective rule of the PDPA and the horrors inflicted upon Afghanistan by the occupying Soviet forces.
While the communist project was one chapter in a long history of foreign influence in Afghanistan, and in many ways set the stage for the NATO invasion in 2001, it also provides a case study that parallels the events of the last two decades. The Soviet-backed PDPA and the US-backed Afghan National Government (ANG) were both seen as imperialist pawns, operating on behalf of their foreign occupiers. The failure of the communist project is a lesson for any country attempting to exert its influence over Kabul.
Origins of Communism in Afghanistan
The first communist party to originate in Afghanistan was the PDPA in 1965, led by Nur Muhammad Taraki, an enigmatic Afghan politician whose ideology was shaped by communist movements in India and Russia. In 1966, the Progressive Youth Organisation, a Maoist party, emerged and finally, in 1969, the Muslim Youth under Burhanuddin Rabbani, a professor at Kabul University, completed the trio. These three parties were born in the universities of Kabul and for decades, competed for power in ways that often led to deadly confrontations across the streets of the city. Arguably, only one of the three ever represented the ideological inclinations of the majority of the Afghan people, but while the policies of the others may not have permeated the national consciousness, the implications of their puppetry of power certainly did.
The Maoists largely ceased to be relevant after the PDPA coup in 1978. Its supporters, along with many of the members of Muslim Youth, went on to join the Mujahideen. The Muslim Youth was a formidable opponent to the PDPA, and along with its later iterations, was, at different points of time, backed by Pakistan, Iran, the United States and China.
The PDPA meanwhile relied on the support of the Soviet Union and is often described as a puppet of Moscow. The success and failure of those opposing factions was dependent on the degree of international support they received, which in turn was shaped by larger geopolitical considerations. During communist rule, like at so many other points in Afghanistan’s storied past, the country’s internal politics were dominated by the power struggles between different international actors.
Embodying another pervasive feature of Afghan politics, the Muslim League and, more so, the PDPA, suffered from significant internal fragmentation. From its birth, the PDPA was divided into two competing factions, the Parcham (the Banner) and the Khalq (the people.) The Parcham represented the country’s urban elite and a collection of different ethnic groups, whereas the Khalq drew its support from the rural, largely Pashtun-dominated areas. The divide between the Parcham and Khalq camps mirror many of the same fault lines that separated the ANG and the Taliban, both in terms of support base and approach.
One important thing to note about the PDPA is that it never actually identified itself as a communist party, labelling itself as a “national democratic” movement instead. Even during the 1978 coup, Taraki stated that the PDPA were nationalists and revolutionaries but not communists. He also professed a commitment to Islam, within the confines of a secular state. However, if not in talk, the PDPA were definitely communists in action and during their rule, several Marxist-Leninist policies were put in place, mostly under the guiding hands of the Soviets.
In 1973, Muhammad Daoud Khan, a member of the monarchy himself, oversaw a coup against his cousin that ended the monarchy and created the Republic of Afghanistan. The Parcham, who had supported Daoud, went on to occupy a number of seats in government whereas the Khalq refused to participate altogether. In 1976, Daoud banned both factions of the PDPA which led Moscow to believe that Iran and the CIA were turning Daoud against them. After the 1978 assassination of a prominent PDPA member, the Khalq faction mutinied and stormed the Presidential Palace. By the next day, Daoud and 30 members of his family were killed and Taraki became the President of the newly-established People’s Democratic Republic of Afghanistan.
The PDPA would go on to rule Afghanistan from 1978 to 1992, largely due to the support of the Soviets. It was progressive in many ways, focusing on women’s rights and pushing for political representation for the Mujahideen. However, while the PDPA had some success, it was never particularly well-liked by the people, and implemented few meaningful changes to the country as a result.
After Taraki’s death in 1978, Hafizullah Amin took over, but was assassinated less than four months later. His successor, Babrak Karmal was a comparatively uncharismatic politician who proved to be widely unpopular. Karmal was ousted by the Soviets in 1986 and replaced by the last PDPA leader, Mohammad Najibullah, a man with no real loyalty to the principles of communism, and one who later denounced the ideology altogether. The PDPA’s fractured governance extended across the organisation and all attempts by Moscow to mend the rifts proved unsuccessful.
In addition to its internal problems, the PDPA’s policies were also largely rejected by the people. It implemented a series of social reforms that promoted gender equality, increased the legal age for marriage and restricted the dowry system. According to a report by the Brookings Institute, “In a deeply religious society, especially amongst the Pashtuns, the new policies were an affront to religious and tribal customs.” Perhaps as damningly, the PDPA’s “ambitious but poorly thought-out” land reform programme “appeared to be an attack on rural farmers, the vast bulk of the population”. The PDPA proved so unpopular that the US Embassy in Kabul estimated that by mid-1978, less than a year after the rebellion, the communist government controlled no more than half of the country. This inability to govern convinced the Soviets that they needed to remedy the situation themselves.
The Soviet Union, like many empires before it, saw Afghanistan as a geopolitical pawn. It had supported the PDPA prior to the invasion due to ideological similarities and a desire to extend its communist sphere of influence in Asia. When it realised that the PDPA lacked broad-based support and could potentially be undermined by the Islamists (fuelled by the 1979 Iranian Revolution,) it was forced into making a crucial strategic calculation.
In the 1970s, the Cold War was at its heights and the Soviets needed an ally in South Asia to counter the American influence in Pakistan. With longstanding ties to Afghanistan, the Soviet Union decided to prop up the communist movement by investing large sums of money and resources into the country. By 1979, the Soviets provided Afghanistan with more than $1 billion in military aid and $1.25 billion in economic aid. Moreover, at the time, Soviet-trained personnel composed a third of the country’s army officers and more than half of its air force. According to the same Brookings report mentioned earlier, “Soviet-trained personnel filled a majority of professional and technical positions in the government bureaucracy; many had been indoctrinated during their training in the Soviet Union, and some were KGB assets.”
Consequently, when Moscow realised that the pro-Soviet PDPA government was collapsing under the disastrous regime of Amin, it made the decision to intervene directly. According to Peter Tompsen, author of The Wars of Afghanistan, the Soviet Union’s decision to intervene in Afghanistan was made “somewhat reluctantly” after 11 requests from the PDPA. However, with the US formalising relations with China and facilitating a historic peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, Moscow realised it could not afford to lose a friend. The invasion was swift and in a short amount of time, the 100,000-person strong Soviet forces had seized control of most major cities and highways. Tompsen describes the Soviets as being brutal and ruthless towards their opponents, noting that they often levelled entire villages to deny safe haven to their enemies. In response, foreign support for the rebels increased significantly, and the ensuing nine-year conflict subsequently set the stage for a brutal civil war that culminated in 1996 with the establishment of Taliban rule.
The end of the Soviet occupation can be traced to a number of factors. Broadly, however, by the mid-1980s, the US, China and Pakistan realised that the Soviet’s military tactics had failed and that the invasion was proving to be deeply unpopular at home. In turn, they ramped up funding to the Mujahideen, who by 1985, had become a daunting opponent to the PDPA. That same year, Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in Moscow and began to prioritise better relations with the United States. In an attempt to steady the waters, the Soviets replaced Karmal with Najibullah but, partially due to his role as the former chief of the widely feared PDPA secret police, Najibullah was even more disliked than his predecessor. After attempting to facilitate a series of fruitless reconciliation talks in 1988, the Soviets began the process of withdrawal, exiting Afghanistan completely by February 1989.
After the Soviets left, the political structure that had allowed the PDPA to stay in power disintegrated. Violent clashes erupted between the communists and the Mujahideen, the latter committing such terrible atrocities that a group of Pakistani-educated students formed the Taliban to fight against them in the name of Islam. When the Soviet Union fell in 1991, the PDPA lost all external support, and despite Najibullah’s attempts to shed the party’s communist ideology, it too collapsed in 1992, completing Afghanistan’s descent into a full-scale civil war. Rabbani, the leader of the Muslim Youth two decade before, went on to become a respected Mujahedeen commander, and in 1992, the President of Afghanistan.
In Lessons from the Soviet Occupation in Afghanistan, written in 2008, Jonathan Gandomi drew upon the Soviet/communist failure in Afghanistan to create a blueprint for the US-led NATO forces, which they presumably have not read. Gandomi outlines nines lessons from the Soviet invasion that 40 years later could as easily apply to the US as it did to the communists. His timely essay is well worth a detailed read but can be partially summarised by his first point, namely, that the Afghan government could never establish legitimacy amongst the rural provinces.
Like the Americans, the communists established their base in Afghanistan’s urban centres and were rarely able to address the grievances of the country’s significant rural population, much of it living along the border with Pakistan. Gandomi writes that Afghans are not “naturally inclined towards political Islam” and “to the extent that extremism finds root among Pashtuns, it is imported from Pakistani madrassas.” The Mujahideen commanders and their successors in the Taliban relied on support from Islamabad and neither the Soviets nor the Americans were able to successfully curtail the Pakistani destabilising influence. Neither could also solve why people on the village level were unsupportive of the PDPA and distrustful of the Soviets, who they saw as the successors to a long line of foreigners attempting to occupy Afghanistan. The communists’ inability to understand these dynamics also extended to different ethnic concerns between communities, including those which plagued the PDPA.
The PDPA could never offer a compelling narrative. Afghanistan has always been a patchwork of different identities and customs and tribal loyalties, never fully aligning themselves with the systems of either communism or capitalism. Therefore, when the communists presented themselves as the antithesis to the capitalists, their rhetoric failed to resonate with the people.
Compounding the lack of public approval for the PDPA and the Soviets, was their inability to adapt to the means of warfare they faced. In that vein, Gandomi writes that the “conventional tactics that would have been adequate for fighting on the plains of Europe were ineffective in the mountainous terrain of Afghanistan”. The communists, like the Americans, could not find either a political or military solution in Afghanistan, which eventually led to the demise of both projects. In an interesting bit of foreshadowing, Gandomi also argues that the “imminent departure of Soviet troops bolstered resistance” as once they had made their intention to leave clear, the governments that they had propped up for so long could no longer postpone their fate.
As early as 1990, the constitution of Afghanistan had been amended to remove all references to communism. Today, one would be hard pressed to find any communist sympathisers in Afghan politics or amongst the general population. However, despite their lack of lasting political impact, the communist coup in 1978 which facilitated the Soviet invasion in 1979, exacerbated existing cultural divisions in Afghanistan to a boiling point. The Mujahideen, formed in response to the PDPA, grew more and more ruthless as time went by, aided greatly by foreign powers vying for influence in Afghanistan. The civil war that erupted in 1992 in turn paved the way for the rise of the Taliban in 1996 and the subsequent NATO invasion in 2001.