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Russians Hold Key to Power, But Not to Afghanistan’s Soul

The New York Times, Jan. 26, 1987


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KABUL, Afghanistan, Jan. 18, 1987


The rug merchants speak Russian, but gladly accept personal checks for dollars that they deposit in New York bank accounts.

The stores stock Russian jams, cookies and vodka, but also sell Colgate toothpaste and Heineken beer.

The Russians, following their custom, installed elevated traffic booths at major intersections here to help maintain order, but the Afghan police rarely use them and the streets are never orderly.


A Country Between Cultures

After seven years of the Soviet military presence, Afghanistan seems to be a country caught between cultures and political allegiances. To a visitor familiar with the Soviet Union, it seemed a country with a Soviet system but not a Soviet soul.

The topography alone - towering mountain ranges and isolated valleys, huge areas of uninhabited desert -seems to form a natural barrier to the centralized ethos of Marxism-Leninism.

During a carefully controlled five-day visit by foreign reporters the authorities portrayed Afghanistan differently. They described it as a country living harmoniously under Communism with a party, Government and people dedicated to building a new Socialist order.


'Our Great Northern Neighbor'

The Soviet Union, described by the Afghan leader, Najib, as ''our great northern neighbor,'' was depicted as a generous guarantor of security against foreign aggression and a source of political inspiration.

Travel and meetings were arranged by the authorities to support these images, and independent reporting was discouraged. Apart from a brief trip to the provincial city of Jalalabad and the surrounding countryside near the Pakistan border, the reporters were confined to Kabul, the capital.

But even with the constraints, it was apparent that the reality of Afghanistan was a good deal more intricate, involving a volatile political and social chemistry in which Soviet influence is strong but not completely dominant.

Under the ostensibly cohesive Socialist surface, there were clearly powerful opposing forces. These included longstanding tribal tensions and distrust of central authority, the growing appeal of Islamic fundamentalism and bitter divisions within the Afghan Communist movement itself.


No Quick End in Sight

Combined with a long history of opposition to foreign intervention, these forces seem likely to impede a political settlement of the seven-year war, the formation of a credible coalition government and the withdrawal of the estimated 120,000 Soviet troops here.

''Afghanistan has never been one nation, and it is not under Communism,'' one Western diplomat said. ''Historically, it is a land of many peoples and cultures that resisted central authority. Afghanistan in its natural state is an unruly patchwork of autonomous valleys and villages.

''Moscow cannot Sovietize Afghanistan unless it colonizes it, and that would require an act of conquest, which is not in the cards,'' the diplomat added. ''Afghanistan is a Soviet satellite but not the 16th Soviet republic.''


An Afghan Politburo


Some in the West have compared Afghanistan, which before the beginning of the war had a population of 15.4 million, to Soviet Central Asia, contending that it was rapidly becoming indistinguishable from the Uzbek and Tadzhik republics just across the Soviet border.

The Afghan political system is unmistakably patterned on the Soviet Union's, with power held by the Communist Party, known officially as the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan. The party apparatus includes a Central Committee, Politburo and Secretariat, with Mr. Najib serving as General Secretary of the Central Committee.

As in Moscow, there is a nominal parliament, the Revolutionary Council, and the president of the council fills the largely ceremonial role of head of state.


#9,000 Soviet Civilian Advisers


The Government bureacracy is filled with Soviet advisers who, one diplomat said, ''sit at the elbow of every important Afghan official.'' Diplomats said there were about 9,000 Soviet civilian advisers in Kabul.

The powerful and repressive secret police, the Khad, which Mr. Najib headed until he became a party secretary in December 1985, has close ties to the K.G.B., the Soviet state security agency, Western diplomats said.


With the grafting of the Soviet political system have come Communist rituals and slogans, some with an Afghan accent, that were familiar to a visitor from Moscow. Officials greeted each other as ''comrade'' and lavished praise on the party and the Afghan revolution.

In a speech to the National Fatherland Front, a coalition of pro-Government groups, Mr. Najib, echoing words spoken by dozens of officials at the Soviet party congress last February, declared, ''In the current stage of the revolution our main duty is to restructure all spheres of life in Afghan society.''


Less Equality in Kabul


The director of a state farm near the Pakistan border proudly told visiting reporters that 500 farm workers were loyal party members, some serving on local party committees. ''Everyone from the director to field workers lives in the same kind of housing,'' he said.

Such equality appeared not to be the rule in Kabul, where residents and Western diplomats said senior party activists and leaders enjoy special privileges, including spacious new apartments and special clinics - privileges common for party members in the Soviet Union.

Afghan television mirrored Soviet programming, with an emphasis on ideologically safe themes. The evening news program offered a mix of pro-Government and anti-American reports.

The Government-controlled information outlets, mimicking Pravda and Izvestia, published texts of party declarations and speeches by Mr. Najib, who only uses one name, on the front page under flattering headlines.


Education System Reorganized

The main article in the Jan. 13 edition of The Kabul New Times, an English-language paper, began, ''Comrade Najib, General Secretary of the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan Central Committee, took part in a grand function devoted to the seventh anniversary of the State Security Ministry.''

The education system, according to Western diplomats, has been reorganized along Soviet lines, with intense indoctrination woven into the curriculum beginning in kindergarten. Western diplomats said 40,000 Afghan students were enrolled in Soviet universities.

Black Volgas, tan Zhigulis and other Soviet-made cars cruised the streets of Kabul. As in Moscow, access to official cars seemed to carry a license to drive three times the speed limit and to ignore traffic lights.

Russian rivals English, and may have surpassed it, as the preferred foreign language. Nearly all Afghan civilian and military officials speak Russian and use it to converse with representatives from Moscow, according to Afghan aides who accompanied the reporters almost everywhere they went.


Mailbox Labeled in Russian

Most shopkeepers in Kabul and Jalalabad started conversations with foreigners in Russian, and were surprised to find some visitors were Americans.

Afghan children roaming the bazaar in Jalalabad, apparently thinking they were approaching a group of Russians, told Western reporters in Russian that they could arrange female companionship for the right price. One Afghan urchin reeled off a series of Russian expletives that would have made an adult Muscovite blush.

At the Spinghar Hotel in Jalalabad the mailbox nailed to the wall was labeled with the Russian word for ''post.''

Western diplomats said that Afghan cultural traditions had survived the Soviet military intervention, but that nonconformist writing and art had been discouraged and the intellectual life of Kabul had moved underground.


'Serious Scholars Have Fled'

''The university, built with American and British aid, is a shell filled with Communist cant,'' one Western diplomat said. ''Serious Afghan scholars have fled abroad.''

Despite the Soviet influence, Afghanistan seemed to have retained a diversity and spontaneity rarely found in the Soviet Union. Afghans and Western diplomats said that efforts to impose central management on the economy were defeated by a feisty free-market spirit rooted in Afghanistan's historic role as a trade crossroads between Europe and Asia.

The variety of goods available in shops in Kabul and Jalalabad were remarkable by Soviet standards. Electronics stores were crammed with Japanese tape decks and stereos. Grocery stores carried a dizzying variety of Soviet, American, British, French, Italian and Chinese goods.

Money changers in the Kabul bazaar handed foreigners bags full of Afghan money at triple the Government exchange rate. American dollars were welcomed like gold, rubles dismissed with a flick of the hand as almost worthless.


Anti-Government Demonstrations

Almost anything that could be sold was, including gallon cans of vegetable oil sent to many countries by Washington as part of American foreign assistance. The cans were marked: ''Furnished by the people of the United States of America. Not to be sold.''

One Kabul shopkeeper, glancing up from another transaction, said the cans were priced at $10 apiece.

Political diversity, while limited by Western standards, appeared to exceed the Soviet norm. Western diplomats reported that the removal last May of Babrak Karmal as party chief ignited several anti-Government demonstrations. The diplomats speculated that he was removed because he had been identified with the Soviet intervention since 1979, and the Russians wanted a fresh face to lead a peace offensive.

They said that Soviet troops and armor were called into Kabul to guard Government and party installations during the Central Committee meeting during which Mr. Karmal was ousted.

As late as October, Karmal supporters openly showed their enthusiasm for the ousted leader, showering him with flowers and applause when he appeared at ceremonies marking the withdrawal of six Soviet regiments.


Infighting Threatens Stability

Mr. Karmal has not been seen in public for several months. Mr. Najib told the visiting reporters that the former leader was living quietly in retirement in Kabul, tending to personal affairs.

Afghans and foreign diplomats said infighting between the two main groups in the Communist Party, the Parcham and Khalq factions, posed a serious threat to stability, including the possibility of a coup attempt some day.

The Parchamites, Persian-speaking Communists allied with Moscow, have held sway within the party since the Soviet intervention in 1979. The Khalqs, who generally speak Pushtoon, are considered less elitist and not enthusiastic about the Soviet presence.

Tribal antagonisms remain strong, not only between those allied with the Government and those who constitute the bulk of the guerrilla fighters, called mujahedeen, but within the opposing camps, diplomats said.


Bad Blood Between Tribes

The Western-supported insurgents have struggled to maintain a common front at the insistence of Washington, but bad blood among Afghan tribes goes back centuries. In addition, Islamic fundamentalism has become a growing factor in domestic affairs, diplomats said.

Efforts by Mr. Najib to expand the role of women have offended many religious Afghans, and Moslem leaders have made clear they oppose the establishment of a Communist regime supported by Soviet troops.

Mr. Najib, apparently sensitive to the Islamic threat, has called for religious tolerance. As part of his plan for national reconciliation, he has encouraged party and Government groups to establish links with Islamic organizations. Many Islamic leaders have links to the fundamentalist movement in Iran, which shares a long border with Afghanistan.


The visiting reporters were taken to a Kabul mosque where they were told that the Government supported unobstructed worship.


Unified Nation Called Unlikely

Several Afghans said Mr. Najib's efforts to court the Moslem community were undermined recently when he was shown praying at a mosque with his shoes on, a serious breach of religious practice.

Western diplomats said these divisive factors would make it extremely difficult to bring about the kind of national reconciliation outlined by Mr. Najib.

''Even if the rebels lay down their arms, the millions of refugees return home and the Soviets leave, there can't be a unified Afghanistan,'' one diplomat said. ''Central authority just goes against the grain of these people.''

Recently, as Afghan tribal leaders assembled here for a meeting, a nearby bookseller was hawking Russian periodicals.

The Afghan patriarchs approached the merchant's table one after another, stared momentarily at a handwritten sign advertising ''Books and magazines from the U.S.S.R.,'' then handed the man a coin and picked up a copy of the local Persian-language newspaper.

Over the next four hours, as the tribesmen were harangued by a parade of foreign and Afghan speakers, including Mr. Najib, some of them surreptitiously read Islamic texts hidden in the folds of their robes.

​© 1987 The New York Times Company

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