The Struggle for Afghanistan

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

At one time much of the outside world regarded Afghanistan as a remote, little-known country at the periphery of international politics. Soviet military intervention in December, 1979, suddenly and brutally altered the balance of forces in the area. Almost at once Afghanistan became a focal point of worldwide concern. The Soviet invasion touched off a new phase of the Cold War in the Middle East, and many observers have regarded this crisis in the light of heightened tensions and mounting Soviet-American rivalry in the Persian Gulf region. At the same time the relatively few Western specialists on Afghanistan have been in a position to elucidate those features of its history and internal politics that have affected the nation’s struggle against Soviet domination. The Newells’ work is particularly concerned with the effects of the present conflict on the peoples of Afghanistan; it summarizes much of what is known of recent political developments, and discusses the social and ethnographic elements of Afghan resistance movements. Both authors have lived and traveled extensively in Afghanistan; Richard Newell has written The Politics of Afghanistan (1972). Their views of the impact and the possible outcome of the Soviet-Afghan war are based upon their own familiarity with the country’s peoples and way of life.

Some of the basic themes in the history of Afghanistan are stated at the outset: for many centuries the tribes situated about the difficult, forbidding mountains of the Hindu Kush resisted foreign domination, and indeed it was not until the eighteenth century that Afghan rulers achieved some measure of political unity over the peoples of the area. Later, while the British and the Russians occupied neighboring lands Afghanistan remained independent. In 1839-1842, a British military expedition was defeated in the rugged terrain south of Kabul, while in 1878-1881 British armies were unable fully to establish their control of the countryside. Afghan rulers sometimes exploited great power rivalries. Some Western amenities were also introduced; paved roads were built and electric power was introduced. From the 1920’s educational curricula were devised in accordance with European models. Afghanistan obtained technical assistance from several nations; moreover, after World War II it received foreign aid both from the United States and its allies and from the Soviet Union. The first modern highway across Afghanistan was built with Soviet assistance. Soviet military equipment was supplied beginning in 1954, and Afghan officers were trained in the Soviet Union. For the most part, however, Afghan leaders were able to maintain the neutrality of their country and avoid any commitments to larger military or diplomatic alignments.

Domestic politics were complicated by rapid and uneven social development, and with increased educational opportunities a new and numerous middle class arose that increasingly challenged the authority of the monarchy. While the King, Zahir Shah, granted a constitution and permitted the establishment of a parliament, he became increasingly unpopular among politically active groups. In 1973, Zahir was overthrown in a nearly bloodless coup. His brother-in-law and former prime minister, Muhammad Daoud, took power and attempted to promote rapid economic growth. As he committed the country to an ambitious program requiring increased development credits, Daoud also became increasingly high-handed and autocratic. He spurned the counsel of parliamentary leaders and governed very much in the manner of previous monarchs. Though at the outset he had accepted leftist politicians in the government, increasingly he turned against them. For their part more radical leaders carried out a coup in April, 1978, in which Daoud was overthrown and killed.

The authors discuss the origins and significance of Marxist parties at some length. They contend that serious discontent arose among many politically conscious Afghans as a result of the disparity between the aspirations of the increasingly numerous educated middle class and the relatively few government positions actually open to them. In 1965, the Marxist group Parcham (“The Banner”) was formed from disaffected politicians and civil servants drawn from the ruling party; another faction, Khalq (“The Masses”), was more radical and outspoken in its opposition to the government, and at the outset was forced to operate on a more clandestine basis. Under the Daoud regime some members of Parcham were employed in the civil bureaucracy or as army officers. They were excluded from positions of leadership, however, and as differences with the government mounted, there was a rapprochement between the two Marxist factions. Both groups had infiltrated the armed forces and were able to control airborne and tank units in the capital. After the seizure of power from Daoud both...

(The entire section is 1989 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

Choice. XIX, September, 1981, p. 141.

Journal of Asian Studies. XLI, November, 1981, p. 73.

Library Journal. CVI, April 15, 1981, p. 870.

Middle East Journal. XXXV, Autumn, 1981, p. 619.

National Review. XXXIII, June 12, 1981, p. 683.

The New Republic. CLXXXIV, June 20, 1981, p. 27.

Times Literary Supplement. July 3, 1981, p. 753.

The Wall Street Journal. CXCVII, April 27, 1981, p. 30.