Chronicling the Afghanistan Tragedy – VI The Saur Revolution gone Sour

23 Oct, 2001    ·   621

Suba Chandran elucidates the reasons behind the failure of the Saur Revolution

The Saur revolution, as was called by the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), was really a coup against Daud Khan, in which he was killed. Though the precise Soviet role in the Saur revolution is debatable, the Soviet Union did increase its commitment to the PDPA after the establishment of Democratic Republic of Afghanistan. 

The PDPA was founded in 1965, after King Zahir Shah introduced political reforms in 1964. Nur Mohammad Taraki, Babrak Karmal, Hafizullah Amin and Najibullah Ahmadzai were its prominent members. Unfortunately none of them are alive today – Taraki and Amin were killed in PDPA infighting; Karmal died of cancer in 1996 and Najibullah was hanged by the Taliban. The ideology of PDPA, according to its Constitution, “is the practical experience of Marxism-Leninism” and was “founded on the voluntary union of the progressive and informed people of Afghanistan: the workers, peasants, artisans and intellectuals of the country.” Many of are PDPA members were pro-Soviet and are either educated or received military training in Moscow. 

Three factors were mainly responsible for the Saur Revolution turning sour – internal struggle within the PDPA; radical social and economic reforms introduced by the PDPA in a primitive and predominantly tribal society; and the proximity of the PDPA to the Soviets.

Firstly, the PDPA had internal problems with Nur Mohammad Taraki and Babrak Karmal, the two main leaders, failing to agree on a common agenda. Both agreed on objectives but differed on the means to achieve them: Taraki favored radical social reforms while Karmal insisted on gradual social change.

Factors such as personal ambitions, social, class and ethnic differences led to the PDPA split in 1967. The Karmal faction was known as Parcham (Banner), the name of its newspaper, and the Taraki faction was known as Khalq (People or Masses), also the name of its newspaper. The Parcham faction was more westernized and composed mainly of the upper middle class, especially of Tajiks, whereas the Khalq faction had wider support mainly from the Pashtuns. After the formation of the PDPA and its split, both factions were allowed to recruit by the King and later by Daud. Consequently both factions recruited their cadres, from among teachers, police, civil servants, students and even military officers.

The differences between the two factions emerged immediately after the coup and formation of the government in Afghanistan. Taraki was elected as President of the Revolutionary Council, Prime minister of Afghanistan, and Secretary General of the PDPA. Karmal and Amin were elected as Deputy Prime Ministers. Factional problems within the PDPA resulted in the Khalq faction becoming powerful. The major leaders of the Parcham faction were sent abroad. Karmal was sent as Ambassador to Czechoslovakia and Najibullah to Iran. Amin was made Party Secretary, a position earlier held by Karmal, and controlled the Da Afghanistan da Gato Satalo Adara (Organisation for the Protection of the Security of Afghanistan), the new political force in Afghanistan.

Secondly, the social and economic reforms introduced by the PDPA led to its own demise. These reforms focused on ‘democratic land reforms’, ‘abolition of old feudal and pre-feudal relations’, ‘ensuring the equality of rights of women’, and increasing ‘the state sector of the national economy’. The failure of the PDPA to undertake reforms gradually, taking into account the cultural and religious sentiments of the population, and the significance attached by the PDPA on socialism resulted in a backlash, especially from the rural population, which remains predominantly tribal, backward and governed by local customs. Instead of recognising the nature of the problem, the PDPA used force to resolve it. A number of violent uncoordinated attacks started against the government. The public sentiments against the reforms were later used by various mujahideen groups to achieve their political objectives.

Thirdly, close relations between the PDPA and the Soviets alienated them from the local population. The rulers of Afghanistan till the 1990s were dictatorial and had close relations with the Soviets. Soviet arms were used for controlling the population and Soviet officials were consulted during serious crises or revolts to curb them. These anti-Soviet feelings were later fanned by the mujahideens, when they declared jihad against the Soviet Union

When armed anti-government activities began after May 1979, the PDPA government responded brutally against these uprisings. During this period, the internal problems within the PDPA reached its zenith. The support to Taraki by the Soviet Union alienated Amin, and in March 1979, Amin replaced Taraki. In September Amin imprisoned Taraki and killed him. Later, Amin tried to become independent of the Soviet Union because they, especially Brezhnev, had supported Taraki. Amin was killed and Babrak Karmal replaced him when the Soviet troops entered Afghanistan. Karmal did not have any popular support and was seen as a stooge of the Soviet troops in Afghanistan.