Commentary Magazine

The Struggle for Afghanistan, by Nancy Peabody Newell and Richard S. Newell

The Forgotten War

The Struggle for Afghanistan.
by Nancy Peabody Newell and Richard S. Newell.
Cornell University Press. 236 pp. $14.95.

In the immediate wake of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in December 1979, it was widely predicted that the USSR’s international reputation would suffer a serious decline because of this naked act of aggression against a defenseless Third World country. Cited in evidence were such subsequent events as condemnations of the invasion by the United Nations, an official denunciation by the Islamic Conference, and statements by certain Third World spokesmen about the dangers of the nonaligned movement’s pro-Soviet tilt. No matter what the outcome of the conflict, it was said, the Soviets would pay a high price for the invasion in terms of their diplomatic and propaganda goals.

It is now clear that the Afghanistan war has cost the Soviets little in international prestige. America has again assumed its accustomed position as chief hate object of the international “peace movement.” Despite a pattern of Soviet aggression of which the Afghan invasion is the most dramatic manifestation, strong and persistent pressure has been brought to bear to convince the U.S. to cajole the Israelis into accepting a PLO-dominated state, guarantee a share of governing power in El Salvador to the Cuban-backed rebels, and soften its drive for a Western military buildup. In contrast, the war in Afghanistan has steadily receded in significance, both in the mind of the public and as a priority for Western diplomats, many of whom act as if a rebel capitulation would be a relief, and not a cause for mourning. Even the Muslim world has seemingly come to terms with the likelihood of a protracted Soviet occupation of an Islamic state, and this despite the increased threat to the internal stability of Middle Eastern governments that would logically follow from a permanent Soviet presence in Afghanistan.

There are many reasons for the relegation of Afghanistan to the status of side show, but certainly an important factor is the paucity of reliable information from the battlefield. Where sympathetic American and European journalists send regular dispatches from rebel-held enclaves in El Salvador, the Soviets have effectively prevented on-the-spot coverage in Afghanistan. The only non-Communist journalists permitted visas are those who can be relied on to present to the West a reasonable facsimile of the Soviet version of events. Western reporters are left with the unappealing alternative of joining the rebels and risking the consequences of capture by the Soviets or the Soviet-controlled Afghan army. It is powerful testimony to the fear generated by the Soviet Union today that very few reporters have chosen to carry on the long-established, and often noble, tradition of guerrilla-war coverage in Afghanistan.



The Soviets derive rather substantial benefits from the absence of on-the-scene reporting. As Richard and Nancy Peabody Newell observe in The Struggle for Afghanistan, the Afghan resistance movement has conducted one of the most impressive popular uprisings of this century. But because of the inability of reporters to provide accurate coverage of the war, the rebels remain an enigma, and their exploits unknown. Similarly, few in the West are familiar with the acts of brutality committed by the Red Army or the official Afghan military forces. These include massacres of genocidal proportions in several villages, and the routine employment of terror tactics, including the use of nerve gas, against the civilian population.

The Soviets were not, of course, the direct targets of the initial uprising, although the de facto satellization of the country was clearly an important cause. The most compelling chapters of The Struggle for Afghanistan are those dealing with the events leading up to the rebellion and which, along the way, provide a revealing assessment of the indigenous Afghan Communists.

The Newells, Afghan specialists who have lived in and written extensively on that country, have provided an interpretation that is a much-needed antidote to reports in the Western press which have stressed both the unpopularity of the Communists and the “backwardness” of the Afghan people, an “evenhanded” treatment which implies that the benighted attitudes of the latter somehow justify the repressive policies of the former. As the Newells demonstrate, the Communists who attained power in the April 1979 coup were from the very beginning intent not on reforming the fabric of Afghan society, but on destroying it, in order to bolster their own tenuous power base. Moreover, this “revolution from the top” was carried out with all the arrogance and cruelty that have become the trademarks of Communist regimes around the world.



Like other Communist movements, the People’s Democratic party (PDP) enjoyed little popular support at the time of its seizure of power. In the case of the PDP, however, this lack of support was even more pronounced, as Afghanistan never developed an urban proletariat or trade-union movement from which Communist cadres could be drawn. With no backing in the countryside (and little chance of gaining it), PDP recruitment was limited to students and a small section of the Kabul intelligentsia. Its leadership was no more impressive than its numbers. The Newells depict the most prominent PDP figures—Nur Muhammad Taraki, Hafimllah Amin, and Babrak Karmal—as petty demagogues whose ideas consisted of archaic Marxist slogans and whose principal activity was fighting the inevitable factional battles which periodically rocked the party.

What the Communists lacked in sophistication and popularity they made up for in determination and a knack for intrigue. Crucial here was the formation of Marxist cells within the armed forces, an achievement made possible by Soviet aid policies designed, for decades, to facilitate the eventual conquest of Afghanistan. The Soviet aid strategy was highly selective; humanitarian assistance was nonexistent, and the many impoverished areas of the country were ignored entirely. Non-military aid emphasized the construction of roads, particularly those linking the two countries, and the improvement of the country’s communications network. Both programs proved quite helpful when the invasion was launched. Other aid programs had as their chief priority the development of friendly relations with key Kabul bureaucrats. In the military sphere, the Soviets spent years training and indoctrinating promising young Afghan officers; not surprisingly, these officers came to view Soviet sponsorship as the key to their career advancement. Within the military, they constituted a fifth column which proved instrumental in both the bloodless coup of 1973, which brought Muhammad Daoud to power, and the far more violent coup of 1979, in which Daoud and his family were killed and his government replaced by the PDP.

The Communists who replaced Daoud were mainly drawn from the PDP’s Khalq (“Masses”) faction, and consisted of men who, according to the Newells, demonstrated no capacity for governing a country. Under the leadership of Taraki and Amin, the Communists launched an immediate, radical program aimed at the Sovietization of Afghan society. Their policies included various social and economic measures—radical land redistribution, the emancipation of women, currency changes—an ambitious agenda under the most advantageous of circumstances. But the Communists went even further, attempting to enforce far-reaching changes in Afghanistan’s cultural life guaranteed to alienate the traditionalist and independent populace. The Soviet pattern of primary and secondary education was introduced, and Russian was made a required language. School curriculum was given a heavy infusion of Marxist ideology. And in a gratuitous gesture calculated to enrage this devoutly Muslim people, the country’s flag was redesigned to reflect the regime’s Marxist creed; instead of the previous Islamic green, the flag was now dominated by Communist red.

Communism in Afghanistan thus followed an all-too-familiar pattern. The Khalqists spoke the rhetoric of social justice, but carried out policies which sought the destruction of the regional, tribal, and ethnic relationships that gave meaning to Afghan society. The emancipation of women was transformed into an all-out assault on the family as a means of atomizing the population and rendering it more open to Marxist social engineering. Education was made a vehicle for Communist indoctrination. Even land reform was looked on with suspicion by the poor peasants who presumably stood to gain from it; in their view, this was yet another device to enable the bureaucracy to accumulate more arbitrary power.



If the Soviets have suffered a loss of prestige because of their Afghan involvement, it is not due to their having invaded the country, but rather to their failure to bring the war to a swift conclusion. Although the Newells dismiss the fatuous notion that Afghanistan will be for the Soviets what Vietnam was for the U.S., they are convinced that “pacification” of the country will require a massive increase in Soviet troop levels as well as a systematic and stepped-up campaign of terror directed at the civilian population in the provinces.

Initially, no doubt, such measures would provoke a new wave of international disapproval. But unless the non-Communist world should respond in kind, the Soviets would probably conclude that the advantages of a determined show of will in Afghanistan outweighed the temporary costs of diplomatic censure and, possibly, trade dislocation. The Newells, in fact, believe that a principal objective of the Soviet invasion has always been the intimidation of neighboring states in Southwest Asia and the Persian Gulf. Ironically, while the rebels have created significant problems for the Kremlin, their defiance has at the same time provided an opportunity for the Soviets to demonstrate their determination to crush anyone who opposes them.

The ramifications of a clear-cut Soviet victory—both for the Persian Gulf region and the global balance—would be devastating: As the Newells point out:

Having demonstrated that it can subdue the most stubborn of Muslim peoples, [the Soviet Union] would command a number of avenues for further expansion. Among the steps it might take are infiltration of minority secessionist movements; continued encouragement of Marxist opposition parties; subversion of non-Marxist elites, including military officers with grievances against neighboring countries. Having established its presence at the region’s doorstep and a willingness to pay the political cost of aggression in Afghanistan, the Soviet Union would have a unique opportunity to exercise ever greater influence and power.

Considering the high stakes involved in the outcome of this struggle, the Newells find the response of the non-Communist world highly inadequate, reflecting both weakness and illusion. The Carter administration is faulted on two counts: first, for having ignored the geopolitical implications of the coup which originally elevated the Communists to power; second, for failing to develop a military response to the Soviet invasion, and thus tacitly conceding Afghanistan to Soviet domination.

As for the Newells’ own policy prescriptions, these have serious flaws—especially in their strange belief that American insistence on the creation of a Palestinian state would serve as a means of enlisting Arab support for a policy of arming the Afghan rebels. Nevertheless, their major contention, that our goal should be the strengthening of the rebels, seems a sound one.



Two arguments have been advanced against this view. Some contend that however wrong the Soviet occupation may be, the rebels—as conservative, religious zealots who practice systematic sexual discrimination—are unworthy of encouragement or aid. To their credit, the Newells ignore this shameful reasoning altogether; for them, the only issues are the consequences, both for the Afghan people and the free world, of Communism and Soviet imperialism. A more serious consideration is that support for the rebels will resolve nothing while insuring the shedding of more blood. Ultimately, this amounts to a rationalization for the Soviet conquest of Afghanistan.

The Afghans themselves have clearly rejected this point of view. To these people, Communism has been an intolerable curse. They have demonstrated an admirable willingness to resist, asking only the means to carry on the fight.

About the Author

Arch Puddington is director of research at Freedom House and the author, most recently, of Lane Kirkland: Champion of American Labor.

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.