Remembering the Saur Revolution

Forty years ago, communists took over Afghanistan hoping to bring modernization and social progress to the country. Were their sweeping reforms doomed to fail?

Day after Saur Revolution in Kabul, Afghanistan. Cleric77 / Wikimedia

Forty years ago, on April 28, 1978, Communists made a revolution in Afghanistan. My friend Tahir Alemi was one of them. He was a good man, kind and gentle, and he wanted to change the world.

Tahir was a lecturer in Pashto literature at the University in Kabul. He’d come a long way. His father was a small peasant in a village in Nangrahar, near the border with Pakistan. The family worked their own land, and had one sharecropper, so they were doing better than most. Tahir got to university, and into his job, through raw intelligence. He loved his father, and his brothers and his mother. But he had to set his face against his father’s values.

Afghanistan in the 1970s was a feudal country. Power lay not with urban businessmen, but with great landowners who lived in countryside forts. Sometimes there were two great lords in a village, sometimes one, and in some places one man dominated several villages. There were many middle peasants, men like Tahir’s father, with maybe one sharecropper, but still also working their own land.

Below them were the sharecroppers, perhaps half of the population, who were allowed to keep a third of the crop they harvested. In Tahir’s village it was a fifth, because the land was better. Everywhere sharecroppers, workers, and shepherds were paid just enough to buy three naan breads each for two adults and two each for two children. That was 2,000 calories per adult and 1,300 per child. They couldn’t afford any other food.

I was an anthropologist in Afghanistan in the early 1970s. The people I engaged with had been nomads with sheep, but had fallen on hard times. Their standard of living was pretty typical for poor Afghans. Women had two dresses in their lifetimes, one when they reached puberty and a second when they were married. An ordinary family had one small cup for tea. They ate meat, with great excitement, once a year at the Feast of the Prophet. For relish to go with the bread, they made soup by boiling clover and other greens they gathered. Two of the three wealthiest families in the small village of thirty-three households competed to display hospitality to me and my wife. One household fried me an egg on a special occasion. The other gave me stew with my own small potato. No one else had one.

Studio photograph of Mohammad Zaher Khan in military uniform.
Haji Amin Qodrat, Kabul / Wikimedia

Exploitation on this scale — two-thirds to four-fifths of the crop to the landowner — required cruelty and violence. Most of this came from the local lords and their bodyguards and thugs, backed by the government. Mohammed Zahir Shah, the king in Kabul, and his family had built their power by favoring one lord in each district, and ruling through him. “Sometimes we have tyranny,” Tahir said to me once. “Then they come and kill you and all your family. Now we have democracy. It’s only you, and they only put out your eyes.” It was a joke. We laughed.

Afghanistan was a poor country, mostly arid, desert or mountains. The government was powerless to tax the great lords or the small peasants. They relied on limited customs duties instead. Since 1842, different Afghan governments had relied on some form of foreign subsidy, usually from the British. From the 1950s on, Afghanistan had “development.” As part of the Cold War, Russian and American aid paid about 80 percent of the civil budget and most of the military budget. The Russians paid about two thirds, and the Americans about a third. There was very little industry or economic development. The aid money went to the army, schools, and the civil service. Now there were a few thousand students at Kabul University, and hundreds of thousands in the schools. The old ruling class of landlords was tiny, and there was no way they could supply the teachers and civil servants. The newly educated were men like Tahir, the children of middle peasants. Their parents and grandparents had quietly hated the great lords and the government, and the newly educated hated them too.

They dreamed, these young teachers, of a developed, modern Afghanistan. One time, down in Helmand Province, Tahir and I stood in a silent crowd of onlookers watching a demonstration by a few dozen high-school boys. The students took turns standing on the box to shout their slogan: “Death to the Khans.” Khan was the local word for the great lords. The boys’ slogan was not abstract. Their political program was to kill those men in their district.

“Do you have such things in America?” Tahir asked me.

I told him we did, and I had been part of some. He told me about the Third of Akrab, in 1965, when the students in Kabul demonstrated outside the newly elected parliament, and three protesters were shot dead. He had been there.

The young men and women of this new urban class, the majority of them teachers like Tahir, were all turning to Islamist or Communist parties. The Brotherhood were Islamists. They were university educated, from the same class as Tahir, and their young activists would become the leaders of the resistance to the Russians. The Communists were split in two. Parcham (the Banner) were more educated, urban, and moderate. Khalk (the People) were less educated, more often from rural families, more often Pashtuns. Tahir joined Parcham. In 1973, the Communists were growing faster than the Brotherhood.

I sat with Tahir in his father’s reception room in the village, and we walked and bussed to villages around Nangrahar. Tahir was selected by the university to be my “counterpart” during the early part of my fieldwork. I paid him four times his monthly salary of 1,500, three times what a worker earned. I was still learning the language, and he translated for me. He also wrote regular reports on me for the secret police. We both knew this but did not mention it.

Tahir’s marriage was arranged. His wife had never been to school. There was a lot he couldn’t talk to her about. But he had married to please his family. They had chosen a local girl for him in the hope that would keep him tied to the village, and for the first few years of the marriage she lived with his parents and he visited when he could. He tried to develop a real relationship with her. A lot of other girls were going to school, though, in the cities and in the villages. Both Parcham and Khalk were full of women comrades. Women’s liberation was central to their dream of a better world. Tahir hoped that one day soon he could move his wife to live with him in Kabul. When that happened, he promised me, I could meet her, because he would never seclude her.

In 1972 there was a drought, an early effect of climate change. A famine enveloped parts of the north. Food aid came in from America. In the district towns, the government officers piled the bags of grain in the squares. Soldiers guarded the grain, and the officials sold it ten times the usual price. Small peasants sold their land for almost nothing to the feudal khans and bought the grain. The landless sat and waited for death. A French journalist asked them why they did not storm the piles of grain. “The king has planes,” they said, “and they would bomb us.”

The king and his government lost almost all support. The king’s cousin, Mohammed Daoud, had been a brutal prime minister until 1963. He had leaned more to the Soviets, and the king more to the Americans. Now the US was cutting aid after Vietnam, and most of the money was coming from Russia. Daoud staged a military coup, with Soviet support. The coup met no opposition. After the famine, no one was prepared to die for the king.

The actual work of organizing the coup was done by Communist military officers, mostly from the Khalk wing. Like the teachers, the officers were from middle peasant backgrounds, often the first of their families to be educated, and often trained in the Soviet Union.

The coup changed nothing important. Power remained with the great lords, though Daoud’s rhetoric was left wing. The university, high schools, and elementary schools became intensely political places, particularly in the towns and cities. Some teachers proselytized for the Brotherhood, others for Khalk and Parcham. Students debated. Parcham argued for working with Daoud’s dictatorship. Khalk wanted full revolution.

The Communists were growing. In April 1978 Daoud ordered the assassination of a Communist leader, Mir Akbar Khyber. Both wings of the Communists came together for a large public demonstration at his funeral in Kabul. Daoud had all the leaders of both wings arrested, and they knew they would soon be killed. One leader, Amin, managed to give the word to put a planned coup into motion. The same army and air force officers who had brought Daoud to power now killed the leader and his entire family. As with the king, no one at all would fight for Daoud, and the Communists succeeded.

The day after the Saur Revolution in Kabul, Afghanistan, April 28, 1978.
Cleric77 / Wikimedia

The Communists announced a revolution — they called it the “Great April Revolution,” like the October Revolution in Russia. They passed two decrees to turn the coup into a revolution. The first was land reform — the land would be taken from the landlords and given to the sharecroppers. In many areas the government had no means of enforcing land reform, but in Helmand, where the boys had shouted “Death to the Khans” from their soapbox, the local Communists began taking the land and redistributing it.

The second was the abolition of the bride-price payments given by a groom’s family for the bride’s hand. These were substantial sums, usually two to five years income for a household. More important, bride-price stood in everyone’s eyes as a sign of the subjection of women.

The relations between men and women were not the sexist caricature we are familiar with now from Islamophobic propaganda. In villages, perhaps four or five families out of two hundred kept their women in seclusion, allowing them out only in enveloping burqas. In most poor households women had to work in the fields with the men. But if the oppression of women was not as portrayed today, it was real enough, as it was in other countries. The Communists were determined to change all that. The decree on bride-price was largely formal in effect, though in some areas girls were encouraged to dance in public.

The measures on land and marriage ignited a rebellion led by local mullahs. The mullahs were not the same as the Islamists of the Brotherhood. Those were educated men, engineers, and theologians. The mullahs were mostly poor villagers, schooled just enough to read Farsi and recite the Koran in Arabic. They were treated with disdain by the elite. But they had a history of leading popular resistance.

Afghan women, 1927.

Afghanistan had never been conquered. The British had invaded in 1838–42, and again in 1878–1880. Both times the Afghan elite took the gold of the invader — literally, in bags — and did not resist. Both times, though, the mullahs had preached in the towns and villages, raising a popular revolt of jihad that drove out the British. Then, in the 1920s, a new reforming government under King Amanullah tried to “modernize” the country, as Ataturk had done in Turkey and Reza Shah in Iran. Amanullah insisted on an end to seclusion for elite women, and insisted they wear Western dresses. Next he tried to tax the land of the great lords and the small peasants in the southeast, provoking a revolt led by mullahs. Then a working man turned social bandit, Habibullah, led a popular insurrection in Kabul. With British aid, the royal family suppressed that revolt, but Amanullah’s social experiment was at an end.

After the 1930s, the mullahs continued to be the guardians of orthodoxy, although the Islam of Afghans was of a relaxed and not very orthodox kind. The mullahs wove a conservative Islam and an opposition to women’s liberation together with an opposition to the Christian imperialism of Britain and America and the atheist imperialism of the Soviet Union. For most Afghans, as well, men and women, Islam was also the moral heart of their lives.

After the Saur Revolution, the mullahs began organizing resistance to the government. As they had against the British and Amanullah, they called for opposition to foreign domination. The revolt started in the mountains and borders, where the government had always been weakest, and spread towards the valleys and the cities. In meeting this resistance, the Communists faced a terrible problem. They did not have the support of the majority, so they fell back on cruelty.

The Saur Revolution had been based on a coup led by young officers. But Afghanistan had a conscript army, with men from every corner of the country, mostly from the families of small peasants and sharecroppers. Those soldiers followed orders, but they had not been politically convinced. There had been no urban uprisings and no peasant war for land. In that sense, the Saur Revolution was a top-down coup with little rural support.

The Communists did have real support in the cities. In the free elections held before Daoud seized power in 1973, they had won most of the seats in Kabul. They had support among school children, university students, civil servants, and others in the big cities. In an overwhelmingly rural country, this wasn’t enough. Faced with fiery preaching and rural uprisings, the new Communist government could only send in the soldiers to arrest people. That provoked more unrest, and they began to torture people, which led to more revolt. Over the next twenty months the Communists and their army lost control of most of the country. By December 1979 they completely held only three out of thirty-four provinces. In twenty-eight provinces, army barracks ensured control of the cities and larger towns, while the insurgents controlled the countryside. In three provinces, the insurgents controlled even the towns.

Under this pressure the Communists now split bitterly into three camps. The Parcham group, led by Baback Karmal, argued for building an alliance with all national progressive forces. In practice, this meant mouthing Muslim pieties, shutting up about bride-price and women, and halting land reform. This policy was in conformity with the advice of the Soviet KGB and generals, who regarded the idea of social revolution as premature and reckless. The problem with this approach was that the mullahs — and the rest of Afghanistan — were not fooled.

For the more radical militants of the Khalk group, this was also a betrayal of the shared dream of a modern Afghanistan and an end to sexism and grinding poverty. Within months, they had purged the Parchamis. A few, like Karmal, went into exile in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. The Khalkis sent many of the rest to prison.

But still the screw of resistance tightened around the cities. The Khalk group split in two. Taraki, the older leader, a novelist from a clan of shepherds and nomads, saw no way out but to invite Soviet troops in to suppress the resistance. The younger leader, Hafizullah Amin, from a rural area just outside Kabul, had studied education at Columbia University in New York. He was an Afghan nationalist, and would not countenance Soviet troops under any circumstances.

The KGB advised Taraki to have Amin killed. Taraki tried and failed, because the majority of Khalki radicals were against Russian troops too. Instead, Amin had Taraki killed.

The rural resistance was still growing. Amin reached out to the Americans, asking for their support to counterbalance the Soviets. The Americans refused. The Soviet government, afraid Amin would manage to build an alliance with the Americans, or fall to the insurgency, kept trying to assassinate him. No Afghan Communists in the country would do it for them. In the face of this onslaught, Amin fell further and further into cruelty, arrests, torture, and executions.

The Soviet tanks rolled across the border on December 24, 1979. The Saur Revolution was over. The Soviets shot Amin and replaced him with Babrak Karmal, brought back from exile in Moscow. The prisons began to fill up with Khalkis. Everything that the mullahs and the educated Islamists were saying about the Communists being the tools of atheist foreigners had been proved true.

In spring 1980, nighttime protests began in the western city of Herat, spread quickly to Kandahar in the south, and then to Kabul. The civil servants in Kabul, one of the strongest Communist bases, went on strike against the Russian occupation. The students at the high school for girls in Kabul, always strong supporters of women’s liberation and the Communists, gathered in the courtyard and shouted for the men of Afghanistan to rise up against the invader.

Soldiers ride aboard a Soviet BMD airborne combat vehicle, March 25, 1986.
US Department of Defense / Wikimedia

The Russian occupation would last eight years, based on tanks in the cities and aerial bombing across the countryside. In a population of twenty million, up to a million were killed, another million lost a limb, and six million were driven into exile. When it was all over, and the Soviet tanks left, the Islamist warlords took power. The dream of feminism and socialism was dead.

The political effect was the same as it would have been in the United States if leftists there had allied themselves with an invader to kill between eight and fifteen million Americans by bombing from the air, and drive ninety million into exile. The ideas of women’s liberation were contaminated.

Some of the Communists were cruel by nature. More were like Tahir, decent people who wanted a better world. Once they began to impose socialism against the opposition of a majority, they were lost.

The idea that Communism or socialism required a dictatorship by a minority was widely accepted among radicals in the 1960s and 1970s. Karmal had learned his politics in prison in Kabul, Taraki had learned his in Bombay, and Amin had spent years in New York. The Afghan Communists were simply doing what the Left globally knew had to be done if they really wanted to change the world. Their tragedy is, in an acute and terrible form, the same one replicated elsewhere.

When I knew him, Tahir’s eyes would fill with tears as he talked about the ignorance and the suffering of the villagers we met. He understood them, and loved them, and knew why it was so hard to convince them. Some years ago I was having a beer with an Afghan friend in London, and asked him if he knew Tahir. Yes, he said, a good man, kind.

“A Parchami,” he said.

“Yes,” I said, “a Parchami.”

My friend had been in prison with Tahir in Jalalabad in the fall of 1978, just before the Soviet invasion. He got out, and Tahir did not. My friend had no definite information, but was sure Tahir had been executed.

I hope he was wrong. I know he was not.