On 3 July 1979, then US President Jimmy Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the progressive Peoples Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) government in Kabul. This was more than 6 months before the Soviet forces intervened to assist the Afghan government in response to foreign intervention. Ever since 1980 – when Ronald Reagan, the right-wing Republican who replaced Carter as President, and Margaret Thatcher, then UK Prime Minister, started imperialism’s undeclared full-scale war against the progressive left-wing government in Afghanistan – war and terrorism has been a constant tragic feature in this country. The US/UK-supported jihadist insurgency in Afghanistan aimed to violently bring down the PDPA government and subvert the radical social economic reforms underway in the country. Eventually, 10 long years later, the trauma inflicted by this continual terrorist assault brought down the progressive government and Kabul fell in March 1992. 9 years after that, in the wake of the terrorist attack by Al-Qaeda on 11 September 2001, the US/UK-led alliance of a dozen armies started a bombing campaign culminating in the occupation of Afghanistan in November 2001. Today, after 2 decades of continuing internal warfare, there have been reports that the US has brought forward a “peace deal” between the militant Islamist Taliban and the Afghan government. To inform the peace and progressive movement in Britain about the developments in Afghanistan, Liberation interviewed Mr. Assadullah Keshtmand, an Afghan progressive politician, about developments in the war-torn country.
Assadullah Keshtmand was born in 1949 to a family of humble background in Kabul province. He completed his secondary schooling in Afghanistan before attending university in France where he completed his undergraduate and postgraduate studies. During this time in France, he joined the French Communist Party. He was later elected to the Central Committee of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) and was the first Editor-in-Chief of the Haghighat-e Enqelab-e Saur newspaper (the government organ of the PDPA) in 1980. He also served for several years as the Deputy Head of the International Relations Bureau of the Central Committee of the PDPA. In the final 5 years of the PDPA government, Mr. Keshtmand served as the Ambassador of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan to Hungary, Iran, and Ethiopia. He currently resides in London.
Liberation: In the years of war, the US has spent 18.8 billion USD on Afghanistan in aid – fuelling corruption and enriching the local elites. Meanwhile, recent figures suggest that Taliban attacks are at their highest rate since the invasion of 2001. How do you judge the record of US/UK intervention in Afghanistan?
AS: During the past 19 years, the US has been able to manage the occupation of Afghanistan effectively. Due to the geopolitical importance of the country, it was always the intention of the US to stay in Afghanistan for the long-term under the pretence of war. One US general in particular has gone on record to state that the US would be in Afghanistan for the next 50 years. However, it was necessary to maintain the war – to a manageable extent – in order to justify the overwhelming expense and human toll of the occupation to the US taxpayer. The fact that the Taliban has deep roots and support in Pashtun areas helped in this regard. At the same time, the political system in Afghanistan was designed to prop up the occupation. Left-wing forces were systematically excluded from the political process, whereas technocrats (newly returned from the West) and the Mujahedin were patronised in order to create a strong support base. Large-scale corruption became the modus operandi – one that of made the political elite reliant on the US presence in Afghanistan.
As a result of these factors, a number of things can be observed. First, corruption is endemic throughout the political sphere and has infected all aspects of society. Second, opium production and trafficking are at unprecedented levels. Afghanistan produced 9000 tonnes of opium in 2017. It is clear that an operation of this magnitude cannot be maintained without a sophisticated system in place to support it. Many believe, and eyewitnesses have confirmed, that the US is responsible for providing support for such a system. Thirdly, poverty is at an unprecedented scale. Reports from as recent as July 2020 state that over 60% of the population lives beneath the poverty line. In fact, Ashraf Ghani has gone further in stating that the figure is closer to 90%. Fourthly, once Afghanistan came under occupation, its entire industrial infrastructure – whatever little there was left of it – was obliterated. The country became a consumer society wholly dependent on foreign aid. The import-export ratio dropped drastically as traditional agricultural practices were abandoned in certain areas in favour of opium cultivation. In reality, local farmers saw only marginal profits from this shift.
Over the last 19 years, two parallel processes have been at play. On the one hand, there has been the establishment of a favourable political system in which corruption, with a strong support base behind it, has taken root. On the other, there has been the deliberate continuation of war.
Liberation: What is your verdict on the Trump administration’s policy towards Afghanistan and in what way has it been different to that of the previous (Obama) US administration? What about the UN-backed peace deal signed in March?
AS: Trump is only interested in Afghanistan to the extent that he can utilise it to gain favour in the next US presidential election. While the style of managing the occupation may vary from one administration to another, the overall strategy remains unaffected. The fact remains that Afghanistan is of geopolitical significance, and it is this which will continue to inform US policy. In practice, the peace deal will not make a difference. The day-to-day reality in Afghanistan is testament to this. The peace deal does not have the capacity to put an end to the war – if anything, the war has intensified.
What is your take on the dubious story of Russian bounties for American soldiers and allied military personnel in Afghanistan?
AS: Russia has categorically denied that there is any truth to such reports. However, adversaries will naturally target each other’s weaknesses if given the opportunity to do so. The shadow of the Cold War still looms over the world because of the aggressive stance taken by the US [since the collapse and dissolution of the USSR]. [For example,] it is important to view Russian actions in light of the US-backed fascist coup d’état in Ukraine in 2014.
Liberation: Of course, the legacy of the US intervention in Afghanistan is not limited to Afghanistan. The CIA supplies [funneled] to the Mujahedin to battle the Soviets during 1979-1989 have fueled wider conflicts and destabilised large swathes of the globe, and CIA-trained rebels have even been involved in attacks against the US and its citizens. What lessons about can be drawn from Western military intervention in sovereign nations?
AS: It is clear that the first casualties in such situations are human rights and the right of nation states to determine their own destiny.
During the rule of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, the US, the UK and other Western countries, as well as countries in the region – such as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, China, andIran – were in a state of undeclared war with Afghanistan. These countries neatly dispensed with all ethical standards, and wholly focussed on acts of aggression against Afghanistan and the Soviet Union. Brzezinski [the late former US National Security Advisor], in response to being asked in an interview whether he regretted the US role in supporting fundamentalist terrorist groups, answered in the negative and stated that the downfall of the Soviet Union was more important than the existence of such groups. The total disregard for the terror unleashed by the Mujahedin was his unethical disposition.
These countries provided material, financial, logistical and ideological support to Islamic fundamentalist counterrevolutionaries, otherwise known as the Mujahedin. This group was supplied with the most advanced weaponry (such as Stinger missiles from the US and Blue Pipe missiles from the UK) and extensive funding. They used this to blow up schools and hospitals, destroy bridges and electricity pylons, and murder innocent civilians. Truckloads of incoming aid from the Soviet Union would be set on fire, and rockets would rain down on people in the cities. The advancement of the country was held hostage to the demands of terrorists. All the while, the aforementioned countries disseminated widespread propaganda and engaged in sophisticated operations of destruction and sabotage in support of the Mujahedin in order to prop up the war against the Republic of Afghanistan.
Notwithstanding the domestic and international acts of aggression that it was facing, the government of Afghanistan at that time pressed on with its ambitious economic, social and cultural goals:
- Not only were economic, social and cultural establishments restored, but new ones were created.
- The unemployment rate was low, and food and water supplies were available to the general population at controlled prices.
- Education and health facilities were free and accessible to all.
- Art and culture were fostered.
- Pluralism was held in high esteem and promoted.
- Women were encouraged to participate in public life, and the conditions that would enable them to do so were created.
- Children were admitted to nurseries and kindergartens from the age of 3 months.
- Coupons were distributed monthly to the people in order to meet their essential needs.
- The government was on course to provide universal housing.
These achievements were brought about in the years following December 1979, under the Parcham government. As you are aware, between April 1978 and December 1979, the Khalq government carried out numerous atrocities which attracted widespread condemnation, and rightly so. Amongst other things, they subjected both ordinary civilians and party members belonging to the Parcham faction to torture, detention and imprisonment, and execution. It was during the Taraki-Amin period that the Mujahedin gained momentum and western countries and their allies began interfering in the internal affairs of Afghanistan. Notwithstanding the detestable nature of the Khalq government, it was and remains the sole prerogative of the people of Afghanistan to deal with their own affairs free of international interference.
The roots of the Mujahedin, Taliban, Daesh, Al Qaeda and other terrorist organisations can be traced right back to these strategies employed by the CIA. Nowhere were those strategies more amplified than in respect of the Mujahedin. However, the US role in creating and supporting terrorist groups backfired – as can be observed by the horrific events of 11 September 2001 and other terrorist attacks.
Liberation: We have talked about US and Western involvement in Afghanistan. How about China – is its $1 trillion “Belt and Road” global infrastructure program, which has projects in Afghanistan, to be welcomed?
AS: China has adopted two different strategies at different times. During the Cold War it took an aggressive stance towards Afghanistan by actively supporting opponents of the government and supplying them with arms. Today, however, China is more preoccupied with its economy. It is in China’s economic interests that Afghanistan is stable. We have already seen that China is willing to invest in the country.
However, in practice, Afghanistan remains a source of concern. As long as the security situation remains unstable, Afghanistan’s ability to benefit from international and regional economic projects such as the “Belt and Road” programme is doubtful. The security situation has already forced a postponement in China’s investment in the Ainak copper mine. China shares a 92 kilometre-long border with Afghanistan, from which it is threatened by terrorists on the Afghan side. In the last couple of years, Daesh fighters have relocated from Syria to North and North-East Afghanistan, near the border with China. Many believe that the CIA backed this relocation with the intention of infiltrating China and Central Asia through Daesh. Moreover, the fate of Afghanistan remains tied to the US. Given the US influence over Afghanistan’s internal affairs, the extent to which Afghanistan will benefit from economic cooperation with China depends on US-China relations. It is important to note that all of Afghanistan’s neighbours, with the exception of Turkmenistan, are at odds with the US.
Liberation: Are there any Afghan political and civil society forces that can provide hope for positive lasting change for ordinary Afghans?
AS: As regards the political system, federalism will account for a pluralist society such as Afghanistan in a way that the current system has been unable to. Federalism is strongly supported among the Tajiks in the North and West of the country, the Hazaras in Central Afghanistan, and Uzbeks and Turkmens in the North and North-East. The people in the South, however, contest the notion of a federalist system. The Pashtuns have historically held – and continue to do so under the current political system – a monopoly over ruling Afghanistan, thus the possibility of dispersing power will naturally be met with resistance by them.
At present, the US occupation is so entrenched that there is no room for leftists and progressives to make a meaningful contribution. The majority of the people of Afghanistan reflect on the leftist-progressive era as a positive force that benefited them. Today, social inequality is widespread and the gulf between the classes is as wide as ever. The People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan splintered into various offshoot left-wing parties which continue to be in existence today. However, the psychological pressure of the occupation and the daily hardships of the people are so severe that forces for change are at a standstill. Left-wing forces in Afghanistan cannot, at present, act as an alternative force for change. The only alternative is the end of the occupation.