With the Afghan Rebels

A recent visit of some weeks with the rebels in Afghanistan suggests two broad conclusions about the resistance movement. The first is that it is an extremely popular movement. It is not manpower that the guerrillas lack but weapons. The second is that in its leadership, organization, and coordination the Afghan movement is one of the weakest liberation struggles in the world today.

In most other national liberation movements and armed struggles in the Third World—in Vietnam, Cuba, Algeria, Guinea Bissau, and elsewhere—the principal task of the revolutionary vanguard was to win the support of at least a part of the population, and to build an underground political organization. In Afghanistan the pattern was different: a few months after the coup that overthrew Mohammed Daoud’s republic in April 1978, the Afghans joined in a spontaneous uprising against the new “socialist” government. The resistance grew steadily, although in a fragmented and uncoordinated way; even greater numbers joined the fight against the Soviet army and the regime it brought to power at the end of December 1979.

Today the resistance movement openly controls most of the countryside. The government and its Soviet military support hold the cities, the main roads, and military outposts scattered across the country. The rebels are mainly peasants and their local leaders are tribal chiefs.

There are more than half a dozen different factions within the resistance movement, which is based in Peshawar, the Pakistani city near the Afghan border. They have no general strategy, no coordination, no organization other than traditional ties to tribe, region, and family. The resistance has scarcely any political or social program, and no vision of the future. Unlike virtually all of the guerrilla movements of Asia, Africa, or Latin America, the Afghan rebels have nothing new to show the visiting observer: no newly elected village committee, for example, no program for the integration of women into the struggle, no newly created people’s stores or medical centers, no small workshops contributing to economic self-sufficiency of the sort one finds in guerrilla camps throughout the world. The Afghan rebels have undertaken no political experiments or social improvements.

In this respect, the Afghan movement resembles the insurrections of the Basmachis—the Muslims of the Boukhara emirate, now within the USSR, who resisted the Soviet takeover and the reforms that followed throughout the 1920s. Indeed many of the tribesmen in northern Afghanistan are sons and grandsons of Basmachis who fled across the border in the Twenties and Thirties, and they are traditionally anticommunist as well as anti-Soviet. Many rural Afghan tribes have also traditionally kept a distance from the central government of the country—whether the monarchy or the republic that replaced it in 1973. And issues of ethnic identity and autonomy have a long history in Afghanistan. The current Afghan resistance movement looks more like a traditional revolt of this kind than like modern guerrilla warfare.

But the fact is that the Afghan rebels violently reject the imposition of “socialism” by …

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