It is hard to imagine now, but for students at Kabul University, 1968 was no less a hectic year than it was for students at Columbia, Berkeley, Oxford, and the Sorbonne. A king, Mohammad Zahir Shah, had been presiding over the many ethnic and tribal enclaves of Afghanistan since 1933. But he knew enough of the world elsewhere to attempt, cautiously, a few liberal reforms in his capital city, Kabul. The university had been set up in 1946; a liberal constitution was introduced in 1964; the press was technically free; women ran for public office in 1965. By the Sixties, many students and teachers had traveled abroad; and new ideas about how to organize the state and society had come to the sons of peasants and nomads and artisans from their foreign or foreign-educated teachers.
In the somewhat rarefied world of modernizing Kabul, where women were allowed to appear without the veil in 1959, communism and radical Islam attracted almost an equal number of believers: to these impatient men, the great Afghan countryside with its antique ways appeared ready for revolution. It was from this fledgling intelligentsia in Kabul that almost all of the crucial political figures of the next three decades emerged.
Less than five years after 1968, King Zahir Shah was deposed in a military coup by his cousin, the ambitious former prime minister Mohammad Daoud. Daoud initially sought help from the Communists, whose influence in the army and bureaucracy had grown rapidly since the 1960s: together, they went after the radical Islamists, many of whom were imprisoned or murdered for ideological reasons. But when Daoud, wary of the increasing power of the Communists, tried to get rid of them, he was in turn overthrown and killed. In April 1978, the Communists—themselves divided, confusingly, into two factions, Khalq and Parcham, that roughly corresponded to the rural–urban divide in Afghanistan—assumed full control of the government in Kabul, and in their hurry to eliminate all potential opposition to their program of land redistribution and indoctrination—an attempt, really, to create a Communist society virtually overnight—inaugurated what two decades later still looks like an ongoing process: the brutalization and destruction of Afghanistan.
Within just a few months, 12,000 people considered anti-Communist, many of them members of the country’s educated elite, were killed in Kabul alone; many thousands more were murdered in the countryside. Thousands of families began leaving the country for Pakistan and Iran. Many radical Islamists of Kabul University were already in exile in Pakistan by 1978; some of them had even started a low-intensity guerrilla war against the Communist government. Several army garrisons across the country mutinied, and people in the villages, who were culturally very remote from Kabul, began many separate jihads, or holy wars, against the Communist regime.
Earlier this year, in the Pakistani city of Peshawar, I met Anwar, whose father and uncle were among the earliest Afghans to take up arms against the Communists. They weren’t Islamists …