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"The Price of Liberty:
The Tragedy of Afghanistan"


by Sayed Qassem Reshtia,
Bardi Editore, Roma Italy (1984),
Part I, Section 3 (pages 31-42)

Contemporary Afghanistan -
The Last Sixty Years (1919-1979)

We have spoken of the history and historical role of Afghanistan, and of its strategic geopolitical importance in that sensitive area of the world. Now we shall study particularly the history of relations between this country and its great northern neighbour, the Soviet Union, describing the different phases of the relationship, said to be "good neighbourly", which has ended in the invasion of the country by the Red Army in 1979.

King Amanullah, proclaiming unilaterally the independence of his country in 1919 without waiting for the reaction of the English, sent out a roving delegation to establish diplomatic relations with the different countries of Asia, Europe, and America.

The first stage of that delegation's mission was in Moscow, where it was received in October 1919 with open arms by the leaders of the new regime. It was the first diplomatic delegation to visit Moscow since the bolshevik revolution of 1917. So, Afghanistan was the first country to recognise the new "state of workers and peasants of all the Russia".

The new regime in Moscow not only recognised the independence of Afghanistan but even "hastened to offer the young state of Afghanistan her moral and material support in her heroic struggle against the English imperialists".

This was the beginning of a sort of "special relationship" between the two neighbouring countries which lasted, with ups and downs, for sixty years until the invasion of Afghanistan by the units of the Red Army in December 1979.

In order to illustrate the evolution of Russian policy towards Afghanistan over these sixty years, we may divide the period into three distinct phases.


First Phase:

During the first phase (1919-1929) relations were very amicable, but too hasty. The two countries needed each other. Afghanistan, having broken her traditional bonds with Great Britain, turned towards the Soviet Union for all kinds of support and assistance.

In this way, for the first time in the history of relations between these two countries, many Russian technicians and instructors arrived in Afghanistan to set up telephone and telegraph communications, and to train young Afghan technicians, so that the first pilots of the Afghan air force were trained in the Soviet Union. At the same time, Soviet goods came onto the Afghan market which had, up to that time, been monopolised by the English.

This "flirtation" did not appeal to the English, particularly as Bolshevik propaganda made its way slowly across Afghanistan into India. The reaction of Great Britain was brutal. Nevertheless, the ground had been prepared by King Amanullah himself.

In his patriotic zeal, he had started a series of reforms which were too bold and hurried, modeled along Turkish lines, without taking into consideration conditions peculiar to his own country, or the negative attitude of the religious factions towards these innovations, or their influence on the tribes. The result of this was the fall of the reformer monarch and the establishment of a regime which was both conservative and favourable to British policy.


Second Phase:

The accession of Nader Shah, in 1929, marked the beginning of a new phase in relations between Afghanistan and the Soviet Union. We shall call that phase the "closed borders era". In fact, under the reigns of Nader Shah and the early part of Zaher Shah (who was King until the 1973 coup d'etat organised by his cousin Daoud), the relations with the USSR were limited to diplomatic representation and commercial exchanges of no significance.

This was the situation until the end of the Second World War, during which time Afghanistan was able to maintain its neutrality because, at least during the last three years of was, its two powerful neighbours were fighting on the same side.

In 1947, the political status quo in this area was fundamentally changed by the withdrawal of the English from the Indian sub-continent, an event which left a political vacuum for Afghanistan.

The impact was so strong that the conservative government of Prince Hashem elder uncle of the young King Zaher Shah and a strong-minded man, who as Prime Minister had ruled the country since the the assassination of his older brother, King Nader Shah in 1933 fell, and his brother, Marshal Shah Mahmud, came into power as Prime Minister.

In order to fill the political gap, the new government asked the USA to take the place vacated by the English, at least in the economic and technical fields, by initiating research works to explore the natural resources of the country, and by building irrigation and communications systems. The Afghan government offered substantial incentives to American commercial firms, in the form of very favourable contracts, in order to develop large areas of so far unproductive land in the Hilmand valley, in the south of the country.

Unfortunately, the Americans were not yet aware of the political and strategic importance of Afghanistan, and looked on this approach with great suspicion. The imperative reasons motivating the Afghan approach were not apparent to the American government, which assumed it to only a means of obtaining financial assistance and large investments to develop doubtful resources in a backward country.

Washington's suspicions further increased when, in 1951, Shah Mahmud personally presented a request to President Truman for the purchase of American arms. The "cold war" was beginning and the American government was already planning a strategy to curb the influence of the USSR and Communist China.

This strategy was drawn up and implemented by General Eisenhower and the Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, in the form of regional NATO, CENTO and SEATO pacts, covering the entire zone from Europe to the Far East, in which Pakistan was to play an important part as a link between Central and South East Asia.

Since 1947, Pakistan and Afghanistan had a political dispute over the right of self-determination of the Pashtun and Baluch tribes who live along the frontier between the two countries. The Indian government was on the Afghan's side and these two factors led the American government to consider the request for arms as a prelude to a new Kashmir situation in the Area.

Faced with the negative attitude of President Truman, Shah Mahmud made a very significant remark, which was widely commented upon by the press. To a journalist, who had inquired whether the Afghan government would turn to the USSR for arms, he replied: "Muslims are forbidden to eat pork, except when a Muslim is dying of hunger!".

Although, it was at that stage only a bluff, but later on Afghanistan had no alternative but to turn to Moscow.


Third Phase:

Prince Daoud, a cousin of King Zahir, who meanwhile had come to power, tried once more to convince the American government of the Afghan government's good will and of its desire to settle the dispute with Pakistan through diplomatic channels. He met Vice-President Nixon during his short visit to Kabul in 1953. But another prerequisite was demanded, namely that Afghanistan should abandon its long tradition of neutrality to join Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, and Turkey as a party to the Baghdad Pact.

This was enough to push Prince Daoud, who was already tired of American lack of comprehension, into the open arms of Moscow.

Thus the third phase had started and the Great Assembly (Loe Jirga), at a special meeting convened to decide on the Pashtunistan situation and the purchase of arms, unanimously, decided that arms "should be bought wherever this was possible".

In Moscow, the new post-Stalin leaders were following these events with great interest. They had already started their Peace Policy towards the Third World and were eager to draw Afghanistan into their sphere of influence.

In December 1955, Bulganin and Khrushchev stopped in Kabul, on their way back from a trip to India, to assure their new client of the full support of the USSR, not only in terms of arms, but also on the Pashtunistan issue, and a long-term loan of 100 million dollars was granted to Afghanistan.

On the other hand, numerous Soviet experts started investigating all over the country; thousands of young Afghans were sent to the USSR to complete their studies in various fields, but mostly to get an army training. Large projects were undertaken by the Russians, mostly in the communication sector and the research of natural resources. Several main roads and airports were built; gas, oil, iron and copper resources were carefully studied.

A large polytechnic institute in Kabul and several smaller ones in the provinces were built. During the years 1958 to 1973, 50% of the young officers and army technicians were trained in the USSR, or under the supervision of Russian instructors in Afghanistan.

*   *   *                  

A long-term plan had been drawn up by the Russians and each step had been carefully studied by qualified experts.

During the whole preparatory and transitional period, the western countries which, in spite of the growing Russian influence had maintained a presence in Afghanistan, did not suspect the intentions of the USSR. On the contrary, they were quite happy at this unprecedented peaceful competition with Russians. For example, Kabul's airport was built by the Russians and the technical equipment was supplied by the Americans.

A few Afghans, who were familiar with the Russians' methods, and in particular with their way of dealing with the Muslims in Central Asia, voiced some doubts about their impartiality.

They were able to convince King Zaher that his cousin was going too far in his relations with the USSR, especially after relations with Pakistan were severed in 1961, making the country totally dependent on Russia.

Already some signs of Marxist ideas were becoming apparent and were reflected in the press. The King, who was quite slow in making up his mind (this was due to the many years during which all decisions were taken by his uncles and then his cousin), came to a drastic decision.

He "accepted the resignation" of Daoud and, for the first time, appointed a Prime Minister who belonged neither to the Royal family, nor to the aristocracy. Dr. Muhammad Yusuf, who was Minister of Mines and Industry in the Daoud government, presented his cabinet, composed of technocrats and intellectuals, in March 1963. He suggested that a new Constitution be prepared with a view to changing the country to a constitutional monarchy.

The King agreed to that proposal, and the new constitution was drafted by Afghan experts, in collaboration with foreign legal advisers (a Frenchman, an Indian and an Egyptian). It was based on the principles of classical democracy, but maintained the traditional values, so deeply rooted in Afghan society, of Islam and monarchy. It also excluded all members of the Royal family from the political scene...





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