Main content

Kabul: City Number One - Part 4

Adam Curtis

Tagged with:

The more you dig into the history of the West's relationship to Afghanistan, the stranger and more complicated it gets.

In 1978 a group of Afghan marxists overthrew the royal family who had ruled Afghanistan for 150 years. They set out to turn Afghanistan into a modern socialist utopia but it quickly descended into bloody horror.

Many in the West saw it as the Soviet Union trying to turn Afghanistan into another satellite. But if you trace back where the "communist" ideas that inspired the revolutionaries came from you find something very odd. The revolutionary ideas didn't just come from the Soviet Union.

They also came from somewhere else. From America.


In 1963 the King of Afghanistan had sacked his Prime Minister, Mohammed Daoud

Ten years later - in 1973 - Daoud deposed the King and declared a republic.

But Daoud was the King's first cousin and his brother-in-law. So power remained in the hands of the royal Durrani clan.

His only opposition were a small group of revolutionary marxists called The Peoples' Democratic Party of Afghanistan. But like all revolutionaries they had split into different factions and hated each other.

Then Prime Minister Daoud got paranoid. He decided the marxists were preparing a coup against him. So he ordered that they be arrested. But something strange happened. Hafizullah Amin, who was one of the marxist leaders, was not arrested. When the police arrived at his house they just confiscated lots of leftist pamphlets and surrounded the house. No-one knows why.

Amin was very jolly. Everyone liked him. Even the Islamists nicknamed him 'the infidel', but everybody in Kabul knew that he could never be trusted because he lusted after power so much.

Here are some frame-grabs of Amin.

As the police stood outside, Amin decided he really would stage a coup. He used his children to send out instructions to the revolutionary cells he had built up in the Afghan military, and within hours tanks began to rumble towards Kabul and the Presidential Palace.

Here is a bit from a wonderful film that Amin had made which tells the story of that night. It stars himself as himself. This extract shows the police coming in and seizing the literature, then he gives his wife some money and spends the night directing the coup over army radio and finally rides into power on a tank.

Prime Minister Daoud knew nothing of all this and thought the marxists were under arrest. All the military commanders in Kabul were told to order their troops to sing and dance to celebrate the arrest of the "kafirs" - the communists.

But the next morning Daoud woke up to discover the coup underway. His Minister of Defence rang the local base commander and ordered him to move his troops to protect the Presidential Palace. The Commander replied:

"How can I? They're all out singing and dancing as you ordered - and have been for hours"

Then he rang the 8th Rocket Division. The Commanding Officer said he would send the rockets, but instead he told his troops to keep dancing. He was waiting to see which side won.

Here is some film of an Afghan man dancing followed by some slowed-down film of Amin announcing the coup at the radio station. You can get a sense of what he was like as a person.

Finally at 7pm the Minister of Defence and three of the Chiefs of Staff were found hiding in a chicken coop behind the palace. The rebels shot them and then went upstairs and slaughtered Daoud and 30 of his family. It was the end of a royal dynasty that had ruled Afghanistan for 150 years.

The new President of the revolutionary council was Mohammed Taraki. Hafizullah Amin was made Foreign Minister. At their first press conference Taraki insisted that they were not communists but socialists and politically democratic. Here is one of the first TV reports after the revolution. The reporter is neutral but suspicious.

In the West it was assumed that the revolutionaries were just Soviet puppets who had been trained in Moscow. But in Kabul one American decided to find out if this was true. He was an anthropologist called Louis Dupree who worked in Afghanistan for the American Universities Field Staff.

What he discovered was rather surprising. Out of the 21 members of the revolutionary cabinet only one civilian had been educated in the Soviet Union. Three of the generals had received military training in the USSR, but none of the revolutionaries had ever attended or been invited to international communist meetings.

Dupree firmly concluded their revolution had not been born in Moscow.

In reality much of it may have been born in another country: America, where many of the revolutionaries had studied and had been indoctrinated with all sorts of new ideas about how to transform Afghanistan.

Out of the top revolutionary elite who had taken over Afghanistan many had studied in America, and 14 of them had studied at just one American University - Columbia University in New York. They had gone there as part of what Columbia called "The Afghan Project" - an attempt to produce a new generation of teachers who would go back to Afghanistan and transform a tribal people into modern western style individuals.

They had been at Columbia in the 1960s when American universities had been swept by revolutionary student politics and this had done much to radicalise them. Above all Hafizullah Amin - who would organise the coup and be the main ideologist of the Afghan revolution.

Amin told Dupree that his radicalisation had happened when he went from Columbia to a course at the University of Wisconsin in Madison in 1963. Madison at that time was the main centre of what was called the "New Left" - a movement which was about to break out and take over most American universities. Here's a page from 'The Badger' - the 1963 Wisconsin-Madison University yearbook.

Madison was full of foreign students. One of the leading leftists Nina Serrano - who called herself "A Madison Bohemian" - described them in the 1950s:

'the foreign students stood out in a sea of blonds. I'd never seen so many Middle Eastern, African and Asian people. Among them were two out of place Afghan students. They were even more disorientated than I. Religious practice made them afraid to eat hamburger because they thought it might be made of ham. They survived the first few weeks on cakes and other deserts. I identified with them as a fish out of water, but they were afraid to speak to me. They frequently visited our one-room apartment, but I could never get a response from them when I joined the conversation. I was shocked when I found out it was because I was a woman and a friend's wife.'

The key figure at Madison was an historian called William Appleman Williams. He was determined to create a new framework for radical politics so it could escape from the trap of the Cold War - the conflict of two giant monoliths. He did this by reaching back to a forgotten radical tradition in America, Progressivism.

Progressivism had been born in the 1890s in Wisconsin as the battle between the independent farmer on the land and what were called "The Interests". They were the bankers and the big industrial corporations on the East coast who sucked the life-blood of the farmers and crushed their individual freedom.

The hero of the Progressive movement was the senator for Wisconsin, Robert La Follette. He spent his lifetime struggling against the politicians in Washington who had been bought and corrupted by the bankers and the giant railroad companies. Villains like JP Morgan and Rockefeller whom La Follette believed were destroying the true revolutionary tradition of America. Here is a cartoon of La Follette.

Appleman Williams awoke the ghost of La Follette and remade Progressivism. It became not just a battle against bankers and corporations, but also against the giant structures erected by governments on both sides in the Cold War. It was a struggle of the individual against a new totalitarianism run by Soviet and American elites that was crushing both their peoples' freedom through fear.

But at its heart, this New Left radicalism still had its roots in the simple image of the mid-western farmers free on their land. The most romantic expression of this came in the songs of Woody Guthrie in the 1930s and 40s. Guthrie saw himself as a communist, but he never joined the Party - he wanted to be free to roam wherever he wanted.

Here is Pete Seeger singing the radical verses of "This Land is Your Land" that had been dropped and forgotten by the 1960s. Followed by Guthrie himself singing the rest. Its the song that most perfectly expresses the Progressive dream.

These were the ideas that Amin would have listened to in the summer camps at Madison in 1963. How far they inspired or shaped his political ideas is impossible to know. Everyone from that time is dead.

What is absolutely clear is that Amin and the others who led the revolutionary Council had become marxists. And they looked for help and military aid from the Soviet Union. The Kabul Times was full of Marxist slogans and attacks on what were called "the bowel-lickers of imperialism" (although it was later altered to "bowl-lickers" after complaints)

But their reform programme was like an American Progressive dream. The making of extortionate loans to the peasant farmers was banned. Every farmer was to be allowed to own their own land. There was no mention of collectivization. There would be equal rights for women, and forced marriages were banned.

The only problem was that the peasant farmers hated it. They were deeply conservative and didn't want change. They weren't interested in progress. Then the Islamist parties told them that the new regime was godless - and armed revolts began to break out.

Here is film of one of the early parades in Kabul promoting reform, and film of the young idealistic revolutionaries going out into the countryside to measure out the new small-holdings. The grateful peasants kiss their new land certificates.

But this wasn't the first time that Afghanistan had met the dreams of American Progressivism. In the 1830s a lone American had risen to great power in Kabul, and had dreamt of turning the country into what he called "An Empire of Liberty"

He was called Josiah Harlan. Harlan was an extraordinary adventurer and mercenary who had ended up in Kabul in 1828. He was fascinated by the reigning Amir - called Dost Mohammed Khan. Dost Mohammed maintained his power only by his prestige and a constant flow of bribes to the tribal chieftains who ruled different areas of the country. As they talked, the prince asked Harlan about America.

'"How was America ruled?", he said. I explained to him the nature of our government which he pleasantly remarked resembled the Afghan system of tribes"

Here is the only photograph of Harlan, and the sketch he made of Dost Mohammed Khan in Kabul.

After many adventures Harlan ended up running Dost Mohammed's army for him. And in 1838 Harlan set off on an epic journey north from Kabul to defeat a rebellious warlord. Harlan led the way seated on an elephant. As they crossed a mountain pass Harlan saw a small animal peering at him and he asked the Afghans what it was. They told him it was called a "mountain ant". It was a marmot. Harlan decided to keep it, and he rode on to war with the marmot in his pocket.

But then Harlan had a transforming experience. High up in the north he met the Hazara tribes. Harlan decided he had stumbled on a people unlike any other in Afghanistan. They lived a life driven by a code of honour which was, he wrote, "the foundation of a pure system of moral virtue"

He especially admired the role of the Hazara women. They weren't hidden behind veils or trapped in their houses. They lived and worked and hunted - and even fought alongside their husbands. Above all they were involved in public matters:

For centuries the Hazara had been an oppressed minority. Their leader, Mohammed Reffee Beg, asked Harlan to help him conquer his enemies. In return he made Harlan the Prince of Ghor, the new leader of the Hazara people.

Harlan hated the British Empire and the brutality of its rule. He was driven by the romantic revolutionary ideas of America's founders. They had fled the corruption of old Europe and its repressive empires to found a new kind of society in the west. A new empire, but one based on the ideal of individual freedom.

And Harlan now had a vision of his own. That with the noble independence of the Hazaris, led by him as King, together they could transform Afghanistan into a new kind of place. "Such resources" wrote Harlan "would, in the hands of an intelligent agent, establish the foundations of an empire."

And he rode off back to Kabul.

One hundred and sixty two years later, in September 2001, the Americans turned up again and asked the Hazaras to help transform Afghanistan into a new kind of free country. But the Hazara had to be persuaded.

By April 1979 the Marxist revolution had become a disaster. Large parts of Afghanistan were in revolt. In response Hafizullah Amin had begun a series of purges. He had already killed the royal supporters and many of the Islamists. But now he started to kill and torture the urban professionals - the doctors and teachers. Then he turned on the different factions in his own party and the revolution began to eat itself. Finally, in September, he had President Taraki killed. Taraki was held down and suffocated with a cushion.

Here are a series of frames showing Amin a few weeks earlier swearing his loyalty to Taraki, the man he was about to assassinate.

Amin now had what he had always wanted. Supreme power. He tried to prove how nice and open he was by publishing a list of 12,000 people who had been killed in the purges. The only problem was that many Afghans have similar names - there are thousands of Mohammed Alis and Abdul Mohammeds - and tens of thousands of people descended on the Ministry of Interior desperately wanting details.

So he stopped publishing the list. Which led to more protests and violence.

The Soviets were horrified. The secret Politburo minutes and telephone transcripts that have recently been published by the Wilson Center - you can find them here - show the Soviet leaders shocked by what Amin was doing to Afghanistan. They are terrified that the country will descend into chaos.

Brezhnev shouted in a meeting in the Kremlin:

"What scum Amin is. You smother a man with whom you participated in a revolution!"

He seemed to have forgotten how many of his predecessors in Russia had behaved. But it was the turning point. The Soviets decided that that they would have to get rid of Amin.

Then Amin rang Brezhnev and pleaded with him for Soviet troops to help fight the Islamists. Much to Amin's surprise Brezhnev said yes. What he didn't realise was that the troops would be coming to kill him.

Rumours began to spread that the Russians were on their way. Here is footage of the Islamist leader Gulbaddin Hekmatyar reacting to the news. No-one in the west knew who he was and he is captioned by his nickname. It had been given to him when he studied at the engineering department of Kabul University. "The Engineer"

In 1839 Josiah Harlan, Prince of Ghor, rode back in triumph to Kabul with the marmot peeking out of his pocket. He was full of dreams of using his military power and his new position to turn Afghanistan into a utopian kingdom with himself as an enlightened leader.

But as he arrived he discovered that the British were on their way. They had marched from Punjab, through Kandahar, and had overwhelmed Dost Mohammed Khan's army. They were coming to put their own puppet ruler on the throne. The British were terrified that Dost Mohammed would make an alliance with the Russians - and so they were going to remove him.

Harlan watched as power began to drain away from Dost Mohammed - and with it his own utopian dreams for Afghanistan. Here is a vivid description from Harlan's journals that are quoted in Ben MacIntyre's wonderful book about Harlan:

"He called for his attendant, but a fallen prince has not even a faithful slave. The guards had disappeared. A servant audaciously pulled away the pillow which sustained the prince's arm. Another commenced cutting a piece of the splendid persian carpet.

In an instant the unruly crowd rushed upon the pavilion, swords gleamed in the air and descended on the tent and the ropes. the carpets, pillows, screens - all were seized and dispensed among the plunderers

The report of an explosion concentrated the attention of the disorganized army. An immense column of white smoke rose into the still, clear air, like a genie conjured by the magic of war. The prince turned his horse towards that dense cloud, and plunged alone into the screening veil that obscured his fallen fortunes."

Harlan stayed in Kabul and watched in mounting anger as the British ignored the complex balance of power between the different tribes and allowed their puppet ruler to exact vengeance on all his enemies. The British military spent their time awarding themselves medals and playing cricket outside the city walls.

But within 18 months all but one of the 16,000 British would be slaughtered by the Afghans.

In December 1979 in Moscow the politburo decided to issue the order to kill Amin and to send hundreds of thousands of troops to take control of the Afghanistan. But one man believed this would lead to disaster. He was the Chief of the General Staff - Marshal Ogarkov. He went to the Kremlin to plead with the Soviet leaders and here is what he told them. It is a remarkable prediction of what was to happen.

Source: Wilson Center Cold War Project

But Ogarkov was ignored and demoted. His bad luck continued. Here he is a few years later defending the shooting down of Korean airline flight 007.

On the 12th December the first troops arrived in Kabul to kill Amin.

First they positioned snipers along the main highway. But Amin's convoy drove too fast.

Then they tried again. This time they put poison in his can of Pepsi in the Presidential palace. But Amin's nephew drank it instead.

Then - on the 27th - Amin gave a banquet in a palace outside Kabul. It was surrounded by minefields and protected by 2000 troops. But the Soviets smuggled in a chef who put poison in the food. This time it worked and all the guests slipped into comas.

The Afghans rang Kabul for help - and two Russian doctors turned up. They walked into a banqueting hall full of men and women lying on the floor with their eyes rolling in agony. The doctors found Amin upstairs in his underpants.

The doctors thought he was an ally of the Soviet Union so the pumped his stomach and revived him. Then the Russian troops attacked the palace.

The final image of Amin comes from one of the doctors. He describes watching Amin lurching along a corridor in the palace dressed only in Adidas shorts holding his hands high. They were wrapped in medical tubes which led to needles in his veins. He held the vials full of saline solution "as though they were grenades". He was looking for the Soviets who he still believed would rescue him.

But when he found them they threw a grenade at him. And then they shot him.

The next day the Soviets installed their puppet ruler. He was called Babrak Karmal

Here is extraordinary film of the main Kabul prison being thrown open ten days later. It is on a plain outside the city and it housed the thousands of political prisoners who had survived Hafizullah Amin's wrath. The Soviets had let them out to prove that a new era of openness and freedom was about to begin in Afghanistan.

By the end of the 1960s the New Left in America had collapsed. Many of its members turned their back on politics and went into the commune movement. Rather than try and change society they would change themselves - as independent farmers on the land.

Others turned to revolutionary violence - they thought it would provoke repression in America and that this would make Americans realise that they lived in a fascist state.

But there was a third group of leftists in America who thought both these solutions were stupid. Many of them had started as Trotskyites who believed in Trotsky's theory that you couldn't have revolution in just one country. That to have a real permanent revolution it had to be world wide.

By the 1960s these ex-Trotskyites had given up on the Soviet Union. Instead they pinned their hopes on America as the source of world revolution. They became known as the Neoconservatives. Many of them believed that America's true destiny was to spread its ideals world wide. This would mean overthrowing the Soviet empire - through force if necessary - to create a new global "Empire of Freedom"

A number of very ambitious young neoconservatives who thrilled to these ideas were now serving in Ronald Reagan's campaign. And they seized on Afghanistan as the way to do this.

Josiah Harlan returned to America. He spent his time promoting the use of camels for both farming and for the army. In 1854 the American Camel Company was set up and began to import camels from Asia. They were very good at their job, but American horses and mules hated them. Whenever the horses met a camel they ran away.

Josiah Harlan died in San Francisco in 1871, leaving a few lonely camels in the plains of the mid-west.

Tagged with:

More Posts


Kabul: City Number One - Part 3


Kabul: City Number One - Part 5