Strange bedfellows in Afghanistan

Date Published:

Sep 18, 2005


Before its rise to fame as a battleground in the war on terror, Afghanistan was known as a bubbling geyser of the Cold War. During the 1980s Afghan communists, installed and backed by the Soviet Army, struggled for years to overcome resistance from US-backed mujahideen. Now—over a decade after the Soviet withdrawal and bloody ethnic strife that followed—the communists are making a comeback. Running for office in today's Afghan parliamentary elections, they have assumed the mantle of modernism against fundamentalism. And in the highly unstable and ethnically fragmented political landscape, the United States seems to have found a friend in their former foe. Arguably, there is some logic to this apparent madness; but our new-found love for the communists could prove perilous unless handled with care.

Indeed, the former communists—along with some newly returned Afghan diaspora—are the only locals with experience in running a country: They are the only literate bureaucrats around. And in a country plagued by illiteracy and ravished by decades of civil war, the scarcity of trained local officials has made them a desirable commodity. Similarly, former comrades are the only Afghans who are tried and tested in party organization. The Afghan communist party, regardless of its factionalism and shortcomings, was a true party of sorts: It had cadres, a semi-formalized membership structure, as well as women's wings and youth organizations. Peter Dimitroff, the country director of the National Democratic Institute, a leading, mostly US-funded NGO, appreciates the irony in his organization's support for former communist groups. "We support all registered parties, but we support some in a deeper fashion. We like groups that get together on the basis of ideas not ethnicity or geographical background. That is why we are supporting groups like the communists with US money, which is kind of funny... They are good guys and well organized. They are the closest to a professional political party you can get."

In the traditionalist and highly conservative Afghan political context, the former communists are openly "women-friendly," fielding a sizeable number of female candidates. Given the party's gender equity policy, it is hardly surprising that some of the leading women on the political scene have a communist affiliation. And the female quota—which stipulates that 25 percent of the parliamentary seats will have to be filled by women even though they make up only 10 percent of the candidates' pool—will undoubtedly boost not only female but also communist representation in parliament.

Laudable though the former communists' agenda may be, the risks associated with backing a former foe—particularly one with such a negative precedent in Afghanistan—can easily outweigh the benefits. First, our support for the former communists risks alienating the local population. UN Political Affairs Officer Eckhart Schiewe says that US rhetoric on the war on terror closely echoes Soviet justifications for the invasion of Afghanistan. "Once again a major world power has chosen to depict the conflict in Afghanistan as the forces of good against the forces of evil, much like the Soviet Union did," according to Schiewe. "The communists are back in business."

Afghans appear highly apprehensive, if not outright negative, about a potential communist return. According to former Afghan president Burhanuddin Rabbani, "some Western governments working in our country have given place to those who entered on the tanks of the [Soviet] invaders of our country... indirectly telling us that it was bad to stand against the Soviets, the Taliban, and terrorism."

Rather than using remnants of an "evil" empire (the former communists) to take down the new evil-doers (the fundamentalists), and risk alienating the local population, the United States should concentrate on good practices. A young Afghan, who blamed Russia "for everything that has gone wrong in Afghanistan in the last 30 years," attributed the resilience of the Afghan communists to the Soviets' human capital strategy. "The Soviets offered a significant number of scholarships to Afghans and trained scores of people in the Soviet Union. These people then came back to Afghanistan as the staunchest supporters of Soviet ideology," he said. "The Americans, if they want to succeed in winning the hearts and minds of Afghans, need to establish educational exchange programs. They should stop worrying about weapons of mass destruction and instead concentrate on building human capital. Trained people make the best ideological weapons. And this is what Americans need: ideological weapons of mass construction."

Judging by the Afghan communists' return and resilience, the United States can possibly outsmart its current enemy by learning from its former one. But to do it right, it would have to train its own people rather than rely on what the Soviets left behind.