Workers Vanguard No. 1002

11 May 2012



Why the Soviet Union Intervened in Afghanistan

In “Afghanistan: Women Under Imperialist Occupation” (WV No. 998, 16 March) we highlighted the huge gains made by Afghan women under the Soviet military presence in the 1980s and wrote that the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in December 1979 was “a decent and progressive act, even if it was carried out by the corrupt and conservative regime of Leonid Brezhnev, that cut against the grain of the Stalinist dogma of ‘socialism in one country’.” While the latter assertion has appeared in other articles in our press, it does not accurately and fully convey what drove the Kremlin bureaucracy to intervene.

In particular, the article does not make it clear that Moscow did not send 100,000 troops into Afghanistan to effect a social revolution. The bureaucracy’s aim was narrower but legitimate: to protect the Soviet Union’s southern flank and to make an unstable, strategically placed client state secure. The military intervention into Afghanistan was an exceptional act. But it did not put into question the bureaucracy’s Stalinist program.

In fact, the Soviet bureaucracy initially resisted intervening in Afghanistan, in spite of repeated requests by the modernizing nationalist People’s Democratic Party (PDPA) regime in Kabul, which was unable on its own to fend off the reactionary Islamic fundamentalist threat stoked by the U.S. Arguing against sending troops into Afghanistan, Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko in March 1979 expressed the concerns of the Kremlin bureaucracy, which had for decades pursued the illusory goal of peacefully coexisting with imperialism: “All that we have done in recent years with such effort in terms of détente, arms reduction, and much more—all that would be thrown back.” What finally compelled Moscow to pour troops into Afghanistan was the fear that the PDPA regime, with Prime Minister Taraki assassinated and his successor Hafizullah Amin reportedly making approaches to Washington, was about to collapse in the face of the CIA-backed jihad.

The Stalinist bureaucracy was a ruling caste, a parasite upon the state issuing from the proletarian October Revolution of 1917. In late 1924, Stalin proclaimed the anti-Marxist dogma of “building socialism in one country,” codifying the bureaucracy’s outlook, which subordinated the interests of the international proletariat to the defense of its own privileged position. At the same time, the Stalinist regime rested on the socialized foundations of the workers state, which it was at times compelled to defend. Even after nearly six decades of Stalinist repression, lies and sellouts, this contradictory character persisted, as exemplified by the military intervention into Afghanistan.

Moscow’s intervention both defended the Soviet Union and posed the objective possibility of a revolutionary transformation of hideously backward Afghanistan, where the status of women was a central factor in the unfolding civil war. When the Soviet Army went in and fought against the anti-Communist tribal chiefs and mullahs, who were committed to mass illiteracy and the enslavement of women, we declared: “Hail Red Army in Afghanistan!” and called to “Extend social gains of the October Revolution to Afghan peoples!”

The Soviet presence brought with it literacy, doctors, technicians and the first taste of liberation for Afghan women. But from the outset, the Moscow bureaucracy tried to limit the scale of social reforms in order to conciliate the feudalist opposition. After PDPA forces and Soviet troops routed the reactionary mujahedin rebels from strategic positions near the capital, Kabul, in 1982, we wrote: “Instead of capitulating to the mullah reaction, by limiting land reform and literacy campaigns, the Soviets should be pouring the money in there on a massive scale: land to the tiller and cheap credit, health programs, etc. But that means social revolution.... And that does not square with the Kremlin’s policies of détente and ‘two-stage’ revolution” (“Reagan, Begin & Hitler,” WV No. 308, 25 June 1982).

From the beginning, we warned that in its futile quest for peaceful coexistence with imperialism, the Soviet bureaucracy could reach a deal with the imperialists to withdraw. By the time Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985, the Stalinist bureaucrats were increasingly committed to withdrawing from Afghanistan. Soviet media churned out defeatist propaganda about the Afghan war to turn the Soviet population against it. Gorbachev—who went from orchestrating the dismantling of centralized planning in the USSR to, in 1990, advocating outright capitalist restoration—openly declared that “after all, it’s not socialism we want” in Afghanistan. In 1988-89, even though the Red Army and PDPA forces were prevailing militarily, Gorbachev opened the road to murderous mujahedin rule in Afghanistan by withdrawing the Soviet armed forces. Three years later, in 1992, the mujahedin marched into Kabul. The treacherous Soviet troop withdrawal directly paved the way for the destruction of the USSR in the capitalist counterrevolution of 1991-92 led by Boris Yeltsin, a historic defeat for the proletariat and the oppressed around the world.

In 1936, Leon Trotsky pointed out in his analysis of the Soviet degenerated workers state, The Revolution Betrayed, that if the working class did not throw out the Stalinist bureaucracy, the bureaucracy would devour the workers state. To restore the Soviet state and the Red Army to their revolutionary and internationalist mission required a proletarian political revolution against the Stalinist usurpers of Lenin and Trotsky’s Bolshevik Party.

In early 1989, in the wake of the Soviet troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, our international tendency proposed to organize an international brigade to combat the mujahedin forces. Our offer—made in defense of women and other targets of Islamic reaction in Afghanistan and in defense of the Soviet Union itself—was turned down by the Afghan government. Organizing such brigades could have had an explosive effect in the USSR—particularly among veterans of the Afghan war who saw their involvement there as their internationalist duty—by promoting the struggle for proletarian political revolution against the decomposing Stalinist bureaucracy that was selling out the gains of October.