Can Putin Survive?
The Lessons of the Soviet Collapse
A FGHANISTAN is a land-locked and mountain-studded land the size of Texas, with a population estimated perhaps at 12,000,000. The vast majority of its fervent Moslems are primitive farmers or nomads, pursuing ancient patterns of life. The country is bounded on the west by Iran, on the south and east by Pakistan, and on the north by a 900-mile frontier with the U.S.S.R. At the extreme northeastern corner a needle-like corridor stretches as far as Red China, marked out long ago by the British to keep the Russian Empire from direct contact with India.
Down this corridor march the Pamirs, lofty outshoots of the Himalayas, to spread out and traverse the central spine of the country as the massive Hindu Kush range. To the south of the Hindu Kush a boundless plateau slopes toward the Indian Ocean, while to the north are desolate steppes extending to the Oxus River, which forms the Soviet frontier. Rainfall is scanty, so that in most parts of the country crops can be grown only by irrigation from streams flowing out of the snow-crowned Hindu Kush and these facilities are so restricted that less than 5 percent of the land is now cultivated.
A Western visitor is likely to enter Afghanistan through the Khyber pass, leaving behind the Pakistan town of Peshawar with its asphalted, tree-lined avenues to emerge into a region of fantastic and rugged beauty where the turbaned, baggy-trousered men carry guns and the women are heavily veiled. A narrow shelf carries the rough road above a boiling river, and then the route winds steeply over a high pass before the final descent to Kabul. The traveler may continue along the "great circle" route which joins Kabul with the rest of the country, and will then pass through such historically famous towns as Mazar-i-Sharif, Balkh, Herat, Kandahar and Ghazni--towns that were seen by Alexander the Great, Genghiz Khan and Tamerlane. Kabul, the capital city of more than 200,000 people, is hemmed in by mountains and penetrated by rocky ledges which are still crowned by ancient walls. Wide new avenues have been laid through the crowded older quarters south of the Kabul River and suburbs are pushing out in every direction. The city has an air of activity and enterprise.
The Afghans gained internal independence in the eighteenth century, but the territory was soon subjected to pressure by Tsarist Russia, pushing relentlessly down from the north, and by the British moving toward Afghanistan from the east across India. Committed to the protection of India, Britain was determined to halt Tsarist expansion at the Oxus River, and her concern over the course of events in Afghanistan brought on the Afghan-British wars of 1839-42 and 1879-81. After the second conflict the Afghans agreed to conduct relations with foreign states in accord with British advice.
A new period in Afghanistan's affairs began in 1907 when Russia and Britain settled their rivalry for the time being, and agreed upon spheres of influence in northern and southern Persia respectively. As part of the Convention of 1907, the Tsarist Government stated that Afghanistan lay outside its sphere of influence, and the British pledged that they would neither occupy nor annex any part of the country. But the animosity created in Afghanistan by the unilateral methods by which the country was proclaimed a buffer state still lingers, although grants of money and arms by Great Britain enabled the Afghan kings to establish control over their feudal lords. For a long time the Afghan Government suspected and mistrusted the outer world, and deliberately isolated itself. Local self-esteem was cultivated to such an
extent that in 1919 the Afghans provoked a third, and brief, Afghan-British war. The resulting treaty of 1921 recognized Afghanistan's complete independence in the field of foreign relations. In this same year the Afghans signed an elaborate Treaty of Friendship with the Soviet Government.
In the period between the two world wars, the Afghan rulers gradually abandoned their policy of isolation and sought the material progress which Afghans who had traveled in Europe had observed. After 1929 notable advances were made under Nadir Shah, and since 1933 by his son, Muhammad Zahir Shah. This ruler was educated in France, speaks French fluently, and is now learning English. He came to the throne at the age of 19, and the early years of his reign were dominated by the authority of his three uncles. More recently he has come into his own. He is sincere and well informed, and recognizes that Afghanistan faces the two major problems common to all Asiatic countries: the need for more abundant food and for social evolution. He has declared that Afghanistan can solve her problems only if she enjoys good relations with all her neighbors.
The wise initial step toward the solution of domestic problems was the decision to seek increased agricultural production rather than to impose an industrial structure upon a primitive society. Motor roads, begun in the 1920's, are designed to distribute the harvest of more fertile northern regions to areas of scarcity, and efforts are being made to expand the area of cultivable land in both the north and south. In the north, irrigation canals are being dug by hand over the fertile flood plains of the rivers which rush north from the Hindu Kush into the Oxus. In the south, the Government boldly decided to execute large-scale, long-range projects without prior application for foreign loans or grants. In 1946 preliminary discussions with an American engineering firm culminated in the signature of a contract with a created subsidiary, Morrison-Knudsen Afghanistan, and the Government appropriated $17,000,000 from the country's limited dollar funds to get the projects started. In 1949, a loan of $21,000,000 was obtained from the Export-Import Bank. Of three major projects, one, the Boghra canal, drawing water from the Helmand River and running for 55 miles, has been completed and is in operation. Moreover, two massive earth dams, one on the Helmand and one on the Arghandab River, are nearing completion. The dams and canals will irrigate at least 345,000 acres and, when demand arises, can generate some 65,000 kilowatts. Collaboration between Afghans and Americans has been successful; less than 100 American specialists have trained 4,000 Afghans to handle the heavy machinery brought 12,000 miles from the United States.
As thousands of farmers are settled on the newly fertile lands, wheat, rice and special income-producing crops will be grown in increasing quantities. Sugar beets are now processed in a modern plant, for home consumption of sugar. Cotton is baled, spun and woven in the north to supply a considerable percentage of the piece-goods needs, and the government hopes to expand export sales of cotton to obtain vitally needed foreign exchange. For the first time in history, the Afghan farmer can feel that the government is concerned with his well-being.
A primitive type of democracy is traditional among the Afghan tribes, but government has always been autocratic. King Zahir informed the writer that his officials are anxious to extend democratic rights and institutions; but the process is bound to take time. The promotion of national, or patriotic, sentiment is hampered by the existence of several ethnic stocks, sporting a variety of languages and customs. Such elements at the Pashtuns, or Pakhtuns--who are the so-called "true Afghans"--the Hazaras, the Uzbeks, the Tajiks, the Turkoman, the Khirghiz and the Nuris stem from Aryan, Turki, Mongol and other stocks. For centuries Afghanistan labored under the rule of large landowners whose subjects were by turn farmers and soldiers. Feudal warfare was constant and central authority scarcely a concept. However, at the end of the nineteenth century the Amir Abdur Rahman used the strong forces at his disposal to enforce excessive taxation and so break up the vast landholdings. As a result the cultivated areas were divided into smaller holdings long before such action appeared necessary or desirable in other lands of the Middle East.
While short on ethnic solidarity, Afghanistan is favored by religious unity. Certainly the country is more orthodox in carrying out the rites and precepts of the Moslem religion than the Islamic states to the west. Some of these prescriptions, such as social equality, frequent prayer, and abstinence from alcohol and habit-forming drugs, are considered virtues in any country, while others, such as the veiling of women and the existence of a legal code based on religious interpretation, are bound to be altered. Today, religion is vitally important to the Afghans in insulating them from the pervasive influence of foreign ideologies and manners which might destroy established moral standards without substituting anything of equal worth.
At the present day, the central government can maintain internal security and stability as long as it has the support of the true Afghan tribes resident in the east and the south of the country. King Amanollah lost this support because of his over-hasty steps toward "modern" reforms, and was driven from the country in 1929. Nadir Shah, who reëstablished law and order, promulgated the present constitution. While this document provides for an upper and lower house of elected and appointed representatives, authority remains concentrated in the hands of the royal family. The Prime Minister is named by the ruler and is responsible to him rather than to the Parliament. As a result, cabinets are far more stable than throughout the rest of the Middle East. Relatives of the king normally hold several of the ministerial posts.
Afghanistan has no political parties, no labor unions and few coöperative organizations. The family, ruled by its patriarch, remains the most important social unit. Abdul Hadi Davi, then President of Parliament, told the writer that the recent elections for that body drew a much larger popular vote than had been expected and that the Parliament might prepare an amendment to the constitution providing for the formation of political parties. But though a press law does provide for the publication of independent papers, most of the printing and press outlets in the country are under governmental control. Several independent papers have appeared at Kabul, the most influential of which was the weekly Vatan, printed in 1951 and 1952. This organ, backed by a member of the Parliament, campaigned for complete freedom of the press, assembly and speech, as well as for the withdrawal of the royal family from politics. While this paper supported the Government's foreign policy and its general program of reform, its tone became so critical that the authorities suspended its publication and took action against its directing group.
The Government will probably continue to react against citizens who advocate forms of European and American social and political life which are considered as still too foreign and too modern for public acceptance. But the unusual aspect of the situation is that the royal family seems more willing to delegate authority than the governed are to take up unfamiliar responsibilities. There is strong opposition among the Moslem clergy and the tribes to change of any kind. The first step in decentralization will probably take the form of instituting elections for some provincial offices now filled by appointment from Kabul.
Afghanistan's relations with foreign Powers have changed considerably since 1921. With the signing of the Afghan-Soviet Treaty in that year, Afghanistan became one of the first nations to recognize the Soviet régime. At that time the Bolsheviks were anxious to stabilize the situation along their frontiers so that they could concentrate on establishing internal security, and friendly approaches were made both to Iran and Afghanistan. While the Afghans did not believe that a mere change of régime meant the end of the Russian policy of expansion in Asia, they did welcome the agreement as a potential counterbalance to possible British interference. This treaty placed the U.S.S.R. under specific obligations, a number of which were never fulfilled. The Soviets guaranteed the independence of the Bokhara region just north of Afghanistan--whose ruler had already sought refuge with the Afghans--but by 1923 the U.S.S.R. had absorbed Bokhara completely. In addition, the Russians failed to return to Afghan sovereignty the Panjdeh district, near the western end of the northern frontier, and discontinued payments of a subsidy provided for by the treaty. Instead, the Soviets swung toward a policy of active penetration such as they had previously condemned as "imperialistic." In 1929, a time of internal upheaval in Afghanistan, the U.S.S.R. gave material support to one of the contesting parties, and in June 1930 an official Soviet force crossed the Oxus and penetrated some distance into Afghanistan in search of a Russian outlaw leader.[i] However, Nadir Shah, who came to the throne late in 1929, was able to reduce Soviet influence and interference to a marked degree.
During the first decade after the end of World War I the Afghans looked for a third Power--neither Russia nor Britain--which had no prior political interests in the area and which would assist in planned development. Germany was selected, and throughout the 1930's German advisers had posts with the government, German engineers erected dams and public buildings, a German airline connected Berlin and Kabul, and a barter agreement facilitated the exchange of Afghan raw materials for manufactured goods. At the outset of World War II, Afghanistan asserted her neutrality and maintained it, although the government yielded to a demand by the British and Soviet Governments to expel Axis nationals from the country. Now Germans and Austrians are again in evidence at Kabul.
Afghanistan's relations with the U.S.S.R. are at present relatively placid. Every few months a Soviet station airs a brief blast against the country with the nonsensical charge that military airfields are being built in Afghanistan under the direction of American engineers. And as recently as September 1952 the Soviet Union informed the Afghan Government that American and United Nations technical advisers must be kept out of the northern provinces of the country--a warning which Afghanistan rejected. But for the most part official Russian behavior is correct. For the present, at any rate, the Kremlin appears to believe that blandishments rather than threats will best advance its interests in Afghanistan. The trade office maintained in Kabul under the auspices of Vostorgintorg was enlarged in 1951, and trade between the two countries is increasing. An original barter agreement of 1936 was replaced by a new series of agreements beginning in 1947, and on July 17, 1950, a four-year agreement was concluded between the two countries. In the main, the trade consists of the exchange of Afghan wool, cotton and dried fruits for Soviet gasoline, cement, steel products and cloth. The 1950 agreement will be due for renewal next year. It will be interesting to see whether the Soviet Union advances proposals for the introduction of Russian "technical experts."
In 1948 the Soviet Union and Afghanistan ratified an agreement which precisely defined their common boundary line. (It should be noted that Iran has been trying for years to get the Russians to agree to delineate sections of the Irano-Soviet frontier). Relations other than official are discouraged by the Afghan Government in its desire to prevent the possible infiltration of Soviet agents and Soviet propaganda. Communist literature in Persian or Pashtu, the principal languages of the country, is not allowed to circulate in Afghanistan. Stories are current at Kabul to the effect that Soviet agents, in the guise of Moslem clerics, cross the Oxus and attempt to promote dissatisfaction in northern Afghanistan, and Afghans say that there is a constant seepage into the country of people escaping from Soviet rule, who bring stories of the unsatisfactory conditions among the Uzbeks, Tajiks and Turkoman across the border.
Several theories are put forward to explain the absence of a more positive Soviet line toward a neighbor which, though not hostile, does not fit the familiar Communist specifications of a "friendly" government. One is that the U.S.S.R. does not feel that Afghanistan represents any real barrier across the way to India, and that should military movement be required, Afghan resistance could be quickly brushed aside. Another is that the Russians are glad to have the raw materials they are now obtaining, and hence wish to avoid giving offense to the stubbornly proud Afghans. Those who hold to this theory add that should the Afghan Government decide to proceed with the exploitation of the oil which probably lies beneath the ground in northwestern Afghanistan, the Russians would immediately become more active. A final theory is that the Russians realize that the adoption of a harsh policy toward Afghanistan would throw the country into the arms of the Western Powers, and at the same time alert Pakistan and India to the encroaching menace of Communism. According to this theory the Russians wish to avoid any unnecessary activity which would bring their ideological opponents up to the frontier and in touch with Moslem-populated areas of the U.S.S.R. which have always been restless and discontented under Communist rule. In short, the Kremlin prefers to wait.
Afghanistan's relations with her neighbor on the south and east--Pakistan --are openly strained over the question of the Pakhtun (or Pashtun) tribes. These tribesmen inhabited an area which the British began to take over early in the nineteenth century, consolidating their hold in the second Anglo-Afghan war. In 1893, the British dictated Afghan acceptance of the Durand Line between Afghanistan and India, and this boundary now separates Afghanistan and Pakistan. As this line was traced across the map it split asunder tribal groups of Pakhtuns; groups on both sides of it were numbered among the "true Afghan" tribes. British occupation was followed by the establishment of administrative divisions--the North West Frontier Province for the settled lands nearer the Indus, and the Tribal Territory for the inhospitable, mountainous region between the settled lands and the Durand Line. Years of British military effort failed to pacify or to subdue the Tribal Territory, for if pressure became too great tribal groups could always find temporary refuge across the Afghan frontier.
Within the Tribal Territory and the North West Frontier Province independence movements waxed and waned, and the demand for separation did not gain real strength until 1929 when the party calling itself the Khodai Khedmatgar, or Servants of God, allied itself with the Congress Party of India. Considerably before the withdrawal of the British from India in 1947 the Afghan Government asked that special provisions be made for the future of these two areas, and rather indefinite assurances were given. In June 1947, the Congress Party of the North West Frontier Province, stiffened by the support of the Khodai Khedmatgar, voted for union with India. This apparently illogical desire of Moslems to merge with Hindus was actually a protest against the attachment of the area to Pakistan. Pakistan reacted by holding a referendum on whether the area should join with India or with Pakistan. Since the Congress Party wanted neither of these alternatives, but only independence or autonomy, it ordered a boycott of the referendum. As a result only 51 percent of the population of the contested area went to the polls, but as Moslems they voted in favor of joining the Moslem state of Pakistan.
In the months which followed the referendum, the Pakistan authorities resorted to numerous arrests and restricted military action to suppress latent or active opposition. However, as early as 1947 tribal leaders meeting in Tirah, not far from Peshawar, the major town of the North West Frontier Province, declared the independence of Pakhtunistan (or Pashtunistan). Since that date several regional headquarters of this "free" government are said to have been set up at points within Pakistan, one in caves at Gruwik, a village a score of miles from the Afghan frontier. The dour Faqir of Ipi has headed the movement in the Waziristan section of the Tribal Territory. There is skirmishing between the Pakhtunistan supporters and Pakistan forces, though the reports of severe clashes which reach the West are highly undependable.
The Afghanistan Government maintains that the livelihood of as many as 5,000,000 nomadic tribesmen, who for centuries have moved seasonally between the high mountains of Afghanistan and the plains of the Indus, has been endangered by an artificial barrier that divides and restricts them. Muhammad Zahir Shah told the writer that Afghanistan feels an obligation to the tribes for the frequent help they have given his country in its struggle for freedom, and that Afghanistan's aim is to see that the Pakhtuns achieve autonomy. Efforts to focus world attention on the issue have been seconded by India which, given the intensity of the dispute over Kashmir, is delighted to find grounds for criticizing actions by Pakistan. Heartened by this encouragement, spokesmen for Pakhtunistan who publish periodicals at Bombay and Delhi have made extravagant demands, claiming not only the Tribal Territory with 2,460,000 tribesmen and the North West Frontier Province with 3,239,000 people, but Baluchistan with its seacoast and thus a total population of 7,000,000. This amounts to asking for more than half the total area of Pakistan.
Pakistan's answer to the tribal issue is simply that there is no such issue, since the inhabitants of these areas voted freely for union with Pakistan. The Government has issued numerous statements protesting against what it terms provocation and interference in internal affairs by Afghanistan and India. Since the bulk of Afghanistan's foreign trade moves over the railways of Pakistan and in and out of the port of Karachi, Pakistan has been able to retaliate against Afghanistan. Shipments of gasoline have been embargoed, the transit of goods delayed and obstacles placed in the way of shipments of quantities of Afghan fruit to India.
Underneath all of this there probably lies the Afghan fear that as a landlocked state the national future is insecure; Afghans feel that an autonomous Pakhtunistan, in which Baluchistan was included, would give their country a friendly outlet to the sea. An intensification of Afghanistan's transit difficulties with Pakistan might force the Afghans into closer economic and political ties with the U.S.S.R. The tragedy of the situation lies in the fact that the common Moslem heritage of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the need which each has for the products of the other, ought to impel these neighbors toward an increasingly closer association. The United States has made overtures designed to bring the two countries together for a friendly discussion of the issue, but such efforts have been fruitless. About the only prediction that can be made concerning this dispute is that it will continue to drag on and that in time Pakistan may grant a broader and more representative type of local government to the Tribal Territory and to the North West Frontier Province.
The United States appeared on the scene in Afghanistan only recently. Formal diplomatic relations were established during the last war, and in the war years New York took the place of Berlin and London as the principal market for karakul lambskins, some 2,000,000 of which, exported annually, supply Afghanistan with her major source of foreign exchange. Then, at the end of the war, Afghanistan turned to the United States for needed capital and consumer goods. In the last few years a number of Americans have gone out to teach in Afghan trade and high schools, with remarkable success. Almost every Afghan has a least a hazy concept of the United States, and it seems usually to be a favorable one; this remote country exhibits that currently rare phenomenon--a reservoir of friendly feeling toward the United States. A number of high officials, including cabinet ministers, completed their studies in the fields of medicine, education and engineering in America; one of these former students has written an article of nearly 100 pages on the United States for the official Afghan encyclopedia. Some 60 Afghan students are now in this country and the Prime Minister himself has twice visited here, the last time in the summer of 1951. American movies comprise the bulk of the programs in the two cinemas at Kabul, and American magazines are distributed in increasing numbers. This rather general impression of what the United States can do will take more definite form when the huge dams built by the American engineering firm are completed and seen by thousands of Afghans. Continuity of technical guidance and training will come from Point Four, through its Technical Coöperation Administration. Already T.C.A. has appropriated nearly $1,000,000 to train Afghans in the technical direction of the country's development program.
The United States has, in fact, taken over the rôle that Germany played in Afghanistan in the 1930's, and there is reason to believe that American participation in the economic evolution of the country will increase. As current projects are finished there should be a fresh market for vehicles and machinery of many kinds. The Afghan Government is also considering opening sectors of its development program to foreign capital: the terms of the loan by the Export-Import Bank allow private groups to take over portions of the total amount. Reserves of friendship, and the experience of useful work accomplished together, will be welcome assets for both countries when the Soviets decide to play their hand in this area, as in due course they surely will.
[i] Cf. "Soviet Imperialism in Afghanistan," by Joseph Castagné. Foreign Affairs, July 1935.