by Keith Anwar, editor
Capitulation, imprisonment or flight from his native country–these were the options facing Mohammad Haider Anwar at the end of 1943. He might well have risked imprisonment had he not been responsible for the welfare of his wife and their first child, as yet unborn. But accommodation to the regime, the eventual path of most of the idealistic students who returned to Afghanistan in the ‘30s and ‘40s, was out of the question. An inability to bend his principles, a compulsion to speak out when silence was prudent and a disdain for conformity all were etched into my father’s character at an early age and stayed with him to the end of his life.
My father’s world-view took shape around the age of 15, after the fall of the reform-minded king, Amanullah, and the twice-fold pillaging of Kabul, first by the ultra-reactionary forces of Bacha-i-Saqao and then by the city’s "liberators" under Nadir Khan. The author tells how he happened upon a treasure of looted "infidel" books, including Jean-Christophe, the monumental novel of French radical Romain Rolland. To Rolland, "the great men are the men of absolute truth," he read in Gilbert Cannan’s preface. "Jean-Christophe must have the truth and tell the truth, at all costs. . . It is his law." This code of integrity was a lifeline for a youth beset on all sides by corruption and treachery.
Soon afterwards he devoured the works of Tom Paine, the pamphleteer of the American Revolution. Paine’s acidly anti-clerical The Age of Reason must have had a profound effect on one who had seen his own religion teacher buried under a shower of stones. The Enlightenment ideas that Paine popularized in this and other works engendered hope in the boy for an Afghanistan freed from religious fundamentalism and tribal backwardness. It was in this period that my father became a staunch atheist and an opponent of monarchical rule.
Around this same time Mohammad found himself required to choose a surname, since, like most Afghans, he had been born without one. Instead of taking a name from his ethnic or family roots, as tradition would have suggested, he selected anwar (brighter, more luminous), a word implying the light of knowledge and truth. It was an apt surname for someone who felt himself surrounded by obscurantism and ignorance. Indeed, throughout his life my father was to value education far above material wealth, repeating time and again that knowledge was the one possession no one could take away.
In 1933 Mohammad Anwar was sent to the United States to study education in preparation for a career in Afghanistan’s ministry of education. While attending Columbia University in New York he began to visit friends at a boarding house on Riverside Drive, where political and philosophical discussions would rage over the dining room table. It was here, in 1936, that he met 17-year-old Phyllis Davidson, the landlady’s daughter, who was a student at Hunter College. Friendship gave way to courtship as Anwar completed his master’s degree in education. The relationship continued after he moved to Baltimore to pursue his real interest–science–at Johns Hopkins, where he hoped to become a physician. In 1939 Phyllis and Hammad, as his friends called him, were married. By the time Anwar’s scholarship money ran out two years later he had managed to earn a doctorate of science.
The "land of opportunity" must have had a powerful allure for a young man bred in the filthy alleys of Kabul, especially one who was being offered a promising and well-rewarded career in private industry by the time he received his doctorate. But Depression Era America taught Anwar a few lessons about the limitations of capitalist democracy as well, from the Scottsboro Boys and lynch mob justice in the South to the industrial war against the unions in the North. Angered when the so-called democratic countries refused to back the Republic in the Spanish Civil War, he tried to join the Abraham Lincoln Brigade so he could go to Spain and fight, but he was barred by his status as a foreign student. At their respective campuses the young couple came into contact with the Communist Party. While Phyllis became an activist in the Young Communist League at Hunter, Hammad remained on the party’s periphery, sympathetic but skeptical.
Like many students from Asia at that time, Hammad was impressed by the social and industrial advances the Russian Revolution had brought to Central Asia, which only one generation earlier had been on a par with Afghanistan. And he shared many of the CP’s values; some, like an uncompromising stand for women’s rights, were progressive, while others–the Stalinist dogma that homosexuality was a pathology, for example–were not. But he decided that dialectical materialism was a sham and rejected the Marxism the CP claimed to uphold. Though he would find himself like all opponents of the Afghan monarchy branded a Communist, Hammad’s politics would best be described as left nationalist.
But Afghanistan had never been, and still wasn’t, a nation. It was a calico conglomeration of ethnic peoples topped by a feudal monarchy clinging to power through the conjoined policies of severe isolationism and decentralization. Hashim Khan, who as prime minister ruled in the name of his nephew Zahir Shah, sedulously curried the toleration of the khans and mullahs, particularly among the dominant Pushtuns, by excluding foreign influences, reining in modernization and acceding to tribal prerogatives at the local level. The ulema (Islamic clergy) enforced Koranic law throughout the country. During this period, young men who returned to Afghanistan from their studies abroad armed with notions of forging a unified republic to lead Afghanistan into the modern world ran up against a mud wall of resistance.
My parents entered Afghanistan just as world events were undermining Hashim’s already unstable regime. The German invasion of the Soviet Union in June, 1941 had brought simultaneous pressure on Afghanistan–from the Soviets to the north and from British-occupied India to the south–to sever relations that had developed in previous years with the Axis powers. Kabul itself was a cockpit of intrigue, swarming with foreign and government spies. Hashim responded to these diplomatic difficulties by cracking down on his own population. Under such conditions, the modernizing aspirations of independent-minded civil servants courted pitiless repression.
Central to the tribalism and Islamic fundamentalism perpetuated by Hashim’s policies was the role of women–as chattel. A woman was not just a valuable slave forced to perform the drudgery of household work as well as tend fields and raise livestock, she was a commodity to be traded–to pay off a blood debt, to raise a clan’s social standing or to cement a tribal alliance. The irreplaceable guarantee of a woman’s worth was her "virtue," enforced through rigid seclusion (purdah) and veiling. In Kabul at that time, all female Afghans, including the Western wives of Afghan men, appeared in public only under the tent-like chaderi. "The day I arrived in Kabul," my mother recounted in 1980, "there was a demonstration in front of the palace by the mullahs. They had gathered to protest the fact that the rich ladies were making their veils out of silk and that was sort of revealing when the wind blew. And anyhow women’s ankles showed and the men standing on the corner could tell whether they were young or old or rich or poor."
In the midst of this atmosphere of fundamentalist reaction, Phyllis’ decision–with Hammad’s encouragement–not to wear the chaderi was indeed courageous. By year’s end two other foreign women married to Afghans had shed their veils, but they apparently relented under pressure in short order. Phyllis was undaunted. "People here hold their breath at our daring," she wrote home in early 1943. "Firstly–no veil. I hope you realize how deliciously revolutionary that is here. First time in History. Second–I go to the movies!!! Thirdly–I go swimming!!!! And now–a bicycle. At each step they’ve said, ‘You can’t get away with it.’ Then after several months they adjust, so I guess they will again, this time." But in Hashim’s eyes such behavior was an intolerable attack on one of the pillars of his rule–the enslavement of women.
In late 1943 Hammad was summoned before the prime minister and ordered to veil his wife. Like Jean-Christophe before his own Grand Duke, Anwar stood his ground; it was a simple matter of being true to himself. But where his fictional hero faced ostracism, the consequences looming over Anwar were potentially fatal. He came away from the encounter shaken and doubtful about the prospect of internal reform in so refractory a society. A letter he wrote to the Davidsons in New York around this time was infused with a sense of futility:
"Our second year stay in Kabul, which so remarkably coincides with the second year anniversary of the treacherous fascist onslaught on the U.S.S.R., passed very calmly. While the liberty-loving people [have] sacrificed everything to preserve their way of life, we, Phyl and I, were thrown by the hand of fate into this remote corner of oblivion and darkness. We wanted so badly to play our little part in this great world drama. Day after day we hear of misery and oppression that are destituting the human race and day after day our hearts are torn by the morbid thoughts of our uselessness...."
As 1943 drew to a close, my father found his every step being dogged by government spies; arrest was imminent. He devised a means of escape via British India under the guise of medical necessity, but getting his wife out proved more difficult. The Islamic divorce Hammad and Phyllis turned to as a means of freeing her to travel on her American passport had the unintended outcome of casting her into social limbo. The government still considered her an Afghan citizen. Under Islamic custom a divorced woman must return to her own family, but Phyllis lacked that option. And the newly-opened American consulate did not want to make any waves in her behalf. So she was adrift and unprotected in a land of ubiquitous and institutionalized misogyny. It took a strong will and a lot of nerve to get through those desperate weeks and finally pry a visa out of the authorities.
My parents’ flight from Afghanistan was the beginning of a new life for Dad. It wasn’t easy. Their first son, who was named after Robert Allen [an American friend in Kabul] and called Butch, was born with severe cerebral palsy soon after they reached America. Denounced as a Communist by the Afghan embassy in Washington, my father was the subject of FBI investigations for several years. Even after he managed to become a naturalized U.S. citizen, there were reminders of his precarious status, like anti-communist slogans scrawled on our windows or the charred remains of a three-foot cross we found on the front lawn one morning. Nevertheless he built a successful career as the top biochemist of a huge international soft drink corporation. In the 1960s he patented an inexpensive soy-based drink he hoped would aid the fight against malnutrition in the Third World, only to see it shelved by his employers as an unprofitable flight of fancy. Such frustrations led to his early retirement in 1973, when he began to write his memoirs.
He had completed this work and was seeking a publisher when the so-called "Saur Revolution" in April 1978 overthrew the last of the Musahiban rulers, Daud Khan. "Dad is entranced with the Afghan ‘revolution’," my mother wrote to me. "To him having ethnic representation and a woman in the cabinet makes it a true-blue Marxist revolution. So he wants to go there and offer his services." Heading the new regime was the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, comprised of left-leaning intellectuals, some of whom had served in the Daud administration, and Soviet-trained military officers. Though these elements were clearly attracted to the Soviet Union, under which their Central Asian neighbors to the north had enjoyed a standard of living and cultural level far above those pertaining to Afghanistan, they were not in any way "Communist." Nor were they Soviet puppets. Their ideas of modernization were heavily weighted with the backwardness of Afghan society: throughout its existence the PDPA was riven by bloody factional warfare that had as much to do with ethnic animosities as political principles.
Yet, for the first time in its history the country was ruled by a regime proclaiming women’s equality and taking measures to bring it about. From the standpoint of the tribal leaders and mullahs, it was bad enough that the regime freed women from the chaderi, recognized their right to divorce and set a limit on the bride price. But the law mandating universal education–including little girls!–was intolerable. Tribal khans immediately saw the threat the PDPA reforms posed to their power and, spurred on by village mullahs, struck back with ferocity, burning down hundreds of schools and assassinating teachers, in some cases by flaying them alive. Thus began the world’s first civil war to be fought in the main over the question of women’s rights.
Among its other reforms, the government decreed equal rights for all ethnic groups in Afghanistan and ordered a redistribution of land. While the latter decree benefitted the vast majority of dust-poor peasants, the regime had no means to implement it in the far-flung villages and isolated valleys of Afghanistan. Nor were the poorest peasants themselves–often in debt peonage, totally dependent on the khans for seeds and irrigation, and in thrall to the mullahs–in any position to claim their due through collective action. This was a country, in fact, that had never experienced a single agrarian revolt of any size by oppressed peasants. In many places where the government did attempt to enforce the land reform measure, the results were calamitous, both for the representatives of the regime sent into the countryside and for the peasants who followed their lead. The PDPA’s reforms, minimal as they were, overreached the social forces available in the country to implement and enforce them.
Yet the localized tribal revolts mounting against the PDPA would never have developed into a nationwide Islamic jihad without nourishment from the West. Today, after the criminal and horrific World Trade Center attack, the persecution of Muslims has become as American as apple pie. But before 9/11 all American administrations–Republican and Democratic alike–had encouraged Muslim reaction as a weapon against "godless Communism." John Foster Dulles’ Cold War manual War or Peace (1950) articulated that policy: "The religions of the East are deeply rooted and have many precious values. Their spiritual beliefs cannot be reconciled with Communist atheism and materialism. That creates a common bond between us, and our task is to find it and develop it." In Afghanistan they developed that bond to the tune of over $1 billion a year, doled out–in the biggest CIA operation in history–to a rogue’s gallery of Pakistan-based mujahedeen, or holy warriors. Among the principal recipients of this largesse was one Osama bin Laden.
As the CIA-armed opposition grew, internecine fighting broke out between the party’s Khalq (Masses) and Parcham (Banner) factions, which left many party members exiled, jailed or dead. Around this time my father met Hafizullah Amin, second in command in Kabul behind Nur Mohammed Taraki (and, like Dad, a former principal of the Teachers’ Training School in Kabul), at a reception in New York City and asked him for help entering Afghanistan. But his visa request remained dormant–which was probably fortunate, as Amin was too busy eliminating PDPA rivals and conspiring against Taraki to have tolerated a troublesome iconoclast from the U.S. By 1979 the PDPA regime’s military was disintegrating, with army commanders defecting to the opposition in the western city of Herat and in Kunar province on the Pakistani border. In September Amin assassinated Taraki and seized power.
The government was on the brink of collapse when the Soviet Union decided to intervene to prevent the formation of a virulently fundamentalist Islamic regime, backed by the West, on its southern flank. In the last week of 1979 the Soviet Union moved the Red Army into Kabul, executed Amin and installed a new PDPA government led by Babrak Karmal. This intervention not only averted a mujahedeen takeover; it created the possibility that Afghanistan would be incorporated into the centralized and planned economic system of the Soviet state, much like the Central Asian republics to the north. I remember showing my father a copy of the Trotskyist newspaper Workers Vanguard and asking him what he thought about the headline: "Hail Red Army!" Smiling sheepishly, he said, "Pretty good." He knew that only the Soviet presence had prevented a mujahedeen bloodbath. However, like many Afghan nationalists he still harbored the vision of a self-sufficient, modernizing Afghanistan. Events had already stamped this perspective as utopian.
The following March, at a public forum commemorating International Women’s Day at Harvard University, Phyllis Anwar gave a speech in which she recalled the desperation of her female relatives in Kabul: "[O]ne of them once said to me that she didn’t care who invaded the country. Anything would be worth it to get rid of a life like this. Now I spoke to her about this recently and she’s changed her mind because the Russians have come in and she says there’s violence. She sees tanks and shooting and says it is violence, and she does not realize that every single day of her life has been violence. Violence of the most degrading kind. The thing that happens to women is the complete destruction of the person..." (Women & Revolution, Spring 1980)
The Red Army’s intervention paved the way for an astonishing change in the status of Afghan women. Under the PDPA, women encountered vast opportunities to escape the stifling seclusion they had known for countless generations, emerging as students, workers, professionals and activists. By 1988 there were nearly a quarter of a million women employed, making up 40 percent of the doctors and 60 percent of the instructors at Kabul University. In 1984 Indian journalist Patricia Sethi (India Today, 31 July 1984) visited the village of Bagrami outside Kabul, where "a chadri-clad woman at the water tap rushed off when I tried to talk to her":
"But five 15-year-old girls, carrying rifles and claiming to be members of ‘the civilian brigade to defend the revolution,’ talked to me at length. They spoke fervently and passionately about their revolution and what it meant for young women of Afghanistan: it meant ‘an education, freedom from the veil, freedom from feudalists who want to keep us down,’ said Khalida. ‘We do not want to become the fourth wife of a 60-year-old man, existing solely for his whim and pleasure’."
Such women, armed as members of the Revolution Defense Group militias, played a key role in the 1983 defense of Urgun against a sustained mujahedeen assault.
The Soviets and their PDPA allies were implementing social programs that appealed to wide sectors of the population, as my father saw for himself when he visited the country in 1982. He found Kabul at peace, the population going about its business without fear. He visited some officials from the old regime, friends from his school days, who vituperated against the PDPA, of course. Dr. Anwar attended an assembly of students held in his honor at Habibia high school, where, he later wrote, "It was a rewarding experience for me to take the role of the devil’s advocate in opposition to the new Afghan social system, while a picture of Karl Marx looked sternly at me from the top shelf of a bookcase. A few students sided with me, but the great majority vociferously defended their new system." He summed up his visit by observing, "My impression was that, for the first time in Afghan history, dedicated, intelligent and hard-working leaders are serving the people and not themselves" (New World Review, March-April, 1983). Though he may have overstated the altruism of the PDPA leadership, this was nevertheless the closest Afghanistan has ever come to forging a modern nation out of its disparate peoples.
Although the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan had been ordered by Moscow’s rulers out of narrow self-interest, it went against the grain of Soviet foreign policy, which since Stalin’s days had been based on peaceful coexistence with the capitalist West. Most Western pundits, perhaps believing their own propaganda about "Soviet expansionism," were shocked in 1986 when Mikhail Gorbachev announced that the Red Army would be withdrawn from Afghanistan in short order, come what may. In 1989 the last Red Army troops crossed the Amu Darya back into Soviet Central Asia, defeated not by the mujahedeen but by their own rulers’ policies. This retreat was only the first in a dramatic chain of events that led to the fall of the Soviet Union’s Eastern European allies and the collapse of the Soviet Union itself within three years. Ironically, the last PDPA chief, Najibullah, outlasted Gorbachev in power.
Wall Street is bullish on Russia these days and hopes for a big oil bonanza in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. But for working people in these countries the return of capitalism has been a calamity measured in unemployment, homelessness, collapsing life-expectancy rates, and intercommunal violence. Multiply these factors a hundred-fold to get a picture of how Afghanistan fared under the Islamic "freedom fighters." My father, who was stricken with Alzheimer’s disease by 1989, did not witness the fall of Kabul to the mujahedeen in 1992. He didn’t see the city pulverized by indiscriminate bombing, the massacre of ethnic minorities and the driving of women out of work sites and off the streets. For the next four years the contending armies of mujahedeen turned Kabul into a living hell and drove away most of its population. The country became a fractured wreck in a constant state of inter-ethnic and religious warfare. M. H. Anwar’s death in 1993 roughly coincided with Afghanistan’s demise as a viable entity.
Into this inferno rode the Taliban–on Pakistani-supplied tanks and with Washington’s blessing. The Clinton administration initially placed its hopes on the Taliban’s ability to pacify Afghanistan. As one U.S. diplomat put it, "The Taliban will probably develop like the Saudis did. There will be Aramco, pipelines, an emir, no parliament and lots of Sharia law. We can live with that" (quoted in Ahmed Rashid, Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia ). The State Department’s belated discovery that the Taliban treated women worse than draft animals seems to have been precipitated, in part at least, by the realization that there would be no Aramco and no pipelines. The Taliban was pleased to accept arms and aid from its American-allied benefactors in Pakistan, but it was not willing to soften its hatred of the non-Muslim West. Under Taliban rule Afghanistan became a school of Islamic holy war where former mujahedeen passed along the training and arms they had received from the CIA during the anti-Soviet jihad. This was the culture medium of Al Qaeda–a Frankenstein’s monster produced, in the final analysis, by Washington’s drive to roll back the Russian Revolution.
The Bush administration responded to the attacks of September 11, 2001 by raining down 1.2 million tons of bombs on Afghanistan and turning the ruins over to some of the same mujahedeen who had ravaged the country in 1992. In Afghanistan today, under a regime shielded by U.S. troops, women are still commodities to be traded into marriage and labor, still subject to stoning for "crimes" like adultery, still excluded from public life and shrouded in the veil. Throughout the country rape by armed gangs of "freedom fighters," as President Reagan called the mujahedeen, has become commonplace, and girls as young as eight years old are being forced into marriage. On the streets of Kabul, squads dispatched by the Ministry of Religious Affairs persecute women for "un-Islamic behavior." If, as the 19th Century utopian socialist Charles Fourier once said, "The degree of emancipation of woman is the natural measure of general emancipation," then Kabul and other Afghan cities have retrogressed 12 centuries in as many years.
The events in Afghanistan by themselves–leaving aside how the rest of the Third World has fared since World War II–mandate a negative verdict on the words my father wrote from Kabul in 1943: "America is becoming more popular every day in these parts of the world, and everyone is hoping that the high ideals that are cherished and put [forth] forcefully in speech and print will be put in practice as soon as the war is over." Such were the expectations of some at the dawn of the era of Pax Americana. Today many are aware that the highest ideal, the "prime mover" if you will, of U.S. foreign policy, is profit–both in its immediate realization and in the long-term stability of the system that produces it. Whence comes the irony of five American presidents, Democrats and Republicans alike and all self-styled defenders of the "Judeo-Christian tradition," fomenting Islamic reaction. It’s a sick joke, but nobody’s laughing in Afghanistan.