In the teahouses and street stalls of Kabul, one sometimes sees the portrait of a stern, round-faced man with dark hair and a mustache. It is the visage of Muhammad Najibullah, the last president of communist Afghanistan. Najibullah joined the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) in the late 1960s, ran Afghanistan’s highly organized secret police, the KHAD, and then became the country’s president in 1986. After the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, Najibullah hung on to power for another three years. Taliban fighters eventually killed him in 1996.
On occasions when I have asked Afghans in Kabul about the Najibullah posters and postcards, their replies have ranged from “He was a strong president—we had a strong army then” to “Everything worked well and Kabul was clean.” One teahouse proprietor, using the familiar form of the name, stated simply that “Najib fought Pakistan.” In other words, he is remembered not so much as a socialist—a vague term for many in Afghanistan—but as a modernizer and a patriot.
To understand Najibullah’s status as a minor icon, it helps to know about the Soviet experience in Afghanistan—the strategy and tactics, the terror and suffering, and the ideals and goals that motivated the Afghan communists and their Soviet allies. One authority on the subject is Rodric Braithwaite, a veteran of cold war–era diplomacy who served as the British ambassador in Moscow during the Soviet Union’s collapse and has recently published an excellent and sympathetic account of the Russian invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. Afgantsy, which takes its title from the Russian nickname for Afghan war vets, is a sober and balanced antidote to the propaganda and deception that Braithwaite necessarily traded in as a British diplomat posted to the USSR. This is a point he acknowledges obliquely in the book but has touched on more directly in interviews. While writing Afgantsy Braithwaite had considerable access to government archives in Russia and key players from the Soviet-Afghan war, and traveled to Kabul to dig even further.
Addressing much of the same history is Ghosts of Afghanistan by Jonathan Steele, a longtime Guardian correspondent. Steele has visited Afghanistan numerous times over the past thirty years, reporting on the Soviet intervention, the Najibullah era, mujahedeen misrule, civil war, the rise of the Taliban and the American occupation. Like Braithwaite, Steele is fluent in Russian; he was also part of the Guardian team that edited the WikiLeaks cables. His understanding of Afghanistan is nuanced and comprehensive, blending a journalistic eye for detail and context with a scholarly long view. Steele’s account of the Taliban phenomenon and the current moment is solid, but his book is most impressive when analyzing the forgotten history of Afghan communism and the Soviet occupation.
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The Soviets fought Muslim rebels in their Central Asian borderlands during the civil war of the early 1920s and again in the early 1930s, when they finally managed to crush these so-called basmaci (bandits) with the help of the Royal Afghan Army. Thus stability in Afghanistan was seen as the key to security in Soviet Central Asia. From the early 1950s onward, Afghanistan was one of the top four recipients of Soviet aid. Moscow sent engineers to Afghanistan and invited thousands of Afghan students, technicians and military officers to Russia for training.