Recall of the Reserve Army
The story of the Kabul regime is a story of a regime stubbornly holding on to power in the face of popular opposition. Worse still, it is a story of subordination to the Kremlin masters. Afghan history knows of no such regime in the past. Instead of drawing lessons from the failed policy of recruitment, the rulers embarked on a more unworkable policy of recruitment because their Soviet masters had undertaken such a measure in Russia following the October Revolution.
On 8 September 1981 the regime announced that those Afghans who had completed military service between 1968 and 1978 and who were under fifty years of age should present themselves to the centers of recruitment. Chief of Staff General Baba Jan stated that since the number of “rebels” had increased, it had become necessary to take this measure to make the “revolution” a success and to ensure the security of the country. He also stated that in this way “regional reaction” and “world imperialism” led by “American imperialism” would be defeated.
If the summons had been honored, the total number of the reserve army during that ten-year period would have run well over half a million men. The regime could not have provided supplies for such a number. The Afghan regular army numbered less than 100,000. The authorities knew that because theirs was an unpopular regime, and because the reservists had to support their families in this troubled time, only a fraction of this number would be available. To get that fraction, they were willing to make their regime still more unpopular. To lessen that unpopularity, though, the regime promised the reservists not only various bonuses but also 3,000 afghanis per month, an amount of money far larger than that ever before paid to Afghan soldiers.
Reaction to the recall was swift. On the day after the announcement reservists started leaving cities, and people in Kabul denounced the measures. If they now could not oppose the regime openly, they opposed it by spreading rumors calling for a boycott of the recall. Following the announcement, students either took to the streets or held rallies inside their besieged school compounds, shouting, “You have killed our brothers, and now you want to kill our fathers.” The demonstration was an act of courage because the regime had authorized security men to suppress all opposition, no matter its source.
Armed party activists entered schools, beating the striking students with rifle barrels and dragging them into waiting vans for imprisonment. About two hundred were imprisoned on that day. Students repeated their strikes the next day in the compounds of their besieged schools. Army personnel refrained from molesting the youngsters, but armed Parchamis fired at the legs of the demonstrating students. In the Jamhooriyat Hospital six students were treated for the loss of their legs. A few were killed. The city’s residents were outraged, and resistance groups distributed leaflets urging them to rise against the regime. The next day shopkeepers closed their shops in protest, but later security men forced them to reopen. The regime modified the recall by exempting university and school teachers as well as students. Subsequently, other groups whose work the regime considered essential—such as drivers of state-owned trucks and government officials—were also exempted from the recall.
The regime also released most of the imprisoned students on bail. Meanwhile, it sent delegations of women to students in schools to mollify them, but without success. A student of the Jamhooriyat high school told a delegation that the present situation would continue if the Russian army did not leave. When she was told that the army had come to suppress the “rebels,” her answer was brisk. She said that they were not rebels, that they were real patriots, that “we are also mujahideen, and that we are not afraid of death, and that the government is not a legal government.” Among the imprisoned female students was Miss Kobra, whose courage won for her the admiration of her fellow students when she surprised everyone by answering the interrogator with courageous words. She told him that her name was “War,” that her father’s name was “Pul-e-Charkhi,” and that her aim was “Death.” The full weight of such answers can be appreciated when it is borne in mind that the interrogators could inflict terrible harm without being accountable. A student from the Zarghoona high school, Miss Kobra was fifteen years of age. Palwasha Safi, an imprisoned fellow student, said that Miss Kobra was the most undaunted girl she had ever seen. Her only fear was that of being raped.
The impact of the recall was felt among those who were ordered to present themselves to the recruitment centers. They did not. They had to be summoned, but most of them had fled. Although security forces had blocked the two main routes leading from Kabul to Logar and Ningrahar, during the three days preceding the deadline of the summons, far more than 100,000 men fled the city, either joining the mujahideen or taking refuge in Pakistan. On Friday morning, the market day on the eve of the deadline, the bazaars of Kabul filled with men hurriedly shopping; by midday the bazaars were almost empty. After the reservists fled, Kabul no longer looked like the capital city of a country. I had never seen Kabul like this before. The city had lost nearly 20 percent of its population, and it continued to lose inhabitants fleeing conscription. Meanwhile, the mujahideen increased their activities inside the city, kidnapping party members at night. In certain areas of the city the regime’s men could not go out at night. But during the day the regime’s military units were ubiquitous, searching houses for draft dodgers. The city looked as though it had a dual system of government, one for the day and one for the night. By recalling the reserves, the regime created serious security problems that it had to resolve if it wished to be a government. Once again it used weapons. For over a week near the end of September, government forces furiously shelled the hilly districts from which the mujahideen were penetrating the city.
Contrary to the intention of the regime, the recall of the reserves strengthened the mujahideen. Not far from the city they set up centers to receive the fleeing reserves, who were taken in buses to Pakistan. Moreover, this measure, like many previous measures, discredited the regime. Rumors soon circulated that because of the regime’s unpopularity, the Soviets had decided to replace Karmal through a coup. To combat such rumors, the dispirited party activists gave out that the Soviets had decided to withdraw their forces, but before that could happen the government must have a strong army of its own. This was, however, not possible. Despite nearly desperate exertions, by mid-October the regime had recruited perhaps five thousand men. Only in Herat did many reservists present themselves to the recruitment centers. They did so to obtain weapons; when they had the weapons in hand, they defected, a practice that had become common.