In the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, no clear line divided the government and the PDPA. Both had elaborate structures, and the party was supreme. Officially this was the only legal party; hence, there was no room for opposition to work for change without bloodshed. Like any other Leninist party, the PDPA was hierarchical in structure, organized on the principle of “democratic centralism,” a contradictory expression for a system that was, in practice, centralist but not democratic. Local decisions were made (often the party merely implemented instructions it received from Moscow) in the party politburo, which was composed of eleven leading members and headed by the general secretary, who, in the period under discussion, was Babrak Karmal. This office, the highest in the party, in theory was elective. In fact, it was not.
As noted, Babrak Karmal was raised to this position not by members of the politburo, as he should have been, but by the Kremlin rulers. Also, the term of the office of the general secretary was not fixed or limited, depending instead on the goodwill of the Kremlin rulers. Likewise, the term of membership in the politburo and the central committee was not fixed. Members could stay on so long as they enjoyed the support of the authorities. Membership was then the result more of partisanship than of qualification. The decisions of the politburo, which acted as the governing body of the party, were discussed in the central committee, which acted as parliament of the party. A much fuller assembly of the central committee, the plenum, met from time to time to discuss issues of special significance. The decisions reached in these assemblies were channeled to the lower cells of the party. The reverse was rarely the case. The supremacy of the PDPA over the government, state, and society was laid down by the constitution, which called it “the leading and guiding force of society and the state.” If these words were meant seriously, then the party was assigned an impossible task.
Until June 1981, Babrak Karmal was the general secretary of the party, president of the Revolutionary Council, president of the Council of Ministers, and commander-in-chief of the army, thus officially wielding the highest party and government positions. He appeared to be all-powerful, but in fact he was a yes man. In June 1981 the sixth plenum of the party relieved him of the post of prime minister, conferring it on Sultan Ali Kishtmand, a member of the politburo. Seen in the context of the rivalry between the two factions, Kishtmand’s promotion also strengthened Karmal’s position, but it created problems for the regime. Although he had a faction of his own, Kishtmand was pro-Karmal, and this was considered more important in view of the intraparty squabble, which had made it difficult for Karmal to run the administration. Before this point is discussed, it is necessary to say why Kishtmand was promoted to the post and to discuss its implications.
Kishtmand, one of Moscow’s yes men, had established a special relationship with Soviet advisers. Subsequently, two of his daughters married Russians in Moscow. Kishtmand was a graduate of the Faculty of Economics of the University of Kabul and experienced in administrative and planning affairs. He was known to be a Hazara, the third largest ethnic group. As a member of a minority group, he was sympathetic to minorities as well as to Sitam-e-Milli, whose founder, Tahir Badakhshi, was his brother-in-law.
More important, Kishtmand’s promotion reflected a new policy. The Soviet authorities and party leaders were worried about the success of the mujahideen and the failure of their own pacification programs. In particular, politburo members worried about their future, especially if they lost the shield of the Soviet army. They then embarked on a new policy, the essence of which was to embroil ethnic groups among themselves: the war of the people against the PDPA and the invaders would be transformed into a war of the people against the people. The shift was intended to weaken the basis of the resistance, that is, national solidarity, and prepare the ground for socialism. The Soviet ambassador Ahmad Fikrat J. Tabeyev reportedly initiated the policy. Kishtmand was to work with politburo comrades, each of whom was assigned a task in making the policy work. In Samara-e-Dosti (Fruit of Friendship), a booklet issued for the benefit of party comrades, Kishtmand had dwelt on the issue. He had stated how the non-Pashtun ethnic minorities could be made oversensitive to each other and how, at the same time, they could be persuaded to form an anti-Pashtun front. Politburo members and others were made responsible for the affairs of ethnic groups. Each was also to supervise contingents of militias of the ethnic group assigned to him. To implement the policy, they earmarked billions of afghanis free from state audit. In the name of “international socialism,” Pashtun and non-Pashtun members of politburo alike undertook to make the policy a success. It was to be implemented through the new Ministry of Tribal Affairs and Nationalities, which replaced the former Ministry of Frontiers. These persons deafened the Afghans by preaching that they toiled for the welfare of toilers, but in actuality, and on instruction from the Soviets, they devised ways and means to embroil the toilers in wars of hatred among themselves so that they themselves could stay in power. Having already sacrificed national sovereignty, they now showed that they were more loyal to socialism than to their own people or the land of their birth.
Kishtmand was known for his opposition to the Khalqis, who had tortured him while he was imprisoned in 1978. His family also shared Kishtmand’s views, and one of his brothers, Asadullah Kishtmand, a newspaper editor, let a remark be published about Taraki that likened him to Dracula. The paper also called the Pashtuns “the uncultured majority” (aksaryat-e-bayfarhang). Although Asadullah Kishtmand was demoted because of these remarks, the Khalqis and Pashtuns were not satisfied. The remark was, of course, not valid, since every group of people has a culture, since “culture is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom and any other capabilities and habits acquired by men as a member of society.” As the creators of Pashtunwali, their complex social code, the Pashtuns are conspicuous among their ethnic neighbors in having a distinctive culture. But as a pretext for an anti-Amin campaign, and under the shadow of Soviet might, the Kishtmands and others had started an anti-Pashtun campaign. They frequently called Amin and his cohort “fascists.” The promotion of Kishtmand was also important because it would placate the Shi’ite Hazaras and improve relations with the Khomeini government of Iran. It was hoped that both would be pleased to see an Afghan Shi’a as prime minister of the country for the first time in its history. But Kishtmand had liabilities, and these outweighed his assets.
Although it was not generally known, Kishtmand was not a full-fledged Hazara, although for political reasons he had associated himself with them. He was in fact a Gadee, a mixture of the Hazaras and other low-ranking people of unknown origin; he was born in the Qala-e-Sultan village close to Unchi-e-Bagbanan in the Chardihi basin. Whether his ancestors lived in the Hazarajat proper is unknown, but the Gadees themselves, a small group, lived in the villages of Chardi. Their neighbors held the Gadees in low esteem. The Gadees were Isma’ili Shi’as, or the Seveners, as distinct from the main group of the Shi’as, or the Twelvers, who regarded the former as Ghalis or Ghalatis, that is, those who either “exaggerate” in the matter of religion or are on the “wrong” pathway. At no time had the Gadees played a role in national politics. The Isma’ilis of the northeastern part of the country in Badakhshan, as well as in Kahmard and Saighan, were also a minority living in areas surrounded by their Sunni neighbors. Under these circumstances, it was unlikely that Kishtmand could play an important role.
Kishtmand’s promotion to the office of prime minister provoked the conservative, traditionalist Sunni Muslims: contrary to traditional and religious practices, an Isma’ili Gadee had become prime minister. In addition, Kishtmand and others were known to be atheists and communists, although they behaved as if they were Muslims. During the constitutional monarchy, when Kishtmand campaigned for a seat in parliament, he omitted the word “Ali” from his name in the election brochures. He did so because “Ali” represented Shi’ism, and he was concerned that, if he were so identified, the Sunnis of the Chardihi constituency would not elect him; and, indeed, he was not elected. While he was prime minister, even his own Gadees boycotted him.
Kishtmand’s promotion alarmed educated Afghans for a different reason. They were alarmed because of the Soviet design on northern Afghanistan, a relatively underpopulated region but potentially rich both agriculturally and industrially. Strategically it is also significant, because it is separated from the rest of the country by the Hindu Kush and also because it is close to Central Asia. The alarm was not unfounded. In 1987 the scheme for northern and southern Afghanistan was implemented: under this plan a deputy prime minister, along with sixteen deputy ministers for the nine provinces in northern Afghanistan, began to work in Mazar, the capital city of the province of Balkh. Before that, Kabul had allowed the provincial governments as well as businessmen of the area to deal with the Soviet Central Asian Republics directly, a unique concession. Among the educated minority groups of this region, the sectarian tendency was strong; for instance, the Sitamis come from this area.
The Afghans feared that an increase in the number of central Asians in Kabul, the stress of the ethnic minority issue, and the promotion of Kishtmand meant the revival of Russia’s design on northern Afghanistan. They feared that through the importation of central Asians and the cooperation of Parchamis and Afghan sectarians, the Soviet Union intended to carve out a state in northern Afghanistan with a view to making it part of its empire. They also feared that with the presence of such surrogates the Soviets now intended to implement their design, as they had invaded the country when the Parcham faction provided them a pretext. Thus, the promotion of Kishtmand made the regime more unpopular, despite the view that the Soviet model of nationalities, even if applied, would not work in Afghanistan since the Afghans were socially and linguistically more integrated than were the inhabitants of the neighboring lands. Besides, the Soviet nationalities of the Central Asian Republics had been more oppressed than their brethren in Afghanistan. The émigrés from these republics had spread stories of Soviet atrocities in northern Afghanistan. This was why the central Asians who worked in Afghanistan sympathized with the mujahideen. For this reason, the Soviets recalled the approximately 32,000 troops they had sent from the Central Asian Republics into Afghanistan. Still, a scheme of such magnitude was bound to have some ugly consequences.
Karmal’s difficulty with the Khalqi-dominated army has already been described. His position in the civil administration was also unenviable. The source of the troubles was the party rift, which had been accentuated by the purges of the rival faction each time the other faction was dominant. Following the invasion, it was the turn of the Parchamis. The regime tried to disarm the Khalqis while it armed its own Parchamis. This made the Khalqis vulnerable to terroristic attacks by mujahideen. Also, the Khalqis were dismissed from party and government positions or demoted. Since there is no civil service system in Afghanistan, each time a new regime comes to power new officials are employed in place of the old ones. After the communist coup, the overhaul became more general than at any time before. Party members had to have government positions even if it was at the expense of expertise. This attitude was further reinforced by the view that since the state was an instrument in the hands of the ruling class, the vanguard of the workers—that is, party members—must steer it to their own benefit: hence the justification of the view that the state should be in the hands of party members. The state was then considered sacrosanct, a monopoly of the communists. In practice this attitude meant the holding of official positions by unqualified party members.
After its rise to power, the regime tried to promote Parchamis to government positions and to remove the Khalqi officials from their posts. This proved difficult because qualified personnel were in short supply and because the regime needed unity in the party. Amin’s associates were dismissed following the invasion. But the regime needed to promote its own trusted Parchamis to high positions. In September 1980 the regime ordered the removal of about eighty government officials, among them a number of departmental chiefs, judges, and the mayor of Kabul; almost all were Khalqis. But the regime could not make such changes on a large scale. The Khalqis complained to the Soviet ambassador that the move was intended to undermine the unity of the party. They carried on their duties as usual, turning away the new officials who had come to occupy their posts. On instruction from the ambassador, the regime acquiesced. However, the regime removed the Khalqi officials one by one. But the Khalqis had to have a haven in this game of survival.
Since the invasion the Ministry of Internal Affairs, headed by Sayyed Mohammad Gulabzoy, had become a haven for those Khalqi officials whom the regime had dismissed from other departments. The ministry assumed a feature distinct from all other ministries. Its top civil officials, as well as police officers and ordinary police, were almost all Khalqis, and almost all were from Paktia, the stronghold of the Khalqis. In addition, they were almost all Pashtuns and opposed to the Parchamis. The ministry functioned as a counterweight to KhAD, in which the Dari-speaking elements, mainly from the city of Kabul and Parwan, outnumbered all others. The two ministries were more rivals than cohesive organs of the regime.
In 1981 I observed that the Khalqi officials in the Ministry of Interior criticized Karmal and the Parchamis to the point of diatribe, even in the presence of strangers. Since KhAD was ruthless to the opponents of the regime, the Khalqis’ attitude was amazing. But they felt safe since Gulabzoy, until then, had opposed KhAD setting up its committees in that ministry, whereas in all other government departments it had set up a network of committees. In addition, the ministry had a strong police force (Sarindoy) of its own, armed with tanks, helicopters, and other sophisticated weapons, which enabled it to take part in military operations. Finally, the ministry was financed by Moscow. All this meant that it had such an independent status that even Karmal could not influence it. It was more like a state within a state. Gulabzoy reportedly called it “the ministry of Gulabzoy.” Since the Khalqis dominated the army and Sarindoy, and since the Khalqis, although divided, were more numerous than the Parchamis, Gulabzoy considered himself equal to Karmal.
A Zadran Pashtun from Paktia, Gulabzoy was by profession a tank commander. Before the communist coup he was a noncommissioned officer. His part in the communist coup was inconspicuous, since at a critical moment he had failed to perform his duty. He had been recruited to the party by Hafizullah Amin, of whom he was an associate until the latter’s relation with Taraki became strained. He then turned against Amin and became one of the Gang of Four described earlier; together with Asadullah Sarwari and Aslam Watanjar, he played a part in the downfall of Amin as part of the invading forces: hence his endearment to the Soviets, and hence also his rivalry with Karmal. Confident that the latter could not harm him, Gulabzoy acted independently, building a stronghold for himself as Karmal had built a stronghold in KhAD. Being a daring person, Gulabzoy patrolled the city at night, often without bodyguards. No other leader of either the Parchami or the Khalqi factions had the courage to do so.
Gulabzoy said that since Moscow had appointed both himself and Karmal to their posts, Karmal could not remove him. Gulabzoy thus acted without reference to Karmal, especially after Sarwari had been banished to Mongolia as ambassador. Gulabzoy looked on himself as his successor, organizing the human resources at his disposal. He proved to be skillful in this job. Since the Khalqis had to struggle against so many odds, this organizational task was massive. Gulabzoy made a significant contribution to his faction since KhAD had the power and the means to suppress the Khalqis much as the Khalqis had suppressed the Parchamis in 1978. In the tradition of the Afghans, he was ambitious, hoping to fill the vacuum at the top when Karmal had failed to do so. But such an outcome was unlikely. Barely literate, Gulabzoy had no knowledge of ideology. Often drunk, like General Abdul Qadir, Gulabzoy was impolitic, more at home using muscle than brain. Also, within his own Khalqi faction the Amin group thought little of him, looking instead on Shah Wali and Abdul Karim Meesaq as its leaders.