The PDPA groups were Marxist-Leninist proponents of the Moscow line. The Sitam-e-Milli, however, placed more emphasis on the problem of ethnicity than class struggle. Its leader, Tahir Badakhshi, held that the emancipation of the “oppressed nationalities” from Pashtun “domination” was the main problem and thus needed to be addressed first. Toward this end, he worked for Uzbek-Tajik unity, identifying himself with the Tajik although he was the son of an Uzbek father. A founder of the PDPA, Badakhshi broke off with it to promote his own view. The educated sectarian elements of some ethnic groups rallied behind him, but Sitam-e-Milli remained insignificant, although in the beginning it had attracted some followers in Badakhshan.
Like most opposition groups, the Sitam-e-Milli failed to remain solid for long, soon splitting into two subgroups. Its radical wing, led by Abharuddin Baw’ess, followed a revolutionary line, while Badakhshi stood for moderation. A talented and dynamic man, Baw’ess trained his followers in a militant spirit; with their help, for a short time he occupied the frontier district of Darwaz in the abortive uprisings in 1975. A Tajik from the same locality, Baw’ess afterward lived in hiding until the Khalqis did away with him when he escaped from the Ali Abad hospital, where he had been transferred from prison for medical treatment, and was arrested again.
On 14 February 1979 four followers of Baw’ess kidnapped U.S. Ambassador Adolph Dubs and took him hostage in a hotel to pressure the government to release their leader. Directed by Soviet advisers, the Khalqi police stormed the hotel, where all perished. The incident brought the Sitam-e-Milli to the front line of national and international attention for the first time; it also worsened relations between Afghanistan and the United States. The Carter administration first announced the withdrawal of most of its diplomats from Kabul; later President Carter signed a law that prohibited any further aid to Afghanistan until the government apologized and assumed responsibility for Dubs’s death. This action drew the Khalqi government closer to the Soviet Union. Sitam-e-Milli also declined in strength, which may account for the change of its name to the Organization of the Toilers ofAfghanistan, or SAZA (Sazman-e-Zahmatkashan-e-Afghanistan), for the followers of Badakhshi, and the Commando Organization of the Liberation of Afghanistan, or SARFA (Sazman-e-Rehaeebakhsh-e-Fedayee-e-Afghanistan), for the followers of Baw’ess. Encouraged by a few Tajikized Russian interpreters and the Parchami Premier Kishtmand, they subsequently entered the Parchami government and formed some militia units.
Internal pressure on the Sitam-e-Milli proved crucial. In the Khalqi period the government imprisoned or executed many officers in the army uprisings on suspicion of being Sitamis. During the resistance period after the invasion, the Islamic organizations hunted the Sitamis down for their leftist views, although the Islamic Association sympathized with their notion of “national oppression.”
The suppression of Sitamis did not create a stir. Common Afghans did not sympathize with them. One reason for this lack of sympathy was the linguistic and social integration that the society had undergone with improvements in the system of transportation, particularly after the opening of the Salang tunnel in 1965, when the northern and southern regions were brought closer. Until then the northeastern region, the most distant from Kabul, had been isolated by the deterioration of relations with Pakistan over the problem of Pashtunistan, cutting it off from Chitral, with which it had trade and other ties. Before that the Bolshevik revolution had done much the same to its ties with the regions beyond the Oxus, where people of the same stock lived. This isolation, and the fact that in this poor region no major development project had been undertaken, accounted for the discontent among its educated elements.
Serious also was the exploitation of the locals by government officials. But they were not the only people who had been exploited, nor was theirs the only region that had remained undeveloped. Besides, the exploiters were not only Pashtun officials but all officials, since the bureaucracy—particularly after the spread of modern free education—was open to all ethnic groups. Also, since Afghan Dari (Persian) was the medium of bureaucracy, Persian-speaking Afghans dominated it. With the extension of the government’s direct control over the country since the days of Amir Abdur Rahman, Afghan Persian has made steady progress. This fact is significant because the Pashtun Mohammadzay ruling dynasty had become linguistically Persianized and thus more at home with the Persian-speaking Afghans than the Pashto-speaking Afghans, that is, Pashtuns. This linguistic preference, coupled with the fact that the ruling dynasty preferred that clients run the government, may account for the fact that it gave a disproportionately high number of cabinet posts to Persian-speaking Afghans. This was the case since the days of Ahmad Shah Durrani, who founded modern Afghanistan in the middle of the eighteenth century. Persian-speaking Afghans have at times served as alter egos to kings, as Mohammad Wali did in the reign of King Amanullah and Ali Mohammad in the reign of King Mohammad Zahir. Both were Tajiks from Badakhshan. The “sitam-e-milli” or “national oppression” becomes relevant when it is understood as a reflection of the tyranny of the illiberal state. To view it as an oppression of the ethnic Pashtuns is to misread it. This was one of the reasons why, like the Maoist groups, the Sitam-e-Milli, after its initial upsurge, declined even in Badakhshan, and its leaders had to rely for survival on the Soviets.
In conclusion, the Sitamis aroused an awareness to a problem that needed to be tackled constitutionally, but they also sensationalized divisiveness and hatred.