Karmal as a Ruler
Karmal’s immediate problems were within the party. He was the chosen man of the Kremlin, and no one within the party could openly oppose him. However, scheming men devise ways to oppose even under the strictest of circumstances. Within the closed frame of government, the opposition, in order to seize power, may resort to whatever means available to it. After the fall of Amin and the suppression of his faction, Karmal had new rivals in the persons of Sarwari and Gulabzoy, the heads of the Taraki faction that called itself the “principled Khalqis.” Sarwari and Gulabzoy had endeared themselves to the Soviets by helping them in the invasion. They had done so not for the sake of Karmal but for their own agenda, which was to get rid of Karmal and his faction.
The scheme was to dispose of the Parchami leaders in their offices by a synchronized action. Since the Parchamis were few in number, since they were not as bold as the Khalqis were, and since the Khalqis had battered them twice before, they did not think much of them. This was what Sarwari thought. He was, however, so naive as to disregard the Soviet factor. In June 1980, before Sarwari was able to put his scheme into operation, he was sent as ambassador to Mongolia. This still did not mean that Karmal became the general secretary of a unified party, as he claimed.
The Soviet Union, by overthrowing the Khalq government and raising the Parcham faction to its place, had split the PDPA into irreconcilable factions. The KGB’s view that the removal of Amin would ensure unity in the PDPA remained dominant in Moscow. But as minister of interior and a leader of the Taraki faction, Gulabzoy acted as if he were the head of a state within a state. He acted on the view that both he and Karmal had gotten their posts from Moscow, thus claiming himself Karmal’s equal.
Because of all these problems, Karmal was raised to the position of head of state without ceremony to legitimize his rule. But in Afghanistan the head of state must gain legitimacy either directly from the constituencies or through their representatives, in accord with social conventions. This approach becomes a necessity when a dynasty is replaced. In the case of Karmal, though, such legitimation was impossible. No attempt was made to convene an assembly of the notables to bestow on him the position of the head of state. Instead, the government in its mass media reported that people from various walks of life had expressed their allegiance to their leader, Karmal. Except for some messages from party cadres and some government employees, these messages were fabrications. No attempt was made to televise the process by which, even within the official party and the Revolutionary Council, Karmal was elected head of the party and of the state. Only official communiqués were issued to the effect that the central committee of the party and the Revolutionary Council “almost unanimously” agreed to elect Karmal as head of the party and the state.
After the Afghans demonstrated in opposition to Karmal, and when other governments, except for those of the Soviet bloc countries, declined to recognize the regime, Karmal invented stories that he hoped would legitimize his rule. According to one of these stories, he entered Afghanistan “through revolutionary pathways” and along with the true members of the party organized opposition with whose help he overthrew the government of Amin. By the phrase “through revolutionary pathways,” Karmal meant his two secret flights aboard Soviet military aircraft to the Bagram military airport. The Soviets first flew him in on 13 December 1979, when they expected opponents would topple Amin by a coup. “But when the operation to kill Amin failed, Babrak [Karmal] was hurriedly brought back…to the Soviet Union.” The Soviets again flew him in after the invasion. So to Karmal the Soviet interference in Afghan affairs, its invasion of Afghanistan, and his becoming a tool of its policy were a “revolution”—but this view could not help him legitimize his rule.
Karmal’s poor performance in interviews with foreign journalists also failed to help his public image. In the first and last televised interview of his life, held before a large number of foreign and Afghan journalists after he was raised to power, Karmal divided the journalists on the basis of the cold war line distinguishing between “the imperialist bloc of the West” and the “socialist bloc countries.” In this interview his answer to a question put by a BBC correspondent showed that he lived in the past. Instead of answering the question he was asked, he adopted a confrontational attitude, lecturing the BBC reporter, “We know each other in history because our forefathers had defeated your forefathers in numerous battlefields in Afghanistan.” People expected that since Karmal had served twice in parliament and since he had been abroad for over a year, he would now act as a statesman. Instead, he proved himself to be an exhibitionist. It was one thing for him to recite composed statements as an actor; it was quite another for him to answer questions that touched the lives of millions of men and women. He almost never spoke extemporaneously. After this interview the impression became widespread that Karmal, in addition to being a stooge, had no qualities of a statesman.
From the moment Karmal was raised to power, he faced tremendous problems. Whatever weight he had he lost after the invasion. An Afghan author has summed up Afghan feelings about Karmal by stating, “His presence alongside the Red Army is so small that it attracts no attention. People don’t think of him, but evaluate the long-range consequences of this political move [the invasion].” Karmal’s Soviet supporters reduced him as a person and a ruler. Thus, “by the close of 1979 the PDPA no longer ruled Afghanistan; the CPSU [the Communist Party of the Soviet Union] did.”
From the moment Karmal was flown in to Kabul, he was no longer his own master, still less the Afghan ruler. His Soviet cooks, waiters, and waitresses, the Soviet driver of his black limousine, and his Soviet advisers took care of him around the clock. Behind the curtain in his office were a Soviet adviser and an interpreter; his conversations were taped. Contingents of Soviet guards patrolled the palace in the city where Karmal lived. Afghan guards surrounded him, but their weapons were without ammunition. The Karmal of the old days, when he roamed freely, suddenly became a pearl. The Soviets were so kind to him that he had no need to meet with members of his family, or at least to meet them without their presence. Karmal’s wife, Mahbuba—a courteous woman who was once one of my students—spent most of her time in the Soviet Union. Karmal no longer needed his mistress, Anahita Ratebzad, since young Russian women gave him, as well as a select number of the politburo members, intimate company. Everything that the Soviets could provide for Karmal’s personal comfort was made available to him. Under Soviet supervision Karmal found himself in surroundings he had never been in before. But then he had to live the life of an unfree ruler, and this is clear from his own words to a friend and the words of one of his friends about him. To an old leftist friend, Asif Ahang, who met him under strictly supervised conditions, the embarrassed Karmal said, “The Soviet comrades love me boundlessly, and for the sake of my personal safety, they don’t obey even my own orders.” Another friend, Zia Majid, said of Karmal after meeting with him, “The hands, feet and tongue of the poor Sultan had been tied, and he had no right to speak [without permission] with his personal friends.”