In his first radio broadcasts Karmal gave hopeful promises. He said that henceforth there would be no executions and that a new constitution would be drawn up providing for the democratic election of national and local assemblies. He also promised that political parties would function freely and that both personal property and individual freedom would be safeguarded. In particular, he stressed that soon a government representing a united national front would be set up and that it would not pursue socialism. He also promised a general amnesty for prisoners. In normal circumstances these promises would have aroused expectations, but now they sounded dreadful. As noted before, Karmal announced at the same time that his government had asked the Soviet Union to give economic, political, and military assistance, a request that, he said, had been accepted and rendered. Since he had become an agent for inflicting the calamity of Soviet troops on the Afghans, Karmal had no choice but to give the promises of a democratic government. But in this he went so far as to give promises that he could not fulfill even if he wished to.
These promises were nothing but the Leninist tactical move of two steps backward and one step forward. For a Brezhnevian protégé such as Karmal, it was impossible to go ahead with a platform that his masters saw as bourgeois. Also, the Afghans had seen that the same Karmal following the communist coup had, with others, promised that private as well as personal property would remain safe, a promise that they violated. The fact was that he could not become a ruler without the military might of the Soviet Union. Karmal, with a view to taking revenge on Amin and making himself the ruler of Afghanistan, had let himself become an instrument in the hands of foreign masters with no regard for the rights of his compatriots to sovereignty, their dignity as free men and, above all, their lives. To reach his goal, this most slavish of puppet rulers let himself be entangled in a dilemma that was beyond his powers to solve and that brought untold suffering to millions of men, women, and children.
Among the measures promised by Karmal, the most important were the release of prisoners; the promulgation of the Fundamental Principles of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan; the change of the red, Soviet-style banner of the Khalq period to the more orthodox one of black, red, and green; the granting of concessions to religious leaders; and the conditional restoration of confiscated property. Some concessions were also granted to landowners whose lands had been confiscated in the land reform program implemented by Karmal’s predecessors. Except for the release of prisoners, all these measures were taken gradually. What lessened the bitterness of the people was the release of prisoners on 6 January 1980. The Parchami prisoners, numbering about 600, had been released in the early hours of the invasion; the bulk of the prisoners, released on 6 January, numbered 2,000; and about 100 prisoners were not released. Thus, the total number of prisoners before the invasion was around 2,700. Much fanfare was made of the occasion of the release of prisoners. People from the outside were brought in to mingle with the prisoners to make their number appear higher. But the day turned into a day of wailing for thousands of families who were now convinced that they would never again see their imprisoned relatives. After Amin came to power, he had made public a list of those already executed; according to this list, 12,000 prisoners had been executed, but people still hoped that since the actual number of prisoners was higher, their imprisoned relatives might be alive. They were disappointed. (Amin had released 850 prisoners after he became the ruler and intended to release the rest by 1 January to coincide with the sixteenth anniversary of the party.)
After the Khalqis came to power, they ran the country by issuing a series of eight edicts. They suspended all laws except those on civil matters. Another exception was the criminal law of the Daoud period, which the Parchamis, like the Khalqis, retained as a repressive instrument.
In April 1980 the Karmal regime adopted a temporary constitution, the Fundamental Principles of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, which had been drafted while Amin was in power. The new constitution guaranteed certain democratic rights of individuals, including the right to “security and life,” the right of “free expression,” and the right “to form peaceful associations and demonstrations.” It also declared that “no one would be accused of crime but in accord with the provisions of law,” that the “accused is innocent unless the court declares him guilty,” and that “crime was a personal affair, and no one else would be punished for it.” It likewise declared that “torture, persecution, and punishment, contrary to human dignity, are not permissible.”
Envisaged for the country was “a new-style state of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan,” guided by the PDPA. It was the only legal party, and the Revolutionary Council, as the supreme state power, was to convene twice a year to approve measures already taken by the Presidium, which was composed mostly of the politburo members of the PDPA. The state was to safeguard three forms of property: state property, cooperative property, and private property. The constitution declared that the state had the right to exploit all underground property and other resources considered state property. The constitution also declared that the state had the power to develop the economy toward the creation of a society free of the exploitation of man by man. The state was likewise empowered to take families, both parents and children, under its supervision.
The constitution was inherently contradictory. On paper it was a perfectly democratic constitution, at least as far as the rights of the individuals were concerned; in reality it was a document granting a monopoly of power, since the state that it envisaged was to be steered only by the official party. More important, the way it was implemented was arbitrary. It relied on clauses in favor of the state while ignoring those in favor of individuals. The guaranteed rights of individuals were meaningless words. It was, in brief, a legal instrument of suppression in the hands of the regime. But its impact was limited. By the time it was promulgated, the mujahideen had confined the regime to cities.
Among the palliative measures that Karmal was to take, the most important was the one intended to have an immediate effect on the current situation. This was the question of forming a government representing a united national front, which Karmal had promised. By definition, such a government would be composed of those groups or individuals having the power to influence national politics. Karmal had neither the desire nor the power to form such a government. The government he did form was composed of the Parchamis, Khalqis (Taraki group), and three persons of no national significance. A number of well-known noncommunist Afghans were also appointed to various ministries. But these collaborators, who set the precedent of cooperation with the regime, found that they had been given posts without authority. Besides, by then it had become a fact of Afghan politics that any one who collaborated with the regime was no longer socially significant.
The next step toward the formation of the government of national front was the appointment of a large number of junior bureaucrats in various ministries. The regime made a big fanfare of this, but these officials were ordinary civil employees, not politicians. This was what Karmal and his Soviet advisers meant when they spoke of a government representing a united national front. As has been pointed out, “no totalitarian regime can afford to share real power with any group outside its own immediate control.” Karmal had failed to unite the party, although calling it a unified democratic party. He had also failed to form a truly national government. Yet he and his associates called their regime “a new evolutionary phase of the glorious April Revolution.”
All this time armed opposition was mounting. Within weeks of the invasion the mujahideen had wrested the rural areas from the control of the regime. The regime ruled the city of Kabul, the provincial capitals, and those strategic areas where the Soviets and the regime had stationed military contingents and militia units. Even cities were unsafe for PDPA members. Worse still, the mujahideen killed Soviet soldiers in large numbers. All this was a spectacular feat for the mujahideen. (The situation remained the same until the Soviets withdrew their army in 1989.) Opponents of the regime spread rumors to the effect that the Kremlin rulers had decided to replace Karmal. But luckily for him, no one else within the party had even his meager standing.
Years later, when Karmal’s inability to consolidate his government had become obvious, Mikhail Gorbachev, then general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, said, “The main reason that there has been no national consolidation so far is that Comrade Karmal is hoping to continue sitting in Kabul with our help.” Colonel Nikolai Ivanov, a Soviet military writer, even wrote that “he [Karmal] was a nobody.” Both statements reflect the failure of Soviet foreign policy. It was because of this policy that Karmal was unable to achieve “national consolidation,” that he had become “a nobody.” Prior to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Karmal not only was not “a nobody” but was an important somebody. Twice the people had elected him to parliament. When his Kremlin comrades used Karmal as a tool of their policy, they turned him into a nobody. Then this “nobody” was unable to achieve “national consolidation.” He even had to plead with his Soviet comrades: “You brought me here [to Afghanistan], you protect me.” The Soviet invasion had generated forces of resistance beyond the control of even the strongest ruler with the best mind—let alone a puppet such as Karmal. In addition, Karmal was inexperienced in running the country, a particularly severe weakness at a time when the nation had turned against him. The truth of this statement Gorbachev accepted when in a politburo meeting he told his peers, “If we don’t change approaches [to evacuate Afghanistan], we will be fighting there for another 20 or 30 years.” To make Karmal a scapegoat for the Soviet failure is wrong, but doing so was standard practice for the Soviet leaders. At any rate, the Soviet leaders stuck with him for six years. Hoping to prop him up, they received him and his delegation with pomp in October 1980 in the Kremlin, where they lectured him on how to run the country. What was needed was a lecture to the Kremlin leaders themselves on why they had blundered in invading Afghanistan and raising to power a person whom their own historian called “a nobody.”