Afghan Leadership Mellowing--but Can It Last?

Times Staff Writer

Eleven years ago, at the start of the revolution that changed his life--and his country--Salwar Zalmai was a young professor at Kabul University.

“I guess you could say I was an idealist,” an older and wiser Zalmai recalled the other day. “So of course I was pleased. I was one of those who celebrated in the streets that day.

“To many of us, the revolution of April 27 stood for progress and prosperity, for the modernization of our country and our feudal society. We had great hopes.”

But three years later, Zalmai was in prison. In December, 1979, the revolution he had supported so avidly was undercut by the Soviet Union, which sent in Red Army troops and helped carry out a countercoup.


“To me,” Zalmai said, “this was aggression. I did some things and said some things to oppose it, and as a result I spent five years in prison.”

Prison, he said, “can break a man mentally, but I say that if our neighbor had left us alone, the situation here would have been different. The revolution might have succeeded. Now we have only war, and my ideas have changed.”

So has Afghanistan. The Soviet Union withdrew the last of its troops in February--but left the country even poorer and more desperate than it was when the revolution erupted.

The Marxist government left behind by the Soviets is firmly in power, despite widespread opposition, continued pressure from a U.S.-backed Islamic insurgency and predictions it would collapse soon after the Soviet withdrawal.


Shed Marxist Principles

As President Najibullah and his People’s Democratic Party celebrated the anniversary of the revolution last week, it was clear that they have survived largely because they have abandoned most of their Marxist principles. The government, like Prof. Zalmai, has mellowed with age.

Not once in Thursday’s hourlong anniversary speech did Najibullah use the words communism or socialism. On the contrary, he emphasized that the private sector of the economy “will be supported and encouraged by the state.”

Before the representatives of the world’s major communist parties, among them an official of Moscow’s Supreme Soviet, Najibullah said that his government “will take action to attract foreign capital.”

And, as he has done in many recent speeches, he bitterly criticized his party’s performance since the revolution, assailing its “utopianism, rhetoric and flashy slogans.”

“Numerous mistakes, including big ones, have been committed,” he said, citing what he called a “half-baked” land reform program and a failure to recognize the importance of the tribal nature of Afghan society.

From the beginning, he said, the party ignored “the political forces of society and . . . monopolized power.”

It was hardly what had been expected from a man who has been described in Washington and by his critics at home as little more than a puppet of Moscow.


According to independent analysts here, Najibullah’s campaign of self-effacement and his recent commitment to capitalism and national reconciliation--he has offered on at least a dozen occasions to resign in favor of a coalition government that includes his party--are essentially the tactics of survival.

Institutions Ingrained

Over the past decade, a network of militant pro-Soviet institutions has become so ingrained that it does not seem likely that it could be removed without great bloodshed. And these are the institutions most responsible for keeping Najibullah in power. Chief among them is the party’s Soviet-trained secret police. There is also the Democratic Youth Organization, 200,000 armed teen-agers who are now manning defense lines in the key cities of Kabul and Jalalabad.

Even Zalmai conceded that the Marxist forces are so powerful that no future coalition can ignore them.

“Our problem today,” he said, “is that our society is divided into two powerful camps with opposing political ideas. This is dangerous because . . . Afghans cannot tolerate opposing ideas. We want to eliminate anyone who opposes us.”

Zalmai was one of the hundreds of political prisoners released when Najibullah began his reconciliation program in 1986, and in many ways, his experience helps explain Afghanistan’s dilemma. On the basis of dozens of recent interviews with Afghans here and in the refugee camps of Pakistan, Zalmai appears to be typical of what he calls the “silent majority.”

Like many older Afghans, Zalmai has been exposed to Western ways. Kabul University, where he taught, was built with U.S. aid in the 1960s. He has a master’s degree from American University in Beirut, and in Kabul University’s School of Agriculture, he taught alongside Americans.

His work took him into rural areas where tribal chiefs ruled for centuries. He saw peasants with no future and no hope.


“There is no doubt that our society needed a radical change,” he said, looking back at his elation over the 1978 revolution, “but who knew that the revolution would bring us only war?”

When Soviet tanks rolled into Kabul the following year, Zalmai said, emotions took over that were more deeply ingrained than his ideological commitment to the poor.

“As you know, we Afghans cannot tolerate outside intervention in our country,” Zalmai said, referring not only to the recent Soviet incursion but to British colonialism and, long before that, the invasion of Alexander the Great.

“Afghanistan is a nation of individuals and individualists,” he said. “When the Soviets invaded, we had to fight, not only me but everyone.”

But now, for Zalmai, the fighting has ended.

“Why is this war continuing?” he said. “Most of us do not know. Najibullah says he is ready for talks with anyone. He says he is ready to resign. Logically and morally, the government is in a strong position now, and we cannot see the logic of the opposition.

“Yes, there are extremists in the (government) party, and there are extremists in the mountains. But between these two extremes I believe there is a silent majority, and they feel the way I feel. We are not members of the ruling party, nor are we members of the opposition anymore. We are just sick and tired of war.”

As Zalmai sees it, the United States holds the key to peace in Afghanistan.

“America has powerful influence on these opposition groups,” he said. “If the United States stops sending them arms and tells them to negotiate, then talks will begin.”

A proverb has it that “the earth burns where the fire is,” he said, adding: “What it means is, I am here in this country. The war kills my brother. It kills my father. It destroys my country. Those on the outside, they can only watch it. But those like me who live here, we feel this war each and every day of our lives.”

Ironically, Zalmai and many other Afghans think the problem could be resolved by the return of King Mohammed Zahir Shah, who was driven from the throne and into exile in 1973.

“If Zahir is not the key to the solution,” Zalmai said, “it means the situation is so grave that no one can help, and many more Afghans will die. He is the only one now speaking a moderate line, and the only one who has enough status to act as a catalyst for peace.

“Yes, I know that to an outsider it sounds strange but, well, times change.”