John Pilger’s fantasy history of Afghanistan

Last week the veteran leftwing journalist John Pilger published an article titled “Afghanistan, The Great Game of Smashing Countries”, which was enthusiastically received in some quarters. Although reproduced by a number of online media outlets including Counterpunch and MROnline, its original place of publication appears to have been MintPress News.

This is a cranky pseudo-left “news” site which first achieved notoriety back in 2013 over its enthusiastic promotion of the conspiracy theory that the Assad regime’s horrific sarin attack in Ghouta was a false flag operation carried out by the Syrian opposition. The site’s source of finance is unknown but evidently allows it to attract a well-known writer like Pilger, who has been contributing articles to MintPress for some years now. I suppose this has the advantage for Pilger that he can write any old nonsense he likes as long as it fits in with the MintPress editorial line, without having to bother with doing basic research or observing elementary standards of accuracy. That would certainly explain Pilger’s Afghanistan article, which is embarrassingly bad.

Pilger’s paeans to the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, the pro-Soviet self-defined Marxist-Leninist party that seized state power in April 1978, are just deluded. He describes the PDPA as having led “a liberation movement” that overthrew the dictatorship of Daoud Khan. In reality the PDPA was a small political party with very limited popular support, which established its own even more dictatorial regime by ousting Daoud through a coup carried out by PDPA-supporting military officers. The party did have a base in the cities, particularly Kabul, but its organisation barely existed in the rural areas where the overwhelming majority of Afghanistan’s population lived.

The PDPA was divided into two factions who agreed on the need to introduce a progressive programme of land reform, education and women’s rights, but were bitterly divided over how to achieve this. The Parcham faction headed by Babrak Karmal, having made a realistic assessment of the regime’s political isolation, favoured a gradual approach that would have involved building broader alliances in support of the PDPA’s policies. The rival Khalq faction led by Nur Muhammad Taraki and his deputy Hafizullah Amin convinced themselves that the PDPA’s possession of state power would enable them to impose their programme by force.

The Khalq defeated Parcham in the ensuing factional struggle and set about implementing a ruthless top-down modernisation of Afghanistan, inspired on Amin’s part by an acknowledged admiration for the methods of Joseph Stalin. The level of repression was appalling. After deposing and killing Taraki during a further factional struggle and taking over as PDPA leader, Amin accused his predecessor of having executed twelve thousand political opponents. Other sources suggest that by then twenty-seven thousand people may have been executed in Kabul’s notorious Pul-i Charkhi prison alone. Despite his attempt to offload the blame onto the murdered Taraki, Amin was of course equally responsible for this campaign of terror.

Pilger omits to mention that during 1978–9 the actions of the “genuinely progressive Afghan government”, as he describes it, were so extreme, repressive and counterproductive that in December 1979 the Soviet politburo decided to invade and overthrow this government, killing Hafizullah Amin and installing their own man, Parcham leader Babrak Karmal, as PDPA leader. (Karmal himself later fell out of favour with his Soviet masters and was replaced in turn by Mohammad Najibullah.)

In a further claim at variance with the facts, Pilger writes that “the Soviets made their fatal move into Afghanistan in response to the American-created jihadist threat on their doorstep”. The reality is that the revolt against the PDPA was in its origins a spontaneous reaction against the brutality and sectarian stupidities of the Taraki-Amin regime, and was well under way before it received any assistance from the US. In fact the Carter administration was initially reluctant to get involved in the escalating armed conflict.

Pilger makes much of the the US decision in July 1979 to provide CIA support for the rebels, which he describes as “a $500 million ‘covert action’ programme to overthrow Afghanistan’s first secular, progressive government”. But this decision was taken the year after the uprising started, and so could hardly have created it. The initial cost of the programme was in fact $695,000 and only nonlethal support was authorised. It wasn’t until the end of December, after the Soviet invasion began, that Jimmy Carter agreed to provide arms and military training to the insurgents. The first US-supplied weapons, consisting mainly of ancient Lee-Enfield rifles, arrived in Pakistan in January 1980.

(For a useful analysis of the US government’s response to the developing crisis in Afghanistan in the period up to the Soviet invasion, which dispels some of the misinformation surrounding these events, see “The Myth of the ‘Afghan Trap’: Zbigniew Brzezinski and Afghanistan, 1978–1979”, Diplomatic History, April 2020.)

What I’m disputing here is Pilger’s claim that the mujahideen were “American-created”. Of course, it is undoubtedly true that the US did commit major resources in the 1980s to supporting the armed struggle against the occupying Soviet forces and the Afghan puppet regime they were propping up. But Pilger can’t even get that right. He quotes author Bob Woodward, supposedly describing a CIA agent providing financial support for the mujahideen, as follows:

“Gary placed a bundle of cash on the table: $500,000 in one-foot stacks of $100 bills. He believed it would be more impressive than the usual $200,000, the best way to say we’re here, we’re serious, here’s money, we know you need it … Gary would soon ask CIA headquarters for and receive $10 million in cash.”

But this incident took place in 2001, following 9/11. The quote is from Woodward’s book Bush at War, and describes how the CIA bankrolled forces fighting against the Taliban. It has nothing to do with US backing for the mujahideen in their resistance to the Soviet occupation during the 1980s. Is Pilger really unaware of that? Didn’t he bother to check?

As for the anti-Soviet forces of the 1980s, Pilger obviously doesn’t have a clue who they were. He writes: “Calling themselves the Northern Alliance, the mujahedin were dominated by warlords who controlled the heroin trade and terrorised rural women. The Taliban were an ultra-puritanical faction, whose mullahs wore black and punished banditry, rape and murder but banished women from public life.”

The Taliban wasn’t in fact founded until 1994, five years after the withdrawal of Soviet forces and two years after the defeat of the PDPA by the mujahideen, while the Northern Alliance was a coalition of forces that came together to oppose the Taliban.

If you want another illustration of Pilger’s ignorance and lightminded attitude to the evidence, take this passage from his article: “In 1996, the enlightened PDPA government was overrun. The Prime Minister, Mohammad Najibullah, had gone to the United Nations to appeal to for help. On his return, he was hanged from a street light.” It would be difficult to cram more errors into three short sentences.

Najibullah was the Afghan president, not the prime minister. His government fell to the mujahideen in 1992, not 1996. He then found refuge in the UN headquarters in Kabul where he remained for the next four years. What happened in 1996 was that the Taliban defeated the former mujahideen factions that ruled Kabul and took control of the capital themselves. They dragged Najibullah from the UN compound, shot him and strung his body up from a traffic light outside the presidential palace.

Reaching the end of Pilger’s article you’re left rubbing your eyes in disbelief. Could this be the same man who won the Journalist of the Year Award back in 1967 and 1979? But Pilger’s degeneration is not an isolated phenomenon. Other formerly reputable leftwing journalists such as Seymour Hersh and the late Robert Fisk also lost their bearings in recent years, in particular over the war in Syria, during which they became chemical weapons denialists and effectively apologists for the Assad regime. For some reason the Independent saw fit to continue employing Fisk up until his death last year, despite the erratic quality of his output. But MintPress News is surely a more appropriate retirement home for discredited ex-journalists like these.

First published on Medium in August 2021