Opinion Op Ed 18 Jan 2019 1979: How Afghanista ...
The writer is a senior journalist and commentator based in New Delhi

1979: How Afghanistan & Iran changed forever

Published Jan 18, 2019, 7:41 am IST
Updated Jan 18, 2019, 7:41 am IST
Did the West have no clue that the Islamic revolution would turn upon the West with such intensity?
Ayatollah Khomeini (Photo: AP)
 Ayatollah Khomeini (Photo: AP)

Forty years ago Afghanistan and Iran changed forever. The reason I focus on these historic developments is straightforward — I was present in Kabul and Tehran respectively even as the events unfolded.

In both the events the Western intelligence agencies and the Shah of Iran’s infamous Savak were involved. The irony is that in both instances the outcome was exactly the opposite of what the agencies had planned.


The plan was to eliminate the Communist parties, which were gaining in influence around President Mohammad Daud in Kabul. Afghanistan in those days had two Communist parties - Khalq and Parcham - roughly corresponding to the CPI and the CPI(M) in India. So botched up was the operation that the Communists came to power instead. Likewise, the Communist Party of Iran, the Tudeh, was the target. The ayatollahs would be the great enablers in this endeavour. Yes, the Tudeh was finished but the students, under the spell of the ayatollahs, laid siege to the American embassy in Tehran for 444 days.


Why were the Communist parties targeted? In the decade of the 1970s, the West learnt a singular lesson the hard way — the stout resilience of the Communist parties. Vietnam was nothing if not a lesson in this direction. A few years earlier the United States had to murder Chile’s President Salvador Allende to pave the way for Augusto Pinochet’s ghastly spell.

As the Portuguese withdrew from their colonies in Angola, Mozambique and Ethiopia, the West found itself confronted with the most tenacious brands of Communism in the three former colonies. Then Nicaragua happened. Europe was quaking - Berlinguer, Marchais and Carrillo were knocking at the gates in Italy, France, Spain, in that order.


To prevent it from being a one-sided clean sweep, the US had de-Nasserised Egypt, indeed, an important part of the Arab world, by yoking Anwar Sadat and Yitzhak Rabin in the historic Camp David accords in 1978.It was a determination to block Communism in Central and South Asia that Kabul and Tehran were targeted. But the plan to eliminate the Left in Kabul boomeranged.

On April 17, Mir Akbar Khyber, a trade union leader attached to the Parcham faction, was murdered, exposing prematurely the plot to eliminate the Left. Thus alerted, the Communist cells in the Army and Air Force led by Aslam Watanjar and Abdul Qadir were activated. The reinforcements entered the palace and killed President Daud. The coming of the Communists to power paved the way for the Soviet invasion in December 1979.


Zbigniew Brzezinski was back in the region. He visited New Delhi as US President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser on New Year’s Day 1978. This time his destination was Pakistan. Peering over the parapets into Afghanistan, he plotted the world’s largest programme of breeding Salafists, arming them to the hilt, to wage war against the Soviet occupation. After this war had been won, spare ultra-Islamic jihadis, their morale boosted by having helped defeat a superpower, flexed their muscles in Kashmir, Cairo and Algeria, where the West really blundered, by helping the Army upturn the result of the 1991 election which brought the Islamist Salvation Front in the lead. The cancellation of the election results bred more Islamism. Another complicating factor has not been mentioned yet. Since 1990, the US, egged on by Unical, the gas giant, had developed a major interest in TAPI — the Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India Pipeline.


Asked about his role in promoting Salafism, Mr Brzezin-ski shrugged his shoulders, and said: “We wanted to bring down the Soviet Union... we were not worried about some stirred-up Muslims.”Was it the ayatollah’s first instinct to give the new regime a civilian face? A few days after the revolution, the person I was able to meet was the suave Prime Minister, Mehdi Bazargan. In form, feature and sartorial detail, he was the very antithesis of the ayatollah. He looked very European in a bow tie and spoke English like a French grandee. That he lasted barely nine months in that post was because of his strong opposition to the occupation of the US embassy and the taking of American hostages. Abolhassan Bani-sadr, who escorted Ayatollah Khomeini from exile in Neauphle-le-Chateau, 30 kms from Paris, was made President. He was exiled because of internal conspiracies. There was an intense debate on among the clergy — should they lead the government or guide it? The experiments over Mr Bazargan and Mr Bani-sadr confirm this debate.


From the holy city of Qom came stories of the civilians plotting to oust the ayatollahs. It turned out that the ayatollahs required a civilian front because a true-blue Islamic revolution cannot be deemed to have taken place in the absence of the 12th Imam, whose appearance alone would impart legitimacy to the revolution. The concept of the awaited messiah is common to all Abrahamic religions.

Diverse interests tend to jump into a revolutionary situation to extract advantage. Just the other day Marine Le Pen with her fascist agenda tried to move in
sideways into the Yellow Vest agitation in Paris. The confusing chaos in Tehran in yesteryears caused a strong wing of the ayatollahs to dust up the theory of Vali Faqih, or the Intermediate Imam, who could guide the revolution pending the appearance of the Mehdi, or Messiah. Ayatollah Khomeini would be that Vali Faqih. Like the Mujahideen in Afghanistan, the Islamic revolution in Iran was to be the bulwark against the Soviet Union. But for them to play this role the pro-Soviet Tudeh party would have to pay a price. They were no longer underground, as they had been during the Shah’s days, and therefore easy targets to be eliminated.If the CIA had a hand in eliminating the Communists, by the same token they helped consolidate the ayatollahs. Was it really for this outcome that the whole Iranian project set into motion?


Western agencies had planned for the ayatollahs to be an anti-Soviet force. Did the West have no clue that the Islamic revolution would turn upon the West with such intensity?