In the teahouses and street stalls of Kabul, one sometimes sees the portrait of a stern, round-faced man with dark hair and a mustache. It is the visage of Muhammad Najibullah, the last president of communist Afghanistan. Najibullah joined the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) in the late 1960s, ran Afghanistan's highly organized secret police, the KHAD, and then became the country's president in 1986. After the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, Najibullah hung on to power for another three years. Taliban fighters eventually killed him in 1996.
On occasions when I have asked Afghans in Kabul about the Najibullah posters and postcards, their replies have ranged from "He was a strong president — we had a strong army then" to "Everything worked well and Kabul was clean." One teahouse proprietor, using the familiar form of the name, stated simply that "Najib fought Pakistan." In other words, he is remembered not so much as a socialist — a vague term for many in Afghanistan — but as a modernizer and a patriot.
To understand Najibullah's status as a minor icon, it helps to know about the Soviet experience in Afghanistan — the strategy and tactics, the terror and suffering, and the ideals and goals that motivated the Afghan communists and their Soviet allies. One authority on the subject is Rodric Braithwaite, a veteran of cold war–era diplomacy who served as the British ambassador in Moscow during the Soviet Union's collapse and has recently published an excellent and sympathetic account of the Russian invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. Afgantsy, which takes its title from the Russian nickname for Afghan war vets, is a sober and balanced antidote to the propaganda and deception that Braithwaite necessarily traded in as a British diplomat posted to the USSR. This is a point he acknowledges obliquely in the book but has touched on more directly in interviews. While writing Afgantsy Braithwaite had considerable access to government archives in Russia and key players from the Soviet-Afghan war, and traveled to Kabul to dig even further.
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