A leading Afghan Marxist, Babrak Karmal (1929-1996) became Russian puppet ruler of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan after the Russian invasion in December 1979 until his resignation "because of ill health" on May 4, 1986.
Babrak Karmal (roughly translated "labor-loving little tiger") was born into a wealthy Afghan family near Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, January 6, 1929. His father, Maj. Gen. Mohammad Hussain, was a friend of the royal family, especially of Gen. Mohammad Daoud (prime minister 1953-1963; 1973-1978), cousin and brother-in-law of King Mohammad Zahir.
Karmal's ethnic background is rather hazy, as was common among those born in or near Kabul. He claimed to be Pushtun (the dominant ethnic group in Afghanistan). Most evidence, however, linked him to a Tajik or Qizilbash, Persian-speaking background. Ethnic origin was still important in the Afghan political system, even in the Marxist, Russian-dominated regime.
In 1948, Karmal graduated from the German language-oriented Nejat (also called Amani) High School, but was initially refused admission to Kabul University because of his outspoken leftist views. He was always a charismatic speaker and became involved in the student union and the Wikh-i-Zalmayan (Awakened Youth) Movement, which, along with other ethnically-oriented intellectual organizations, wanted to liberalize and permit broader participation in the political process.
Admitted to the faculty of law and political science in 1951 after he promised to refrain from political involvement, Karmal nevertheless continued his leftist activities. When General Daoud seized power in 1953, he imprisoned most of the leftist hierarchy, and Karmal spent more than two years in prison. Mir Akbar Khyber, a cellmate of Karmal's, probably Afghanistan's best Marxist ideologue, gave Karmal the benefit of his learning. Prior to his incarceration, Karmal's exposure to Marxism had been haphazard.
Released from prison in 1956, Karmal worked in the Ministry of Education as a German and English translator, but was conscripted in 1957 for his two years of obligatory military service. After that, Karmal completed his education in the faculty of law and political sciences and returned to the Ministry of Education. Then, he moved to the Ministry of Planning in 1961.
Prime Minister Daoud resigned (under pressure) in 1963, and a constitutional experiment in monarchy began. Karmal resigned from the government in 1964 and from then on actively engaged in politics.
Karmal became a frequent visitor to the Russian embassy, as did some other Marxist Afghan intellectuals. Most, including Karmal, were probably more nationalist and anti-royalist than pro-Russian. Also, Karmal was able to obtain medical treatment for his followers at the Russian embassy's dispensary. In addition, Karmal and Anahita Ratebzad (Karmal's mistress) held numerous soirées for young teachers and administrators who had come to the capital for training or reassignment. These parties included drinking and mixed dancing, anathema to conservative Muslims, but Karmal was busily developing a cadre loyal to his person.
Tacitly tolerated by the 1964 constitution, several political parties were launched, including the leftist-oriented People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), which was founded on January 1, 1965. Key among those elected to the central committee was Karmal. But from the very beginning a split began to develop. One group, Khalq (The Masses), emphasized the class struggle of classic Marxism. The other, to be called Parcham (The Banner) after the 1967 split, led by Karmal, wanted to create a united front of all anti-royalist groups.
The first elections under the 1964 constitution which were held the following year witnessed the election of three PDPA members to the lower house of parliament (Wolesi Jirqah): Nur Mohammad Nur, Anahita, and Karmal. The Wolesi Jirqah had 216 members, but the articulate PDPA members had impact far greater than their numbers would indicate.
Karmal's Parcham was largely responsible for confrontations with the authorities, which occurred during the first parliamentary sessions. Ultimately these led to the death of three Afghans and scores of wounded when troops fired into the demonstrators on October 25, 1965.
As the parliament shuffled along toward its inevitable failure, Karmal continued to maintain close contacts with the Russian embassy, recruit cadre, and meet with certain members of the royal family, especially ex-prime minister Daoud. Because of Karmal's easy access to royalty, many Afghans referred to Parcham as the "Royal Afghan Communist Party."
The 1969 elections saw only two PDPA leftists sent to the lower house: Karmal and Hafizullah Amin, an American-schooled educator. The period 1969-1973 witnessed a rapid deterioration of the parliamentary system as the Wolesi Jirqah emphasized investigations of corruption over positive legislative action.
Other forces were at play as well. Former Prime Minister Daoud, convinced that the constitutional experiment had failed, bided his time. Leftists and moderate socialists clustered about his person, and a coup was executed on July 17, 1973. Parcham, both military and civilian, participated, and Karmal openly boasted that he had brought Daoud back to power.
Daoud founded the Republic of Afghanistan and immediately began to defend his Parcham support. He dismissed some and sent others to the countryside, where they became disillusioned when they could make no impact on the local power elites. The prime minister introduced a liberalized constitution in February 1977, but many were disappointed in his regime.
In July, the two sections of the PDPA remarried after a ten year divorce, with the express purpose to oppose the Daoud regime. But it was a troubled union. Active Russian involvement in the reunion was still a question.
A series of accidents led to an April 27-28, 1978, coup, and additional mishaps determined its outcome. The murder of Mir Akbar Khyber triggered a massive demonstration and led to the arrest of the Marxist leadership. Incidentally, Khyber was probably assassinated by the Khalq leadership. A 24-hour coup launched by Marxists in the military succeeded, and Daoud and most of his family died in the fighting.
The first cabinet of the new Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (DRA) acknowledged the following triumvirate: Nur Mohammad Taraki, prime minister, president of the Revolutionary Council, general secretary of the PDPA; first deputy prime minister, Karmal; and Amin, deputy prime minister and foreign minister. A struggle for power began immediately. Karmal tried unsuccessfully to elicit support from the military, but the key officers remained loyal to Taraki and Khalq.
To protect itself, the Revolutionary Council exiled Karmal and most of the Parcham leadership to ambassadorships: Karmal was sent to Prague; Anahita to Belgrade; Nur to Washington.
But the Khalq leadership was not through with Karmal and Parcham. In late August 1978, the regime arrested a number of military officers and other professionals and charged them with plotting to overthrow the government. Those arrested confessed under torture and implicated Karmal and his followers. Karmal and the other Parcham ambassadors were ordered home, but under the circumstances they chose to remain in eastern Europe and Russia.
Meanwhile, the Khalq DRA announced a number of reform programs, which alienated virtually every segment of Afghan society. The reforms plus widespread brutal repression led to anti-DRA revolts in all of Afghanistan's 29 provinces. By fall 1979, it was obvious that the DRA would collapse under insurgent attacks unless the Russian military directly intervened. On Christmas Eve 1979 the invasion began. Russian troops killed Amin and Taraki.
Karmal arrived in Kabul after Russian tanks had restored order. But the countryside, only partly involved before the Russian invasion, exploded into resistance. In spite of this, Karmal, now prime minister, president of the Politboro, and general secretary of the PDPA, thought he could put together a coalition government acceptable to all. He released the surviving political prisoners, which included a number of former cabinet members. Karmal asked them to help him form a new government. Most pleaded for time to recover from their experiences in prison, as all had been tortured. Those who could manage fled to Pakistan, India, Iran, and ultimately Western Europe or the United States.
Karmal's famed charisma had failed him, for few Afghans wanted to work with the puppet of a foreign power. Afghans quickly dubbed Karmal as "Shah Shuja the Second," a reference to an Afghan puppet of the British in the 19th century (1839-1842).
The DRA announced a number of reforms, which could not be implemented because of the war. So Karmal (and the world) watched the following patterns unfold. The first direct Russian military aggression since World War II on an independent, nonaligned nation led to the creation of one of the world's largest refugee problems. About a third of Afghanistan's population had fled the country by the end of 1985. In addition, increasingly effective guerrilla operations, both rural and urban, with little assistance from the outside world, underlined the fact that the Russians had been fighting in Afghanistan longer than they fought in World War II.
Additional evidence of Russian troubles in Afghanistan came with Karmal's resignation on May 4, 1986. He was replaced by Najibullah, the former head of the Afghan secret police, Khad.
Karmal's deposition and rise to power parallel the rise and fall of the Russian occupation of Afghanistan. After he was disposed, Karmal was exiled to Russia where he stayed until 1991 when he returned home. Karmal was in Moscow when he died from liver cancer in late 1996.
For the period and the man, see the following: Louis Dupree, Afghanistan (1980), and Red Flag over the Hindu Kush, American Universities Field Staff Reports, Asia Series, Nos. 44, 45, 46 (1979) and Nos. 23, 27, 28, 29, 37 (1980); Anthony Arnold, Afghanistan's Two-Party Communism, Parcham and Khalq (1983). A good contemporary account is Henry Bradsher, Afghanistan and the Russian Union (1983).
For additional information see Karmal's obituary in Time (December 16, 1996) and "An Ox Annoyed," Economist (July 27, 1991).