Although they have never been involved in an actual battle with Russia, they [the Afghans] tend to see it as the eternal enemy of their religion and as a giant that could swallow all of Asia one day. Karl Marx, 1857 1
AT THE TIME of the Saur coup in 1978, Afghanistan was one of the most dramatically backward countries in Asia. As few as ten percent of the people were literate; they could not expect to live beyond forty; the revolutionary dreams of Amanullah had failed; railroad mileage was still zero. 2 But more ominously—and reminiscent of conditions in China before the civil war that brought Mao Zedong to power—each year more peasants were slipping into poverty as population pressure grew on a limited amount of good land. 3 Many peasants owned no land at all. Although historians cannot agree on this gut issue of land ownership, a reasonable guess might be that only half the farmers were working their own land. As much as forty percent of the land may have been held by barely more than two percent of the owners, with the median size of a farm some two or three acres. 4 It is significant that two of the largest land-holding families were the Mujaddidis and the Gailanis (acting as religous custodians), who later played leading roles in the Resistance—among the “moderates.” Afghanistan may have the population of Texas but in 1978 all “industrial workers” probably didn't add up to 50,000 people. 5 Almost all fifteen million Afghans were trying to live on the land; necessarily, they were poor.
The large number of tenant farmers and landless peasants staged occasional revolts, yet what left-wing analysts saw as oppressive conditions in the countryside were affected and softened by a web of traditional obligations, at least according to Dupree. In particular there was a kind of patriarchal, clan-connected patronage where the average members of the village-clan (qawm) would benefit from the generosity of the khan or malek as a matter of right—as well as paying for his maintenance. Open-handedness was an important part of Pashtunwali. Debtors and tenants were an integral expression of the whole patron-client relationship. The creditor was, in addition to his role as