COMMUNISM, REBELLION, AND SOVIET INTERVENTION
The divided PDPA succeeded the Daoud regime with a new government
under the leadership of Nur Muhammad Taraki of the Khalq faction.
In 1967 the PDPA had split into two groups--Khalq and Parcham--but
ten years later, the efforts of the Soviet Union had brought the
factions back together, however unstable the merger.
A critical assessment of the period between the Saur (April)
Revolution of 1978 and the complete withdrawal of Soviet troops
in February 1989 requires analysis of three different, yet closely
intertwined, series of events: those within the PDPA government
of Afghanistan; those involving the mujahidin ("holy
warriors") who fought the communist regime in Kabul from bases
in Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan; and those concerning the Soviet
Union's invasion in December 1979 and withdrawal nine years later.
In Kabul, the initial cabinet appeared to be carefully constructed
to alternate ranking positions between Khalqis and Parchamis:
Taraki was prime minister, Karmal was senior deputy prime minister,
and Hafizullah Amin of Khalq was foreign minister. In early July,
however, the Khalqi purge of Parchamis began with Karmal dispatched
to Czechoslovakia as ambassador (along with others shipped out
of the country). Amin appeared to be the principal beneficiary
of this strategy, since he now ranked second, behind Taraki. The
regime also issued a series of decrees, many of which were viewed
by conservatives as opposing Islam, including one declaring the
equality of the sexes. Land reform was decreed, as was a prohibition
Internal rebellion against the regime began in Afghanistan in
the summer and fall of 1978. A number of attempts by Parchamis
to oust the Khalqis were reported. The intense rivalry between
Taraki and Amin within the Khalq faction heated up, culminating
in the death--admittedly the murder--of Taraki. In September 1979,
Taraki's followers, with Soviet complicity, had made several attempts
on Amin's life. The final attempt backfired, however, and it was
Taraki who was eliminated and Amin, who assumed power in Afghanistan.
The Soviets had at first backed Amin, but they realized that he
was too rigidly Marxist-Leninist to survive politically in a country
as conservative and religious as Afghanistan.
Taraki's death was first noted in the Kabul Times on 10 October
and reported that the former leader only recently hailed as the
"great teacher...great genius...great leader" had died quietly
"of serious illness, which he had been suffering for some time."
Less than three months later, after the Amin government had been
overthrown, the newly installed followers of Babrak Karmal gave
another account of Taraki's death. According to this account,
Amin ordered the commander of the palace guard to have Taraki
executed. Taraki reportedly was suffocated with a pillow over
his head. Amin's emergence from the power struggle within the
small divided communist party in Afghanistan alarmed the Soviet
and would usher in the series of events which lead to the Soviet
During this period, many Afghans fled to Pakistan and Iran and
began organizing a resistance movement to the "atheistic" and
"infidel" communist regime backed by the Soviets. Although the
groups organizing in the Pakistani city of Peshawar would later,
after the Soviet invasion, be described by the western press as
"freedom fighters"--as if their goal were to establish a representative
democracy in Afghanistan--in reality these groups each had agendas
of their own that were often far from democratic.
Outside observers usually identify the two warring groups as
"fundamentalists" and "traditionalists." Rivalries between these
groups continued during the Afghan civil war that followed the
Soviet withdrawal. The rivalries of these groups brought the plight
of the Afghans to the attention of the West, and it was they who
received military assistance from the United States and a number
of other nations.
The fundamentalists based their organizing principle around mass
politics and included several divisions of the Jamiat-i-Islami.
The leader of the parent branch, Burhanuddin Rabbani, began organizing
in Kabul before repression of religious conservatives, which began
in 1974, forced him to flee to Pakistan during Daoud's regime.
Perhaps best known among the leaders was Gulbaddin Hikmatyar,
who broke with Rabbani to form another resistance group, the Hizb-e-Islami,
which became Pakistan's favored arms recipient. Another split,
engineered by Yunus Khales, resulted in a second group using the
name Hizb-e-Islami--a group that was somewhat more moderate than
Hikmatyar's. A fourth fundamentalist group was the Ittehad-i-Islami
led by Rasool Sayyaf. Rabbani's group received its greatest support
from northern Afghanistan where the best known resistance commander
in Afghanistan--Ahmad Shah Massoud--a Tajik, like Rabbani, operated
against the Soviets with considerable success.
The organizing principles of traditionalist groups differed from
those of the fundamentalists. Formed from loose ties among ulama
in Afghanistan, the traditionalist leaders were not concerned,
unlike fundamentalists, with redefining Islam in Afghan society
but instead focused on the use of the sharia as the source
of law (interpreting the sharia is a principal role of
the ulama). Among the three groups in Peshawar, the most important
was the Jebh-e-Nejat-e-Milli led by Sibghatullah Mojadeddi. Some
of the traditionalists were willing to accept restoration of the
monarchy and looked to former King Zahir Shah, exiled in Italy,
as the ruler.
Other ties also were important in holding together some resistance
groups. Among these were links within sufi orders, such
as the Mahaz-e-Milli Islami, one of the traditionalist groups
associated with the Gilani sufi order led by Pir Sayyid
Gilani. Another group, the Shia Muslims of Hazarajat, organized
the refugees in Iran.
In Kabul, Amin's ascension to the top position was quick. The
Soviets had a hand in Taraki's attempts on Amin's life and were
not pleased with his rise. Amin began unfinished attempts to moderate
what many Afghans viewed as an anti-Islam regime. Promising more
religious freedom, repairing mosques, presenting copies of the
Koran to religious groups, invoking the name of Allah in his speeches,
and declaring that the Saur Revolution was "totally based on the
principles of Islam." Yet many Afghans held Amin responsible for
the regime's harshest measures and the Soviets, worried about
their huge investment in Afghanistan might be jeopardized, increased
the number of "advisers" in Afghanistan. Amin become the target
of several assassination attempts in early and mid-December 1979.
The Soviets began their invasion of Afghanistan on December 25,
1979. Within two days, they had secured Kabul, deploying a special
Soviet assault unit against Darulaman Palace, where elements of
the Afghan army loyal to Amin put up a fierce, but brief resistance.
With Amin's death at the palace, Babrak Karmal, exiled leader
of the Parcham faction of the PDPA was installed by the Soviets
as Afghanistan's new head of government.
A number of theories have been advanced for the Soviet action.
These interpretations of Soviet motives do not always agree--what
is known for certain is that the decision was influenced by many
factors--that in Brezhnev's words the decision to invade Afghanistan
was truly "was no simple decision." Two factors were certain to
have figured heavily in Soviet calculations. The Soviet Union,
always interested in establishing a cordon sanitaire
of subservient or neutral states on its frontiers, was increasingly
alarmed at the unstable, unpredictable situation on its southern
border. Perhaps as important, the Brezhnev doctrine declared that
the Soviet Union had a "right" to come to the assistance of an
endangered fellow socialist country. Presumably Afghanistan was
a friendly regime that could not survive against growing pressure
from the resistance without direct assistance from the Soviet
Whatever the Soviet goals may have been, the international response
was sharp and swift. United States President Jimmy Carter, reassessing
the strategic situation in his State of the Union address in January,
1980, identified Pakistan as a "front-line state" in the global
struggle against communism. He reversed his stand of a year earlier
that aid to Pakistan be terminated as a result of its nuclear
program and offered Pakistan a military and economic assistance
package if it would act as a conduit for United States and other
assistance to the mujahidin. Pakistani president Zia
ul-Haq refused Carter's package but later a larger aid offer from
the Reagan administration was accepted. Questions about Pakistan's
nuclear program were, for the time being, set aside. Assistance
also came from China, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. Also forth coming
was international aid to help Pakistan deal with more than 3 million
fleeing Afghan refugees.
The Soviets grossly underestimated the huge cost of the Afghan
venture--described, in time, as the Soviet Union's Vietnam--to
their state. International opposition also became increasingly
vocal. The foreign ministers of the Organization of the Islamic
Conference deplored the invasion and demanded Soviet withdrawal
at a meeting in Islamabad in January 1980. Action by the United
Nations (UN) Security Council was impossible because the Soviets
were armed with veto power, but the UN General Assembly regularly
passed resolutions opposing the Soviet occupation.
Pakistan proposed talks among the countries directly involved
and, although they did not meet, Pakistan and Afghanistan began
"proximity" talks in June 1982 through UN official Diego Cordovez.
Although these sessions continued for a seemingly interminable
length of time--joined by the Soviet Union and the United States--they
eventually resulted in an agreement on Soviet withdrawal from
Other events outside Afghanistan, especially in the Soviet Union,
contributed to the eventual agreement. The toll in casualties,
economic resources, and loss of support at home increasingly felt
in the Soviet Union was causing criticism of the occupation policy.
Brezhnev died in 1982, and after two short-lived successors, Mikhail
Gorbachev assumed leadership in March 1985. As Gorbachev opened
up the country's system, it became more clear that the Soviet
Union wished to find a face-saving way to withdraw from Afghanistan.
The civil war in Afghanistan was guerrilla warfare and a war
of attrition between the several communist (that is, PDPA) controlled
regimes and the mujahidin; it cost both sides a great
deal. Many Afghans, perhaps as many as five million, or one-quarter
of the country's population, fled to Pakistan and Iran where they
organized into guerrilla groups to strike Soviet and government
forces inside Afghanistan. Others remained in Afghanistan and
also formed fighting groups; perhaps most notable was one led
by Ahmad Shah Massoud in the northeastern part of Afghanistan.
These various groups were supplied with funds to purchase arms,
principally from the United States, Saudi Arabia, China, and Egypt.
Despite high casualties on both sides, pressure continued to mount
on the Soviet Union, especially after the United States brought
in Stinger anti-aircraft missiles which severely reduced the effectiveness
of Soviet air cover.
The effects of the civil war and Soviet invasion had an impact
well beyond Afghanistan's boundaries. Most observers consider
Afghanistan a major step along the road to the eventual dissolution
of the Soviet Union.
Meanwhile, a change had taken place in Kabul. On May 4, 1986,
Karmal resigned as secretary general of the PDPA and was replaced
by Najibullah. Karmal retained the presidency for a while, but
power had shifted to Najibullah, who had previously headed the
State Information Service (Khadamate Ettelaate Dowlati--KHAD),
the Afghan secret service agency. Najibullah tried to diminish
differences with the resistance and appeared prepared to allow
Islam a greater role as well as legalize opposition groups, but
any moves he made toward concessions were rejected out of hand
by the mujahidin.
Proximity talks in Geneva continued, and on April 14, 1988, Pakistan
and Afghanistan reached an agreement providing for the withdrawal
of Soviet troops from Afghanistan in nine months, the creation
of a neutral Afghan state, and the repatriation of the Afghan
refugees. The United States and the Soviet Union would act as
guarantors of the agreement. The treaty was less well-received
by many mujahidin groups who demanded Najibullah's departure
as the price for advising their refugee followers to return to
Nevertheless, the agreement on withdrawal held, and on February
15, 1989, the last Soviet troops departed on schedule from Afghanistan.
Their exit, however, did not bring either lasting peace or resettlement,
as Afghanistan went from one civil war to another.
* * *
An indispensable book for exploring Afghan history is Louis Dupree's
monumental work, Afghanistan, which includes a wealth
of information from the point of view of a scholar who spent many
years in the country. The foremost British history of Afghanistan,
W. Kerr Fraser-Tytler's book, Afghanistan: A Study of Political
Developments in Central and Southern Asia, written from the
perspective of years spent in the region, has valuable insights
into all periods of Afghan history but especially the nineteenth
century. Arnold Charles Fletcher's Afghanistan: Highway of
Conquest also provides useful insights. In the twentieth
century, more detailed studies of specific subperiods have been
recorded. Leon B. Poullada's Reform and Rebellion in Afghanistan,
1919-1929 is a fascinating and well-written scholarly study
of King Amanullah's reign that also includes insights applicable
to other periods of Afghan history. (For further information and
complete citations, see Bibliography.)
Data as of 1995.
Data as of 1997