Communism, Rebellion, and Soviet Intervention

Communism, Rebellion, and Soviet Intervention

The divided PDPA succeeded the Daoud regime with a new government under theleadership of Nur Muhammad Taraki of the Khalq faction. In 1967 the PDPA hadsplit into two groups--Khalq and Parcham--but ten years later, the efforts ofthe Soviet Union had brought the factions back together, however unstable themerger.

A critical assessment of the period between the Saur (April) Revolution of1978 and the complete withdrawal of Soviet troops in February 1989 requiresanalysis of three different, yet closely intertwined, series of events: thosewithin the PDPA government of Afghanistan; those involving the mujahidin("holy warriors") who fought the communist regime in Kabul from basesin Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan; and those concerning the Soviet Union'sinvasion in December 1979 and withdrawal nine years later.

In Kabul, the initial cabinet appeared to be carefully constructed toalternate ranking positions between Khalqis and Parchamis: Taraki was primeminister, Karmal was senior deputy prime minister, and Hafizullah Amin of Khalqwas foreign minister. In early July, however, the Khalqi purge of Parchamisbegan with Karmal dispatched to Czechoslovakia as ambassador (along with othersshipped out of the country). Amin appeared to be the principal beneficiary ofthis strategy, since he now ranked second, behind Taraki. The regime also issueda series of decrees, many of which were viewed by conservatives as opposingIslam, including one declaring the equality of the sexes. Land reform wasdecreed, as was a prohibition on usury.

Internal rebellion against the regime began in Afghanistan in the summer andfall of 1978. A number of attempts by Parchamis to oust the Khalqis werereported. The intense rivalry between Taraki and Amin within the Khalq factionheated up, culminating in the death--admittedly the murder--of Taraki. InSeptember 1979, Taraki's followers, with Soviet complicity, had made severalattempts on Amin's life. The final attempt backfired, however, and it was Tarakiwho was eliminated and Amin, who assumed power in Afghanistan. The Soviets hadat first backed Amin, but they realized that he was too rigidly Marxist-Leninistto survive politically in a country as conservative and religious asAfghanistan.

Taraki's death was first noted in the Kabul Times on 10 October and reportedthat the former leader only recently hailed as the "great teacher...greatgenius...great leader" had died quietly "of serious illness, which hehad been suffering for some time." Less than three months later, after theAmin government had been overthrown, the newly installed followers of BabrakKarmal gave another account of Taraki's death. According to this account, Aminordered the commander of the palace guard to have Taraki executed. Tarakireportedly was suffocated with a pillow over his head. Amin's emergence from thepower struggle within the small divided communist party in Afghanistan alarmedthe Soviet and would usher in the series of events which lead to the Sovietinvasion.

During this period, many Afghans fled to Pakistan and Iran and beganorganizing a resistance movement to the "atheistic" and"infidel" communist regime backed by the Soviets. Although the groupsorganizing in the Pakistani city of Peshawar would later, after the Sovietinvasion, be described by the western press as "freedom fighters"--asif their goal were to establish a representative democracy in Afghanistan--inreality these groups each had agendas of their own that were often far fromdemocratic.

Outside observers usually identify the two warring groups as"fundamentalists" and "traditionalists." Rivalries betweenthese groups continued during the Afghan civil war that followed the Sovietwithdrawal. The rivalries of these groups brought the plight of the Afghans tothe attention of the West, and it was they who received military assistance fromthe United States and a number of other nations.

The fundamentalists based their organizing principle around mass politics andincluded several divisions of the Jamiat-i-Islami. The leader of the parentbranch, Burhanuddin Rabbani, began organizing in Kabul before repression ofreligious conservatives, which began in 1974, forced him to flee to Pakistanduring Daoud's regime. Perhaps best known among the leaders was GulbaddinHikmatyar, who broke with Rabbani to form another resistance group, theHizb-e-Islami, which became Pakistan's favored arms recipient. Another split,engineered by Yunus Khales, resulted in a second group using the nameHizb-e-Islami--a group that was somewhat more moderate than Hikmatyar's. Afourth fundamentalist group was the Ittehad-i-Islami led by Rasool Sayyaf.Rabbani's group received its greatest support from northern Afghanistan wherethe 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 thefundamentalists. Formed from loose ties among ulama in Afghanistan, thetraditionalist leaders were not concerned, unlike fundamentalists, withredefining Islam in Afghan society but instead focused on the use of the shariaas the source of law (interpreting the sharia is a principal role ofthe ulama). Among the three groups in Peshawar, the most important was theJebh-e-Nejat-e-Milli led by Sibghatullah Mojadeddi. Some of the traditionalistswere willing to accept restoration of the monarchy and looked to former KingZahir 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-MilliIslami, one of the traditionalist groups associated with the Gilani sufiorder 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 ahand 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 ananti-Islam regime. Promising more religious freedom, repairing mosques,presenting copies of the Koran to religious groups, invoking the name of Allahin his speeches, and declaring that the Saur Revolution was "totally basedon the principles of Islam." Yet many Afghans held Amin responsible for theregime's harshest measures and the Soviets, worried about their huge investmentin Afghanistan might be jeopardized, increased the number of"advisers" in Afghanistan. Amin become the target of severalassassination attempts in early and mid-December 1979.

The Soviets began their invasion of Afghanistan on December 25, 1979. Withintwo days, they had secured Kabul, deploying a special Soviet assault unitagainst Darulaman Palace, where elements of the Afghan army loyal to Amin put upa 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 asAfghanistan's new head of government.

A number of theories have been advanced for the Soviet action. Theseinterpretations of Soviet motives do not always agree--what is known for certainis that the decision was influenced by many factors--that in Brezhnev's wordsthe decision to invade Afghanistan was truly "was no simple decision."Two factors were certain to have figured heavily in Soviet calculations. TheSoviet Union, always interested in establishing a cordon sanitaire ofsubservient or neutral states on its frontiers, was increasingly alarmed at theunstable, unpredictable situation on its southern border. Perhaps as important,the Brezhnev doctrine declared that the Soviet Union had a "right" tocome to the assistance of an endangered fellow socialist country. PresumablyAfghanistan was a friendly regime that could not survive against growingpressure from the resistance without direct assistance from the Soviet Union.

Whatever the Soviet goals may have been, the international response was sharpand swift. United States President Jimmy Carter, reassessing the strategicsituation in his State of the Union address in January, 1980, identifiedPakistan as a "front-line state" in the global struggle againstcommunism. He reversed his stand of a year earlier that aid to Pakistan beterminated as a result of its nuclear program and offered Pakistan a militaryand economic assistance package if it would act as a conduit for United Statesand other assistance to the mujahidin. Pakistani president Zia ul-Haqrefused Carter's package but later a larger aid offer from the Reaganadministration was accepted. Questions about Pakistan's nuclear program were,for the time being, set aside. Assistance also came from China, Egypt, and SaudiArabia. Also forth coming was international aid to help Pakistan deal with morethan 3 million fleeing Afghan refugees.

The Soviets grossly underestimated the huge cost of the Afghanventure--described, in time, as the Soviet Union's Vietnam--to their state.International opposition also became increasingly vocal. The foreign ministersof the Organization of the Islamic Conference deplored the invasion and demandedSoviet withdrawal at a meeting in Islamabad in January 1980. Action by theUnited Nations (UN) Security Council was impossible because the Soviets werearmed with veto power, but the UN General Assembly regularly passed resolutionsopposing the Soviet occupation.

Pakistan proposed talks among the countries directly involved and, althoughthey did not meet, Pakistan and Afghanistan began "proximity" talks inJune 1982 through UN official Diego Cordovez. Although these sessions continuedfor a seemingly interminable length of time--joined by the Soviet Union and theUnited States--they eventually resulted in an agreement on Soviet withdrawalfrom Afghanistan.

Other events outside Afghanistan, especially in the Soviet Union, contributedto the eventual agreement. The toll in casualties, economic resources, and lossof support at home increasingly felt in the Soviet Union was causing criticismof the occupation policy. Brezhnev died in 1982, and after two short-livedsuccessors, Mikhail Gorbachev assumed leadership in March 1985. As Gorbachevopened up the country's system, it became more clear that the Soviet Unionwished to find a face-saving way to withdraw from Afghanistan.

The civil war in Afghanistan was guerrilla warfare and a war of attritionbetween 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 theyorganized into guerrilla groups to strike Soviet and government forces insideAfghanistan. Others remained in Afghanistan and also formed fighting groups;perhaps most notable was one led by Ahmad Shah Massoud in the northeastern partof Afghanistan. These various groups were supplied with funds to purchase arms,principally from the United States, Saudi Arabia, China, and Egypt. Despite highcasualties on both sides, pressure continued to mount on the Soviet Union,especially after the United States brought in Stinger anti-aircraft missileswhich severely reduced the effectiveness of Soviet air cover.

The effects of the civil war and Soviet invasion had an impact well beyondAfghanistan's boundaries. Most observers consider Afghanistan a major step alongthe road to the eventual dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Meanwhile, a change had taken place in Kabul. On May 4, 1986, Karmal resignedas secretary general of the PDPA and was replaced by Najibullah. Karmal retainedthe presidency for a while, but power had shifted to Najibullah, who hadpreviously headed the State Information Service (Khadamate EttelaateDowlati--KHAD), the Afghan secret service agency. Najibullah tried to diminishdifferences with the resistance and appeared prepared to allow Islam a greaterrole as well as legalize opposition groups, but any moves he made towardconcessions were rejected out of hand by the mujahidin.

Proximity talks in Geneva continued, and on April 14, 1988, Pakistan andAfghanistan reached an agreement providing for the withdrawal of Soviet troopsfrom Afghanistan in nine months, the creation of a neutral Afghan state, and therepatriation of the Afghan refugees. The United States and the Soviet Unionwould act as guarantors of the agreement. The treaty was less well-received bymany mujahidin groups who demanded Najibullah's departure as the pricefor advising their refugee followers to return to Afghanistan.

Nevertheless, the agreement on withdrawal held, and on February 15, 1989, thelast Soviet troops departed on schedule from Afghanistan. Their exit, however,did not bring either lasting peace or resettlement, as Afghanistan went from onecivil war to another.

* * *

An indispensable book for exploring Afghan history is Louis Dupree'smonumental work, Afghanistan, which includes a wealth of informationfrom the point of view of a scholar who spent many years in the country. Theforemost British history of Afghanistan, W. Kerr Fraser-Tytler's book, Afghanistan:A Study of Political Developments in Central and Southern Asia, writtenfrom the perspective of years spent in the region, has valuable insights intoall periods of Afghan history but especially the nineteenth century. ArnoldCharles Fletcher's Afghanistan: Highway of Conquest also providesuseful insights. In the twentieth century, more detailed studies of specificsubperiods have been recorded. Leon B. Poullada's Reform and Rebellion inAfghanistan, 1919-1929 is a fascinating and well-written scholarly study ofKing Amanullah's reign that also includes insights applicable to other periodsof Afghan history. (For further information and complete citations, seeBibliography.)

Country Studies main page | Afghanistan Country Studies main page