Afghanistan Table of Contents

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 on usury.

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 invasion.

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 Union.

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 Afghanistan.

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 Afghanistan.

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.

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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.)

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress