Afghanistan Table of Contents
The April 1978 Coup d'etat and the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan
With Muhammad Daud's death, the government of Afghanistan was run by a divided, dilettante Marxist clique that launched a train of events eventually leading to the disintegration of the state. They named their regime the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (DRA).
The "Saur Revolution," as the new government grandiloquently labeled its coup d'etat (after the month in the Islamic calendar in which it occurred), was almost entirely the achievement of the Khalq faction of the PDPA. This success gave it effective control over the armed forces, a great advantage over its Parchami rival. Khalq's victory was partially due to Daud's miscalculation that Parcham was the more serious threat. Parcham's leaders had enjoyed widespread connections within the senior bureaucracy and even the royal family and the most privileged elite. These linkages also tended to make their movements easy to trace.
Khalq, on the other hand ,had not been involved in Daud's government, had little connection with Kabul's Persian speaking elite, and a rustic reputation based on recruitment of students from the provinces. Most of them were Pushtuns, especially the Ghilzais. They had few apparent connections in the senior bureaucracy, many had taken jobs as school teachers. Khalq's influence at Kabul University was also limited.
These newcomers to Kabul had seemed poorly positioned to penetrate the government. Moreover, they were led by the erratic Muhammad Taraki, a poet, sometime minor official, and a publicly notorious radical. Confident that his military officers were reliable, Daud must have discounted the diligence of Taraki's lieutenant, Hafizullah Amin, who had sought out dissident Pushtun officers. The bungling of Amin's arrest, which enabled him to trigger the coup ahead of its planned date, also suggests Khalq's penetration of Daud's security police.
The plotters carried out a bold and sophisticated plan. It employed the shock effect of a combined armored and air assault on the Arg or palace, the seat of Daud's highly centralized government. Seizure of the initiative demoralized the larger loyal or uncommitted forces nearby. Quick capture of telecommunications, the defense ministry and other strategic centers of authority isolated Daud's stubbornly resisting palace guard.
The coup was by far Khalq's most successful achievement. So much so, that a considerable literature has accumulated arguing that it must have been planned and executed by the KGB, or some special branch of the Soviet military. Given the friction that soon developed between Khalq and Soviet officials, especially over the purging of Parcham, Soviet control of the coup seems unlikely. Prior knowledge of it does appear to have been highly likely. Claims that Soviet pilots bombed the palace overlook the availability of seasoned Afghan pilots.
Political leadership of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan was asserted within three days of the military takeover. After thirteen years of conspiratorial activity, the two factions of the PDPA emerged in public, refusing at first, to admit their Marxist credentials. Khalq's dominance was quickly apparent. Taraki became president, prime minister and General Secretary of the PDPA. Parcham's leader, Babrak Karmal, and Amin were named deputy prime ministers. Cabinet membership was split eleven to ten , with Khalq in the majority. Khalq dominated the Revolutionary Council, which was to serve as the ruling body of the government. Within weeks purges of Parcham began, and by summer Khalq's somewhat bewildered Soviet patrons became aware of how difficult it would be temper its radicalism. The destruction of Afghanistan's former ruling elite had begun immediately after the seizure of power. Execution (Parcham leaders later claimed at least 11,000 during the Taraki/Amin period), flight into exile, and later the devastation of Kabul itself would literally remove the great majority of the some 100,000 who had come to form Afghanistan's elite and middle class. Their loss has almost completely broken the continuity of Afghanistan's leadership, political institutions and their social foundation.
The Khalq leadership proved incapable of filling this vacuum. Its brutal and clumsy attempts to introduce radical changes in control over agricultural land holding and credit, rural social relations, marriage and family arrangements, and education led to scattered protests and uprisings among all major communities in the Afghan countryside. Taraki and Amin left a legacy of turmoil and resentment which gravely compromised later Marxist attempts to win popular acceptance.
Source: U.S. Library of Congress