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The Soviet Invasion - 1979-1989

On April 27-28, 1978, elements in the armed forces carried out a successful coup d'état that toppled the regime of President Daoud. A few days later the Revolutionary Council (RC) of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, a body dominated by civilian leaders of the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), assumed power. Nur Muhammad Taraki, PDPA secretary general, was designated president of the new republic. In the months following the coup, he and other party leaders initiated radical policies that challenged both traditional Afghan values and well established power structures in the rural areas. The measures especially those dealing with changes in the status of women and the nature of marriage, the abolition of usury, and land reform were so unpopular that by late 1978 insurrections had begun in various parts of the country. These movements were headed both by traditional political and country. These movements were headed both by traditional political and religious leaders and by a new generation of Islamic fundamentalist leaders who had been actively opposing Afghan regimes since the mid 1970s.

The PDPA was a Marxist oriented party whose following was largely limited to an educated minority in the urban areas. Because this group's perceptions and values were at variance with those of the vast majority of conservative, rural Afghans, it enjoyed a minimum of popular support. The party was further weakened by bitter and sometimes violent internal rivalries. Two years after its founding in January 1965, the PDPA split into two factions that in terms of membership and ideology operated essentially as separate parties: the radical Khalq (Masses) faction, led by Taraki, and the more moderate Parcham (Banner) faction, headed by Karmal. Khalq's adherents were primarily Pashtuns recruited from the nonelite classes. Parcharn's adherents included other ethnic groups and tended to come from the Westernized upper classes. At the urging of foreign communist parties and probably the Soviet Union, the two factions agreed in 1977 to reunite as a single PDPA. But once the party was in power, Khalqis, having a strong following in the military, initiated a purge of Parchamis. Following an alleged Parchami plot in the summer of 1978, many Parchamis were thrown in prison and tortured. Parchami leaders, such as Karmal, were sent abroad as ambassadors in mid 1978, and they remained in exile in Eastern Europe or the Soviet Union rather than return to Afghanistan and face certain death. In December 1978, Moscow signed a new bilateral treaty of friendship and cooperation with Afghanistan, and the Soviet military assistance program increased significantly. The regime's survival increasingly was dependent upon Soviet assistance as the insurgency spread and the Afghan army began to collapse.

The internal situation deteriorated further through 1979. Armed opposition to the regime spread to practically every region of the country, and there were several serious mutinies within the Afghan armed forces. Hafizullah Amin, a ruthlessly ambitious Khalqi leader, became the most powerful man in the regime as he sought to undermine the position of the less astute Taraki. When Taraki attempted to remove Amin in September 1979, the latter, warned by an informer, turned the tables, arrested Taraki after a shootout at the Presidential Palace in Kabul, and assumed the highest party and state posts. In October Taraki was dead, murdered in prison by Amin's agents. By October 1979, however, relations between Afghanistan and the Soviet Union were tense as Hafizullah Amin refused to take Soviet advice on how to stabilize and consolidate his government. Faced with a deteriorating security situation, on December 24, 1979, large numbers of Soviet airborne forces began to land in Kabul. They killed Hafizullah Amin and installed Babrak Karmal, exiled leader of the Parcham faction, as Prime Minister.

Amin sought desperately to preserve his country's independence from steadily growing Soviet influence. By late November early December, the Soviets, acting on the advice of high ranking military personnel who had toured the country to assess the political and military situation, prepared for a military intervention. On December 27, 1979, Soviet troops seized the center of Kabul. Amin was killed (he probably died fighting the Soviets, though official accounts relate that he was executed for counterrevolutionary activities), and the Soviets installed Karmal as the new president.

Following the invasion, the Karmal regime, although backed by 120,000 Soviet troops, was unable to establish authority outside Kabul. As much as 80% of the countryside, including parts of Herat and Kandahar, eluded effective government control. An overwhelming majority of Afghans opposed the communist regime, either actively or passively. Afghan fighters (mujahideen) made it almost impossible for the regime to maintain a system of local government outside major urban centers. Poorly armed at first, in 1984 the mujahideen began receiving substantial assistance in the form of weapons and training from the U.S. and other outside powers.

The Soviet role in Afghan internal politics before the invasion is unclear. It was, however, probably substantial. The PDPA adhered to the Soviet model of revolution, and its leaders in both Khalq and Parcham had close ties with Moscow's embassy in Kabul and operatives of the KGB, the Soviet secret police. Soviet advisers may have played a role in the April 1978 coup d'état, and during the 19 months following the coup, the regime became increasingly dependent on Soviet aid and military backing. The Soviets were probably involved in the September 1979 attempt to remove Amin. The December 1979 invasion, undertaken to rescue a friendly regime and prevent the establishment of a hostile new regime (similar ideologically, perhaps, to the radical regime in Iran) on the Soviet Union's southern border, was apparently intended to be a short term operation. But in early 1986, six years after the invasion, an estimated 118,000 Soviet troops were deployed in Afghanistan and played the principal role in combating the mujahidiin.

In the mid 1980s Soviet advisers supervised and controlled state institutions on the national, provincial, and where guerrilla resistance did not prevent it district levels. Afghan foreign policy was, according to Afghan defector sources, virtually dictated by the Soviets. Moscow's attempts to foster the development of a stable and viable political system, however, were largely unsuccessful, The central government controlled little more than a fifth of the country's land area. Popular support was estimated to amount to little more than 3 to 5 percent of the total population. Millions had fled to Pakistan or Iran to escape what they perceived as an intolerable situation under de facto Soviet rule. Although Karmal and his associates established bodies like the National Fatherland Front and convened a Loya Jirgah (grand national assembly) in early 1985 in attempts to garner public support and an aura of legitimacy, they relied increasingly on Soviet backed coercion to remain in power. Instruments of coercion included not only Soviet troops arid the regime's own armed forces and paramilitary units but also the State Information Service (Khadamate Ettelaate Dowlati, in Dari KHAD), the dreaded and pervasive secret police that retained close ties to the KGB. After the invasion, Parcham became politically dominant, but the rivalry between the two factions continued to smolder, and violence erupted periodically.

Resistance forces in the mid 1980s reflected the divisions and diversity of Afghan society. There were as many as 90 different localities throughout the country where guerrilla commanders and their forces operated. To Western observers, the seven major émigré parties, based in Peshawar, Pakistan, were the most prominent groups in the resistance. These were divided into two loose coalitions of "traditionalists" and "Islamic fundamentalists." Although they provided the in country commanders with much needed arms and other forms of aid and represented the Afghan struggle to sympathizers and supporters in the Arab and Western worlds, the émigrés did not possess the guerrillas' unconditional allegiance or maintain well defined chains of command. Most mujahidiin, unified but also divided by their allegiance to Islamic values and hostility to the atheistic Soviet invader, operated with substantial autonomy. In the central part of the country, known as the Hazarajat, Shia Muslim Hazaras maintained their own resistance groups, some of which had ties with Iran.

Desertion had thinned the ranks of the Afghan army to about 40,000 men in the mid 1980s, compared with 90,000 to 110,000 before the April 1978 coup. Morale and the quality of personnel were low. Most soldiers were conscripts, often rounded up by press gangs, and soldiers frequently went over to the mujahidiin rather than fight. Soviet commanders considered them undependable, often using them to spearhead offensives or defend isolated posts of secondary importance in guerrilla territory. The air force consisted of about 7,000 men. Both on the ground and in the air, the most advanced equipment was used only by Soviet troops, for it was feared that Afghan troops might allow them to fall into the guerrillas' hands.

Soviet military operations in the mid 1980s were designed to deprive the resistance of sustenance and popular support by destroying local economies and communications networks, causing large scale migration to urban areas and neighboring countries, and infiltrating guerrilla organizations to stir up intergroup and intragroup conflict and defections (this latter activity was largely the responsibility of KHAD). The guerrillas, in turn, sought to cripple the regime by sabotaging strategic facilities, such as bridges and power plants, and by assassinating regime officials and collaborators. Western observers noted that despite long standing rivalries between the émigré resistance groups, commanders on the battlefield possessed far greater coordination and effectiveness than in the months after the invasion, when they fought the Soviets using traditional tribal tactics. The mujahidiin were learning, through costly trial and error, how to fight a modern, well armed opponent.

The Soviet invasion precipitated a crisis with serious implications for the South Asian and Middle Eastern regions. The presence of as many as 3 million Afghan refugees on Pakistani soil was a source of concern for Islamabad. Pakistan continued, however, to offer sanctuary and aid to the refugees and guerrillas based in the mountainous border region, despite repeated Soviet and Afghan army incursions into Pakistani territory. India, enjoying comparatively good relations with the PDPA regime, viewed foreign, and especially United States, military aid to Pakistan as a potential threat to itself. Principal material and moral support for the resistance came from the Arab world, the Western alliance, and China. The UN General Assembly, in resolutions passed overwhelmingly since 1980, repeatedly called for withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan. In May 1985, the seven principal Peshawar-based guerrilla organizations formed an alliance to coordinate their political and military operations against the Soviet occupation. Late in 1985, the mujahideen were active in and around Kabul. The failure of the Soviet Union to win over a significant number of Afghan collaborators or to rebuild a viable Afghan army forced it to bear an increasing responsibility for fighting the resistance and for civilian administration.

Soviet and popular displeasure with the Karmal regime led to its demise in May 1986. Karmal was replaced by Muhammad Najibullah, former chief of the Afghan secret police (KHAD). As Prime Minister, Najibullah was ineffective and highly dependent on Soviet support. Undercut by deep-seated divisions within the PDPA, regime efforts to broaden its base of support proved futile.

In early 1986 UN sponsored "proximity talks" between the foreign ministers of Afghanistan and Pakistan were continuing; the "proximity" meant that the minister did not meet face to face but negotiated through a senior UN official. Many observers believed that it was possible that procedures could be worked out that would result in the gradual withdrawal of Soviet forces and the acceptance by all parties of some form of national government of a truly neutral Afghanistan. Other observers, however, while hoping that such an agreement could be achieved, doubted that the mujahidiin would accept any proposal that failed to provide not only for the departure of the Soviets but also all Afghans who had collaborated with the Soviets.

By the mid-1980s, the tenacious Afghan resistance movement was exacting a high price from the Soviets, both militarily within Afghanistan and by souring the U.S.S.R.'s relations with much of the Western and Islamic world. Informal negotiations for a Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan had been underway since 1982. In 1988 the Geneva accords were signed, which included a timetable that ensured full Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan by February 15, 1989. About 14,500 Soviet and an estimated one million Afghan lives were lost between 1979 and the Soviet withdrawal in 1989.

Significantly, the mujahideen were party neither to the negotiations nor to the 1988 agreement and, consequently, refused to accept the terms of the accords. As a result, the civil war continued after the Soviet withdrawal, which was completed in February 1989. Najibullah's regime was able to remain in power until 1992 but collapsed after the defection of Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostam and his Uzbek militia in March. However, when the victorious mujahideen entered Kabul to assume control over the city and the central government, a new round of internecine fighting began between the various militias. With the demise of their common enemy, the militias' ethnic, clan, religious, and personality differences surfaced, and the civil war continued.

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Page last modified: 17-08-2012 18:47:42 ZULU