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The Soviet Client Crumbles - 1978

Amid charges of corruption and malfeasance against the royal family and poor economic conditions, former Prime Minister Daoud seized power in a military coup on July 17, 1973. Zahir Shah fled the country, eventually finding refuge in Italy. Daoud abolished the monarchy, abrogated the 1964 constitution, and declared Afghanistan a republic with himself as its first President and Prime Minister. His attempts to carry out badly needed economic and social reforms met with little success, and the new constitution promulgated in February 1977 failed to quell chronic political instability.

Seeking to exploit more effectively mounting popular disaffection, the communist People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), which had close ideological ties to the Soviet Union, reunified with Moscow's support. On April 27, 1978, the PDPA initiated a bloody coup, which resulted in the overthrow and murder of Daoud and most of his family. Nur Muhammad Taraki, Secretary General of the PDPA, became President of the Revolutionary Council and Prime Minister of the newly established Democratic Republic of Afghanistan.

Opposition to the Marxist government emerged almost immediately. During its first 18 months of rule, the PDPA brutally imposed a Marxist-style "reform" program, which ran counter to deeply rooted Afghan traditions. In addition, thousands of members of the traditional elite, the religious establishment, and the intelligentsia were imprisoned, tortured, or murdered. Conflicts within the PDPA also surfaced early and resulted in exiles, purges, imprisonments, and executions.

Daoud's fears about his possible overthrow led to his increasingly repressive internal policies. He used the police to try to forcibly squelch any opposition. In November 1977 anger over Daoud's excesses caused a temporary rupture between Daoud on one hand and his younger brother Naim and six cabinet ministers on the other. From late summer of 1977 to early spring of 1978, a series of prominent Afghans were murdered, including the chief pilot of Ariana Afghan Airlines (who was the leader of a recent strike) and the minister of planning. On. April 17, 1978, Mir Akbar Khyber, a Parchami theorist, was murdered. His was the most important death for Afghan politics. The identities of the perpetrators were never fully ascertained; but at the time; many believed Daoud's police to be the executioners.

Louis Dupree, who was present at the time of the PDPA takeover, vividly described the events of April 27-28, 1978. Upon Khyber's death, Khalqi army cells prepared for a massive uprising. On April 27 the Khalqi military leaders began the revolution by proclaiming to the cells in the armed forces that the time for revolution had arrived. Khalqi Major Watanjar (of the Fourth Armored. Unit at'Pol a Charkhi) readied his troops.

This included his leading a convoy of nine light tanks and 40 or 50 heavy T 62 tanks to Kabul. Daoud's defense minister, General Rasooli, remained loyal to the government and "ordered a special unit to protect the Presidential Palace." The unit was unable to comply with the defense minister's order because Khalqi officers killed the commander of the unit and prevented the unit from assuming its position.

Rasooli next contacted the air force. He could not rely on nearby Bagrami Air Base because he and Daoud suspected that the pilots' political sympathies lay with the PDFA. He therefore called upon Shindand Air Base, which sent two "fully armed" MiG 21s to Kabul. At this point the 1,800 men of the Presidential Guard came to support the palace. The uprising proceeded rapidly, and by midday Khalqi tanks approached the Ministry of National Defense compound just opposite the palace. The revolutionaries' occupation of the ministry compound prevented loyal officers from contacting provincial units that might have come to their aid. The airport was still in government hands; the 15th Armored Division, under the command of Colonel Muhammad Yousuf, was firmly entrenched. Watanjar sent tanks to wrest the airport from Yousuf's forces.

Shortly after the defense ministry fell, the Presidential Guard, with well aimed bazookas and an active defense, succeeded in driving PDPA tanks out of firing range of the palace. Daoud waited in vain for the antitank units and Eighth Mechanized Division; Khalqi officers were in the majority and prevented the units from reaching Daoud. The two MiG 21s dispatched from Shindand flew over Kabul, but ground to air contact was nonexistent, so the pilots had no idea who controlled what and where they should strike.

Daoud and Rasooli were correct in their assessment of the Bagrami base's loyalty. At approximately 3:00 P.M. on April 27, MiG 21s and Su 7s at Bagrami Air Base were armed; pursuant to the command of Colonel Abdul Qader (deputy commander of the air force and instrumental in the 1973 coup). It was Watanjar and Qader who were responsible for the coordinated ground and air attack on the palace. While Watanjar and Qader met to plan the attack, loyalist General Rasooli, Abdul Ali, and Abdul Aziz arranged for deployment of the 8th Infantry Division to Kabul. At about 3:30 P.M., Dupree reports, "the first two Su 7s attacked, launching rockets and firing 120mm cannon into the Presidential Palace . . . . Air strikes from Bagram began in earnest, MiG 21s or Su 7s remained constantly in the air, but no more than six were over Kabul at one time." Daoud's Presidential Guard was sorely pressed and unable to mount an effective antiaircraft defense. By 7:00 that evening the only pockets of loyalist resistance were the 7th Infantry Division stationed south of Kabul at Rishkor and the Presidential Guard at the palace. Dupree recalls that the Presidential Guard "continued to fight gallantly, holding out against constant pressure from the tanks while being hammered from the air." After dark, the unfortunate Presidential Guard took rocket fire from helicopters and was attacked by jets. Dupree noted that "a bright half moon made further sorties by jets possible."

Although Rasooli led the 7th Division out under cover of darkness, he unhappily chose to march in full battle gear and in tight military formation, providing a perfect target for Khalqi aircraft. By midnight the Seventh Division was no more. The force had been stopped before achieving its objective of reaching the palace and never even made it into downtown Kabul; many of the surviving soldiers chose to defect to the PDPA forces. The beleaguered Presidential Guard bore the unremitting air and ground assaults unrelieved by reinforcements, and by 4:30 A.M. on April 28 they surrendered. As for Rasooli, when the PDPA found him and some associates hiding in a chicken coop, the ensuing skirmish put an end to both him and his colleagues. By 5:00 A.M., Mohammadzai rule had ended. Mortality figures for the revolution differ; Taraki claimed that 72 people died, whereas others cite numbers ranging into the thousands. Most observers agree that Taraki's figure is too low. PDPA forces murdered senior members of Daoud's government during and immediately after the revolution, and these deaths were almost certainly omitted from Taraki's accounting. It is not known for certain who commanded the PDPA during the takeover. Bradsher believes that the commander was neither Taraki nor Amin.

According to Bradsher, 350 Soviet military advisers participated in the PDPA military coup. Soviet personnel appear to have accompanied the PDPA controlled armored units that were responsible for the successful takeover of the military section of Kabul International Airport. Soviet advisers came, in a managerial and supportive capacity, to the aid of the air force at Bagrami Air Base.

The Soviet Union sent the person in charge of its army's Main Political Administration, General Aleksey Alekseyevich Yepishev, to Afghanistan in April 1979, to evaluate how his country could best support the increasingly weak Afghan government. Although it was clear to Yepishev that the Afghans could not effectively counter a large scale popular uprising, the PDPA government had not been idle in its attempts to strengthen the military. According to the account published by Jacobs, "efforts were being made to raise two added infantry divisions (to ten); to raise the strength of the tank units (200plus T 55s and 40 to 45 T 62s were being delivered during this period); and to begin modernising the air force (adding later model MiG 21s, delivery of 12 Mi 24 Hind As and a few Hind Ds and possibly augmenting the 12 Czech L 39s delivered in late 1977)." Yepishev's visit produced an increased presence of Soviet advisers in Afghanistan (about 1,000 in preinvasion Afghanistan) and an increase in the number of Afghan military personnel sent for training to the Soviet Union.

Military analyst George Jacobs writes that before the revolution the Afghan armed forces included "some three armored divisions (570 medium tanks plus T 55s on order), eight infantry divisions (averaging 4,500 to 8,000 men each), two mountain infantry brigades, one artillery brigade, a guards regiment (for palace protection), three artillery regiments, two commando regiments, and a parachute battalion (largely grounded). All the formations were under the control of three corps level headquarters. All but three infantry divisions were facing Pakistan along a line from Bagram south to Qandahar." Although there had been heated verbal exchanges with Pakistan over the Pashtunistan issue, Pakistan had never threatened attack. It was unclear to some observers why the prerevolution Afghans needed so many Soviet weapons. Certainly fewer and lighter weapons could have provided sufficient firepower to quell internal rebellions. Anthropologists suspected that the hardware was obtained for cultural reasons as an expression of Afghan notions of manhood.

The effect of so many sophisticated weapons in Afghanistan was to bring down Daoud more easily. The PDPA regime sought to develop the armed forces even further. High on the list of PDPA military priorities was the preservation of the armed forces' unity. The fledgling government purchased more hardware from the Soviet Union and invited what Jacobs terms "Soviet company level units" to visit.

By the summer of 1978, a revolt began in the Nuristan region of eastern Afghanistan and quickly spread into a countrywide insurgency. The redoubtable Nuristanis, last to be forcibly converted to Islam and first to rebel against the PDPA, presented the government with its largest problem in late 1978 and early 1979. In late 1978 local Nuristani tribes controlled Konarha province. According to some reports, the resistance fighters were Hezb e Islami members. The government deployed the 11th Infantry Division (of Jalalabad). Nuristani rebels claimed that 1,500 of these troops defected, but the government denied the allegation. The guerrillas' tactics were traditional and their weapons outmoded. They had some captured Kalashnikov assault rifles, but they relied primarily on locally produced rifles and rifles dating from World War I. With these armaments they ambushed and sniped at government forces.

Even with massive Soviet aid, the government's war against the rebels did not prosper. For example, at the end of October a significant operation directed against resistance fighters in Paktia Province was only successful in the very short term. Soviet advisers planned the attack, commanded the Afghan forces, and provided air: support. About 40,000 refugees fled to Pakistan during the 10 day offensive. The Afghan military employed recently obtained T-62 tanks, APCs, Mi 4 Hind helicopter gunships, and MiG 21s. Afghan tribal warfare had always included the principle of retreat in the face of a superior force; accordingly, the guerrillas withdrew. No sooner was the operation over and the tanks back in Kabul than the resistance returned to take up their old positions.

Still the guerrilla war continued, and still Afghan troops defected. Cases of large scale defections abounded. For example, Indian political scientist Vijay Kumar Bhasin describes a massive defection that occurred in mid November 1979 in Garden (in Faktia) involving 30 tanks and 300 government soldiers. Guerrillas may also have captured the Zabol military cantonment and seized large numbers of weapons, including antiaircraft guns. Reportedly 1,000 government soldiers surrendered in this action.

The defections hit closer to home. A severe battle occurred at Rishkor, just a few kilometers southwest of the capital. The garrison revolted: Bhasin describes the battle from accounts by eyewitnesses: "There were several hundred casualties in hours of heavy fighting in the Rishkor. Division. During the battle which lasted from 14 October to the afternoon of 15 October, the government brought in its tanks, mortars; modern Soviet Mi 24 assault helicopters and bombers."

In September 1979, Hafizullah Amin, who had earlier been Prime Minister and Minister of Defense, seized power from Taraki. Over the next 2 months, instability plagued Amin's regime as he moved against perceived enemies in the PDPA. By December, party morale was crumbling, and the insurgency was growing.

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Page last modified: 08-10-2012 19:55:52 ZULU