Afghanistan Invaded by Soviets, December 27, 1979

Notes and Summaries

Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan in an attempt to support the communist government the Soviet Union had helped develop and install

Principal Personages

·          Leonid Ilich Brezhnev (19061982), the Communist Party leader who directed the activities of the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) from Moscow and who ordered the invasion of Afghanistan


·          Babrak Karmal, the leader of the Parcham faction of the PDPA and president of Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion


·          Nur Mohammad Taraki (19171979), the leader of the Khalq faction of the PDPA who became president of Afghanistan in 1978 by overthrowing Mohammad Daud


·          Mohammad Daud (19091978), an Afghan politician who turned to the United States, Iran, and India for assistance after breaking off previously cordial relations with the Soviet Union


·          Hafizullah Amin (19291979), a member of the Khalq faction and president of Afghanistan in 1979


·          Mikhail Gorbachev (1931 ), the president of the Soviet Union who opted for an end to the war and for settling the dispute in the political arena


·          Ruhollah Khomeini (19021989), the Iranian religious leader


·          Mohammad Zahir Shah, the last Afghan monarch; during his rule from 1933 to 1973, Marxist ideology penetrated Afghan government and society


Map of Afghanistan

Summary of Event

·          On December 24, 1979, four motorized tank and rifle divisions, made up mostly of Uzbek, Tajik, and Turkmen soldiers, rolled down the Salang Highway into Kabul, Afghanistan. On December 27, Hafizullah Amin's three-month-old government was overthrown. Amin was executed, and Babrak Karmal was installed as president. Within a week, Soviet military strength in Afghanistan reached 100,000 soldiers, nearly balancing the 150,000 in the mujahideen (freedom fighters) opposition.


·          Analysts have given a number of reasons for the invasion. One expansionist view regards the invasion as a step in the further implementation of a Russian policy espoused originally by Peter the Great and later adopted by the Soviets as well. This view allows that the annexation of Afghanistan follows the earlier takeover of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The motivation for the move is given as access to the warm water ports of the Indian Ocean. Another reason states that the reform-minded Marxist government of Afghanistan needed Moscow's assistance. Moscow could not turn a deaf ear to the needs of a newly formed Marxist state. A third and compelling reason relates the invasion to the rise of Ruhollah Khomeini's fundamentalist rule in Iran. Khomeini's expressed intention of exporting his revolution made Afghanistan and the Soviet Central Asian republics prime candidates for Iranian ideological expansion. Whatever the primary reason for the invasion, the Iranian revolution seems to have hastened it.

o         Overview of Cause:

§          Soviet Expansion

§          Perception of Muslim Regimes (Iran)

§          Instability of Afghanistan

§          US Soviet Competition during Cold War

§          Warm Water Port on Indian Ocean (continued conquest as Afghanistan is landlocked)

§          Betrayl of Ancient Relationship

§          Ethnic divisions within Afghanistan

·          Pashtun 44%, Tajik 25%, Hazara 10%, minor ethnic groups (Aimaks, Turkmen, Baloch, and others) 13%, Uzbek 8%

·          Sunni Muslim 84%, Shi'a Muslim 15%, other 1%


·          Pressure for the Soviet takeover had been building for more than a decade. Amity between the Afghan monarchy and the Soviet government had been sealed in a friendship treaty in 1921 and a neutrality and nonaggression treaty in 1926, but Afghan society began to divide along class lines and between communist supporters and detractors in the mid-1960's.



·          Afghanistan was the first noncommunist Third World nation to receive Soviet aid during the 1950's, despite traditional Afghan distrust of non-Afghans. Radio Moscow began to broadcast programs in Pashto, the chief language of eastern Afghanistan, in 1957. Soviet contacts with the Afghan leadership under monarch Mohammad Zahir Shah were of a primarily political nature during the 1950's and 1960's. Heads of state of each country visited the other. Soviet leaders used their visits to determine Afghan needs, assess access to strategic points, and propose avenues of cooperation. Afghanleaders spent two or three weeks at a stretch in the Soviet Union pursuing educational and recreational endeavors as well as negotiating aid packages.



·          Following each trip of an Afghan leader to Moscow, specially designed aid packages arrived in Kabul. These packages initially included kits for building flour mills, motor repair works, and asphalt factories. Later on, trained personnel brought equipment for building major roads such as the Salang Highway through the Hindu Kush and the Kushka-Qandahar Highway across Afghanistan. Soviet aid also helped develop an Afghan irrigation system, including canals and dams, and a gas pipeline, several hydroelectric plants, and several airports.


·          The Soviets wished to preserve Afghanistan's neutral stance in relation to the United States and the People's Republic of China and to maintain a trade relationship with the Afghans. For this reason, every time a dispute flared up between Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan, the Soviets intervened. In 1950, for example, Pakistan sealed its northern borders, effectively separating the landlocked Afghans from all port facilities and markets to their south. Seizing this opportunity, the Soviets stepped in and negotiated an agreement with the Afghan government. The agreement granted the Afghans duty-free transit rights in exchange for allowing the Soviets to institute a program of political education in Afghanistan. Some of the students of this institution formed the nucleus of the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) in 1965. Two of them, Hafizullah Amin and Nur Mohammad Taraki, were voted into the Afghan parliament.


New ideas threaten society:

·          The emergence of the PDPA threatened traditional ways of life. Afghan society was ethnically diverse and operated along tribal affiliations. Most citizens followed Islamic law as well as their own tribal customary bylaws. Payment of dowries, polygamy, child marriage, and seclusion of women were all accepted practices. Ownership of water and land was regarded as an inalienable right lost only through sale or inability to pay debts, and jobs were tied to social rank rather than ability. The PDPA, with its links to communist ideology, threatened to upset this pattern of life.


Afghanistan: a fractured society

·          The PDPA itself split into factions in 1967. The Khalq faction, representing southern, tribal Pushtun people, controlled the civil administration and the lower echelons of the military. The Parcham faction, representing northern, urban speakers of Dari, communicated with the government elite. Mohammad Daud led the Parcham faction to an overthrow of monarch Zahir Shah in 1973. Khalq and Parcham forces reunited in 1977, however, and overthrew the Daud government in 1978 in the Saur Revolution, which created the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan and established the Khalq as the only authoritative party.


Amin’s leadership: Communist/Democratic reforms

·          The new government, under Hafizullah Amin, guaranteed cultural rights of all ethnic and national minorities. These included full legal rights for women, in particular banning of forced marriages, polygamy, and dowries. Debts caused by usury were canceled, and farms were collectivized in a program of agrarian reform. Three billion acres of land were distributed among 285,000 farmers.


·          These reforms were initially welcomed by the people, until the clergy and the other landlords discovered the full implication of collectivization. They realized, for example, that their Islamic right to honestly gained property was not protected under the new laws, and that the government intended to divide their holdings equitably among the landless peasantry. Individuals from different segments of society voiced their opposition and, gradually, pockets of resistance developed, drawing membership from poor peasants who were forced to sell their property to pay for water, draft animals, seed, and equipment. Under the old system, these concerns had been relegated to the landlord. Peasants merely sold their labor for a fraction of the profit derived from cultivating the land. The resisters questioned the validity of reforms imposed upon the Muslim people by nonbelievers.


Response to Amin: use of terror

·          Opposition to the regime and measures undertaken to suppress that opposition both grew in intensity. Political dissidents had their homes searched without warrant and were incarcerated without due process. Some were secretly executed, including members of an educated class numbering between twenty-five and fifty thousand people. In Kerala, in the Kunar Valley, more than one hundred men and boys who refused to shout out support for the Khalq government were massacred by the Afghan soldiers and their Soviet advisers. Even these severe measures failed to quell the rebellion. Amin began to sever ties with Moscow to appease the fundamentalists.


·          With its centerpiece of reforms at stake, and with the specter of a fundamentalist regime propped up by Iran looming large on the horizon, the Soviet government chose a military solution. The Soviets took over the communication lines, introduced censorship, and ordered all foreign media representatives to leave. Workers were frisked at both entrance and exit points as they went about their daily tasks, and a curfew was put into effect. Even the green band of the Afghan flag was replaced with red and, in the elementary schools, the Arabic-based alphabet was replaced by Cyrillic. Dari, the Farsi of northern Afghanistan, became the official language of the bureaucracy instead of Pashto.


Course of the War:

·          The war moved from Kabul to the provincial capitals, which were often sequestered in high mountains and thick woods. Such areas were subjected to repeated saturation bombing and chemical defoliation in efforts to dislodge the insurgents. Houses, foundations, and even the retaining walls of the fields and irrigation canals were demolished. Soviet forces deliberately burned wheat and rice fields and cut down fruit trees. Whole villages fled the devastated countryside, seeking refuge in Pakistan and Iran. The refugee camps provided little relief, as they lacked quality medical treatment and education. Curable physical disabilities were not treated because of a lack of facilities, and psychological disorders such as acute depression and phobic neuroses were dismissed as poor quality of life.


·          Soviet Union usually dominated the Urban areas where as the Mujahadin dominated villages, rural areas, caves, and the country side. (sound familiar!)

Impact of Event

·          Relations between the Soviet Union and Afghanistan were cordial from the end of the nineteenth century almost until the Soviet invasion. Soviet aid allowed the Afghans to construct a national infrastructure. The hidden price of this generosity was high. The Soviets gained access to the untapped resources of Afghanistan, especially oil and gas, at prices well below world prices and indirectly disrupted the political and social structure of the country. Words such as mujahid (holy warrior) and jihad (holy war) were revived, while new terms such as shanty town, refugee camp, holding station, and artificial-limb center were necessarily introduced.


·          Following the invasion, communists and mujahids traded acid and Molotov cocktails in the urban centers of Kabul, Qandahar, and Herat. In Kabul, the Hazara, a Shi'a minority, served as scapegoat. On February 29, 1980, fifteen hundred were reported killed and two thousand were arrested. Schools, hospitals, stores, and mosques were bombed by the Soviets. By March, 1980, more than 110,000 were reported dead, and the killing went on. In the repeated bombing of the village of Istalif, north of Kabul, between October 12 and October 19, 1983, five hundred were killed and the same number were wounded.


·          In the Paktiya, Kunar, and Parvan provinces, farms were seeded with toylike mines that detonated in the hands of curious children who picked them up. As a result of such activities, thousand of villagers were disabled or displaced. Almost four million refugees fled to Pakistan, and half that many to Iran. Approximately one million Afghans died in the struggle. Afghancommunists were tortured and mutilated by fanatics.


·          The Soviet invaders did not escape unscathed. The Afghans refused to take prisoners of war and killed Soviets on sight. More than fifteen thousand Soviets died and more than thirty thousand were injured. The Afghans couldn’t take prisoners, they didn’t have anything to feed them.


·          In addition to the obvious and immediate casualties of war, the Soviet invasion jeopardized the growing links between Moscow and the West.  Leonid Ilich Brezhnev's détente, which began about the same time was threatened.


·          Furthermore, Moscow intended to play a central role both in regulating Eastern European contacts with the West and in preventing the formation of alliances between Eastern Europe and the West that could jeopardize the acquisition of updated technology and the infusion of easy credit into the Soviet economy. The invasion of Afghanistan blocked almost all avenues of negotiation on these vital issues.


·          The United Nations condemned the Soviet invasion with a vote of 104 to 18, with 18 abstentions; Moscow could not ignore the worldwide impact of the condemnation. Neither could it afford the cost of the war, estimated at one to two billion dollars annually. These and other considerations caused Mikhail Gorbachev to announce, on April 15, 1988, that the Soviet Union would withdraw its forces from Afghanistan. The United Nations then brought the United States, the main force behind the U.N. resolutions, Pakistan, China, and the Soviet Union to the negotiation table and worked out a program of phased withdrawal to be completed by February 15, 1989.


·          After the withdrawal, several questions, including self-determination, the repatriation of refugees, and the creation of a political structure acceptable to all Afghan factions remained to be answered. In the absence of the implementation of the full weight of the agreement, Afghanistan remained a divided land, as it was during the war. The Afghan government continued to recognize Moscow as its sole source of inspiration.