The Graveyard of Empires: The Soviets Go Into Afghanistan

Phil Halton

The author of a new thriller set in late 1970s Kabul describes the politics of the time.
The Soviets would suffer against the CIA supplied Stinger missiles.
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The Graveyard of Empires: The Soviets Go Into Afghanistan

The popular understanding of Cold War history is that the Communist takeover of Afghanistan in 1978 was a continuation of the “Great Game” and engineered by the Soviets, the truth is more complex. The Afghan government had tried to steer a careful course of neutrality since the Second World War, and so there was both a strong American and Soviet presence in the country. Although the outside world saw the political turmoil in Afghanistan as another domino falling to the Soviets, there were deeper reasons driven by social conflict that were largely ignored.

President Daoud had deposed his cousin, King Zahir Shah, in 1973 and seized power for himself. His efforts to modernize the country had little impact outside the capital, and none of the major economic projects that were started during his regime with both Soviet and American sponsors) did much to improve the economic lot of the country’s citizens. He was forced to contest with several Islamist uprisings that were sponsored by Pakistani intelligence, as well as a lesser threat from Maoists. His expansive secret police organization dealt with both threats without much difficulty.

But a much less radical strain of communists, the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), was able to grow. They were amenable to working with the government, and had in fact helped to put Daoud in power. But the President began to distance himself from them as early as 1974, purging leftists from his cabinet and sending many abroad as ambassadors. He replaced them with political cronies, either family or members of the old Kabul elite. In 1975, he created the “National Revolutionary Party” and banned all others, including the PDPA. But he took no major action against them, and the PDPA began to grow.

Party politics has never taken hold in Afghanistan, and in the 1970s there were only three main strains of political thought. The interests of Pashtun nationalists were represented by Daoud’s new party, but their reach outside the capital was limited. There were various Islamist groups, including ones centred on the Islamic department of Kabul University and a growing number of individuals living in exile in Pakistan. They were anti-modernist, and saw no role for women in public life. But for anyone interested in modernizing the country, or for women seeking an equal role in society, there were only the communists. And so many educated, urban men and women found themselves joining the PDPA for reasons other than a strong conviction about Marxism.

Daoud’s reign became increasingly dictatorial, and it became clear to the PDPA that their days were numbered. They began to plan a coup to oust the President, against the wishes of the Soviets. They were worried that if the uprising failed, it would give Daoud an excuse to brutally repress the party, much as he had done with the Islamists.

President Mohammad Daoud Khan

The murder of communist idealogue Mir Akbar Khaibar in 1978 led to public protests that spooked Daoud. He ordered the arrest of all of the PDPA’s leaders, but this was the signal for them to execute their coup. In less than a day of localized fighting, Daoud and his diehard supporters were killed. The PDPA was in charge of the country, and fierce backroom negotiations took place to determine what this really meant. The Soviets were as surprised by the coup as anyone else, and scrambled to capitalize on the change.

But the PDPA overplayed its hand, centralizing power under government structures and disenfranchising other centres of power across the country. They attempted to enact unpopular policies such as land and tax reform and public education for women, leading to scattered uprisings outside the capital. From a “scientific” Marxist point of view, Afghanistan was not yet ready for socialism. Their Soviet advisors cautioned them to move slowly and first consolidate power, but the PDPA ignored them. Remarkably, many of the policies they tried to put in place were replicated by Western powers after the fall of the Taliban.

Infighting within the PDPA made them seem like less than stable partners for the Soviets, and they began to lose their grip on outlying regions of the country. Afghan leader Hafizullah Amin repeatedly asked the Soviets to send a military mission to help quell the growing rebellion, but he was rebuffed. The kidnap and death of the American Ambassador in February 1979 poisoned relations with the United States, leaving the Soviets as Afghanistan’s sole international sponsors.

The Soviets did not trust Hafizullah Amin, and his policies were causing the country to spiral out of control. The Politburo decided that they had to act, and an intervention force was created. It entered Afghanistan on 24 December 1979, causing no alarm because of the previous requests for assistance. Hafizullah Amin was killed by KGB commandos who assaulted the palace, and he was replaced by a more pliant leader. But the only impact on Afghan government policy was to make it less radical than before, and the Soviets expected to withdraw their forces by February, 1980. This was intended to be a short, sharp intervention to strengthen the government’s position, much as had been done in East Germany (1953), Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968).

As history shows, they were in fact pulled into a worsening conflict that the Afghan Army was in poor shape to fight. And by the time they withdrew in 1989, the Soviet Union was on its last legs. The Afghan Communist government outlasted the Soviet Union itself by nearly a year.

Phil Halton is the author of the Afghan set Red Warning, published by Sharpe Books.

The Graveyard of Empires: The Soviets Go Into Afghanistan