Things were doing alright before the Afghan communists started the civil war by murdering president Daoud Khan in a violent takeover, and the Soviets only made things worse when they killed General Secretary Hafizullah Amin to install their puppet in his place. Far from “civilizing” the country, the Soviet Union has a lot of responsibility for why it’s so violent now.
Hmm, from what I remember, that’s not how I’d put it, though it is broadly correct. I’m no expert, mind you, but I did read and hear a bit (the latter in radio episodes edited by historians) about the Soviet war in Afghanistan and what preceded it.
Basically, it went something like this. (P.S.: I’ll add a few pics for liveliness, as I sometimes do when I talk at length about history)
A few years before the Soviets came in, Afghanistan was largely a backwater as far as the Soviets (and even moreso Americans) were concerned.
Mohammed Daoud Khan in fact came to power through a coup himself; he was a prince in the Afghan kingdom until 1973 (also the prime minister from ‘53 to ‘63, among other functions). Daoud Khan was an autocrat even while prime minister, and resigned when his cousin the king, Mohammad Zahir Shah, didn’t want to give him the sort of autocratic one-party rule Daoud desired.
imageMohammad Daoud Khan.
In 1973, Daoud Khan led a coup that deposed the king, and Daoud got what he wanted — he declared a republic, made himself the President, and ruled as a dictator.
Despite there being some social progress, basically everyone grew more or less dissatisfied with his iron-fisted rule - communists, liberals, islamists.
However, he did have a lot of communists in his government for a while (from the Parcham faction), but wanted to break with them and lessen his ties with the Soviet Union. He went so far as to initiate a purge of the communists; so, it was he who pretty much ‘fired the first shot’, so to speak.
While the USSR was alarmed by the purge and Daoud’s shift in international allegiances, it wasn’t they who did the 1978 communist coup. That was the doing of the Afghan communists themselves, who feared what would happen to them; it was a reasonable fear, as one of their leaders had just been murdered by Daoud Khan’s people, and almost all of their leadership had been imprisoned.
It was Hafizullah Amin who prepared the coup. He was under house arrest, but members of his family were allowed to go outside and back in, which they used to relay messages between him and the communist sympathizers in the army.
In April 1978, the military coup, known as the ‘Saur Revolution’* happened. It was successful, and President Daoud was executed in the process.
* Saur or Sowr is the Dari language name for the second month of the Solar Hijri calendar, an old Iranian calendar.
imageTroops and vehicles at the gates of the Arg (presidential palace) in Kabul on 28 April 1978, one day after the Saur Revolution.
imageAlso on the day after the revolution.
What followed next was the consolidation of power by the Afghan communists, including the purge of Daoud’s supporters. One problem was that the communist party, known as the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), had been and still remained deeply fractured between two factions: Khalq (“masses” / “the people”), and Parcham (“banner” / “flag”). Khalqists were hardline Stalinists, while the Parchamites were more moderate and in favor of gradual reforms.
imagePDPA party flag.
The Soviets had been trying for years to heal the rift between the two factions, with limited success. Now both were suddenly in power, but unfortunately the Khalq dominated (and would push out the Parchamites even further before the Soviets finally invaded). What followed was a campaign of radical societal transformation according to communist precepts.
This campaign was openly inspired by Stalin’s actions in the 1930s. The PDPA aimed to transform Afghan society rapidly, in a direction they perceived as progressive. Some of those measures were what we might call undeniably positive, like eradicating illiteracy (then very high in Afghanistan, at around a whopping 90%) or educating women (who, in the vast majority of cases, had been confined to the home in accordance with deeply patriarchal local traditions). Other reforms were more… questionable, like agricultural forced collectivization (along the lines of Stalin’s failed model).
While some of the reforms had noble goals, the people running them were largely Stalinists who operated within a poorly educated, largely illiterate traditional tribal and Islamic society. There was significant resistance to both the reforms and the communists’ violence. Because unfortunately, the PDPA (Khalqists in particular) were extremely intolerant of disagreement and disobedience, and prone to using mass brutal violence to further their efforts.
At this point, it’s important to note that the Soviet Union’s leadership was clearly against this. The Soviets weren’t idiots; they knew that Stalinist methods, especially in a state as underdeveloped as Afghanistan, would inevitably fail and lead to strong backlash. Indeed, they had presence on the ground and saw it happening in real time. They strongly and repeatedly advised the Afghan communists to moderate themselves, to not push reforms so violently and rapidly, to make a compromise with the Islamic clergy and to even avoid openly proclaiming to be communist (something which the PDPA had done before). The Soviets also cautioned the Afghan leaders not to collectivize the land.
imageNur Muhammad Taraki, President of Afghanistan (April 1978 — Sept. 1979)
Afghan president Nur Muhammad Taraki and his vice president Hafizullah Amin ignored Soviet advice and requests to knock it off. Allegedly, Amin outright told Soviet officials to their faces that if the Khalqist methods were good for Stalin, they’re good for the Afghans as well. The Soviets were incensed, as they saw a serious crisis brewing right on their border; worse, it was at a time when instability was growing in the region.
Iran had just undergone its Islamic revolution; despite it removing a staunchly pro-American regime, the new radically islamist government was openly hostile to communism and the Soviet Union, brutally eliminated the Tudeh party (that was the Iranian communist party), and openly proclaimed a desire to spread the revolution to other Muslim areas — and as a country with large areas with Muslim majority, the USSR was potentially very vulnerable to that sort of agitation.
Pakistan also looked really bad. Recently there had been a military coup led by General Muhammad Zia ul-Haq against a leftist populist government. Zia was both pro-American and started implementing a hard turn towards islamism, which was double bad news for the Soviets.
imageGeneral Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, President of Pakistan (1978–1988).
And Afghanistan just kept going from bad to worse.
A popular rebellion was growing against PDPA violence and radical reformism. Rather than turn back and be more democratic, the Afghan communists just kept uping the violence, killing thousands.
imagePul-e-Charkhi prison, AKA the Afghan National Detention Facility, during winter.
It’s the largest prison in Afghanistan, located in the outskirts east of Kabul; during the PDPA’s pre-Soviet invasion “red terror” it was infamous for torture and the execution of many thousands of prisoners.
One of the incidents that really shook the Soviets happened in Herat, one of Afghanistan’s largest cities. There, violent protests erupted, spurred by the communist policy of compulsory schooling for women and girls. This was considered unacceptable by many of the deeply conservative Afghan people, especially men. Some of the protesters were so enraged that when a crowd intercepted a car with Soviet advisors, all but one of them were brutally beaten to death (something that also happened to Afghan communists the rioters had managed to find). The one Soviet advisor who survived the incident spoke of it to his bosses, who relayed it to the top. Brezhnev and the other Soviet leaders heard it.
imageHerat in 1969, a decade before the uprising.
The Herat uprising included a takeover of the city by the rebels. The PDPA appealed to the Soviets to intervene; they refused. The Khalqist communists then sent their own forces to retake the city. As part of the crackdown, they used their Ilyushin bombers to heavily attack the city, killing an estimated minimum of 3000 people; highest estimates raise that figure up to as many as 25,000 victims.
This is the sort of extreme brutality that already existed in Afghanistan even before the Soviet invasion… and would continue during it.
That incident, I think, shows how complex the situation was, and that motivations weren’t black and white, at least from the viewpoint of our ‘western’ cultures. On the one hand, there was a genuine desire by some of the Afghan communists to implement major progressive reforms and educate the population; on the other hand, the way they went about it was exceedingly violent and based upon a discredited model. The popular revolt to the communist rule was rather understandable, as it was undemocratic, very violent and unreasonable; on the other hand, a lot of the discontent was also based on deep social conservatism to which even basic women’s rights were anathema. Still, that can’t in any way justify the mass-murdering that the PDPA was prone to.
And the Soviets at that time had a role which was, oddly enough, somewhat positive, in that they at least tried to act as a restraining and moderating influence on the very radical ruling Afghan communists (though the Soviets still supplied them with weaponry and equipment).
What led the Soviets to finally intervene and invade were a couple of things. One, as noted, the Khalqists have proven that they’re unwilling to moderate, which led to a mass rebellion that threatened both communist rule and the southern flank of the Soviet Union. Secondly, since the Soviets refused to send in troops to bail out the embattled PDPA regime, Hafizullah Amin, who had in the meantime deposed and killed President Taraki and taken his place at the top, started sending out signals that he might be willing to cut deals with other powers, even the Americans. Now that was absolutely unacceptable as far as the Soviets were concerned.
So, they started planning a coup. Some Soviets in the leadership were opposed to the intervention, fearing the possibility of getting into their own equivalent of the Vietnam War (which would indeed end up happening). However, they were outvoted, and the coup went ahead.
In 1979, Hafizullah Amin was deposed and killed, and the Soviet Red Army entered the country from the north, occupying its most important area - the ‘Ring Road’ that circled the central mountain area, connecting the most important Afghan cities and towns.
imageSoviets invade in late December 1979.
imageYou can see the Ring Road here.
The Soviets installed a new government, this time dominated by the more moderate Parchamites. However, the Afghan communists continued to have a degree of independent acting, remaining more radical than the Soviets would have liked (though less so than before the Soviet coup and invasion).
imageBabrak Karmal, the Parchamite new President of Afghanistan (1979-1986)
The change in direction was too little, too late. The insurrection did not cease; in fact, it intensified, spurred on by the fact that Afghans were now fighting an actual foreign occupation (which had been something of an Afghan tradition). Communist abuses, Soviet occupation and respect for Afghan tribal and Islamic tradition united to create a powerful rallying cry for the resistance.
The Mujahideen were born, and the Soviet war in Afghanistan had started. In time, what crystallized was a situation where Soviets and the PDPA basically controlled only the narrow area around the Ring Road and the two roads to the Soviet Union, while the mujahideen pretty much controlled the rest of the country. Of course, ‘the Mujahideen’ is only a loose grouping; in fact, they were an assortment of independent groups and movements that clashed with each other as often as they fought together, which made the communists’ job somewhat easier.
Still, as HS said, the Soviet forces were quite brutal. War crimes were common, sometimes massive, which led more locals to support the Mujahideen.
But where I might maybe disagree with him somewhat is that the Soviets made things much worse prior to the invasion. The situation was *already* horrible and irrevocably broken before they ever invaded, and it was so at least partly despite Soviet efforts, rather than because of them.
It is true however that a long, brutal war that ensued did not help things.
imageFlag of commie Afghanistan (1980–1987)
After the Soviet army left in 1989, the PDPA regime actually managed to hold together for a few more years, only collapsing in 1992 with the fall of Kabul. What followed was 4 years of brutal civil war as the Mujahideen factions fought each other for power. This was made worse by the fact that almost all of them (Ahmad Shah Massoud’s relatively sane and non-murderous forces being the rare exception) also functioned as proxies of various regional powers. The most powerful of them being Pakistan, which also generally supported the worst and most brutal groups, for instance notorious fundie Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e-Islami movement. There were also pro-Iranian and pro-Saudi groups, among others. Unfortunately, the CIA, which had a major role in backing the Mujahideen, deferred to Pakistan for distributing support, which largely meant that the worst fundies got the most goods during the Soviet war.
imageRough outline of Mujahideen groups’ territories or areas of operation in 1985. (link)
Perhaps the only Mujahideen group that could have genuinely made things better — Jamiat-e Islami (particularly the part around Ahmad Shah Massoud) — had pretty much only been able to count on meager support by India during the war. After 1992, they had to contend particularly with Hekmatyar’s forces (which not only had the backing of Pakistan, but had also benefitted from CIA support during the Soviet war), forces which had surrounded Kabul and started brutally shelling the city. Tens of thousands died, and much of the city was levelled.
imageA part of Kabul destroyed during the 90s civil war.
Then, a new force came to the scene, spreading by storm — the Taliban, of course. These Pakistan-backed radicals promised a new era, a firm and uncompromising Islamic regime that would put an end to the abuses of the Mujahideen who had often themselves been brutal to the locals under their control. In 1996, the Taliban mostly won, taking control of roughly 80% of the country. And this is where I’ll end my historical tale.
imageAfghanistan — rough outline of territorial control in 1996, after the Taliban entered Kabul
imageAfghanistan — rough outline of territorial control in October 2001, just before the US invasion
To summarize: the Afghan conflict was very complex, and not quite ‘black and white’. I don’t think the Soviet influence there can be reduced to being just negative, given the context, though I suppose we can say that about the war after they invaded.