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History, Leftist Coup and Soviet Invasion

Mohammad Najibullah, Hafizullah Amin, Karmal, Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, war refugees

In April 1978, after Daud launched a crackdown against the PDPA, leftist military officers overthrew him. PDPA leader Noor Muhammad Taraki became prime minister, subsequently assuming the title of president as well. Taraki and his deputy prime minister, Hafizullah Amin, both members of the Khalq faction, purged many Parcham leaders. Taraki announced a sweeping revolutionary program, including land reform, the emancipation of women, and a campaign against illiteracy. In late 1978 Islamic traditionalists and ethnic leaders who objected to rapid social change began an armed revolt against the government. By the summer of 1979 the rebels controlled much of the Afghan countryside. In September Taraki was deposed and later killed. Amin, his successor, tried vigorously to suppress the rebellion and resisted Soviet efforts to make him moderate his policies. The government’s position deteriorated, however, and on December 25, 1979, Soviet forces invaded Afghanistan. They quickly won control of Kabul and other important centers. The Soviets executed Amin on December 27 and installed Babrak Karmal, leader of PDPA’s Parcham faction, as president. Karmal, whom the Soviets considered to be more susceptible to their control, denounced Amin’s repressive policies, which reportedly included mass arrests and torture of prisoners, and promised to combine social and economic reform with respect for Islam and for Afghan traditions. But the government, dependent on Soviet military forces to bolster it, was widely unpopular.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan played out in the waning days of the Cold War, as the leaden economy and political repressions of the Soviet Union were just beginning to show signs of strain. Despite the Soviet Union’s own domestic difficulties and high-level internal advice against such a move, the Soviet takeover of Afghanistan’s government and eventual full military invasion was a long-considered and reasonably well-thought-out plan. From its earliest foreign aid in construction of military-quality bridges and highways, to its progressive planting of special agents within the Afghanistan bureaucracy and military, the Soviet Union displayed an unremitting interest in expanding its influence in the country and moving farther south toward the warm-water ports and hydrocarbon riches of the Persian Gulf. Afghanistan’s location along part of the Soviet Union’s southern border made the installation of a Soviet-friendly government there all the more desirable. The leftist coup of 1978 in Kabul seemingly assured that the Soviets would not lose the strategic position that they had patiently established through expensive and pervasive efforts over the prior quarter-century. Elsewhere in the country, however, there was only minimal support for the emerging Communist government in Kabul; opposition to it mounted nationwide, eventually even including significant portions of the Afghan military. The Soviet Union’s large-scale military intervention aimed to protect its interests in the region by helping the Soviet-installed government to put down this widespread opposition.

Nevertheless, resistance to the Communist government and the Soviet invaders grew spontaneously throughout Afghanistan so that by the mid-1980s there were about 90 areas in the country commanded by guerrilla leaders. The guerrillas called themselves mujahideen (Muslim holy warriors). They had gained prominence by their fighting prowess rather than through the customary routes within traditional social structures. The resistance was roughly organized into seven major mujahideen parties, largely of Sunni background, based in Peshawar, Pakistan, in the 1980s. Other mujahideen parties were based in Iran. The mujahideen were sustained by weapons and money from the United States, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and China. By the mid-1980s the United States was spending hundreds of millions of dollars each year to aid Afghan rebels based in Pakistan.

During the 1980s Soviet forces increasingly bore the brunt of the fighting. By 1986 about 118,000 Soviet troops and 50,000 Afghan government troops were facing perhaps 130,000 mujahideen guerrillas. Although the Soviet troops used modern equipment, including tanks and bombers, the mujahideen were also well armed, and they had local support and operated more effectively in familiar mountainous terrain. In 1986 the United States began supplying the mujahideen with Stinger missiles able to shoot down Soviet armored helicopters.

The effects of the war on Afghanistan were devastating. Half of the population was displaced inside the country, forced to migrate outside the country, wounded, or killed. About 3 million war refugees fled to Pakistan and about 1.5 million fled to Iran. Estimates of combat fatalities range between 700,000 and 1.3 million people. With the school system largely destroyed, industrialization severely restricted, and large irrigation projects badly damaged, the economy of the country was crippled. Despite some negative reaction, the presence of so many refugees in neighboring Pakistan and Iran actually improved Afghan relations with those countries. In addition, many of the refugees improved their lives considerably by leaving Afghanistan and the dangers of war therein. Because the majority of the refugees were religious, their fellow Muslims in Iran and Pakistan accepted them, even while the Iranian and Pakistani governments were striving to bring about the fall of the Communist regime in Kabul.

In May 1986 Karmal was replaced as PDPA leader by Mohammad Najibullah, a member of the Parcham faction who had headed the Afghan secret police. In November 1987 Najibullah was elected president.



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