2. Why Did the Soviet Union Invade?

Submitted by Mike Harman on December 4, 2018

In the events that led to the Soviet invasion, Hafizullah Amin played a major role, particularly after he replaced Taraki as president of the Revolutionary Council and general secretary of the party. Amin (1929-79) was a Kharotay Ghilzay Pashtun from the Qazi Khel village of the Paghman district to the west of Kabul. His father had served as a police officer in the constitutional period. Amin had graduated from the College of Sciences of Kabul University and had twice been on American educational grants to the United States for higher studies. He had obtained a master’s degree at Columbia University and been elected president of the Afghan Students Association; in 1965, just as he was about to start work on his doctoral dissertation, he was called home. Before leaving for the United States he had been a teacher at two government-run high schools, Ibn-e-Sena and Teacher’s Training; afterward he continued teaching there and served as principal of Ibn-e-Sena. Both schools had students mainly from the countryside, which gave Amin a chance to influence the future teachers and military officers.

Amin returned to Afghanistan in late 1965 a bitter man but determined to stand up against the political establishment, which he thought to have deprived him of his right to higher education. He joined the PDPA, and thereafter the bitter man turned into a dynamic political man—particularly after the 1969 general election, when he won a seat in parliament from his Paghman constituency. But within the PDPA he had opponents who accused him of being a CIA agent. They had turned against him because Amin pursued a policy of creating a power base for himself, particularly among the Pashtun recruits. His opponents feared the prospect of Amin coming to power. On the eve of the coup when the Parcham and Khalq factions united, they asked Taraki to relieve Amin of the post of liaison officer with the military, but before the latter could do so Amin made the coup and stood head and shoulders high among his rival peers.

Amin was anxious to be on good terms with the Soviets. This he had ensured even before the coup had been made. The villa of the Soviet TASS correspondent in Kabul was the meeting place between Karmal and Taraki and the KGB men. When Amin became important as a military liaison officer, Taraki introduced him to the KGB man in Kabul. “The KGB began…to see Amin regularly at the TASS villa. During those secret meetings, Amin told the KGB about Khalq members in the army, and brought all in all about 300 names of servicemen.”[1] After the coup Amin was a deputy premier and minister of foreign affairs, and, thanks to his influence with the army, he was able to extend control over the Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Interior and bypass their Parchami ministers in reshuffling their personnel.[2] He also “skillfully influenced the opinions of the Soviet ambassador [Alexander Puzanov] and numerous Soviet advisers who were sent to Afghanistan on his and Taraki’s requests.…Amin isolated the advisers from…Karmal, and quickly indoctrinated [Nikolai] Simonenko, turning him into a supporter of the Khalq faction.”[3] Simonenko was chief of the Soviet advisers in Kabul. Amin felt confident that “the Soviets would not interfere with his plans,” particularly after Puzanov declined to meet with Karmal, who—along with his brother, Mahmud Baryalay, and Anahita Ratibzad—had spent a night at the villa of the correspondent to meet with the ambassador, secretly going there after Amin had decided to send them abroad as ambassadors.[4] However, Amin’s amicable relations with the Soviets did not last long. His differences with the Kremlin masters became apparent on two fronts: ideological and political.

Amin held that in developing countries such as Afghanistan the military, not workers or peasants, could bring about revolution. In such societies, Amin believed, the workers were few, and the peasants, though numerous, were scattered, unorganized, and politically unaware. It would take too long to wait for them to become aware and organized so that they could play a role in overthrowing the established order. In such a situation, the ideologically advanced communists should concentrate on the military officers, whose profession tends to make them modernists and secularists. Using Marxist theory and Leninist organization to transform society from feudalism to socialism, these vanguards of the working-class movement should organize the military. In a speech at the Institute of Polytechnic after the coup in 1978, Amin propounded his views along these lines, indicating that his comrades in the socialist camp might not accept his theory but that he was willing to discuss his beliefs with them.

For Amin, this theory had practical implications. As a military liaison member he had recruited, trained, and mobilized military officers with whose help he had toppled the government of Mohammad Daoud. The military support also enabled Amin to send abroad his Parcham opponents, including Karmal. It was on this point that the rift began between Amin and Karmal, first appearing in a politburo meeting after the coup. As an orthodox internationalist Marxist with no substantial support among the military, Karmal argued that the military officers were unable to absorb Marxist theory. Karmal’s purpose was to weaken Amin’s position. Although Soviet theoreticians had expounded a similar thesis in connection with Africa, Amin’s notion of making Afghanistan a Third World model for passage to socialism without the direct support of the Soviet Union was bound to be considered heresy.[5] Still, had other differences not arisen, “the Soviet Union would scarcely have launched its invasion, with all its enormous political, economic, and psychological costs, for the sake of semantics.”[6]

• • •

Rift in the Khalq Leadership

Amin’s relations with Taraki and the Soviet Union became strained simultaneously; it is thus necessary to trace them a little more closely. The strain in relations appeared during the Herat uprising in March 1979, in which about twenty-five thousand people were killed.[7] The uprising was so serious that “the Soviets stepped in to support their puppet Kabul regime. Squadrons of ground-attack bombers,…based at Doshanbe in Russian Tajikistan,…drop[ped] their payloads on Herat.”[8] But Taraki wanted full Soviet involvement. To suppress the uprising and “save the revolution,” Taraki told the Soviet premier Alexi Kosygin, “We need practical and technical help in both men and weapons.” To get that aid, Taraki importuned “like a merchant in the Kabul market, using flattery and cajolery.” During a secret trip, he assured his host, “We will never be as close to anyone else as we are to you. We are the pupils of Lenin.” But Premier Kosygin could not be moved, arguing, “If our troops were sent in, the situation in your country would not improve. On the contrary, it would get worse.” Kosygin, however, promised him additional military experts as well as grain and credit.[9] The recently disclosed Soviet archives on Afghanistan have no reference to Amin on this point. Perhaps he did not know of Taraki’s request, but one reported incident suggests that he was against it.

After the Herat uprising, the difference between Amin and Taraki became evident; nevertheless, because of his role in suppressing it, Amin was promoted to the position of first minister (Lomray Wazir), not prime minister, as is generally understood. Also, from then on Soviet advisers who favored Taraki worked to enlarge the differences. They preferred Taraki because he wanted a closer relationship with the Soviet Union, particularly in foreign affairs. “Whereas Amin did not favor the idea of Afghanistan being pushed into the Soviet bloc, Taraki did. Similarly, with regard to the pursuit of the policy of non-alignment, Taraki preferred that Afghanistan should be non-aligned on the model of Cuba with the active support of the Soviet bloc, whereas Amin intended to keep away from the Soviet bloc, and forge friendly relations with all countries.”

Amin’s domestic policy also created friction. After he got the new post as well as the post of minister of defense, Amin tried to monopolize power, thereby alienating not only Taraki but also his close friends, Asadullah Sarwari, Aslam Watanjar, Sayyed Mohammad Gulabzoy, and Sher Jan Mizdooryar, known as the “Gang of Four.”

Mizdooryar, although a member of the Gang of Four, was insignificant. Each of the first three, however, having played a role in the communist coup and being more or less of the same age as Amin, felt a sense of rivalry with him. They rallied behind Taraki, who, as a cofounder of the party and as an elder, was like a father to them.
In this context the role played by the Soviet advisers proved crucial. Raja Anwar states that “Sarwari’s defection from the Khalq chessboard was not the handiwork of Soviet advisers.”[11] This is not true. First, Sarwari had not defected from “the Khalq chessboard.” Sarwari defected from Amin’s side to Taraki’s, but he remained within the same chessboard. Second, AGSA’s chief adviser, Colonel Bogdanov, who was at the same time the KGB chief in Kabul, influenced Sarwari to the extent that the latter would use abusive language against Amin. With Taraki’s support and the encouragement by his own advisers, Sarwari worked as if he were the head of an autonomous body. The Soviet advisers in AGSA worked on instructions only from Taraki. The great amount of human blood that AGSA shed was the work more of Sarwari than of anyone else. Of all the Khalqi leaders, Sarwari was the most radical and the most adventurous. His superior, Amin, could not restrain him; indeed, he and his associates feared AGSA.

Despite these developments, Amin still needed Taraki. Amin was anxious to keep him pleased, but at the same time he tried to strip him of power. In public, however, he praised the old man, who had developed a cult of personality. To alienate Taraki from the triumvirate, Amin concentrated on building up Taraki’s public image by calling him the “genius of the East,” “the powerful master,” and “the body and soul of the party,” while referring to himself as “his loyal disciple” (shagird-e-wafadar). Amin raised Taraki to the status of Romania’s Ceausescu, whose admirers praised him as the “Genius of the Carpathians” and the “Danube of Thought.” It was depressing to see the grinning image of yesterday’s Afghan plebeian projected from the huge framed photos fixed on the front of numerous public buildings in the city of Kabul. Even in the early stage of their rule, I noted the name of Taraki with lofty titles thirty times in three pages of the government-controlled newspaper, Anis.

Taraki, however, could not be pleased, especially when Amin engaged in nepotism. Taraki was unwilling to serve as a figurehead under “his loyal disciple,” whom he had, before their rise to power, saved from his opponents. The climax came in July 1979: in a politburo meeting, Amin pronounced Taraki responsible for the government’s failures. In August, Taraki accused Amin of nepotism.[12] It seemed impossible for them to iron out their differences along the democratic principles on which their Marxist-Leninist party was based, even though recently they had reaffirmed their faith in the principle of “collective leadership and collective decision.” So far, however, their struggle was confined within their own circle.

• • •

Soviet Scheme for a New Afghan Government

The Soviet leaders, through their agents in AGSA, must have known of the rift. The ambassador Alexander Puzanov worked to promote the Soviet scheme. That scheme was to unite the two factions of the party by sending Amin abroad as an ambassador and preparing the ground for the formation of a new government to be composed of the Taraki and Karmal factions. The scheme made it necessary for Taraki and Karmal to meet. The task of arranging a meeting between the two was made easier when Taraki stopped in Moscow on 10 September 1979 on his way home from Havana, where he had attended a meeting of the heads of the nonaligned countries. Karmal had been summoned from his hideout somewhere in Czechoslovakia, where he was spending his life of exile after the same Taraki had deprived him of Afghan citizenship a year earlier.
Anwar states that at the Moscow airport a meeting chaired by Gromyko was arranged between the hitherto antagonistic leaders.[13] This is not true. Taraki stayed in Moscow for two days (10 and 11 September) and met twice with Brezhnev, Gromyko, and Brezhnev’s foreign affairs adviser, Andrey Alexander, in the Kremlin. The first meeting was also attended by Afghan Foreign Minister Shah Wali and Sayyed Mohammad Daoud Tarun, President Taraki’s aide de camp. This meant that it was an ordinary meeting. But the second meeting went awry. When the Afghans, as before, took seats, they were told that all should leave except for President Taraki. Shah Wali and Tarun still remained, thinking that as senior officials they would also be taking part as before. But the security guards roughly pushed them out.[14] The meeting must have been exceptional. The exclusion of Shah Wali probably meant the inclusion of Karmal. The joint communiqué issued following the meetings made no reference to the formation of a government representing a “national democratic front.” Afghan sources stated that Taraki and Brezhnev had agreed to change the Afghan government. Probably, as Anwar states, Soviet leaders had advised Taraki to send Amin and his supporters into diplomatic exile and appoint Karmal prime minister and deputy general secretary of the party, while he was to remain as head of the party and the state. What is now certain is that “Moscow urged Taraki to put Amin in his place, with help from ambassador Puzanov,…General Ivanov, and General Pavlovsky.” At the time, the latter two were on missions in Kabul as representatives of the KGB and the Soviet Ministry of Defense respectively.[15] The phrase “to put Amin in his place” could mean anything. It was hoped that these changes would result in a government representing a “national democratic front.”[16] Taraki had to put the scheme into operation.

On the day when Taraki’s plane was about to land at Kabul airport, Sarwari had arranged that a death squad would gun down Amin when he was on his way to receive Taraki. But in this game Amin proved superior to his rivals. Since the official next to Sarwari in AGSA worked secretly for him, Amin knew of Sarwari’s moves against him. Also, through the efforts of Sayyed Daoud Tarun, Amin was informed of Taraki’s moves. Amin had received an encoded telegram from Tarun in Moscow, stating that the Moscow meeting had decided on his elimination. Although barred from the meeting, Tarun knew of its content through a minute intelligence device that he had planted in his master’s (Taraki’s) pocket. Tarun served more as an attendant of Taraki than as a member of the delegation. Not long afterwards, what had allegedly gone on in Moscow was known in Kabul, and the news of the meeting between Taraki and Karmal spread like wildfire. On the day of Taraki’s arrival in Kabul, Amin had taken control of the airport, replacing its personnel with persons loyal to him. He himself wore an armored shield under his clothes. On that occasion no incident occurred.

• • •

The Palace Plot

Between 11 and 14 September the rival groups plotted against each other. While Amin worked to weaken Taraki by removing Sarwari, Watanjar, and Gulabzoy from their posts, the latter tried to do away with him. Taraki told his associates that Amin intended to remove him by a coup. When Amin’s supporters tried to bring AGSA under their thumb, Taraki’s supporters gunned them down. Amin’s associates, Nawab Helmandi, Sur Gul Khateez, and Khair Mohammad were the victims. Amin asked Taraki to dismiss Sarwari and others from their posts; Taraki proposed a compromise, but by then a compromise had become unworkable. Amin insisted on his demand. As the first minister and the strong man in the party and the government, Amin could dismiss his enemies, but he preferred that Taraki do it, not only to wean him from his partisans but also to help unify the party. Taraki was, after all, general secretary of the party, president of the Revolutionary Council, chief commander of the armed forces, and president of the Defense Committee of Afghanistan. He had let himself become entangled with men who had become Amin’s uncompromising enemies. Finally Taraki decided, with Sarwari and others, that Amin was to be invited to the palace to resolve the differences in line with the principle of inner democracy and collective leadership. He was to be given guarantees for his safety, but when he arrived he would be done away with. To persuade Amin to come, Alexander Puzanov was to be invited and asked to mediate.

Anwar was the first to describe the incident in the palace. In his book, which is an apologia for the Soviet policies on Afghanistan, he implies that what happened on 14 September occurred without the presence of the Soviet ambassador.[17] The reports leaked out of the palace, the two-sheet publication issued for the benefit of party members, and the events themselves speak otherwise. The publication states that Amin, having received “assurances” from Puzanov and his own “comrades,” accepted the invitation, much against the advice of Sayyed Daoud Tarun. Amin arrived at half-past five in the afternoon at the palace entrance. When he entered the corridor of the second floor, the presidential guards fired at him, but shot Tarun instead, killing him. Amin escaped. Puzanov and the two generals were present with Taraki. Amin rushed to the headquarters of the Ministry of Defense and took control of the situation, ordering a siege of the presidential palace, where Taraki was. In the confusion the ambassador and the two generals left. By Amin’s order Taraki was detained and, on 9 October, suffocated. The hastily convened meeting of the politburo replaced Taraki with Amin as head of party and the state. Amin formed a new government of persons loyal to him.

Amin implicated Puzanov in the plot. It seems inconceivable that Amin would have made such a charge had it not been true. It was a matter of common sense for Amin to be wary of the consequences of accusing the representative of the Soviet Union. It is a fact that not only Puzanov but also Generals Ivanov and Pavlovsky were present at the time of the incident. The KGB official Alexander Morozov writes, “The generals and Ambassador Puzanov took off for yet another meeting at the House of the Nation. Taraki asked Amin to attend it as well. However, the latter refused point blank, citing the possibility of an attempt on his life as an excuse. But yielding to Taraki’s insistence he agreed and demanded guarantees of his safety from Puzanov. The latter gave him the guarantee, speaking to Amin over the phone.”[18]

The triumphant Amin started to rule with the view that the Soviet Union would back him. Once again he was mistaken. The Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev, looked on the killing of Taraki as a personal insult.[19] Afterward the Soviet leaders changed their policy on Afghanistan.

The whereabouts of Sarwari and his associates—with the exception of Mizdooryar, who had been arrested—was a source of concern for Amin. The conspirators first stayed at the villa of the TASS correspondent, and later Puzanov managed to smuggle them to the Soviet Union in nailed wooden boxes. Amin asked Puzanov to hand them over, but the latter was unwilling. In this connection a story was told that is apparently unbelievable. According to the story, Amin one day summoned Puzanov to his presence and accused him not only of having hidden his opponents in the embassy but also of having plotted against him. When Puzanov denied the accusations and, further, argued that as a diplomat he could not be treated as an accused person under investigation, Amin slapped him in the face and poured forth insulting words in Pashto on Marx, Lenin, and Brezhnev.[20] This impulsive outburst should have made Amin more cautious in his dealing with the Soviets. In any case, Amin’s relations with Moscow became strained.

Amin must have concluded that with Puzanov in Kabul, his relations with Moscow were not likely to improve. But after the failed palace coup Puzanov became supportive of Amin, concluding, “We are facing a fait accompli: Amin has come to power. Taraki failed to withstand Amin’s push for power. Frankly, Taraki was a weakling and a dawdler. He never was as good as his word. On the contrary Amin is strong, and we must do business with him and support him.”[21] Amin’s displeasure with Puzanov surfaced on 6 October, when Foreign Minister Shah Wali, while addressing ambassadors of the communist countries with the exception of China, “accused Puzanov of complicity in the abortive attempt to remove Amin, saying Puzanov was in Taraki’s office when he assured him on the phone that it was safe to go to the palace.”[22] Puzanov was represented at the meeting by Vasily Safronchuck, another embassy diplomat. “As a result of the distrust of Puzanov, and as a warning to the Kremlin about meddling in Afghan affairs, Wali as foreign minister officially asked the Soviet Union to replace its ambassador.”[23] Shah Wali also said that Moscow had invited Amin to Moscow to discuss the Afghan domestic issue, but he had refused to go. It was another event that the Kremlin leaders could not digest. Other events also adversely affected Amin’s relations with Moscow.

• • •

Rift with the Soviet Union

During the 104 days of Amin’s rule, Kabul was apparently enthusiastic about the Soviet Union, commemorating with fervor the public events related to it and repeating in its mass media its newly adopted slogan that friendship with the Soviet Union was an integral part of “Afghan patriotism.” Hoping to obtain economic assistance as well as military aid, the government appeared anxious to have a close relationship with Moscow. The Soviet leaders likewise appeared anxious to cooperate, despite the impersonal tone of their congratulatory messages to President Amin. But the latter showed that he wanted to govern as an independent ruler.
Amin’s assertiveness appeared in more than one form. By the time he took over the reins of government, Soviet advisers had obtained for themselves such a commanding position that
no significant decision was made, no important order issued in either the civilian ministries in Kabul or the Afghan armed forces without the clearance of Soviet advisers. The advisers had obtained the authority to hold up orders until they countersigned them. What had started in 1978 as the Soviets’ helping out by replacing purged officers and officials had developed into a general dependence upon them that must having been as galling for Amin as it was needed by him.[24]

Amin had tried to downgrade the Soviet experts, to make them function as advisers as their titles suggested. However, there was no question of either replacing them or decreasing their numbers, which continued to increase. Before the April coup they numbered 2,100, but on the eve of the invasion their numbers had risen to more than 5,500. Their presence was a source of concern not only for the Afghan people but also for the government. Amin had instructed his officers that they should only listen to the advisers, not act on their advice. It is not known whether or not his instruction was general and whether or not it was carried out by all civilian and military officials; however, by the time of the invasion the advisers attached to the military section of the Intelligence Department were indeed working as advisers only.

Another problem that Amin had with the Soviet Union was the price of Afghan natural gas, which the Soviet Union had imported since 1968 below the international rate. Despite Afghan protests, the gas has been metered for accounting and crediting purposes on the Soviet side of the border and under the supervision of Soviet personnel. Afghan officials were forced to accept Moscow’s price schedule and its word on the amount being transported into the Soviet Union and the credit due Afghanistan.[25] Afghanistan lost a large portion of its income on this product, which was its biggest source of revenue. Three ministers, including Abdul Karim Meesaq, minister of finance, sent a polite letter to the Soviet government to this effect. While expressing the hope that the friendship between the two countries would last forever, they asked the Soviets to revise the gas price.[26] The Soviet response is not known. What is known is that a day before his fall, Amin confided in one of his senior officials that the Soviet Union had asked his government to pay three times the price of gasoline that it used to pay. Amin had told them that because of their weak finances the Afghans were unable to pay such a high price; if the Soviets insisted, the Afghans would have to use bicycles.[27]

Being a communist, and seeing that Afghanistan had been made dependent on the Soviet Union, Amin hoped that the Soviet Union would assist Afghanistan in its development schemes. He had submitted a list of projects to the Soviets, including plans to extract oil and to set up new factories. He also asked that these projects be completed by certain dates.[28] At the same time Amin began to remove pro-Soviet officials from sensitive positions and recruited Western-educated Afghans to higher positions.

• • •

The Dilemma of Afghan Reformist Rulers

President Amin showed concern about the independence of the country. While addressing a group of university professors whom he had invited to dine with him, he assured them, “You professors may or may not be with us, but as long as I am alive I will never allow any foreign power to dominate our fatherland.”[29] To his trusted military officers he was even more open, saying that he did not understand why the Soviets were working against his government. Even in the early days of the coup Amin had reprimanded Puzanov. One day Amin asked him, “What kind of communist are you that you make such demands of me? The people of Afghanistan,” he argued, “will never accept your demands, and if pressed, will make trouble for our governments.”[30] Puzanov’s response and the nature of the “demand” are unknown. On another occasion Amin was more emphatic. In October 1979 he told the American chargé d’affaires, “If Brezhnev himself should ask him [Amin] to take any action against Afghan independence,…he would not hesitate ‘to sacrifice his life’ in opposition to such a request.”[31] This was in fact what he did.

It was, however, Amin’s naivete, lack of experience, and belief in communist comradeship that prevented him from questioning how independence would be maintained once the Soviet Union had been allowed to penetrate the state. He failed to understand that the Soviet leaders preferred compliant rulers in countries such as Afghanistan. Their attitude toward rulers of the East European countries should have been a lesson for him. He and others also erred by depriving themselves of the advice of Afghans experienced in diplomacy and the art of government. Although a tyro in diplomacy, Amin felt confident in it. An observer has said of Amin, “His confident attitude, reflected in numerous off-the-record comments, was that he knew how to handle the Russians, who needed him as much or more than he needed them.”[32]

Amin faced the same fundamental problem that his reformist predecessors had faced before him: how to preserve the country’s independence and at the same time develop it with the credit and technical assistance of the Soviet Union, when other governments did not want to assist it substantially.[33] This dilemma has baffled all reformist Afghan rulers. Although concerned about independence, Amin wanted to develop Afghanistan with Soviet help, stating, “We are convinced that if there were no vast economic and military aid from the Soviet Union, we could not resist the aggression and conspiracies of imperialism, its leftist-looking allies [China and others] and international reaction, and could not move our country toward the construction of a socialist society.”[34]

By “military aid” Amin meant military weapons. From the April coup onward, Amin often stated that the Khalqis had made “the April Revolution” and that they were able to defend it. This claim was addressed both to the Khalqis’ home critics, who worried that the government had made the country so dependent on the Soviet Union that its leaders might one day make it part of their empire, and also to the Soviet leaders, in effect telling them that Afghanistan did not need their military help in defending the revolution. After Amin came to power, he made his view clear on this, saying, “We will ourselves defend our country…[and will] never give this trouble to our international brothers to fight for us.”[35]

Although the government was under pressure and the party divided, Amin had the wisdom and the courage to seek solutions through negotiation with adversaries, an approach that the Soviet Union opposed at the time but supported after ten years of war. Amin “was following in the footsteps of Moosa Shafiq’s government and Daoud, turning to a non-Communist neighbor in an effort to balance and reduce Soviet influence.”[36] This “non-Communist” country was Pakistan, which held a key position in balancing the already unbalanced situation in the region.

Amin knew that the Durand Line could be used by either Pakistan or Afghanistan against the other, depending on circumstances. When Amin usurped power, it was Pakistan’s turn. By that time nearly 400,000 Afghans had fled to Pakistan, and it was from among them that the Afghan Islamic organizations recruited men to fight the government. To make Afghanistan stable, Amin needed an understanding with Pakistan. In early December, Amin sought a meeting with General Zia al-Haq of Pakistan. On 19 December he announced that Pakistan’s foreign minister, Agha Shahi, was due to make an official visit on 22 December. Apparently because of snow in Kabul, Agha Shahi did not arrive on that day. Foreign Minister Shah Wali appeared desperate, anxious to see Agha Shahi in Kabul soon. A new date, 31 December, was set for his arrival at Kabul, but by that time the Russians had moved in.[37]

Amin also moved to negotiate with Afghan opponents. Reportedly through the mediation of a former member of parliament, Mohammad A’zam Shinwaray, representatives of the Islamic Party (led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar) and the government met somewhere in the frontier province of Kunar. An agreement for the formation of a coalition government was said to have been reached between them.[38] Amin’s moves were, however, noticed by the watchful eyes of the Soviet Union. On 31 October 1979 the Soviet politburo noted: “Disturbing signals are coming about Amin’s efforts to make contracts [contacts] with representatives of conservative Muslim opposition and leaders of tribes hostile to the government, in the course of which he shows readiness to come to an agreement on compromise conditions that are to the detriment of the country’s progressive development.” It also stated that Amin intended “to pursue a more balanced policy in relations with the Western powers”; indeed, “U.S.A. representatives after their contacts with the Afghans have come to the conclusion that it is possible to change Afghanistan’s political line in the direction which is favorable to Washington.” Calling Amin “insincere and two-faced,” the politburo held that he “not only does not stop anti-Soviet moods but in fact encourages them.” This comment referred to Amin’s disclosure that the Soviet ambassador had taken part against him in the abortive palace coup. Calling this disclosure of a fact to be “slanderous inventions,” the politburo concluded that “in Amin we have come across an ambitious, cruel, treacherous person who may change the political orientation of the regime.”[39]

Despite these misgivings, the Soviet Union instructed its officials to do business as usual with Amin until the Kremlin rulers were certain about his true intentions. For them it was not hard to become certain about those intentions: Taraki had assured his Kremlin comrades that “we will never be as close to anyone else as we are to you”;[40] by contrast, Amin proceeded to follow, in the words of the Kremlin masters, “a more balanced policy.” This was the broad line of policy that Afghan rulers had pursued in the past; but the Kremlin rulers held this policy to be “detrimental” to Afghanistan, as if they were also Afghan rulers. It was a plain fact that they were not the rulers of Afghanistan, yet they persisted in thinking that they were and, more ominously, in acting on that mistaken belief. Thus, on 12 December 1979 they decided that Amin must go and that they would rule Afghanistan through Karmal and his Parchami group.

In early December rumors circulated in Kabul that the Soviets intended to seek an alternative to the government of Amin. The situation at home and in the region seemed ripe for such a move.

Having suppressed many uprisings, the government had alienated the public. It had also eliminated public figures in the name of “socialism,” “revolution,” “progress,” and “toiling men and women,” and it had proclaimed the creation of a society “free of exploitation of man by man.” By labeling their opponents “counterrevolutionaries,” “reactionaries,” “narrow-minded nationalists,” “courtiers,” “feudals,” and so on, the new rulers provided themselves grounds to liquidate them. Actually, the Soviet advisers had initiated the program, but when the dogmatic, rough-edged rural plebeians directed the police state, they took the rhetoric more seriously than the Soviet advisers had probably imagined. The official party, because it had been split into factions, was in disarray. There was, in short, a power vacuum, and since there was no known figure around whom the opponents could rally, the Soviet leaders apparently assumed that with Amin removed, the compliant Karmal, backed by the Soviet might, would fill the vacuum.

The turmoil in the region also seemed conducive to such a move. The military regime in Pakistan, led by General Zia al-Haq, who came to power in 1977, and the religious regime in Iran, led by the Ayatullah Khomeini, who came to power in 1979, were grappling with serious problems. No outside power, especially the United States of America, was present in the region to counter the Soviet Union, as the British in India had countered Russia in the past. The United States, which had contained the Soviet Union in the 1950s by sponsoring the military pacts of SEATO and CENTO and had kept a presence in Iran since the end of World War II, had already backed away. Besides, in November 1979 the United States found itself confronted with the Khomeini regime over the problem of diplomats taken hostage by Iran. More important, the U.S. administrations had always considered Afghanistan to be within the Soviet influence. Still, the Soviet Union preferred to see its troops invited before moving militarily. The question thus arises, were the Soviet troops invited, or did the Soviet Union invade Afghanistan without an invitation?

• • •

Invasion without Invitation

Since the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan when Amin was in power, the invitation for its troops should have come from him. As prime minister and minister of defense, president of the Revolutionary Council, and general secretary of the party, Amin was the central figure. Having probed this question, which encompasses the whole aspect of Afghan national life and, to some extent, international relations as well, I have concluded that neither Amin nor the Revolutionary Council had either orally or in writing asked the Soviet Union to send its troops into Afghanistan, although Soviet officials had made extensive efforts to frighten them about an imaginary danger directed at Afghanistan. But the Soviet government as well as the Karmal regime have fabricated stories contrary to this conclusion.

In December 1979 Soviet officials told Amin that the “revolution” was in danger from the United States, which was about to launch a massive assault from the Persian Gulf. To meet the assault, Afghanistan should be prepared militarily. Amin then requested Soviet military weapons on a large scale, a request that was granted. But the Soviet officials made it known that the effective use of a variety of advanced weapons required the presence of Soviet military experts and instructors to train the Afghans, a proposal that had already been accepted and was once again confirmed.[41] Already on 7 July 1979, a Soviet battalion disguised as aircraft technicians had landed at the Bagram air base north of Kabul “to protect and defend the airfield where our [the Soviet] aircraft were landing bringing aid cargo to Afghanistan.…The place was a sort of bridgehead where Soviet specialists and advisers with their families could assemble if the situation got worse.”[42] By 6 December the number had increased to 2,500.[43] Amin demanded an explanation from the new Soviet ambassador, Fikrat A. Tabeyev, who explained that the buildup was in response to increased activity by the imperialists along the frontiers. Tabeyev also said that the Soviet experts were at the base to train the Afghans in the use of weapons. Amin seemed concerned but made no comment. On 18 December, A. H. Hakeemi, commander of the Bagram airbase, informed Amin that the Soviets seemed to be up to something sinister, similar to what they had done in Czechoslovakia in 1968. Amin assured him that things would be all right shortly. Amin was probably hopeful about the outcome of his scheduled meeting with the foreign minister of Pakistan, Agha Shahi. The meeting did not take place. Amin planned to summon political officials in the military together with commanding officers of the Kabul area to the headquarters of the Ministry of National Defense. He intended to tell them that of late the Soviet attitude toward Afghanistan had changed and that on all important matters they were to act only on his orders. But hours before the scheduled meeting, the Soviet cook and waitresses poisoned Amin, and the occupation began.[44]

The Soviet government and the regime of Karmal have claimed that the troops sent into Afghanistan were in line with article four of the Treaty of Friendship, Good Neighborliness, and Cooperation, which Taraki and Brezhnev had concluded in Moscow on 5 December 1978. Leaving aside whether or not the treaty was legally valid, we may note that the article stipulates that in the case of military cooperation, appropriate agreements should be concluded in advance. The treaty reads in part, “In the interests of strengthening the defense capacity of the high contracting parties, they shall continue to develop cooperation in the military field on the basis of appropriate agreements concluded between them.” First, “cooperation in the military field” is a vague phrase that may or may not be taken to mean the dispatch of troops by one contracting party to the assistance of another. Second, even if this phrase does mean the dispatch of troops, the treaty nevertheless stipulates that “appropriate agreements” be concluded between the parties. Such agreements had not been concluded, nor had the Kabul government indicated a willingness for them. Contrary to the general view, during Amin’s rule the government was not so weak that its opponents could overthrow it. Except for a disturbance in the Rishkhor military division by pro-Taraki officers, a disturbance that was quickly suppressed, no major uprising took place while Amin was in power. “Until the invasion the [Islamic opposition] parties were more or less dormant, because they received virtually no assistance from outside.”[45] The security situation in Afghanistan was far from being so desperate as to need Soviet troops. The Soviet Union, before the invasion, had not officially raised the issue with the government of Amin. Had Amin requested military aid, as distinct from weapons, the Soviet Union would have obtained a document about it, a point so significant that it was bound to affect, as it did, its relations with Afghanistan and to some extent also with the region and the world. The Soviet Union never produced such a document. After the invasion the Soviet Union fabricated stories justifying its actions, one of which said that members of the Revolutionary Council had asked the Soviets to send troops to Afghanistan.

Since Amin was the central figure both in the party hierarchy and the state, and since he had driven away his rivals, and since he had assigned his own men to key positions in the party as well as the government, it is inconceivable that someone else would have dared to invite Soviet troops. The subsequent claims by Karmal and the Soviet Union are groundless. Henry Bradsher has described and analyzed these claims in detail.[46] Here I only evaluate the claims. According to an official Soviet declaration, the military assistance was in the form of “a limited contingent” that “[would] be used exclusively in rebuffing the armed interference from the outside.” It was also declared that the “limited contingent [would] be completely pulled out of Afghanistan when the reason that necessitated such an action exists no longer.”[47] In subsequent declarations, the word contingent was changed to contingents. By making this statement, the Soviet leaders put themselves into such a position that to justify their actions they had to tell lies about this as well as related issues. When the Soviet Union withdrew its forces in 1989, after ten years of war, it declared that the “limited military contingent” in Afghanistan numbered 105,000 men. If this number can be described, as the Soviet Union so described it, as a “limited contingent,” then ordinary language is obviously inadequate.

Also, in ordinary language the phrase “armed interference from the outside” means interference by one country in the internal affairs of another—in the present case, in the internal affairs of Afghanistan. The Soviet Union never substantiated its claim, because the armed forcesof no other country had intervened. By “armed interference from the outside” the Soviet Union in fact meant the Afghan mujahideen who struggled against the government, which had usurped power. As many uprisings had shown, most Afghans (with the exception of a small number of pro-Moscow communists) considered the communist government illegitimate, a usurper. While a civil war was going on among the contending Afghan groups, the Soviet Union intervened in favor of its surrogates. Its intervention was therefore nothing but an unprovoked, armed aggression. Besides, the Soviet government committed the aggression at a time when a government friendly to it was in power. In the course of the ten years that the Soviet troops were in Afghanistan, they fought against Afghans, not against the army of another country.

If the Soviet Union sent troops to Afghanistan to be used “exclusively for assistance in rebuffing the armed interference from the outside,” why did they kill President Amin and topple his government, which they claimed to have invited them? On this point the Soviet argument was that Amin had been overthrown not by its forces but by the true Afghan revolutionaries. However, the Soviet Union itself repudiated this fabrication. On 23 December 1989 the Soviet Supreme Council declared the dispatch of troops to Afghanistan unconstitutional. While castigating Leonid Brezhnev and others for sending the troops into Afghanistan, it declared that the decision to invade Afghanistan “was made by a small circle of people in violation of the Soviet constitution, according to which such matters belong to the jurisdiction of higher state bodies.”[48]

Another “reason” was given more prominence in the Soviet official declarations. According to this claim, the southern flanks of the Soviet Union had become “insecure” and “the Pentagon and the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency were counting on stealthily approaching our territory more closely through Afghanistan”; thus, the Soviets “had no choice but to send troops.”[49] First, this claim is not in line with the allegation that the troops were sent to repel foreign aggression. Second, the Soviet Union provided no evidence to substantiate the claim. How could Afghanistan pose a threat to the Soviet Union when a government led by their own comrades was in power there when the Soviets intervened? Moreover, when a government feels its boundaries have become insecure, does it then have the right to invade other countries? If this were to be accepted as a norm of behavior, what would happen to international relations? In such a case any stronger country could justify invading its weaker neighbors. The law of the jungle would prevail.

More specifically, across the wide Soviet empire no other country except Turkey had as geographically distinct boundaries as Afghanistan had with it. Afghanistan was separated from the Soviet empire for 2,300 kilometers, for the greater part by the River Oxus and then by an uninhabitable desert. It is strange to think that the Soviet state would have been unable to safeguard its boundaries against a smaller country, even if a hostile government were in power. After all, the Soviet Union had adjusted boundaries with its much bigger neighbors, notably China, and coexisted with them. Throughout history, conquests and massive migrations occurred as nomadic hordes descended from the north on the settled populations in the south—not the other way around. The concern that the Soviet leaders showed about the “insecurity” of their southern borders was a mere rationalization for their drive for expansion, a drive reminiscent of nineteenth-century colonialism. It was also a reflection of the problems that they had with the Muslim nations of the Central Asian Republics, such as the Tajiks, Uzbeks, Turkmen, and other groups whose kinsmen live across the border in Afghanistan.

The claims were a cover-up for an agenda the Kremlin decision makers had for Afghanistan. The agenda was to rule it through an outcast group of communists, much as the Soviets had dominated Bukhara in the early 1920s. Since the independent-minded Amin and his government stood in the way, they had to be removed. On 12 December 1979 the Soviet politburo, chaired by Leonid Brezhnev, endorsed the KGB view and decided to invade. In the KGB’s view, “The situation [in Afghanistan] [could] be saved only by the removal of Amin from power and the restoration of unity” in the ruling party. The Kremlin ruling group adopted this view because it considered Amin to be “insincere” toward the Soviet Union; he was pursuing “a more balanced foreign policy” and was bent on purging the party and state of potential opponents. “The Soviets had never trusted Amin, regarding him as a power-hungry politician of dubious ideological convictions.”[50] In waging an undeclared war on the Afghans in what historian Barbara Tuchman has called “The March of Folly,” a few superannuated Soviet leaders ignored the sound advice that their own premier Kosygin had given to Taraki earlier in the year: “If our troops were sent in, the situation in your country would not improve. On the contrary, it would get worse. Our troops would have to struggle not only with an external aggressor, but with a significant part of your own people. And the people would never forgive such things.”[51]

In the present interdependent world, a secret decision made by a few irresponsible men in the Soviet empire to wage an unprovoked war on Afghanistan was bound to be opposed by millions of men and women; it also led to the intensification of the cold war. Luckily, this was the last decision of its kind the Soviet leaders would make.
In installing Karmal, the Kremlin decision makers acted on the view that what counted was success, and that before the god of success the scruples of human behavior did not count. The Soviets had built their empire with this precept in mind. But could they succeed in Afghanistan with the outcast Karmal and his faction of Parcham?


1. A. Morozov, “Between Amin and Karmal,” 37. Morozov was the KGB deputy chief in Afghanistan from 1975 to 1979. I am grateful to Mr. Alam Katawazay for providing me copies of the three articles by Morozov. Quoting from Morozov, Arnold states that “[President] Da’ud delegated to him [Amin] the military-recruitment program and introduced him to the K.G.B.” (“Communism in Afghanistan,” 114). If not a printing mistake, this wild statement should be rejected outright.
2. Morozov, “Night Visit,” 32.
3. Morozov, “Between Amin and Karmal,” 39.
4. Morozov, “Night Visit,” 30.
5. Roy, “Origin,” 53.
6. Arnold, “Communism in Afghanistan,” 53.
7. Safi, Just Uprising; Anonymous, Uprising of the Twenty-fourth; Yusufi, Uprising; Khairkhwah, Commemorating the Martyrs.
8. Deac, “Sky Train Invasion,” 23.
9. Dobbs, “Secret Memos.” This article is based on the newly disclosed Soviet archives containing the minutes of the decision the Soviet leaders had made about invading Afghanistan. I am pleased to note that the article confirmed my findings. I am grateful to Dr. Zamin Mohmand for providing me the clipping of the article.
10. Wakman, Afghanistan, 119.
11. Anwar, Tragedy, 162.
12. Ibid., 162, 165.
13. Ibid., 168.
14. A photographer of the Afghan delegation quoted by Daoud Malikyar, personal communication, San Diego, June 1991
15. Morozov, “Shots Fired,” 32.
16. Anwar, Tragedy, 168.
17. Ibid., 170, 171.
18. Morozov, “Shots Fired,” 34.
19. G. Povlovsky, the Soviet chief adviser in Afghanistan in 1979, quoted in Sharq, Memoirs, 159. Dr. Mohammad Hassan Sharq held high state positions when Mohammad Daoud was prime minister and president of Afghanistan. A medical physician by profession, Dr. Sharq was Mohammad Daoud’s associate. From 1988 to 1989 he himself was prime minister of Afghanistan. His book, which describes mainly the events in high circles, is very informative. Sharq is the first prime minister of Afghanistan to publish his memoirs.
20. A former government official, personal communication, Los Angeles, February 1991. The official said that he was present at the occasion.
21. Quoted in Morozov, “Shots Fired,” 34.
22. Bradsher, Afghanistan, 117.
23. Ibid.
24. Ibid.
25. Shroder and Assifi, “Afghan Mineral Resources,”112. According to the authors, the Soviet exploitation of Afghan resources can be understood from the further facts that Afghan-Soviet agreements called for the average annual export of 2.5 billion cubic meters of gas to the Soviet Union up to 1985. The revenues from the sale of gas were not, however, to be paid to the Afghan government: they were to be applied as repayment for Soviet loans and the interest on those loans, including funds spent by the Soviets for Soviet-assisted projects. In addition, in 1980 the Soviets took the step of crediting its imports of Afghan natural gas against the cost of maintaining the “friendly fraternal assistance” of its “limited military contingent” in Afghanistan. In other words, after 1980 the Afghans were forced to pay with their natural resources for the invasion and occupation of their own country and the destruction of their own people. Also, in early 1980 Soviet experts began to increase gas production by 65 percent. Afghan gas fields at a place near Shiberghan were (as of 1977) estimated to have reserves in excess of 500 trillion cubic feet. In 1979 Soviet experts discovered another gas-bearing zone in northern Afghanistan capable of producing one-quarter million cubic meters per day. See also Assifi, “Russian Rope.”
26. A former official of the Afghan Ministry of Finance, personal communication, Pul-e-Charkhi concentration camp, 1983.
27. A former senior official, personal communication, Kabul, 1987.
28. Mansur Hashemi, the former Khalqi minister of water and power, personal communication, Sadarat prison, 1982.
29. A former junior professor of Kabul University, personal communication, Peshawar, 1988.
30. A senior official of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Khalqi Government, personal communication, Kabul, 1987.
31. Bradsher, Afghanistan, 118.
32. S. Harrison, quoted in Wakman, Afghanistan, 121.
33. For details of how the United States and other noncommunist governments stopped financial aid to the Khalqi government, see Bradsher, Afghanistan, 99.
34. Ibid., 118.
35. Ibid., 117.
36. Ibid., 122. In July 1979 Amin took an unusual step to establish a personal relationship with the U.S. administration. According to a former government official, he carried a personal message from Hafizullah Amin to Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter’s national security adviser. The official said that he personally handed over the letter to Mr. Brzezinski but received no reply.
37. Bradsher, Afghanistan, 179.
38. Nasrat, “Bitter Facts,” 97. According to Nasrat,“If the country’s situation had not taken a different turn, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, on his own request, would have been appointed minister of tribal affairs.” According to rumors in circulation in Kabul at the time, Hekmatyar was assigned the post of prime minister in the envisaged Khalqi-dominated coalition government.
39. Kornienko, “Afghan Endeavor,” 54-55. I am grateful to Ralph Magnus for giving me a copy of the article along with the official Soviet memoranda attached to it.
40. Ibid., 30.
41. G. M. Noorzoy, personal communication, Kabul, February 1980.
42. Ivanov, “Revelations,” 20.
43. Bradsher, Afghanistan, 176. According to Abdul Hakeem Hakeemi, commander of the Bagram airbase at the time, the number was much smaller, and they arrived only weeks before the invasion. Personal communication, San Diego, March 1995.
44. A former Afghan official, personal communication, Los Angeles, 1991.
45. Roy, Islam and Resistance, 121, 76.
46. Bradsher, Afghanistan, 173-75; see also Arnold, Afghanistan’s Two-Party Communism, 96.
47. Bradsher, Afghanistan, 185.
48. In 1989 the Soviet Supreme Council denounced the invasion by a vote of 1,678-18, with 19 abstentions (Honolulu Advertiser, 25 December 1989, C1).
49. Bradsher, Afghanistan, 155.
50. Dobbs, “Secret Memos.”
51. Ibid.