1. The Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan

Submitted by Mike Harman on December 4, 2018

At half past six on the evening of Thursday, 27 December 1979, an explosion occurred in the central part of the general communications system in the city of Kabul. Three days before, the minister of communications of the Soviet Union had been a guest of honor of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan. He had been given the chance to see the hub of the communications system for a reason. The purpose of the host government was to obtain technical assistance from the Soviet Union. But the purpose of the minister was to pinpoint the center of the system in order to paralyze the whole communications network later, when the Soviet invasion began.

After darkness set in, about five thousand Soviet soldiers, who had been landing during the past three days at the International Airport of Kabul,1 headed toward Tapa-e-Tajbeg palace, where Hafizullah Amin, president of the Revolutionary Council, prime minister of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, and general secretary of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, had transferred his seat from the city palace on 19 December 1979. The new palace had originally been the seat of the reformist King Amanullah (1919-29). Before Amin became the head of state, the Khalqi government had spent more than one billion afghanis (approximately $20 million) to repair the palace and make it a suitable seat for his predecessor, Nur Mohammad Taraki. President Amin moved into it at the urging of his Soviet advisers. He also wanted to be away from the old palace, which reminded him of the many bloody events that had taken place there. But Tapa-e-Tajbeg, situated on a mound two miles south of the city, could easily be attacked should the Soviet Union decide to do so. That evening, the Soviet military units in Kabul carried out such an order.

• • •

Storming of the Presidential Palace

At twenty minutes past seven, Tapa-e-Tajbeg was shelled by rockets from the west side. That evening under a clear sky the fertile Chardi Basin, where Tajbeg is located, became a scene of carnage. The sounds of rockets prompted many people in the city, myself among them, to climb onto the flat rooftops of their houses to see what was happening. Because of the tyranny of the government, the people had turned against it and hoped to see it toppled. They were, however, disappointed. Instead of Afghans, the Alpha antiterrorist squad of the KGB, dressed in Afghan uniforms and commanded by Colonel Boyarinov, had gone into operation.2 Leaders of both the party and the government were also caught unaware. They had a blind faith in the Kremlin rulers and did not expect that their supporters would overthrow them by force. An exception may have been President Amin, but on this point his views had not become known.

The rocket attack was the external sign of the operations. The scene of the major operations was on the ground. The armored units had already started moving from Kabul International Airport, located on the opposite side of the city. They needed time to reach Tajbeg and other strategic places. The operation began on one of the longest nights of the year. From Kabul International Airport the units headed to the various places in the outskirts of the city where Afghan army divisions had been stationed. The movements of these units made the earth shake as if Kabul had been hit by one of its periodic tremors.

The sounds of these movements were heard as far as Khushal Maina, in the western outskirts of the city, from where I was watching the scene. The Russian military units headed toward the various military and strategic centers, such as tank units number four and fifteen in thePul-e-Charkhi area, the Qargha Division, the Rishkhor Division, the police force of the Ministry of Interior, the television and radio station, and, of course, the presidential palace. These were all the organized military and strategic centers in and around the capital city from which immediate opposition could be offered; occupying them would ensure immediate success.
The Soviets intended to occupy the nerve centers of the city unaware. “Russian advisers already attached to Afghan army units repeated tricks used during the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia. Turn in all live ammunition and substitute blank rounds for a ‘training exercise,’ the Afghan soldiers had been told. Batteries were removed from vehicles for winterization.…Due to an alleged shortage, the diesel fuel in the older tanks had to be siphoned off for the replacement armor.3 ] Also, Soviet advisers had persuaded some of the personnel of the Kabul air base to go on vacation and then had given their duties to the newly arrived Soviet experts. Although Soviet advisers did not directly control the units, as they had before Amin came to power, they succeeded in persuading the Afghan personnel to do their bidding.

Some former leading members of the faction of the party to which President Amin belonged accompanied the invading units. Being influential with the army, they had turned against Amin when, in September of the same year, a split in the leadership occurred that led to their expulsion. They then took refuge in the Soviet embassy. When the invading military units attacked Tajbeg, two of them, Sayyed Mohammad Gulabzoy and Asadullah Sarwari, guided the invaders. But the presidential guards stationed near the palace held them back with counterattacks.

• • •

A Poisoned Luncheon in the Presidential Palace

All this time President Amin was lying half-conscious in the palace, incapacitated by KGB agents. Around one o’clock that day, Amin, with a number of his leading party and government officials, had been poisoned when consuming a special luncheon that the palace had arranged in honor of Ghulam Dastagir Panjsheri, a member of the central committee of the party. Panjsheri had returned from a long trip to the Soviet Union. Although not on good terms with Amin, Panjsheri had told him that he had brought good tidings and wished to discuss them with him and other comrades. Since Panjsheri was the only one who did not consume the poisoned food, he was suspected. Some kind of light poison had been mixed with the soup and ashak (a special Afghan dish) served by two Russian girls who were working as waitresses in the palace. Also, “a number of Afghan leaders were arrested at a Soviet-hosted reception staged at the Intercontinental Hotel.…Similarly, Afghan army liaison officers were isolated at a reception party.”4

The chief cook of the palace was Michail Talebov, a native of Soviet Azerbaijan, who, as a lieutenant colonel, was in the pay of the KGB.5 ] He had been employed at the urging of Soviet advisers. Amin was unwilling to have either the waitresses or the cook, but his Soviet comrades had told him that because his personal safety was a matter of utmost significance, these persons were necessary to perform such sensitive jobs. Amin was still reluctant to accept the advice. At last he acquiesced, but he made it known that they were welcome only until he found some trustworthy Afghan employees.

At the time of the attack Amin was conscious but groggy. After the effects of the poisoning had been felt, a team of physicians, including an old Russian physician from the Four-Hundred-Bed Hospital, began treating Amin. The hospital, which had been built with Russian funds, was the most modern hospital in Afghanistan. The physicians and nurses were still in the palace when it came under fire. Because the communication lines had been cut, Amin did not know what was happening.

• • •

President Amin’s Faith in his Soviet Comrades

At this time Jahandad, commander of the eighteen hundred presidential guards, presented himself to Amin and asked for instructions. Amin wanted to know who the attackers were. When told that they were the comrades from the north, Amin was stunned. He did not believe his communist comrades would overthrow his government by force, even though he had earlier confided to one of his senior surviving officials that the Soviets might do away with him personally. As will be described in the next chapter, early in 1979 Soviet Premier Alexi Kosygin had made clear to Kabul that the Soviet government did not wish to send its troops to Afghanistan. That was why, even in the gravest minutes of his life, Amin did not believe Jahandad, to whom he had entrusted his own life and the lives of his dearest ones. He even admonished Jahandad for his report.

There are two versions of what Amin told his protecting commander. One version is that Amin said the attackers might be the Ikhwanis, that is, the Muslim fundamentalists who are the irreconcilable enemiesof the communists. This version cannot be taken seriously, because the Ikhwanis in the army were not strong enough to make a coup. Duringthe twenty-month rule of the Khalqis, the army had been purged of Ikhwanis.

More likely is the second version, according to which Amin told Jahandad, “It is the work of Paktiawal”—that is, people from the province of Paktia. In the present context “Paktiawal” referred to Sayyed Mohammad Gulabzoy, Asadullah Sarwari, and Aslam Watanjar. Except for Sarwari, who was from the province of Ghazni bordering the province of Paktia, the others were from Paktia. All three were military officers who had played prominent roles in the communist coup as well as the coup that overthrew the constitutional monarchy. They had influence with the army, which was officered by a considerable number of persons from Paktia. Until their break with Amin, Sarwari was head of the Intelligence Department (AGSA), while the others were cabinet ministers. At first close friends of Amin, they later turned against him, siding with President Nur Mohammad Taraki in opposition to Amin. When Amin overcame them, they took refuge in the Soviet embassy.

On this point, as well as a number of others that will be described in the next chapter, Amin’s relations with the Soviets became strained. The Soviets, however, showed no signs of displeasure. Although the initial warmth of the relationships that existed between them had evaporated, the Soviets showed interest in supporting Amin’s government. In particular, during the last weeks of Amin’s rule the Soviet Union sent a number of missions to Kabul to help the government organize its five-year development plan, which it intended to launch at the beginning of the new Afghan year (21 March 1980), and also to assess the amount of credit that it wished to extend. The three opponents of Amin now assisted the invading forces. Amin was thus partly correct in saying that the attack was the work of Paktiawal.

It is unknown what specific instructions, if any, Amin gave to Jahandad. What is known is that Jahandad, who was of the Sabari tribe from the district of Khost of Paktia Province, had decided that the time had come to prove his loyalty to the land of his birth and defy the invaders, even though they were the Soviets. On returning to his brigade, Jahandad ordered his men, who were a select corps of the loyal party members and close relatives of Amin, to fight the aggressors. They counterattacked and halted the initial advance of the invaders. The confrontation was intense and prolonged. Both sides sustained losses until the Afghans were finally overcome by some kind of nerve gas. The Afghans were in a commanding position in the nine-kilometer-long perimeter of the palace. The palace is, as already noted, situated on a mound. Also, the Soviet soldiers did not overwhelm the Afghan soldiers in numbers, although they were, of course, better armed. The invaders feared that if the Afghans were not soon overcome, forces from the nearby military divisions of Rishkhor and Qargha might join them.

According to eyewitnesses, “The Soviet soldiers then launched, from a sort of large gun, a grey gas in the direction of the Afghan soldiers, causing dizziness, nausea and paralysis of the limbs.”6 According to Ghulam M. Zurmulwal, the Afghan troops were overcome by the use of “napalm bombs and incendiary bombs.”7 This still did not bring an end to the fighting. Troops from the nearby Rishkhor Division arrived and started firing toward the enemies. But by that time the invaders had entered the palace and were themselves in a commanding position. Firing in the surrounding area of the palace was heard throughout the night and even into the next morning. Of the eighteen hundred soldiers of the presidential guards, none survived. “Boyarinov ordered that no witnesses in the palace were to survive to tell the tale."8 ] Those who were still alive but unconscious were killed by the invaders after they entered the palace. They carried their bodies to the foot of nearby hills, where they buried them; the burial sites were forbidden areas throughout the occupation. To distort the truth, the new regime spread rumors that the presidential guards dispersed after they were defeated. In fact, those who dispersed were soldiers from the Rishkhor Division. Only Jahandad was taken alive; he was then imprisoned in the Pul-e-Charkhi prison with other members of the government and later executed.

• • •

The Elimination of President Amin

The actual target of the attack was President Amin. After the return of Jahandad, nothing was heard of Amin. After overcoming the presidential guards, the invaders, accompanied by Gulabzoy and Sarwari, entered the palace. The medical team—including the old Russian physician and the head of the team, physician Wilayat Khan—was still attending to Amin. When the invaders entered the palace, they shot at random, but not as thoroughly as elsewhere. The Soviet physician was killed in the frenzy. So was the wife of Foreign Minister Shah Wali, who, along with her husband, was among the guests. The physician Wilayat Khan, speaking in the Ukrainian language, pleaded with the attackers from behind the Soviet nurses and was spared. Shah Wali was lucky to escape death; he, along with a number of others, had already been taken to the Four-Hundred-Bed-Hospital for treatment.

What happened to Amin is not known for sure. Sarwari and Gulabzoy have been quoted as saying that before they entered the palace Amin was already dead, killed either by soldiers under their command or by his own hand.9 This is not true. As guides accompanying the invading units, Sarwari and Gulabzoy had no soldiers under their command. That Amin did not kill himself is clear from a statement by Nikolai Berlev, a member of the attacking Alpha group. According to Berlev, “Dressed in an Adidas T-shirt and blue boxing shorts, Amin rushed out of the room with a gun in his hand, and was instantly shot dead.” Besides, according to Berlev, “Sarwari was frightened and completely broken, [but] when he was led upstairs and shown Amin’s dead body, he felt as if someone had attached wings to his back. He cheered up almost at once.”10 Yet Berlev’s account is also unreliable: Afghans do not wear T-shirts and boxing shorts in the winter. Besides, such outfits are not fashionable among Afghans, particularly among their rulers, who want to look dignified; Amin himself wore the loose national costume at home. Still more important, Amin and others, as already described, had been poisoned, and thus he was unable to “rush out of the room with a gun in his hand.” I am certain that the luncheon in the palace on that day had been poisoned. Of my many informants, one had consumed the luncheon and had been treated in the hospital. All this does not make clear how Amin was killed. According to one source, the invaders took Amin and a few others into the grounds, where they shot them dead. According to a number of other sources, Amin was seized alive and taken to the Soviet embassy in a black limousine guarded by two tanks. Whatever the truth, “When it was all over, Amin’s bullet-riddled body was displayed to the half-jubilant, half-petrified leaders of the new Soviet client state.”11

While President Daoud lost eighteen members of his family in the coup, Amin lost only a few: himself and two of his eldest sons. He was survived by his wife, his youngest son, two daughters, and a grandson. His wife, perhaps by chance, had not eaten the poisoned food. On the eve of the communist coup, she helped Amin by safeguarding incriminating documents while their house was being searched by the police; in the present coup she managed to call for a medical team. She also opposed the transfer of the sick Amin to a Soviet medical center, as the Soviets, presumably through the old physician, had urged. “It appears the Soviets originally intended to incapacitate and kidnap Amin.”12

• • •

Occupation of other Military Centers

Meanwhile, the invading units carried on operations in other parts of the city. Below the palace was the headquarters of the Ministry of Defense. Since Amin served also as the minister of defense, the next important person was Mohammad Ya’qub, the chief of staff. Since he was sent food from the presidential palace, he too had been poisoned, but he was still in his office when the building came under fire. Here the invading units showed no concern for human life. On entering the building, soldiers threw hand grenades and fired wildly. An unknown number of people were killed. Only a small number survived, having been left for dead. The police officers and men of the Ministry of Interior also perished in a matter of hours. A Soviet adviser of the police department asked its director, Sayyed Ali Shah Paiman, to be his guest that evening without giving him a hint of the impending catastrophe. Sensing something unpleasant in the air, Paiman declined the invitation so that he could remain in his office.

At the Kabul radio and television building, the guards, who had been stationed in two tanks, offered resistance until they were overcome. The heroism shown by a Kandahari guard stationed in an inaccessible point somewhere near the entrance is worth mentioning. He refused to let anybody in without instructions from his superiors. Unwilling to damage the building, the aggressors halted. The guard felt he had accomplished his duty. However, a station adviser known as Paichalov, whom the guard knew and trusted, approached him and stabbed him to death.

Asadullah Sarwari was later commissioned to bring about the submission of the Intelligence Department. Since he was its first president, and since the incumbent, Asadullah Amin, nephew and son-in-law of President Amin, was in Moscow at the time, Sarwari fulfilled his mission. According to Khalqi sources, Soviet advisers had persuaded Asadullah Amin to go to Moscow for treatment after he had consumed a poisoned apple; this was the work of KGB agents. Other sources have said that he had been injured in a shootout in mid-December in the presidential palace. In any case, his absence impaired the job of intelligence collection during the days preceding the invasion. Aslam Watanjar had accompanied the Soviet military force to the Afghan armored units near the Pul-e-Charkhi prison, where he persuaded the garrisons not to resist Soviet troops because Amin’s removal was, in his words, “for the good of the country.”13 Watanjar had initiated the first communist coup from there when he was commander of one of its units.

The invading units must have been concerned with the possible reaction by Division Eight of Qargha and Division Seven of Rishkhor. Neither showed any determined opposition. As already noted, General Aziem Ahmadzay, chief of staff of the Rishkhor Division, sent some troops to reinforce the besieged palace guards, but they could not accomplish anything decisive. Abdul Sattar, commander of the Qargha Division, at first was unwilling to submit. His units even attacked the invaders, damaging two Soviet tanks. Unwilling to retaliate, they sent Aslam Watanjar to Abdul Sattar. Whatever was exchanged between them, Sattar accepted the coup as a fait accompli.

• • •

The Defiant Attitude of the Ghazni Military Division

The defiant military division of the province of Ghazni, numbering thirteen thousand soldiers, soon became a source of concern for the new rulers. Its commandant, Ja’far Sartairay (Zadran), argued that the division was loyal to Amin and did not believe the accusations that the new rulers had brought against him. The authorities summoned the commandant to Kabul, but he refused to go, reasoning that in his absence the division might rebel. On the fourth day of the invasion, Marshal Sergei Sokolov, the Soviet supreme commander in Kabul, set out for Ghazni at the head of a joint Russo-Afghan mission. There Sokolov told a gathering of military officers that Amin had established connections with the CIA and the Ikhwanis and that he wanted to turn Afghanistan into another Chile. Sokolov also said that Amin intended to do away with progressive officers and establish a fascist regime. To convince the skeptical officers, he told them that the Soviet government had in its possession evidence to prove the accusations, which it would disclose at an appropriate time. The new regime and the Soviet Union would repeat these accusations against Amin in the years ahead. In private, however, Sokolov warned the commandant that if the division opposed the government, it would be wiped out, and he would be held responsible for it. The commandant then acquiesced. He remained in his position for the next four months, after which he was transferred to Kabul to serve as a teacher. In 1990 he was killed in one of the coup attempts.

• • •

Military Officers and the Invasion: An Evaluation

In the next chapter I discuss Amin’s relations with the Soviets and to describe why they invaded Afghanistan. Here I want to evaluate the attitude of the military officers toward the invasion. To understand this matter, the following points about the army must be borne in mind. When the Khalqis came to power, they tried to make the army a “Khalqi army,” that is, the army of the people. They purged the army of the non-Khalqi officers and promoted their own officers. This was the biggest source of tension, which, along with other problems, led to major abortive uprisings, all of which weakened the army.

Added to this was the alienation of many officers, particularly in Division Seven of Rishkhor, who were loyal to President Taraki, replaced by Amin after their differences had led to a confrontation that will be detailed in the next chapter. The pro-Taraki officers rebelled after Taraki was suffocated on 9 October 1979. Although pro-Amin officers were more numerous than any other committed group of officers, and although they were more determined than either the pro-Taraki or Parchami officers, they declined to oppose the invaders, despite the fact that of all communist officers the pro-Amin officers were the most patriotic and the least communist. The presence in the invading army of Sarwari, Watanjar, and Gulabzoy might have influenced the officers not to respond actively. More important was the faith these officers had in communism and the Soviet Union. Even officers loyal to Amin did not know of his disillusionment with the Soviets. Also, the effects of the indoctrination courses on communism and friendship with the Soviet Union carried out in the army cells cannot be discounted. On the point of winning Soviet friendship, the two main factions of the party, Khalqi and Parchami, competed with each other so much that people sarcastically remarked that in order to win the Soviet favor, they behaved as if they were cowives.

All this led to a naive belief among the communist officers that the Soviet Union was the true friend of the Afghans and that whatever its rulers did was for their good. Whether these officers were communists is open to question, but their faith in the Soviet Union was total. Their sudden rise to power had intoxicated them. After the invasion some officers argued that because Amin had betrayed communism, the Soviet Union was forced to do what it did. Also, the commanding officers were confounded by events because they did not have instructions from Amin on what to do if the Soviet Union invaded their country. Besides, unlike most Afghans, they were aware of the Soviet military might, and they had been influenced by propaganda about the dangers posed to the “glorious April Revolution” by “reactionary forces” and “imperialists” led by “the world-consuming imperialist,” that is, the United States of America. This meant that their country, their compatriots, and their dignity, which required them to stand against invaders as their predecessors had stood, were sacrificed for an ideology that served the national interest of Russia.

Never before have the Afghan defenders of national dignity failed in their duty as these communist officers failed. Never before have uniformed Afghan military officers been insulted so much as these officers were by individual men and women, particularly the latter, in public places in the city of Kabul for months after the invasion. To escape the sarcastic remarks of women, these officers avoided going by public buses in the city in uniform, as is the custom in Afghanistan. Indeed, the expression Mairmun Mansabdar (Mrs. Officer) became a common insult in the months after the invasion.

  • 1For a background to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and its wider implications for the region and the world, see Bradsher, Afghanistan.
  • 2Andrew and Gordiesky, KGB, 574.
  • 3Deac, “Sky Train Invasion,” 22.
  • 4Ibid., 23
  • 5Andrew and Gordiesky, KGB, 574.
  • 6Quoted in Reshtia, Price of Liberty, 54.
  • 7Zurmulwal, Russia’s Armed Aggression, 27.
  • 88. Andrew and Gordiesky, KGB, 575.
  • 9Anwar, Tragedy of Afghanistan, 190.
  • 10Dobbs, “Secret Memos.”
  • 11Ibid.
  • 12Deac, “Sky Train Invasion,” 24.
  • 13 Arnold, Afghanistan’s Two-Party Communism, 186.