Afghan Civil War (1979–1992)PRINCIPAL COMBATANTS: 1. Regime of Mohammed Daoud vs. leftist Afghan army and air force units. 2. Muslim mountain tribes vs. leftist government under Nur Mohammed Taraki, with Soviet alliance. 3. Soviet-backed government of Babrak Karmal, with Soviet alliance, vs. mujahideen (Afghan Muslim army of rebellion).
PRINCIPAL THEATER(S): Kabul, Afghanistan, and the mountainous region along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border
MAJOR ISSUES AND OBJECTIVES: The period of civil war began with a leftist coup against President Mohammed Daoud, then developed into a Muslim reaction against the leftist government, which brought modern reforms unwelcome to the Muslims. As the Soviet Union became more deeply involved in the war, more Afghans joined the rebellion against what they considered Soviet invaders. As for the USSR, it sought to maintain Afghanistan as a buffer state against Chinese-influenced Pakistan.
OUTCOME: The mujahideen waged a tenacious campaign against the Soviet forces, ultimately driving them out; once what had become the “common” enemy was gone, however, the rebels failed to create a viable government, and Afghanistan split into a multitude of factions ruled by warlords.
APPROXIMATE MAXIMUM NUMBER OF MEN UNDER ARMS: About 250,000 rebels, mainly mujahideen; Afghan army in 1978, 105,000, many deserting to the rebel cause; Soviet troops, 100,000
CASUALTIES: In the initial coup, some 3,000 were killed on both sides. During 1979, before massive Soviet intervention, 10,000 Afghan government troops were killed, and perhaps 20,000 rebels died. During the long period of Soviet intervention, 11,987 Soviet troops were killed and 51,367 wounded; rebel deaths are unknown, but it is estimated that land mines may have killed as many as 200,000 Afghan civilians.
TREATIES: Troop withdrawal agreement, 1987
Mohammed Daoud (1909–78) became president of Afghanistan after a coup that ousted King Mohammed Zahir Shah in 1973. On April 27, 1978, rebellious units of the Afghan military, mainly armor and air force, attacked Daoud’s presidential palace in Kabul, which was defended by 2,000 Republican Guards and two loyalist Afghan army divisions.Nevertheless, after a 36-hour battle, the palace fell to the rebels. Daoud, along with his wife, brother, three sons, and several grandchildren, was killed. In his place the rebels proclaimed a new prime minister as head of state, Nur Mohammed Taraki (1917–79), leader of the Marxist-Leninist Khalq Party, also known as the People’s Faction Party.
No sooner was the Taraki government proclaimed than opposition arose against it, primarily among the Muslim mountain tribes, who formed an army of rebellion, the mujahideen. The Soviet Union sent increasing amounts of military aid to the Taraki regime, but in April 1979 the city of Herat fell to the mujahideen rebels. Between 4,000 and 8,000 died in fighting in and around Herat.
On February 14, 1979, in Kabul, Adolph Dubs, the U.S. ambassador, was abducted and then killed in a shootout between rebel and government forces. A bloody guerrilla war developed, in which some 10,000 government troops were killed and some 20,000 rebels were slain during 1979. By the autumn of 1979 rebel forces controlled In the meantime the Taraki government split into its own warring Marxist factions, and in September 1979 Taraki was overthrown and killed in a coup staged by his right-hand man, Hafizullah Amin (1929–79). A Marxist zealot, Amin began promulgating anti-Soviet rhetoric, stirring Afghanistan to the point of a Marxist revolution that had more in common with Maoist doctrine than with Soviet communism.
The Soviet Union invaded, the Kremlin ordering the 105th Guards Airborne Division from Tadzhik to the Bagram Airbase in Kabul. On December 20 a Soviet armored division seized the Salang Tunnel, the major overland route between the Soviet Union and Afghanistan. On Christmas Eve 1979 the Soviets began a massive airlift into Kabul International Airport. Within 72 hours the Soviets had landed the airborne division and more than 5,000 special forces troops and seized strategic points in Kabul, while four motorized rifle divisions rolled across Afghanistan’s northern border. In the early morning hours of December 28 Darulaman Palace had been seized, and the Soviets issued a communique stating that Amin had been sentenced to death by a revolutionary tribunal. Other sources believe he was killed in the initial palace battle. Also killed in the fighting was Lieutenant General Paputin, the Soviet Union’s deputy minister of the interior.
Having executed Amin and replaced him with a handpicked puppet, Babrak Karmal, long a foe of both Taraki and Amin, Soviet air and land forces—more than 100,000 troops—sought to crush resistance in a single stroke. What they encountered, however, was a widespread and grimly determined national resistance spearheaded by the mujahideen, who received aid from the United States as well as Pakistan. Despite the assistance, the mujahideen were poorly equipped, and yet they consistently prevailed against the vast Soviet forces. In fact, the Soviet situation in Afghanistan was repeatedly compared to that of the United States in the long Vietnam War, in which the technologically advanced forces of a modern imperialist power were stymied by comparatively primitive but absolutely committed indigenous opposition.
In 1986, as the war ground on, the demoralized Soviets withdrew support from Karmal, who resigned and was replaced by Sayid Mohammed Najibullah, former head of Afghanistan’s much-feared secret police. In the meantime, in January 1987 an international Islamic conference petitioned the Soviet Union to withdraw its troops, and Najibullah simultaneously announced plans for a ceasefire. Seven mujahideen groups rejected the cease-fire, demanding direct negotiation with the USSR rather than its “puppet government.” Militarily, the Soviet position continued to deteriorate, and in November 1987 Najibullah called a summit of tribal leaders, who approved a new constitution and elected Najibullah president. In April 1988 an international agreement was concluded for the withdrawal of Soviet troops, and half were withdrawn by August 15, 1988, and the remainder by February 15, 1989. Even so, many of the mujahideen continued to fight, and Najibullah declared a state of emergency from February 1989 to May 1990, when the constitution was amended to allow the formation of political parties. The reforms, however, did not stop the fighting, and in April 1992 mujahideen forces occupied Kabul, sending Najibullah into hiding and bringing about his resignation.
See also TALIBAN CONQUEST OF AFGHANISTAN; UNITED STATES’S WAR ON TERRORISM.
Further reading: Henry S. Bradsher, Afghan Communism and Soviet Intervention (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001); Edgar O’Ballance, Afghan Wars, 1839–1992 (New York: Brassey’s, 1993); Russian General Staff, The Soviet-Afghan War: How a Superpower Fought and Lost (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2002).