Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Exploring The Graveyard (Part 2)

Image Courtesy of A State Anthem 20th Century Russian History Blog

Exploring The Graveyard

Part 2: Bloodshed

See Part 1 here

After Daoud Khan ascended to power, the situation in Afghanistan seemed rather stable, however on the ground; problems had begun to brew in past years, problems which would ultimately play a major role in shaping not only Afghanistan, but ultimately the larger geopolitics of the region.

The People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan

Before Daoud Khan’s coup, there were talks of forming a new constitution and due to this the number of political groups became increasingly active after 1963. The People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (aka the Afghan Communist Party) formed in 1965. It was during this decade that the country “underwent political polarization in the mid-1960s, with factions on the extreme left and right gaining strength.”[1]  The Parcham faction was led by Babrak Karmal, the “son of a well-connected army general, Karmal became involved in Marxist political activities while a student at Kabul University in the 1950s and was imprisoned for five years as a result.”[2]  After being released from prison, he served in the army and attained a law degree. The Khalq faction was led by Nur Mohammad Taraki, a man with a rural background who had clawed his way up to being an appointed attaché at the Afghan embassy in Washington, D.C. and continued to be involved in politics.

The Parcham were “drawn mainly from the non-Pushtun, Dari-speaking elite centered in the capital”[3]  and “enlisted followers mainly among Dari-speaking Kabuli intellectuals”[4]  as well as pro-Soviet moderates, whereas the Khalq were “a nationalistic, grassroots party dominated by the Pushtuns”[5]  and popular in rural areas. The Communists split into two factions, the Parcham and Khalq in 1967, due to disputes over policy.

Yet, there was more than just the PDPA that was politically active; there were also a student movements and Islamist groups.

Political Movement and the Saur Revolution

Student movements were a fairly recent occurrence in Afghanistan, such as in 1950, when a student union attempted to form but ultimately failed due to differences between pro- and anti-government factions.

In the 1960s, students were actively exposed to politics as many in high school would read leftist literature that had been snuck in from Iran and India. College students were in environments that “favored political debates, which soon resulted in the formation of discussion groups that later coagulated into political parties” and they “were actively involved in the campaign for both parliamentary elections in the 1960s.”[6]  This large-scale involvement helped to change Afghan political parties as some of them had their roots in the university.

However, there were also Islamists in the university as well, many of them were influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood and “comprised mainly of university professors who had studied at al-Azhar in Cairo,”[7]  with the student wing of Islamist movement eventually evolving into a full-fledged organization.

So what we see is that there was a large amount of political organizing going on, among a variety of sectors in society. However, the landscape would soon change.

Quickly after July 1973, when Daoud Khan came back to power in a coup, he began a war against not only the splinter parties of the PDPA, but more broadly against groups that opposed him. Khan removed PDPA members from positions of importance, “closed down the independent press, which led to the publication of underground, antigovernment leaflets by the left and the religious right” and initiated “a crackdown on fundamentalist Muslim groups in 1974” and “sent a small number of fundamentalists into exile in Pakistan.”[8]  Yet, this only caused political instability, with a number of assassinations taking place in late 1977 and early 1978.

The attack caused the Parcham and Khalq factions to put aside their differences in favor of fighting their common enemy in Daoud Khan. The arrest of leftist leader in April 1978 was the final nail in the coffin. On April 27th, with the aid of Marxist-influenced military officers, the PDPA took power and immediately began to attack members of the former regime.

Afghan Communist Rule

The new regime has led by Nur Mohammad Taraki of the Khalq faction of the PDPA. He moved quickly to transform the country, embarking on a campaign that “challenged not only traditional Afghan political sentiments, but also the new Islamist movement.”[9]  Taraki “introduced a series of radical reforms, beginning with the replacement of the traditional Islamic green flag of Afghanistan with a red one, [which] collectively amounted to a declaration of war on traditional Afghan society.”[10]  Instability soon began to show, with an army unit revolting in March 1979, but even before then, in October of 1978, large armed rebellions occurred in eastern Afghanistan and began to spread.

Yet, the new Communist regime did not take these rebellions sitting down. They responded to the rebellion with extremely brutality, strafing rural villages and setting fire to crops in rebel areas.[11]  This only increased anti-Communist sentiment and by 1979, the new regime was being seriously threatened.

The Afghan Communist government had contacted the Soviets in March 1979 to ask for assistance, but was rebuffed. Yet in December of that year, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in order to prop up their fledgling Communist government.

However, there were a number of countries interested in the new Afghan government.


The Pakistani’s had always been interested in Afghanistan, however, with Russia’s invasion of their neighbor, the politics of the situation drastically changed. Now the country was faced with Soviet troops everywhere among the Afghan-Pakistani border and on top of that, Afghan refugees were regularly flooding over the border. In addition to this, Soviet aircraft would “periodically [violate] Pakistani airspace, occasionally "buzzing" refugee camps well within its borders.”[12]

The question of Baluchistan also came up. Some saw the Soviet invasion as a plan to “penetrate Baluchistan and advance to the Arabian Sea.” Many were concerned about ethnic tensions in Pakistan and thus “were wary of Soviet and Afghan efforts to organize Baluch dissidents, resentful that Baluchistan was not being given its due recognition as a full-fledged province of Pakistan."[13]

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia, too, had interests in what was going on in Afghanistan as they saw the country “as a buffer state that helped prevent Soviet expansion toward the Gulf.”[14] 

They were glad to join the US in an effort to take out the Soviet Union, but war in Afghanistan also served as “an outlet as radical as that of the Iranian revolution, though distinct from it, for all the Sunni Islamist militants who dreamed of striking a blow at the impious” and let the Saudi government “[shield] their American ally- which supported the holy war- against the wrath of Sunni activists,”[15]  as the Islamists distrusted both the US and the USSR and had no qualms about attacking either country. Saudi Arabia actively supported the Sunni Islamists as a way to thwart Iran’s influence that was moving increasingly westward.

In Afghanistan, the Saudis teamed up with the Muslim Brotherhood and the Pakistani Jam’at-i-Islami (Islamic Party) to “promote the more radical Islamist parties among the Afghan fighters, check Iranian influence, and prevent Western cultural influences from spreading among refugees and the mujahideen,” with “the first two objectives [having] the full support of the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence and the CIA.”[16]

The US also had interests in Afghanistan and would go quite far to ensure those interests were met.

The United States

During the Saur Revolution, while the US was concerned that the country had gone Communist, they still maintained diplomatic relations with Afghanistan. That quickly changed when, on February 14, 1979, “the U.S. ambassador in Kabul, Adolph Dubs, was kidnapped by terrorists and later died under circumstances that have never been completely explained.”[17]  After this incident, the US did not assign an ambassador.

The US would have its revenge though, as President Carter quickly signed a presidential finding, initiating Operation Cyclone, which would supply anti-Communist Afghan fighters with lethal aid via Pakistan. It must be noted that this finding was signed in July 1979 and the Soviet invasion took place in December 1979.  Carter’s administration knew that arming Afghan fighters would encourage the Soviets to militarily intervene. “In fact, Carter's National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, informed the president that 'this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention'. He told a French reporter: 'We didn't push the Russians to intervene, but we knowingly increased the probability that they would. The secret operation ... had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap."[18]  (emphasis added) The US did this in order to weaken the USSR, but also to get revenge for the Soviets aiding the North Vietnamese just several years earlier.

The US soon aided the Afghan fighters with Stinger anti-aircraft missiles; however the situation did not go over as smoothly as portrayed. In 1983, US Ambassador to Pakistan, Ronald Spiers, say the value of the Stinger missile and the impact it could make on the Afghan war theater. Due to the missiles being in short supply, he contacted undersecretary of state Lawrence Eagleburger and “[urged] that ‘serious consideration’ be given to supplying the rebels via Pakistan with Stingers, ‘when they're available.’"[19] 

However, most of the Reagan administration was opposed to arming the rebels, with Reagan not wanting them to get their hands on hi-tech weaponry and there was a large amount of opposition in the CIA. Many at the CIA “claimed the unsophisticated rebels could not handle a weapon like the Stinger, citing the rebels' past failure to shoot down planes with the Soviet SA-7 missile.”[20] 

Then-Director of Intelligence, Robert Gates, joined the fray as well, arguing that “’the Soviets would have to consider more seriously more dramatic action,’ if the U.S. were to increase aid significantly.”[21]  The State Department stood against further arming the rebels, worried that doing so could potentially disrupt issues where the US and USSR formerly cooperated and where Soviet cooperation was needed, such as with arms control.

The situation shifted when Senator Michael Pillsbury was assigned to covert programs in Sept. 1984. He was forced into supporting giving Stinger missiles as other weapons were inadequate for fulfilling the task of downing Soviet aircraft. People’s attitudes also began to change when attacks against the rebels and their Pakistani weapons pipeline sharply increased, which put all of Operation Cyclone at risk, and when Congress began publicly pushing for increased aid to the Afghan rebels. In January 1985, “a Congressional Task Force on Afghanistan was established and began holding hearings to showcase the purportedly desperate plight of the Mujahedin.”[22]  With the signing of National Security Decision Directive 166 by Reagan in March 1985 which stated that the US would “improve the military effectiveness of the Afghan resistance,”[23]  it assured that the aid would get to the Afghans.

By next year, the rebels were getting Stingers.

There is still one country, not often talked about, that was also heavily involved in Afghanistan during this time period: China.


Before delving into China’s involvement in Afghanistan during this time period, it would first be pertinent to include a brief overview of China’s interaction with Afghanistan overall.

China shares about a 60 mile border with Afghanistan. From the very start, China didn’t regard Afghanistan as a threat to its geopolitical interests and generally didn’t see themselves as having a strategically important border with Afghanistan.

That changed once the Soviets invaded. Due to the Sino-Soviet split in which China and the USSR called it quits on their relationship, the Chinese became “were concerned about the military activity near the Badakhshan (including Wakhan) province of Afghanistan, which was connected to the China border.”[24]  The Chinese thought that this was a serious security threat, with the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs sending a message to the Soviet ambassador on the last day of 1979, stating that “‘Afghanistan is China’s neighbor … and therefore the Soviet armed invasion of that country poses a threat to China’s security. This cannot but arouse the grave concern of the Chinese people.’”[25]

China quickly moved to establish contacts with Pakistan and Iran on a deeper level and began to give financial and military aid to Afghan rebel fighters. Aid was given to Pakistan as well in order to counter the Soviet encirclement of China and avoid a direct military confrontation with the superpower.

Finally, there were massive shifts in Chinese policy as China “also stepped up its diplomatic and political offensives against the hegemony of the Soviet social imperialism by cultivating better relations with the USA.”[26]  Thus a series of de-facto alliances formed against the Soviet Union, which resulted in the failure of their military campaign and the war fully ending on February 15, 1989.

While Afghanistan had survived the Soviet Union, there will still a number of problems and concerns. In the next decade radical Islamists, allied with a even more radical group, would take over the country. But we must first pause and ask ourselves three questions:

1.    What is the Taliban?

2.    What is Al Qaeda?

3.    Who exactly is Osama bin Laden?


1: Michael W. Reisman and James Silk, "Which Law Applies to the Afghan Conflict?" (1988). Faculty Scholarship Series. Paper 752., pg 467

2: Encyclopedia Brittanica, Babrak Karmal,

3: Selig S. Harrison, “A Breakthrough in Afghanistan?” Foreign Policy, Summer 1983, pg 9

4: K. Wafadar, “Afghanistan in 1980: The Struggle Continues,” Asian Survey 21:2 (1981), pg 173

5: Harrison, pg 9

6: Antonio Giustozzi, Between Patronage and Rebellion: Student Politics in Afghanistan, Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, (February 2010), pg 2

7: Thomas Ruttig, Islamists, Leftists and A Void in the Center. Afghanistan's Political Parties and Where They Come From (1902-2006), Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung,

8: Reisman, Silk, pg 468

9: Charles C. Cogan, “Partners In Time: The CIA and Afghanistan Since 1979,” World Policy Journal, Summer 1993, pg 75

10: Alexander Alexiev, The United States and the War in Afghanistan, Defense Technical Information Center,  (January 1988)

11: David Gibbs, “Does the USSR Have a 'Grand Strategy'? Reinterpreting the Invasion of Afghanistan,” Journal of Peace Research 24:365 (1987), pg 372

12: W. Howard Wiggins, “Pakistan's Search for a Foreign Policy After the Invasion of Afghanistan,” Pacific Affairs 57:2 (1984), pg 285

13: Wiggins, pg 287

14: William B. Quandt, Saudi Arabia In the 1980s: Foreign Policy, Security, and Oil (Washington D.C., Maryland: Brookings Institution Press, 1981), pg 41

15: Gilles Kepel, Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam (London, UK: I.B. Tauris, 2006), pg 137

16: Rachel Bronson, Thicker than Oil: American’s Uneasy Partnership with Saudi Arabia (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2006), pg 170

17: Cogan, pg 75

18: Andrew Hartman, “The Red Template: US Policy in Soviet-Occupied Afghanistan,” Third World Quarterly 23:3 (2002), pg 470

19: Alan J. Kuperman, “The Stinger Missile and US Intervention in Afghanistan,” Political Science Quarterly 114:2 (1999), pg 222

20: Hartman, pg 223

21: Ibid

22: Hartman, pg 228

23: Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum, National Security Decision Directive 166,

24: A.Z. Hilali, “China’s Response to the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan,” Central Asian Survey 20:3 (2001), pg 327

25: Ibid

26: Hilali, pg 323

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