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Inside the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan and the Seizure of Kabul, December 1979
By Alexander Antonovich Liakhovsky
Translations by Gary Goldberg and Artemy Kalinovsky January 2007After Hafizullah Amin came to power in mid-September 1979 by overthrowing his rival Taraki, the situation in the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (DRA) quickly worsened. The regime quickly lost all authority. The alarming processes in the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) and government bureaucracy and the growth of discontent among the popular masses were actively inflamed by external forces hostile to the PDPA regime. The US, Pakistan, and several Arab countries rapidly increased military aid to the opposition movement. A concentration of Pakistani army subunits and military maneuvers was periodically noted on the DRA’s southern borders. With military and moral support from abroad by the end of 1979 the rebels had managed to raise the strength of their irregular formations to 40,000 men and launch combat operations in 16 of the (then) 27 provinces. They controlled Laghman, Kunar, Paktia, and Paktika completely.
They held up to 90 percent of the territory and all the main lines of communications in the provinces of Jowzjan, Takhar, Badakhshan, Logar, Ghowr, Kapisa, Ghazni, Zabol, Helmand, Farah, Herat, and Badghis. Garrisons of government troops were located in provincial capitals and therefore they were included the PDPA’s zone of control. But the government completely controlled the situation in only three provinces: Kabul, Kunduz, and Baghlan. In sum, a threatening situation had developed for the PDPA. Amin took energetic steps to stabilize it, mainly by force.
In our internal and partly in foreign publications all the failures and mistakes of the PDPA are associated with Amin and the armed actions of the rural population against the new regime are connected with the actions of outside forces and the opposition. There is some truth here, of course, but the main thing is that it led to a tragic development of events, to a civil war – the adventurist actions of the PDPA in the countryside and the lost battle for the peasant masses. The history of the Basmachi movement in the Soviet Central Asian republics is evidence: mistakes, even criminal actions, of several local Soviet bodies drove support of the Muslim population to the Basmachi since economic and social reforms capable of attracting peasants to the side of Soviet power had not been carried out by that time. The local leadership’s errors did not give birth to the Basmachi but rather strengthened it at the expense of people who bore a grudge against the new regime. They facilitated the expansion of the social base of the counterrevolutionary movement and the growth of its popular basis. In Afghanistan the same causes and tendencies resurfaced.
The Soviet leadership had artificially formed the opinion that Amin would soon be overthrown. It was presumed that the ascent of the opposition to power was practically inevitable within a few months. Information about Amin’s contacts with US representatives emerged. Mutinies began in the army, instigated by “the Four”. Meanwhile Amin hardened his policy toward the opposition and the Khalqis, the supporters of his predecessor, Taraki, even more. Manipulating socialist slogans and covering himself with democratic phraseology, Amin pursued the establishment of a dictatorial regime and unleashed a wide-scale campaign of terror and repression in the country incompatible with the PDPA’s declared goals. He adopted a policy of turning the Party into an appendage of his dictatorship.
First Amin liquidated everyone who had ever spoken against him or expressed even the slightest disagreement, then those who enjoyed authority in the Party and could become his competitors. Soon representatives of several “non-Amin” groups and factions were subjected to repression. In reality a hunt occurred not just for Parchamists (wing of the PDPA who had opposed Taraki and Amin–ed.) but for some Khalqis, who were divided into “Aminists” and “Tarakists.”
Special attention was devoted to the army. Purges were conducted in the army every month Amin was in power. The most active, the most independent thinking, the most ardent Khalqis who could not accept Amin were eliminated. To fill the shortage of young officers a three-month commanders’ training course was organized for which Pashtuns devoted to Amin were selected. At the end of the course they received the rank of lieutenant and were sent to military units. They customarily received the name “Amin’s fledglings.”
In September 1979 Amin published a partial list of those who had been executed: there were 12,000 names on it. According to some estimates the numbers of those killed by the autumn of 1979 reached 50,000 or even more.
Murders of people who were in no way guilty reached a massive scale, which caused a sharp reduction of the social base of the regime and increased the stream of refugees to Iran and Pakistan (expanding the social base of the opposition). Many eminent members of the Party and government who were Khalqis and also the main mass of the
Parchamists were forced to hide or emigrate. Personnel appointments started to be made on the basis of personal loyalty to Amin. The recommendations of Soviet officials to stop such acts were ignored. What is more, the new PDPA general secretary tried to shift the responsibility for his illegal acts onto the Soviet side, declaring that these steps were supposedly undertaken on the recommendation of Soviet leaders. It is possible that by this Amin wanted to “obligate” his benefactors even more but he had crossed the permissible limit.
The CPSU CC repeatedly appealed to the Afghan leadership, trying to stop the repressions and calling for the rule of law. Having studied the tactics of Soviet leaders well, Amin gave assurances about the cessation of lawlessness and hypocritically stressed his friendly attitude toward the USSR. In the process he justified his actions by our own postulate – everything is moral which benefits the Revolution. Amin said more than once: “We have ten thousand feudal lords. We eliminated them and the problem was solved. The Afghans recognize only force.” And he was as good as his word.
The US charge d’affairs reported to the State Department:We have been observing for 18 months how this Marxist party (the PDPA) has been destroying itself…By way of illustration: if you take the list of ministers who were confirmed in April 1978 there have been 25 changes among them. The number of changes among deputy ministers is even greater – 34. One purge follows another and it is difficult to imagine how the regime manages to survive. Part of the answer to this question is, of course, the brutal repression of the identified opposition. The number of murdered political prisoners has evidently reached 6,000 but the number of those held in political prisons and who have been imprisoned in them is possibly four times this number…2
However, in spite of brutal measures the zone controlled by the PDPA regime did not increase and even shrunk. At this time more than 80 percent of Afghan territory where ten million people lived was outside the control of central authority, which held the cities and largest population centers. The opposition controlled practically all rural areas and to some degree major road and transport routes. As a result, when the authorities’ reforms were carried out they considered neither the specific nature of the “tribal zones” nor their semi-autonomous status and in a number of places the Pashtun tribes revolted. The Mohammedzai, Barakzai, Alkazai, and the Jadran tribes, traditionally hostile to central authority, took an irreconcilable position toward the PDPA regime. Several influential people in the tribes who were not very religious saw an opportunity in the weakening of central authority to strengthen their positions among their fellow tribesmen, settle accounts with other tribes, and, finally, “line their pockets” with shipments of weapons, goods, and narcotics.
Amin warned a number of tribal authorities about responsibilities, having announced strict measures of punishment for resistance to the authorities from fines to the death penalty. But when this did not produce an effect he ordered that regular troops and air strikes be used against rebellious tribes; this caused part of the tribes to cross over to Pakistani territory, which contributed to outbreak of the refugee problem. In response to criticism from Soviet advisers as to how he could bomb entire tribes, he quietly replied, “You don’t know our people! If any tribe takes up arms it will not lay them down. The only solution is to destroy them all, from big to small! Such are our traditions.”
Several days after Taraki’s murder General Ivan Pavlovskiy called Soviet Defense Minister Dimitri Ustinov and reported that his group had completed their assignments. The defense minister was interested in how the situation in Afghanistan was developing after Amin came to power. Pavlovskiy characterized the situation in the army as stable and noted that with suitable work its fighting effectiveness could be raised to a level allowing it to deal with the opposition. In response Ustinov told Pavlovskiy he had not analyzed it at all – comrades Yurii Andropov, the KGB chairman, and Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko had other information. When General Pavlovskiy asked permission to return to Moscow Ustinov thought for a long time and then said, “Return on 3 November.”
On 3 November the USSR Ambassador in Kabul, Aleksandr Puzanov, informed Amin about the Soviet leadership’s readiness to receive him in Moscow and about its “satisfaction with the steps taken by the Afghan leadership in the area of Party and nation building.” Before Puzanov left he visited Amin and again expressed satisfaction with DRA.
2 Spetsial’nyy byulleten’ Instituta Vostokovedeniya AN SSSR [Special Bulletin of the USSR Academy of Science Institute of Oriental Studes] No 5, pp. 135-136. “Nauka”, 1986.
The Soviet leadership decided to exploit a favorable situation, counting on the fact that the Americans were most concerned on how to solve the problems in Iran where Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic revolution had overthrown the Shah and, on November 4, the US embassy in Tehran was seized and would not stand in the way of our actions in Afghanistan. The idea appeared of creating conditions to remove Amin and replacing him with a more loyal figure since he was not reliable and was capable at any moment of realigning himself toward the West. This is what was feared most of all – the changes in policy in Egypt, Chile, and Somalia in an anti-Soviet direction were still fresh in Moscow’s mind…And here again “evidence” “surfaced” about his purported association with the CIA; that is, every basis was present for doubt.
At a symposium organized by the Norwegian Nobel Institute in September 1995, in reply to my question, “Was Hafizullah Amin an agent of the CIA?” former CIA director Stansfield Turner replied: “I have heard many times about Amin’s ties with the CIA and the US. I ought to say that they ascribe more things to us than we were able to do. Afghanistan was not a first priority problem for us; we had many more other problems. And even today we have limited interest in it.”
LYAKHOVSKY: “…As Valentin Ivanovich [Varennikov] has just said, our leadership found itself faced with a question [after Amin overthrew Taraki in September 1979]: what to do now? It was decide[d] to leave it as it was for the time being—to accept the facts, even though, as I have said, they did not trust Amin. They did not trust him because there were reports that he was a CIA agent. I am not going to prove or disprove it, because there are some secondary facts that speak for it, and some that speak against it. For instance, in 1977, when Khalq and Parcham were getting united—even before the April  revolution—Amin was not elected to the Politburo because everyone opposed him. [He] was accused of cooperating with the CIA during his study in the United States. He admitted that he was ‘playing’ with the CIA because he needed money to continue his studies; but he said it was nothing serious, ‘just playing.’ There is a transcript of a meeting with Ulyanovsky, where he talks about this[.] Karen Nersesovich [Brutents] has this document.
…After Amin had killed Taraki, the attitude of our leadership to him changed. Our leadership was afraid that Amin might be cooperating with the CIA, and, observing his turn to the Americans and the Pakistanis, was worried that he might abandon us. And at the same time Amin continued his ministry of Socialist slogans. So we were worried that we might find ourselves in a situation when we would be in Afghanistan, and the Afghan leader would be pro-American, but still using Socialist rhetoric. In other words, he would be disguised as a socialist; but he would not be ‘our man.’”
Later, Turner responded:
“I have heard many descriptions of possible relationships between Amin and the CIA, and of the United States and its designs on Afghanistan. I would like to start with a view that Leonid [Shebarshin] and I share: that people in our business are often accused of doing all kinds of things we never have the capability of doing. And I would refer to the comment Gary [Sick] made earlier that when the Shah approached us to do something undercover with respect to Afghanistan, we turned our back on that. I would suggest to you that while this conference is on Afghanistan, if you put it in the context of 1978 and early 1979. Afghanistan was not very high on the American foreign policy agenda. We are focusing on it entirely here. We had lots of other things that were of much greater concern to us…As far as the CIA and it[s] relations with Amin are concerned, I would ask you to step back and recognize that starting in 1976-1975, actually—covert actions—undercover activities like this—were in bad repute in the United States—as was the CIA—as a result of the Church committee hearings, which roundly criticized past activities of the CIA. As far back as 1974, our Congress had passed a law saying that any time we were going to undertake one of these dirty tricks or covert action campaigns, the President must approve it and must inform the Congress. When I got there in 1977, there was no strong inclination on the part of the Carter administration to exercise covert activities. But, interestingly…the CIA itself was running very scared having had this considerable criticism, and was reluctant, even in the case of Afghanistan after the invasion, to get involved in a major covert activity that might backfire and lead to another Church Committee investigation, and another series of criticisms of the CIA….”
Marshall Shulman, formerly an advisor on Soviet affairs to Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance, added:
“Now, a few words on the question of Amin and whether or not he was an American agent. It seems to me, to put the issue in those terms, is a little too black and white. What seems to me more plausible—and this is especially strengthened by my reading of the excerpt from the book by Diego Cordovez and Selig Harrison [Out of Afghanistan] that Malcolm [Byrne] included in the readings, was that, throughout that period, Amin seemed to be searching for other orientations. It was quite possible that he was seeking some role more independent of the Soviet Union, either through the Pakistanis, because of that abortive invitation to Zia to come to Kabul, or through his contacts with the Americans. This did not necessarily mean he was an agent; but it may be that in his maneuvering he was seeking a more independent role for himself. It is clear that this could have been misinterpreted from Moscow. It could also have represented a danger to Moscow. But the issue should not be limited to the question of whether he [was] or was not formally an American agent. I think the issue is more complex than that.”3
On General Pavlovskiy’s return to Moscow Defense Minister Ustinov sent a note to the CPSU CC about the results of his work in the DRA.
On the Results of the Mission of the USSR Deputy Defense Minister, General of the Army I. G. Pavlovskiy, in the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan
In accordance with the CPSU CC's Decree No. P163/62 of 15 August 1979, USSR Deputy Defense Minister, General of the Army I. G. Pavlovskiy, and a group of generals and officers were in the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan from 17 August to 22 October with the aim of reviewing the state of the People's Armed Forces of Afghanistan and the organization and methods of their combat operations against the rebels; providing on-site assistance to the Afghan commanders in dealing with these questions; and preparing recommendations for the further strengthening of the combat capabilities of the People's Armed Forces of Afghanistan.
The work of Cde. I. G. Pavlovskiy's group in providing assistance to the Afghan military command was carried out in strict accordance with the CPSU CC's decision and with instructions issued by the USSR Minister of Defense, taking account of the military-political situation in the country and also the political and organizational measures implemented within the Afghan army by the DRA leadership.
On all matters that they studied, recommendations were devised and transmitted personally by Com. I. G. Pavlovskiy to H. Amin, offering them as proposals for the further strengthening of the Afghan armed forces.
The provision of comprehensive practical assistance by our side to the People's Armed Forces of Afghanistan enabled them to make a transition between August and October. Rather than continuing to rely on a passive defense and faltering operations by small units against the rebels, they were able to launch coordinated and active operations by larger groupings. This allowed them to gain the initiative in combat and to destroy the most dangerous forces of counterrevolution in the provinces of Paktia, Ghazni, Parwan, Bamiyan, and several other areas.
To prepare the troops for these actions, tactical exercises with live fire were held, and combat operations were conducted to resolve specific tasks. Soviet generals and officers provided direct assistance in working out the plans for operations and in carrying them out. This experience in preparing and conducting operations taught the Afghan commanders, staffs, and political organs the methods and means of organization for undertaking active combat operations in mountainous regions. Help was provided to the Main Political Directorate in organizing party-political work among the troops according to the different categories of servicemen, so that they could be mobilized for the active pursuit of combat objectives. Taking account of the combat operations, drafts were also prepared of documents providing basic guidelines for the organization of combat and operational preparations.
3 See Nobel Symposium 95: The Intervention in Afghanistan and the Fall of Détente, Lysebu, September 17-20, 1995, transcribed by Svetlana Savranskaya, edited by David A. Welch and Odd Arne Westad (OsloL The Norwegian Nobel Institute, 1996), pp. 80-81, 101-102, 113-114. [Editor’s note: From the transcripts of that conference, the following exchange occurred regarding the question of whether or not Amin was a CIA agent.
4 APRF, f. 3, op. 82, d. 173, s. 120-122; translated by Mark Kramer; first publication in Russian in Novaya i Noveishaya Istoriya 3 (May-June) 1996, pp. 91-99 (document on 97-98), intro, by G.N. Sevastionov. [Translator’s note: Published in CWIHP Bulletin 8-9, p. 158 and CWHIP’s Afghanistan Dossier p.53]
Despite these efforts to increase the combat capability of the People's Armed Forces of Afghanistan, a number of questions are still unresolved.
Military regulations that were codified with help from Soviet advisers have not been instilled in the People's Armed Forces, and they have no impact on the practical life of the troops. The commanders, staffs, political organs, and party organizations do not always coordinate their work in resolving tasks among the troops. Staffs at all levels, including the General Staff, have still not become a central, directing organ in the daily life of large and small units and in the troops' combat activity.
Political work in the Afghan army, especially with the officer corps, is still not conducted concretely or effectively enough. The combat morale and fighting elan of the troops, the state of military discipline, and the army's willingness to act are still low.
During the final conversation with H. Amin, M. Yakub, and M. Ekbal, Cde. I. G. Pavlovskiy once again directed their attention to the unresolved problems and our recommendations for solving them. At the end of the discussion, H. Amin said: "We are taking all measures to ensure that your recommendations are fulfilled, and we will always work in coordination with Soviet advisers and specialists. Our friendship is unwavering." Then he expressed the hope that Soviet military advisers would be assigned to every battalion of the Afghan armed forces. In conclusion, H. Amin thanked the delegation for providing help and requested that they transmit warm greetings and personal thanks to Comrade L.I. Brezhnev, and also to Cdes. A.N. Kosygin, D.F. Ustinov, Yu.V. Andropov, and A. A. Gromyko, as well as all the other leaders of the CPSU and the Soviet government.
Overall, the group of generals and officers headed by the USSR Deputy Defense Minister, Army- General I. G. Pavlovskiy, fulfilled the tasks assigned to them.
Reported for informational purposes. D. Ustinov 5 November 1979
Having flown into Moscow on 3 November I called the Minister right away and reported my arrival and asked to be received but he said that he would call me. However he did not call for about two weeks. Even during the parade on Red Square on 7 November he just looked at me, extended his hand, and said nothing.5
When Ustinov called me to his office I reported to him about the work done in Afghanistan, but he said: “You did not analyze it there at all. Why did you go visit Amin? [You] needed to deal with Karmal”. I replied to the Minister that Karmal wasn’t in Kabul; at that time he was still in Czechoslovakia. Ustinov said nothing in reply but stopped summoning me or calling me. I understood that I had fallen into disfavor and tried to clarify the situation at Chief of the General Staff Nikolay Vasil’yevich Ogarkov’s, but he told me that the Minister was not consulting him and was talking only with Sergey Fedorovich Akhromeyev.
5 [Translator’s note: At these parades Ustinov, as a Politburo member and the official receiving the salute of the troops passing in review, stood on the top of the Lenin Mausoleum. Pavlovskiy would have been standing on a lower level of the Mausoleum to the side with the other commanders-in-chief of the branches of the armed forces.]
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