After World War II, as both the United States and the Soviet Union competed for global power, Afghanistan increasingly turned to the Soviet Union for support after the United States established military ties with Pakistan in 1954, according to an October 2001 report from Human Rights Watch.
The Soviets in return used the strategic location of Afghanistan, at the juncture of Asia and the Middle East, to counter the U.S. alliance with Pakistan and the surrounding Persian Gulf states.
The Soviets entered Afghanistan in 1979 with the aim of establishing a key position in Asia, one with trade possibilities and access to Gulf oil, Barnett Rubin said in his book, “The Fragmentation of Afghanistan.”
At the time, Afghanistan was a vulnerable monarchy. It was led by King Zahir Shah, who, like his predecessors, was unable to merge the existing tribal society with a central government. This separation of the Afghan elite and the central government from local tribal leaders eventually caused a revolt against the monarchy.
The Saur Revolution of April 1978 in which the Afghan communist party, the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, seized power in a coup and killed the country’s prime minister, also created space for a foreign invasion into a country that lacked a legitimate government.
Soon after their entry into Afghanistan, the Soviets imposed military and social reforms that began to make enemies within different sectors of the indigenous population. They initiated land reforms that troubled tribal leaders. They implemented economic measures that worsened conditions for the poor, and tried to curb ethnic uprisings by mass arrests, torture, executions of dissidents and aerial bombardments, according to a November 2001 Amnesty International report.
According to Amnesty International, some 1 million Afghans died during this period, with more than 8,000 people were executed after being put on trial between 1980 and 1988.
The crackdown led to resistance by Mujahadeen, or Afghan freedom fighters, who were backed by the United States. In 1988, Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, who called the occupation of Afghanistan a “bleeding wound,” withdrew his forces from the country.
Several events in Afghanistan’s history led up to the Soviet invasion and the civil war that followed the withdrawal.
In 1967, the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, which was the only structured political party in Afghanistan at the time, separated into two rival factions — the more radical “Khalq” that took a traditional view of Marxist ideology, and the “Parcham” that believed in a gradual movement toward socialism for the pre-industrialized Afghanistan.
While the PDPA had initially unified to overthrow the monarchy, which the group believed practiced elitist politics that didn’t include the Afghan people, rivalries and differences over ideology led to hostilities between the group’s two factions.
On April 27, 1978, the PDPA was able to overthrow the monarchy. The leader of the Khalq faction, Muhammad Taraki became president and renamed Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan.
By late 1978, however, a rebellion against the Taraki government’s policies started an Islamic extremist movement in eastern Afghanistan and spread throughout the country, leading to civil war. Violence increased and Taraki was killed the same year in a palace shootout by rebel groups, according to a May 2006 U.S. State Department report.
Hafizullah Amin, Taraki’s deputy prime minister, assumed power.
However, Oleg Grinevsky, a former Soviet ambassador to Sweden, said in his book “The Secrets of the Soviet Diplomacy” that the Soviet Union’s intelligence agency the KGB, which was monitoring Afghanistan after the invasion, released information claiming that Amin was incapable of sustaining power and that his radical Marxist policies would cause greater instability in the country.
Other reports by the KGB stated that Amin’s loyalty toward the Soviet Union was false and that he was an American spy. As such, they needed to replace him with a more pro-Soviet leader who would gain popular support in Afghanistan, Grinevsky wrote.
Amin was in power for 104 days before he was assassinated by KGB agents wearing uniforms of the Afghan Revolutionary Central Committee, according to the CIA document, “Predicting the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan”.
Soviet entry and the resistance
The Soviet-Afghan Friendship Treaty signed in December 1978 by Amin permitted military assistance and advice to Afghanistan if requested.
Citing the treaty and with the aim of solidifying an ally in Asia, Soviet ground forces took control of Afghanistan in December 1979 and appointed as head of state, former deputy prime minister and leader of the Parcham faction of the PDPA, Kamal Barbak.
In an effort to resist the Soviet occupation and the spread of Marxist ideology to Afghanistan, the United States — then at the height of a nuclear arms race with the Soviets and fearing a southward movement toward the oil-rich Persian Gulf — soon partnered with Pakistani intelligence to recruit and train guerilla fighters, known as the Mujahadeen, who could put up a resistance against the Soviet army.
Both parties “overestimated the threat posed by the other superpower in Afghanistan,” Rubin told CNN in March 1999.
The resistance was a success. By the early 1980s various Mujahadeen groups were fighting against Soviet forces and pro-Soviet Afghan government troops.
The United States’ donation of anti-aircraft missiles to the Mujahadeen fighters caused major losses to Soviet aircraft and troops.
The United States also expressed its opposition to the Soviet occupation by boycotting the Olympics in Moscow in 1980.
Two years later, the U.N. General Assembly called for withdrawal of Soviet forces.
By November 1986, amid continuing hostilities between the Mujahadeen and Soviet forces, Barbak was ousted as prime minister by the Soviets for ineffectiveness and replaced by the former chief of the Afghan Secret Police, Mohammad Najibullah.
But Najibullah also was unable to control the Mujahadeen, and when the Geneva Accords, overseen by the United Nations and guaranteed by the United States and the Soviet Union, were signed in April 1988, they effectively ended the war.
The treaty, signed by the governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan, outlined a policy of non-interference and contained a timeline for the withdrawal of Soviet troops.
The Soviets began withdrawing from Afghanistan in May 1988 and were gone by February 1989.
The Afghan civil war
Despite the Geneva Accords and the withdrawal of Soviet forces, civil war continued in Afghanistan as the Mujahadeen continued to fight the government of Soviet-backed Najibullah.
The resistance ousted Najibullah in 1992 and installed the Taliban government whose hard-line policies ended the fighting.
The 10-year civil war in Afghanistan caused a drain on the country’s economy and led many Afghans to flee to neighboring Pakistan, where many remain in 2006.