On April 27, 1978, the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), a small, factionalized Marxist-Leninist party, took power in a coup d'état, an event that marked the beginning of Afghanistan's civil war. Ten years later, the U.S., the Soviet Union, Pakistan, and Afghanistan signed a set of accords in Geneva designed to bring about an end to the war. By then, the war, which had intensified especially after the entry of Soviet troops into Afghanistan in December 1979, had taken an estimated 1.24 million8 Afghan lives and driven another five million9 Afghans into refugee camps in Pakistan and Iran.

The ground for the 1978 coup by the PDPA had been prepared by events going back several years. The PDPA was founded in Kabul in 1965 after King Zaher Shah promulgated a number of reforms that permitted political groups to organize, although not to participate in elections. In 1967, the PDPA split into two factions: Khalq (masses) and Parcham (flag). Nur Mohammad Taraki and Hafizullah Amin became the leaders of the Khalq faction, which drew its support mainly from educated rural Afghans who were predominantly Pashtun, an ethnic group long considered to be the largest and the most powerful in Afghanistan.10 The Khalqis, who were opposed to the ruling elite,advocated radical social change and agrarian reform. The Parcham faction, led by Babrak Karmal, differed little from the Khalqis in ideology, but although the Parchamis were also predominantly Pashtun, they drew on the support of urbanized Afghans from various ethnic groups, including members of the ruling elite who advocated more gradual reforms.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s a number of Islamic radical organizations were also formed at Kabul University. They were strongly opposed to the communists and to all non-Islamic foreign influence in Afghanistan. These groups formed an important part of the resistance after the 1978 coup. The first student group to form was the Muslim Youth, which in 1972 renamed itself the Jamiat-e Islami after it was joined by several professors who had been supporting the group quietly. A government crackdown forced many of the group's members into exile in Pakistan in 1973-4. In 1976-77, in Pakistan, the organization split. Burhanuddin Rabbani, a professor of theology, remained as head of Jamiat-e Islami. Engineering student Gulbuddin Hekmatyar headed the breakaway Hezb-e Islami, which split again in 1979 to form a second Hezb-e Islami headed by Yunis Khales, an alim, or religious leader, from Ningrahar. A number of more traditional Islamic parties joined the resistance movement after 1978.11 Pakistani authorities did not permit parties that were considered less Islamic to organize openly.

In July 1973, the king's cousin, Daoud Khan, with the help of the Parchamis, staged a nearly bloodless coup, ousting King Zaher Shah. Having no more need of the Parchamis after gaining power, Daoud removed them from his government and began to distance himself from the Soviet Union. Under pressure from the Soviets, the Khalq and Parcham factions of the PDPA reunited in 1977. The assassination of a Parchami leader on April 17, 1978 provoked widespread protests to which Daoud responded by arresting the PDPA leadership. PDPA officers in the military then launched a coup, killing Daoud and seizing power.

Days later, Nur Mohammad Taraki became president of the newly proclaimed Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, and Babrak Karmal and Hafizullah Amin became deputy prime ministers. Prominentformer political leaders were immediately arrested and executed. Within months, conflict again broke out between Khalq and Parcham, resulting in a purge of Parchamis from the government. Some, including Babrak Karmal, were exiled abroad as ambassadors,12 and others were arrested. Under Amin's direction, the government then launched a campaign of radical agrarian reform and mass repression that resulted in the arrest and execution of tens of thousands. Those targeted included former political figures, religious leaders, students and teachers, lawyers and other professionals, members of various ethnic groups, particularly the Hazaras, and members of Islamic political organizations. Subsequent governments have acknowledged that some 12,000 people were executed just in Pol-e Charkhi Prison in Kabul during this period; as many as 100,000 people may have been killed in the countryside.13

The government's unprecedented and badly planned attempt to intervene in rural society by decree and terror, and the executions of Islamic leaders and members of key ethnic groups, provoked a number of uprisings across the country, to which the government responded with greater repression. The army, racked by mutinies and desertions, rapidly disintegrated. Alarmed by Amin's strong-armed tactics and the disintegration of the Afghan army, the Soviet Union apparently plotted in September 1979 to have Amin removed, but the plot failed and instead an embittered Amin assassinated Taraki and made himself president.14 Finally, on December 24, 1979, the Soviet Union airlifted thousands of troops into Kabul, and three days later a crack Soviet force assassinated Amin and installed Babrak Karmal as president.

The Soviet presence soon grew to some 115,000 troops, and all aspects of government quickly came under the supervision of Soviet advisers, including the state security agency, which was reorganized andplaced under the control of Dr. Najibullah.15 The invasion greatly expanded the resistance, which organized around the mujahidin parties based in Pakistan and Iran. Foreign support for the resistance increased after the Soviet invasion, with Pakistan, the U.S., Saudi Arabia, China and Iran playing leading roles. Massive aerial bombardments by Soviet forces in the countryside and repression in the cities swelled the flow of refugees, with some three million fleeing to Pakistan and another two million to Iran. Negotiations to end the war gained momentum after 1987, culminating in the 1988 Geneva Accords.

The centerpiece of the Geneva Accords was the agreement by the Soviet Union to remove all of its uniformed troops from Afghanistan over a nine-month period from May 15, 1988 to February 15, 1989, with half the troops to be removed by August 15. The text of the accords also called for all aid through Pakistan to the mujahidin to be terminated at the beginning of the pull-out period. As the final round of talks dragged on, the Reagan administration, under bipartisan pressure from a Congress which strongly supported the mujahidin, informed the U.S.S.R. that it would not accept the accords as formulated, arguing that as long as Soviet aid to the Kabul government continued, an end to aid to the mujahidin constituted unacceptable asymmetry. The U.S. proposed that both sides commit themselves to end such assistance (negative symmetry), but the Soviets, citing treaty obligations to Afghanistan, refused. Secretary of State George Shultz then made a formal reservation to the accords, stating that the U.S., while signing them, reserved to itself the right to aid its friends in Afghanistan so long as the Soviets aided their friends (positive symmetry). Since the accord entered into force, the U.S. has continued to adhere to positive symmetry.

The mujahidin were not included in the negotiations leading up to Geneva and did not accept its results. Also, the Geneva Accords said nothing about the future government of Afghanistan, which was to be left to a second track of diplomacy or to the fortunes of the battlefield.

During the first three months of their pullout, the Soviets withdrew their remaining forces to the capital, Kabul, and the principalroads and bases connecting it to other major towns and to the U.S.S.R. Unable to maintain a far-flung presence without Soviet help, the Afghan army withdrew or was pushed out of a number of important military bases and towns along the Pakistan border and in the deep interior of the country. By November 1988, resistance forces controlled all posts along the contested frontier with Pakistan, as well as the provincial capitals of Kunar, Paktiya, Bamiyan, Takhar, and Laghman.

Their forces also overran a demoralized garrison in the important economic center Kunduz, near the Soviet border, but government forces, probably with the aid of Soviet aircraft, reoccupied the city. During a number of these offensives, mujahidin fighters who were either undisciplined or adherents of a radical version of Islam imported to Afghanistan by Arab "Wahhabi"16 forces, killed and raped civilians who had been living under government control.

Fearful that the government in Kabul might disintegrate before the final withdrawal of their troops and angry over the continued American aid to the resistance under the doctrine of positive symmetry, the Soviet leaders introduced new weapons of mass destruction to Afghanistan in November 1988: Scud-B missiles, which carry warheads of 1,000 kilograms and are highly inaccurate.17 Since then, these missiles have been fired blindly into many areas of Afghanistan, including some densely populated agricultural zones. The mujahidin have also fired rockets and missiles, some with fragmentation warheads, indiscriminately into Kabul and other towns.

The final stages of the Soviet withdrawal were accompanied by both a purge of hardliners in Kabul and diplomatic attempts to assemble a new government. The Soviet ambassador to Afghanistan, Deputy Foreign Minister Yuli Vorontsov, held an unprecedented set of meetings with leaders of the Pakistan-based Sunni resistance groups, the Iran-basedShi'a resistance groups, and the former king, Zaher Shah, who has lived in exile in Rome since 1973. Vorontsov's efforts were aimed at finding a formula under which all of these groups would be willing to meet in a shura (council) with members of the PDPA to form a new government. All refused his proposals, however. President Gorbachev laid out the new Soviet plan in a December 1988 address to the U.N. in which he also proposed that all countries cease aid to all Afghan parties (negative symmetry). The U.S. refused, citing an "imbalance" created by accelerated Soviet supplies. American officials also estimated that the Kabul government would fall of its own accord within six to twelve months.18

To fill the anticipated political vacuum, the U.S., Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia, the main backers of the principal mujahidin groups, pressured the exiled political leadership of the resistance groups to hold a shura to choose what was billed as an interim government in exile. The shura convened in Rawalpindi, Pakistan on February 10, 1989. Despite intensive negotiations with Iran and with Shi'a resistance groups, no formula was agreed to regarding their representation, and they did not participate. The shura also rejected representation for the former king (several thousand of his supporters were attacked by members of the Hezb-e Islami of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar two days before the shura) andfor the Kabul government. The Afghan Interim Government (AIG) chosen at the shura was headed by Sibghatullah Mojaddidi, a respected religious scholar, but that result was rejected by resistance commanders inside Afghanistan and by most of the refugees, who regarded it as having been manipulated by the Pakistani and Saudi intelligence services.

In order to bolster its claim to legitimacy, the AIG needed a territorial base inside Afghanistan. To that end, its foreign supporters and in particular the ISI, chose Jalalabad, a city in the eastern Afghan province of Ningrahar. The battle for Jalalabad, launched on March 7, 1989, became a major turning point of the war. Many of the mujahidin commanders in the area had opposed the offensive as premature and lacking in sufficient political preparation. Furthermore, they were bitterly divided and lacked experience in conventional warfare. In the end, they failed to coordinate their attacks and held back from assisting rival groups. The defending garrison, fearing massacres by extremist mujahidin (including some Arab volunteers) as had happened in nearby areas in January, refused to surrender and eventually stopped the mujahidin outside the city.19 The result was a major morale boost for Kabul.

In July 1989, the mujahidin received another blow when conflict erupted in northern Afghanistan between commander Ahmad Shah Massoud of Jamiat-e Islami and his rival, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. The conflict led to the massacre of more than a dozen top Jamiat-e Islami commanders by the Hezb-e Islami.20 In the ensuing conflict, Hekmatyar suspended his participation in the AIG. A number of offensives against government forces later in the year also came to nothing. Resentful of the AIG and lacking political direction, the mujahidin commanders were essentially on strike.

The belief that the Afghan resistance organizations were Western-style, hierarchically-organized political parties whose "leaders" in Peshawar could decide matters for their "followers" in Afghanistan was always an illusion; this became even clearer after the Soviet withdrawal. Faced with a foreign enemy trying to subjugate them and impose an alien ideology, the mujahidin accepted the leaders who acted as intermediaries in obtaining the assistance they needed. That never meant that they envisaged those leaders as rulers of a new Afghanistan. Nor did their common Islamic cause amount to a unified political vision. Islam in Afghanistan is a defining cultural value, and there is broad agreement about who its enemies are, but there is no common view of what it requires politically.

Inside Afghanistan, the war had enabled a variety of leaders to build up different types of followings, many based implicitly on ethnic or tribal identities, even though all articulated their views in universalist Islamic terms. A narrowly based leadership, composed of religious leaders and newly educated rural Pashtuns from one part of the country (the east) dominated by Pakistan could not represent the western and southern Pashtuns, the Persian speakers, the Uzbeks, the Shi'a, or the Westernized city dwellers of Kabul.

President Najibullah's position grew stronger as the opposition became more divided. He continued to pursue a policy he termed as one of "national reconciliation," putting more non-party members in charge of ministries in Kabul and offering full autonomy and extensive aid to all local leaders and resistance commanders who agreed not to fight the government. His government, no longer besmirched by the presence of Soviet troops, increasingly portrayed itself as the defender of Afghan nationalism against guerrillas supported by Pakistani militarists and Saudi Wahhabis. This rhetoric found a growing, if still skeptical and bitter, audience in the cities -- even among those who were not members or supporters of the party.

Washington, however, still publicly stated its faith in and support of the AIG as the most representative group of Afghans. Although the administration did not recognize the AIG as a government, in June 1989 the U.S. appointed Peter Tomsen as special envoy to the resistance. The U.S. held to the position that it favored a political settlement, but that the departure of Najibullah and his immediate cohorts from power was a pre-condition for any negotiations over transfer of power.

On March 6, 1990 the most important event since the battle for Jalalabad occurred in Kabul. Defense Minister Shahnawaz Tanai, leaderof the radical Khalq faction of the PDPA, launched a coup against Najibullah.21 Tanai was apparently supported by those important Khalqis who remained in the Politburo, who have since been imprisoned. More important, he immediately won the support of Hezb-e Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. The ISI, apparently without consulting the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, attempted to pressure the other mujahidin groups to get behind Hekmatyar (still outside the AIG) and support the coup.

Najibullah succeeded in suppressing the coup, and the ISI failed to get the resistance behind Tanai, whom most of the factions viewed as an opportunistic war criminal and hardline communist who had been responsible for the carpet-bombing of portions of the major western city of Herat in March 1979, killing thousands of people. The alliance between communist and Islamic extremists provoked many Afghans to question further the extent to which the war was being waged over Islamic ideals rather than personal power. While publicly asserting that the attempted coup exposed the weakness of the regime in Kabul, U.S. officials acknowledged privately that the Pakistani military had followed its own interests in supporting the coup without consulting them and that the affair also exposed the ineffectiveness of the AIG, which had failed to come up with any meaningful response to the coup attempt. Furthermore, the AIG, which was to have organized some form of elections to gauge its popular support, failed to do so and has yet to make real progress toward agreeing on any political initiative.

The PDPA, however, continued to take such initiatives. In June 1990, it held its Second Congress, the first since it was founded at a meeting in Taraki's house on New Year's Day in 1965. At this Congress it renamed itself as the Watan (Homeland) Party. In the redrafted constitution, the government renounced Marxism, Leninism, socialism, and most of its own past policies and practices, at least on paper. It made Islam its official religion -- the party is now open only to practicing Muslims -- and called for political pluralism and a market economy. Although most Afghans still regard the pronouncements of PresidentNajibullah with some skepticism, they are also waiting for any effective response from his opponents.

Meanwhile, the United Nations has been active, as have some policy-makers in both Washington and Moscow, in elaborating plans for a political settlement. By June 1990, both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. had agreed to the basic content of a "non-paper" authored by U.N. Assistant Secretary General Benon Sevan, who was at that time the Secretary General's special assistant on Afghanistan. In this scenario, the U.N. Secretary General was to be encouraged to assist Afghans in forming a transitional body of respected individuals acceptable to all sides. This body was to exercise certain powers during a transitional period and to organize elections in accord with Afghan cultural and national traditions to choose a new government in a process in which all Afghans could freely participate. There was also agreement on the need for a cessation of hostilities during the transition period and on the need to discuss both an end to weapons supplies and the possible removal of weapons. What this proposal left unanswered was what exact powers the transitional body would have and what would be the role of Najibullah.

In early October 1990, as the U.S. Congress began for the first time to cut back the administration's already reduced requests for aid to the resistance,22 the U.S. and Pakistan encouraged the mujahidin to open a coordinated offensive in several parts of the country. The ISI, freed of even vestigial political constraints since the dismissal of the government of Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto on August 6, continued to work for the preeminence of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Resistance sources claim that an ISI plan in September to make Hekmetyar the defense minister of a reorganized AIG was frustrated at the last minute by American intervention. Major commanders refused to participate in the offensive, which they regarded as initiated by Pakistan and lacking an acceptable political framework. Many of them participated instead in a shura of top commanders which discussed steps to coordinate a military strategy and create a representative government that could constitute an alternative to the Kabul government. American diplomats on the ground, conceding that the offensive never had a chance of overthrowing the Kabul government, had hoped that it would shake the Soviet negotiating position and lead to a superpower diplomatic agreement. By the end of October 1990, the offensive was widely reported to have failed, at a cost of countless civilian lives,23 and the provincial capitals retaken by government forces.24

Despite hopes for a U.S. Soviet agreement at the December meeting between U.S. Secretary of State James Baker and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, by year's end, negotiations between the U.S and the Soviet Union over a transition process leading to elections remained stalemated over the question of what role Najibullah would play in the interim period. The Soviet Union continued to hold to the position that the transitional body's power should be limited to organizing the elections and that Najibullah should stay where he is. The U.S. has consistently objected, saying that Najibullah's command of the army and secret police (which he headed from 1980 to 1985) and of the broadcast media would give him an unfair advantage in intimidating voters and manipulating the outcome. The U.S. therefore has called for the transitional body to have ultimate authority over all matters related to ensuring a free and fair elections process, including control over the army, police, other security forces, and mass media. Both sides would like to issue a joint statement at the foreign minister level turning over responsibility for resolving the conflict to the U.N., following the Namibian and Cambodian models, but disagreement on important details prevented them from reaching a settlement.

The resignation on December 20 of Foreign Minister Shevardnadze, prompted in part by the Soviet army's insistence on a greater role in foreign policy, including a demand for continued military support for President Najibullah, marked a serious setback in the negotiations. In January 1991 the Soviet Union renewed its commitment to military and economic aid to the government of President Najibullah.25 By February 1991, it was clear that the outbreak of war in the Persian Gulf and the ongoing leadership struggle in the Soviet Union would continue to jeopardize any hope for a settlement in the near future.

8 A Swiss demographer calculated the civilian toll at 1.24 million, based on an estimated pre-war population of 15.5 million. See Marek Sliwinski, "Afghanistan: The Decimation of a People," Orbis, vol. 33, Winter 1988-89, pp. 39-56.

9 The precise number of refugees is impossible to determine. Five and a half million is a widely-used estimate, with some 3.2 million registered refugees in Pakistan and an estimated 500,000 unregistered. In Iran, there are some 2.3 million registered refugees. See Felix Ermacora, "Situation of Human Rights in Afghanistan," Report to the General Assembly of the United Nations, U.N. A/45/664, October 31, 1990, p. 7. Hereafter referred to as U.N. Report, 1990.

10 Afghanistan is home to a number of ethnic groups in addition to the Pashtuns, including the Persian-speaking Tajiks and the Turkic-speaking Turkoman and Uzbek groups, who predominate in the north and across the border in Soviet Central Asia. The Hazaras, a Shi'a minority, are found in the central part of the country. (Most Afghans are Sunni Muslims.)

11 The major parties are listed in Appendix A.

12 Louis Dupree, Afghanistan (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973), p. 773.

13 Olivier Roy, Islam and Resistance in Afghanistan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), pp. 95, 97.

14 See Laber and Rubin, pp. 7-8. Taraki was perceived as more amenable to Soviet influence, while Amin resisted Soviets attempts to control the PDPA. See also Dupree, p. 777.

15 In 1986, Najibullah replaced Babrak Karmal, first as head of the party and then as president of the country.

16 Wahhabism is a puritanical interpretation of Islam patronized by the Saudi royal family. Arab volunteers supported by the Muslim Brotherhood and by prominent Saudi entrepreneurs have fought with some mujahidin forces in Afghanistan since the early 1980s.

17 For further details on the destructive capability of the Scud-B missile, see Chapter 3, p. 29.


This Defense Intelligence Agency estimate was widely cited by U.S. officials. See "Developments in Afghanistan and Their Implications for U.S. Policy," Hearings before the Subcommittee on Asian and Pacific Affairs of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, U.S. House of Representatives, February 21 and June 14, 1989. (Washington D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1990), hereafter referred to as "Hearings, 1989." According to James Rupert, an assistant foreign editor at the Washington Post, in the final stages of the Soviet withdrawal, "The CIA's Afghan Task Force dramatically slowed arms deliveries to the mujahidin, apparently because it feared an almost immediate collapse of the Najibullah government and wanted to avoid flooding the country with excess weaponry after a mujahidin victory. The theory that Najibullah was doomed was widely accepted by Westerners in the mujahidin's exile capital of Peshawar. There, the heavy betting in a pool at the American Club's bar was that the mujahidin would announce their installation in power on Kabul Radio as early as March or April." See James Rupert, "Afghanistan's Slide Toward Civil War," World Policy Journal, Vol. VI, No.4, Fall 1989, p. 781, n.2.

19 The battle was very costly in both military and civilian casualties. It is discussed in more detail in chapter 3, pp. 31-34, 36-38.

20 The incident is discussed on pp. 54-55.

21 Tanai was leader of at least the main body of Khalqis since its former leader Sayyed Mohammad Gulabzoy was exiled as ambassador to Moscow in September 1988 as part of the political preparation of the Soviet pullout.

22 The mujahidin's failure to deliver a victory appeared to be the reason for a $50 million congressional aid cut, the first since the war began, and for the decision to condition release of half of the remaining $250 million on another vote in 1991. On November 30, 1990, President Bush vetoed the 1991 intelligence authorization bill which had included the congressional restrictions on aid to the mujahidin. (The administration's objection related not to Afghanistan but to a provision related to the Iran-Contra controversy.) The House and Senate Select Intelligence Committees tentatively scheduled reconsideration of the bill for early 1991, when they are expected to offer modified legislation retaining the provisions on covert operations in Afghanistan and other countries.

23 See Steve Coll and James Rupert, "Afghan Rebels Veto Drive for Kabul," Washington Post, November 4, 1990.

24 "Kabul Rebels Reported to Kill 200 Soldiers," New York Times, November 11, 1990.

25 See Ahmed Rashid, "New Soviet Aid to Kabul Threatens Afghan Peace Plan," The Independent, January 24, 1991.