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The Death of a President

KABUL, Oct. 10 (Bakhtar).—Noor Mohammad Taraki, former president of the Revolutionary Council died yesterday morning of serious illness, which he had been suffering for some time.

The body of the deceased was buried in his family graveyard yesterday. [1]

Most observers date the end of the Saur Revolution to December 29, 1979, when the Soviet Union began its invasion and decade-long occupation of Afghanistan. In a symbolic sense, however, the revolution came to an end in late September of that year, when President Nur Muhammad Taraki was put to death on the orders of his erstwhile protégé, Hafizullah Amin. Since that time, there has been considerable speculation as to why Amin decided to assassinate Taraki. The most widely accepted theory is probably that Amin was afraid for his own position, afraid that the Soviet Union was conspiring with Taraki to eliminate him from power. A week or so before his death, Taraki had completed a trip that took him to Cuba and the Soviet Union. While in Moscow, he had met with Brezhnev, and it was later reported that Sayyid Daud Tarun, an aide-de-camp to Taraki secretly in league with Amin, had sent back word to Amin that the Soviets were planning on establishing a new coalition between Taraki and Karmal that would mean Amin’s ouster from power.

According to Hasan Kakar, who has written the best and most unbiased account of these events, the rift between Taraki and Amin had begun back in March of 1979, after Amin was promoted to first minister. One point of difference between the two leaders concerned relations with the Soviet Union, with Taraki advocating Afghanistan’s incorporation within the Soviet bloc and Amin wanting to maintain greater neutrality. Equally important was Amin’s increasing monopolization of power, which alienated him from Taraki and other former Khalqi allies who, “being more or less of the same age as Amin, felt a sense of rivalry with him. They rallied behind Taraki, who, as a cofounder of the party and as an elder, was like a father to them.” Thus began a complicated chess game, involving various Khalqi leaders and Soviet advisors, each working for himself and most deciding eventually that Amin was a danger to them all. Despite the growing animosity between them, Amin continued to build up Taraki’s cult of personality, by calling him “genius of the East,” “the powerful master,” and “the body and soul of the party,” all the time continuing to refer to himself as “his loyal disciple.” In Kakar’s analysis, however much Taraki enjoyed the attention lavished on him, he was not willing to serve “as a figurehead under ‘his loyal disciple,’” and he resisted Amin’s efforts to marginalize him. [2]

The first open demonstration of a rift came in July at a politburo meeting at which Amin blamed Taraki for the government’s failures. Taraki retaliated the next month, accusing Amin of nepotism. The climax came on September 14, following Taraki’s return from Moscow, when Amin was called to a meeting at the presidential palace. Despite assurances from Soviet advisors as to his safety, the meeting was a trap, during which Amin was to be captured or killed. However, Amin managed to escape from the ensuing gun battle, and, with his greater political strength in the armed forces and the military units of the Interior Ministry, he succeeded in having Taraki secretly arrested. On September 16, Amin was “elected” general secretary of both the Central Committee of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan and the Revolutionary Council, as well as president and first minister of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan. At the same time, newspapers announced that Amin had appointed a new cabinet, ousting Taraki loyalists. They also published a report that Amin’s ally, Tarun, had been buried without indicating that he had been killed protecting Amin during the skirmish in the presidential palace. People were also not told why the eastern city of Jalalabad was officially renamed Tarun shortly after Amin’s takeover or why the newspapers were declaring that “one-man rule will be no more in Afghanistan.”

Most important, no one yet knew the fate of Taraki, the once ubiquitous presence who without warning had disappeared from the news. This situation was untenable, and in early October Amin informed the press that the former president was gravely ill, without specifying the nature of the illness or appearing in any way saddened by the surprising and sudden decline of the man he had once so publicly worshiped. Kabul was inevitably awash in rumors about Taraki’s whereabouts, and they were only partially allayed by a two-sentence article that appeared in the press on October 10; it confirmed Taraki’s death and indicated that he had been buried in a family plot. Amin thereafter attempted to consolidate his own authority, but the Soviets had been committed to Taraki and his planned coalition with Karmal and the Parchamis. Although Taraki was now dead, the coalition was still a possibility, if only Amin could be removed from the scene. To accomplish this end, the Soviets set in motion their plan to topple Amin and return Karmal to Kabul aboard a Soviet aircraft, a move that would effectively place Afghanistan under Soviet control but at the price of alienating the people once and for all from the government.

Karmal’s return on December 27, 1979, effectively signaled the end of the Saur Revolution, but what of Taraki himself—the architect and most visible icon of revolution? Amin announced the death of his former mentor after a grave illness, but the truth of course was different and is worth recounting. And it can be recounted because one of the first official acts of the Soviet-installed Karmal regime was to publish an article on the “martyrdom” of Taraki at the hands of “Hangman Amin.” The focus of this article is a “confession” by Lieutenant Muhammad Iqbal, former head of the patrol group of the People’s House Guards, who, along with two other lower-ranking officers, was assigned the task of murdering the former president. Iqbal’s statement begins with a description of how he was coerced into participation in the murder by his commanding officer. Next comes a long account of trying to find the grave of Taraki’s brother, securing a shroud from a local shop, and finally getting the grave dug. Then comes the encounter with Taraki himself:

Rozi drove the car to the entrance of Koti Bagcha. After he entered, I followed him. We saw Wodood there standing to the west of a building standing on the steps. At this time, Rozi asked him where was “he”? He said “he” was here inside the room. Now the three of us went in. Rozi took out the key from his pocket. The down stair room was locked. He opened the door and entered. When he climbed the steps, he was followed by Wodood and me. We went upstairs. He knocked [on] the door. It did not open. He entered the room through another door. . . . We also entered as he called us to come in. Taraki was standing, wearing a cloak. Rozi told him he was being taken by us to another place. Taraki asked us to carry his bags. Rozi told him he should come down. The bags would be taken care of later on. Then Taraki went back and brought a small bag which he opened, saying it contained Afs. 45,000 and some ornaments. If his wife was still alive, we ought to deliver it to her. Rozi told him to leave the bag there as it would be taken there later on. Taraki led the way followed by Rozi. Wodood had taken one blanket from there. When we came downstairs, he told Taraki to go to a certain room.

. . . [Taraki] gave Rozi his wristwatch to be handed to Amin. Rozi left this on the table. Then he took [out] from his shirt pocket his party membership card and gave it to Rozi which he also placed beside the watch.

It was Rozi now that issued the commands. He took off the bed sheet and asked me to tie up his hands. Rozi tied one of his hands. I tied his other with the help of Wodood. Rozi asked us to stand there while [he] closed the door. We stood there. Taraki asked Wodood to give him a glass of water, Wodood ordered me to do so. When I took the glass Rozi told me it was too late. When I came back, Wodood asked me why I had not brought the water. I told him I was not allowed by Rozi. When Wodood took the glass, he was equally dissuaded. The next day, I asked Rozi why he did not permit us to serve Taraki some water? He said he did not want him to be in trouble after drinking water.

Afterwards, Rozi brought a bed and asked Taraki to lie down on it. After he lied down, I began to tremble. I could not move. Rozi closed his mouth. However, his legs began to kick. He hollered at Wodood to hold his legs. So he seized them but still they kicked notwithstanding. He asked me to hold his knees. After that, he pushed the cushion into his mouth. And when he released him, Taraki was dead.

There follows Iqbal’s account of how the three men took Taraki’s body to the Abchakan cemetery and buried it in the hole that had previously been dug. The confession concludes with a series of questions:


When Taraki was being martyred, did he not ask you to desist?


Taraki said nothing of the sort. He only gave us his watch and party membership card. And when Rozi ordered that his hands be tied, he even helped us in this. He said nothing at all.


When he was told to lie down, he said nothing. He just carried out the orders?


He said nothing to us. But with your permission, we can inform the people of Afghanistan the working people of the whole world that we as sons of the people were forced to do this. Whatever we are ordered by the party, we will carry it out. In order to hide his sins, from the people of Afghanistan, Amin resorted to this action. So he imposed this on us.


And Amin also forged a news item as if Taraki had died a natural death.


Please forgive me because I forgot to tell you about this beforehand. The guard commander told us that the news would be announced over the radio but in a different way. When we heard the announcement the next day, he told us that we were unduly upset. He had told us it would be announced over the radio in a different way. Then he telephoned our detachment that it must wait for contingency. [3]

Not surprisingly, Iqbal, Rozi, and Wodood, along with others associated with Taraki’s murder, soon met their own deaths, as Karmal tried to put as much distance as possible between himself and what the renamed Kabul New Times referred to as the “sanguinary Amin band.” [4] In an effort to salvage some credibility with the Afghan people, the new president, who had once refused to recite the bismillah before his parliamentary speeches, now not only regularly employed that phrase in his addresses to the people but even adopted a new emblem for the state consisting of a pulpit under an arch. The pulpit was included, according to Karmal, because “it is from the pulpit that thousands of the faithful are led to the right path.” Likewise, the new regime decided to abandon the all-red flag adopted by Taraki and return to a tricolored black, green, and red flag. The symbolism of this color scheme, according to the government press, was that black was the color of the great Central Asian mujahid Abu Muslim’s banner; green represented the “victory of our people over the British”; and red was the color of the standards under which the Ghaznivid armies converted the inhabitants of present-day Pakistan to Islam. [5]

Thus, along with Taraki were buried all pretensions to “jump start” a communist revolution in Afghanistan. Karmal inherited a government that had the full force of the Soviet Union behind it but that was devoid of moral authority. This more than anything else was the legacy of Taraki, a well-meaning but fatally misguided man who sought to help his people but brought only disaster on their heads. From Iqbal’s confession, it would appear that the visionary who wrote with passionate intensity of impoverished peasants struggling against ruthless oppressors went to his own death like the proverbial sheep to slaughter. Did he recognize that these men were his designated assassins? Did he know what was coming? The fact that he asked the guards to deliver money to his wife would indicate that perhaps he did. But why did he also give them his wristwatch and ask them to give it to his betrayer, Amin?

In reading this account, my mind turns to the story that was told of Abdur Rahman’s final days—how people from the countryside, hearing rumors of the amir’s illness, descended on the capital like vultures to a kill. Fearing that a mob might take hold of the body and rend it to bits should they try to carry it to the place where Abdur Rahman had chosen to be buried, the frightened courtiers who surrounded the dying amir decided to bury him in the palace grounds. So it happened, and fitting it was that the man who had so often fulminated against the falsity of courtiers had his final orders betrayed by those closest to him—while outside on the streets, the people he had ruled with an iron hand, sensing at last a weakness in their dying master, snarled and snapped like whipped dogs finally let off their leash.

How different Taraki’s death, though there are elements in common, most obviously the treachery of courtiers. Did Taraki’s dispatching of his wristwatch to Amin signal that he had forgiven him, or was it an ironic gesture perhaps, the return of a gift? There is another point in common with Abdur Rahman’s death, namely the secret burial, which was likewise undertaken to protect the courtiers who had sworn to protect their leader but who in the end chose the path of expediency. Missing from Iqbal’s story though is a sense of the main character. Abdur Rahman fought to the end against the disease that was killing him as well as against his enemies. Taraki, for his part, went quietly to his death, suffocated by his own guards. But this too was perhaps in keeping with the man and his life. Taraki was a storyteller, after all, a producer and consumer of myths, and it is thus especially fitting that the last thing to leave the hand of this “true son of the people” was his party membership card.


1. Kabul Times, October 10, 1979. [BACK]

2. Kakar 1995, 35, 36. [BACK]

3. Kabul New Times, January 23, 1980; reprinted in Afghanistan Council Newsletter 8, no. 2 (March 1980). [BACK]

4. Kabul New Times, headline of January 1, 1980: “Sanguinary Amin Band Ousted, United PDPA Ends Reign of Terror: Murderer Meets His Fate.” [BACK]

5. Kabul New Times, March 30, 1980. [BACK]

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