Preferred Citation: Kakar, M. Hassan Afghanistan: The Soviet Invasion and the Afghan Response, 1979-1982. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1995 1995.

Why Did the Soviet Union Invade?

The Dilemma of Afghan Reformist Rulers

President Amin showed concern about the independence of the country. While addressing a group of university professors whom he had invited to dine with him, he assured them, “You professors may or may not be with us, but as long as I am alive I will never allow any foreign power to dominate our fatherland.”[29] To his trusted military officers he was even more open, saying that he did not understand why the Soviets were working against his government. Even in the early days of the coup Amin had reprimanded Puzanov. One day Amin asked him, “What kind of communist are you that you make such demands of me? The people of Afghanistan,” he argued, “will never accept your demands, and if pressed, will make trouble for our governments.”[30] Puzanov’s response and the nature of the “demand” are unknown. On another occasion Amin was more emphatic. In October 1979 he told the American chargé d’affaires, “If Brezhnev himself should ask him [Amin] to take any action against Afghan independence,…he would not hesitate ‘to sacrifice his life’ in opposition to such a request.”[31] This was in fact what he did.

It was, however, Amin’s naivete, lack of experience, and belief in communist comradeship that prevented him from questioning how independence would be maintained once the Soviet Union had been allowed to penetrate the state. He failed to understand that the Soviet leaders preferred compliant rulers in countries such as Afghanistan. Their attitude toward rulers of the East European countries should have been a lesson for him. He and others also erred by depriving themselves of the advice of Afghans experienced in diplomacy and the art of government. Although a tyro in diplomacy, Amin felt confident in it. An observer has said of Amin, “His confident attitude, reflected in numerous off-the-record comments, was that he knew how to handle the Russians, who needed him as much or more than he needed them.”[32]

Amin faced the same fundamental problem that his reformist predecessors had faced before him: how to preserve the country’s independence and at the same time develop it with the credit and technical assistance of the Soviet Union, when other governments did not want to assist it substantially.[33] This dilemma has baffled all reformist Afghan rulers. Although concerned about independence, Amin wanted to develop Afghanistan with Soviet help, stating, “We are convinced that if there were no vast economic and military aid from the Soviet Union, we could not resist the aggression and conspiracies of imperialism, its leftist-looking allies [China and others] and international reaction, and could not move our country toward the construction of a socialist society.”[34]

By “military aid” Amin meant military weapons. From the April coup onward, Amin often stated that the Khalqis had made “the April Revolution” and that they were able to defend it. This claim was addressed both to the Khalqis’ home critics, who worried that the government had made the country so dependent on the Soviet Union that its leaders might one day make it part of their empire, and also to the Soviet leaders, in effect telling them that Afghanistan did not need their military help in defending the revolution. After Amin came to power, he made his view clear on this, saying, “We will ourselves defend our country…[and will] never give this trouble to our international brothers to fight for us.”[35]

Although the government was under pressure and the party divided, Amin had the wisdom and the courage to seek solutions through negotiation with adversaries, an approach that the Soviet Union opposed at the time but supported after ten years of war. Amin “was following in the footsteps of Moosa Shafiq’s government and Daoud, turning to a non-Communist neighbor in an effort to balance and reduce Soviet influence.”[36] This “non-Communist” country was Pakistan, which held a key position in balancing the already unbalanced situation in the region.

Amin knew that the Durand Line could be used by either Pakistan or Afghanistan against the other, depending on circumstances. When Amin usurped power, it was Pakistan’s turn. By that time nearly 400,000 Afghans had fled to Pakistan, and it was from among them that the Afghan Islamic organizations recruited men to fight the government. To make Afghanistan stable, Amin needed an understanding with Pakistan. In early December, Amin sought a meeting with General Zia al-Haq of Pakistan. On 19 December he announced that Pakistan’s foreign minister, Agha Shahi, was due to make an official visit on 22 December. Apparently because of snow in Kabul, Agha Shahi did not arrive on that day. Foreign Minister Shah Wali appeared desperate, anxious to see Agha Shahi in Kabul soon. A new date, 31 December, was set for his arrival at Kabul, but by that time the Russians had moved in.[37]

Amin also moved to negotiate with Afghan opponents. Reportedly through the mediation of a former member of parliament, Mohammad A’zam Shinwaray, representatives of the Islamic Party (led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar) and the government met somewhere in the frontier province of Kunar. An agreement for the formation of a coalition government was said to have been reached between them.[38] Amin’s moves were, however, noticed by the watchful eyes of the Soviet Union. On 31 October 1979 the Soviet politburo noted: “Disturbing signals are coming about Amin’s efforts to make contracts [contacts] with representatives of conservative Muslim opposition and leaders of tribes hostile to the government, in the course of which he shows readiness to come to an agreement on compromise conditions that are to the detriment of the country’s progressive development.” It also stated that Amin intended “to pursue a more balanced policy in relations with the Western powers”; indeed, “U.S.A. representatives after their contacts with the Afghans have come to the conclusion that it is possible to change Afghanistan’s political line in the direction which is favorable to Washington.” Calling Amin “insincere and two-faced,” the politburo held that he “not only does not stop anti-Soviet moods but in fact encourages them.” This comment referred to Amin’s disclosure that the Soviet ambassador had taken part against him in the abortive palace coup. Calling this disclosure of a fact to be “slanderous inventions,” the politburo concluded that “in Amin we have come across an ambitious, cruel, treacherous person who may change the political orientation of the regime.”[39]

Despite these misgivings, the Soviet Union instructed its officials to do business as usual with Amin until the Kremlin rulers were certain about his true intentions. For them it was not hard to become certain about those intentions: Taraki had assured his Kremlin comrades that “we will never be as close to anyone else as we are to you”;[40] by contrast, Amin proceeded to follow, in the words of the Kremlin masters, “a more balanced policy.” This was the broad line of policy that Afghan rulers had pursued in the past; but the Kremlin rulers held this policy to be “detrimental” to Afghanistan, as if they were also Afghan rulers. It was a plain fact that they were not the rulers of Afghanistan, yet they persisted in thinking that they were and, more ominously, in acting on that mistaken belief. Thus, on 12 December 1979 they decided that Amin must go and that they would rule Afghanistan through Karmal and his Parchami group.

In early December rumors circulated in Kabul that the Soviets intended to seek an alternative to the government of Amin. The situation at home and in the region seemed ripe for such a move.

Having suppressed many uprisings, the government had alienated the public. It had also eliminated public figures in the name of “socialism,” “revolution,” “progress,” and “toiling men and women,” and it had proclaimed the creation of a society “free of exploitation of man by man.” By labeling their opponents “counterrevolutionaries,” “reactionaries,” “narrow-minded nationalists,” “courtiers,” “feudals,” and so on, the new rulers provided themselves grounds to liquidate them. Actually, the Soviet advisers had initiated the program, but when the dogmatic, rough-edged rural plebeians directed the police state, they took the rhetoric more seriously than the Soviet advisers had probably imagined. The official party, because it had been split into factions, was in disarray. There was, in short, a power vacuum, and since there was no known figure around whom the opponents could rally, the Soviet leaders apparently assumed that with Amin removed, the compliant Karmal, backed by the Soviet might, would fill the vacuum.

The turmoil in the region also seemed conducive to such a move. The military regime in Pakistan, led by General Zia al-Haq, who came to power in 1977, and the religious regime in Iran, led by the Ayatullah Khomeini, who came to power in 1979, were grappling with serious problems. No outside power, especially the United States of America, was present in the region to counter the Soviet Union, as the British in India had countered Russia in the past. The United States, which had contained the Soviet Union in the 1950s by sponsoring the military pacts of SEATO and CENTO and had kept a presence in Iran since the end of World War II, had already backed away. Besides, in November 1979 the United States found itself confronted with the Khomeini regime over the problem of diplomats taken hostage by Iran. More important, the U.S. administrations had always considered Afghanistan to be within the Soviet influence. Still, the Soviet Union preferred to see its troops invited before moving militarily. The question thus arises, were the Soviet troops invited, or did the Soviet Union invade Afghanistan without an invitation?

Why Did the Soviet Union Invade?

Preferred Citation: Kakar, M. Hassan Afghanistan: The Soviet Invasion and the Afghan Response, 1979-1982. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1995 1995.