Author: Nasir Shansab Nasir Shansab
Early in the morning of April 17, 1978, Communist officers of the mechanized division stationed at Polecharkhi, approximately 15 miles outside Kabul, wrested control of the command and ordered a task force of about 200 tanks and armored vehicles to move toward the capital. An explosive confrontation was set in motion, a battle that would pitch a peaceful and deeply religious people against a group of hardcore Communists and its mighty patron, the Soviet Union.
Once inside the city, Major Watanjar, a Soviet-trained Afghan army officer and commander of the assault force, dispersed his troops to secure sensitive government installations. Tanks surrounded the presidential palace and blocked major intersections. Inside the palace grounds, the commander of the heavily armed presidential guard of about 2000 men resolved to stand his ground.
Major Watanjar made sure that sensitive government installations ― among them the city airport, the central telephone exchange, the government-run Radio Afghanistan building, and the ministry of interior ― were under his control. Whether it was a stroke of luck or careful planning by the Afghan Communist Party, all the ministers were assembled at the presidential palace for a cabinet meeting. By the time President Daoud and his ministers realized what was happening outside the high walls of the palace, they were cut off from the outside world, unable to contact the substantial military forces stationed outside the capital.
In the meantime, Colonel Abdul Qader, a Communist air force officer, flew by helicopter to the Bagram military airbase about 30 miles to the north of Kabul. Aided by Communist officers within the Bagram airbase, Qader shot the commanding officer and assumed command of the base, ordering that fighter planes and bombers be prepared and armed.
At midday, the battle for the presidential palace started. The opening salvos ruptured the silence that had settled over the city, a tragically destructive war of liberation that would consume the lives of almost two million Afghans, displace several millions more, and completely destroy Afghanistan’s government institutions, the country’s economy and infrastructure.
In a desperate mission to seek help, General Ghulam Haider Rasooli, Daoud’s minister of defense, was able to slip out of the presidential palace. He went to the 8th division stationed about eight kilometers north of Kabul. The officers stationed there reluctantly followed the minister’s commands to send the division into action to defend the government. Soon after leaving the garrison and while marching down the road toward the city, the unit came under fire from the surrounding hills. Mutinous Communist troops had already taken control of the air defense installation on top of the hills and were firing down on the detachment below. Realizing that further down the road anti-government mechanized troops blocked the way, the 8th division retreated into its garrison.
Defense Minister Rasooli also succeeded in reaching the 7th Division on the western outskirts of Kabul and ordered it to defend the government. He was more successful there. The Communist officer who had attempted to take command of the division was shot dead and the troops started toward Kabul. But before reaching the city limits, the advancing unit was attacked by a tank force while jet fighter planes strafed and bombed it from the air. After sustaining heavy losses, the surviving men of the 7th division began a disorderly retreat back into their barracks.
In a nearly flawless operation, Watanjar’s armored unit and Qader’s air force planes demolished the palace defenses and wiped out the presidential guard. The guard’s defenses were simply no match for the 20 mm cannon shells and the precise bombing by low-flying MIG planes.
Finally, early in the morning of April 28, the guard surrendered. Within 48 hours and at the cost of an estimated 5000 lives, the Communists brought the entire country under their control. This successful Communist coup and the subsequent establishment of a Soviet-style socialist state in Afghanistan was the culmination of long and patient preparations by dedicated Soviet cadres and their Afghan counterparts.
When the long column of tanks and armored personnel carriers began their slow rumbling course toward Kabul on that crisp, sunny April day, the Afghan people were unaware of the dramatic changes about to descend upon them.
Afghanistan’s rich and powerful elite had been entranced by their long hold on power. Having occupied a position of authority and privilege for almost half a century, they held fast to the notion that they were born to rule. Not even the 1973 coup that had abolished the monarchy and proclaimed the country a republic had shaken their dreamlike perception of an eternally enduring security.
All thoughts of a possible future turmoil had been brushed aside. After all, nothing much seemed to have changed. With Mohammad Daoud, the president of the new republic and the deposed king’s cousin, at the helm of power, the dynasty survived almost intact and its support structure of hereditary religious families and conservative provincial khans remained in place……or so it seemed.
The same long rule, and the lack of an alternative powerful enough to sweep away the entrenched power structure, had bred among the populace a subconscious indifference that manifested itself in utter resignation. The vast majority of Afghans were resigned that their fate was meant to continue unchanged, perhaps forever.
These socio-political conditions and the widespread poverty in Afghanistan presented fertile ground for Soviet Communist cadres. They penetrated Afghan society as part of the Soviet Union’s rejuvenated plan to expand Communism throughout the world. Having failed to penetrate the industrial democracies of Western Europe during the 1940s and early 50s, the Soviet Union turned its attention to the poor, agrarian societies of the Third World, where democracy and the rule of law had not yet been established. Since these countries lacked a large industrial workforce, the Kremlin’s original target for its global plans, Soviet leaders chose a completely new target. They aimed at the Third World’s impoverished bureaucrats, officer corps, frustrated academics, and the rapidly growing student body.
Poverty, lack of opportunity, social injustice, and political subjugation weakened the Afghan people’s traditional social order in the cities and alienated the growing group of intellectuals. Modern secular education and increasing urbanization detached the literate townspeople from their traditional socio-cultural backgrounds and weakened the stabilizing force of their indigenous cultural values. The intellectuals outside the ruling circles were shaken in their sense of self-worth and searched for ways to compensate for their inner turmoil and to find a new sense of direction in their hope for change.
The conditions were ripe for KGB-led Soviet Communist cadres to penetrate disaffected sectors of Afghan society economically, culturally, and politically. Once the process was initiated, it led to the establishment of a Communist system and brought about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
When the Communists launched their violent coup in Kabul, it was one of those moments in history when ideologues, inspired by their own vision, see themselves destined to convert others to their own understanding of social order. But the vast majority of Afghans did not emulate the Communist officials’ self-righteous behavior and disrespect for their personal freedom. Ultimately, it was Afghanistan’s peaceful and stoic villagers who took up arms and rose in rebellion.
In October 1978, the first reported instance of resistance occurred in the sparsely populated and mountainous Nouristan Province. Due to its rough terrain, lack of roads, and distance from the capital, Nouristan had always enjoyed a large measure of autonomy. The central government maintained merely a nominal presence on the fringes of the province. Nouristan’s inhabitants were accustomed to solving their problems themselves and resisted outside interference. When officials of the new Communist regime sought to impose their values and ways on this traditional society, the Nouristanis sent them packing.
The Communist regime’s response was swift and bloody. Tanks and heavy weapons were dispatched to the province. The air force bombed the villages, causing many casualties and inflicting extensive damage.
Shortly after the rebellion in Nouristan, a similar incident took place in Badakhshan, an isolated region in the northeastern part of the country. Here, too, the arrogant behavior of young, inexperienced officials dispatched from Kabul to begin the communization process led the people to revolt. As in Nouristan, the Communist regime in Kabul ordered bombardment of villages and townships, subsequently sending mechanized ground units to Badakhshan to suppress the rebellion. As had been the case in Nouristan, here, too, the able-bodied men retreated to the mountains and the advancing troops entered bombed-out villages populated only by old men, women, and children.
The first major disturbance challenging the Kabul Communists happened in Herat in western Afghanistan. On March 5, 1979, angry peasants from Herat’s surrounding villages who resented the attempts of overzealous Communist cadres to enforce socialist reforms marched to the city. In Herat, they were joyfully received by the equally resentful Heratis. Together, the peasants and townspeople marched to the prison and, after overcoming the prison guards, freed all political prisoners.
A desire for vengeance overcame the swelling crowd. In a violent rampage, it hunted down Soviet military advisers and killed them. Known Communist party members were also sought out and executed.
Approximately 1,200 officers and enlisted men of the city’s military garrison shot their Communist officers and joined the civilian uprising. Only a small military detachment guarding the city’s central telephone exchange refused to link up with the uprising and lost their lives in the ensuing battle.
The Communist regime’s response was deadly. Afghan air-force units at the nearby Shindand airbase bombed rebellious villages and the Herat garrison. Many hamlets were destroyed, the garrison was flattened, and the division wiped out.
At the same time mechanized ground units with tanks and heavy artillery set out from Kabul and Kandahar. Once ground troops had occupied the city, thousands of men were dragged out from their dwellings and summarily executed. The few mutinous soldiers who had survived the extensive bombing of the garrison were hunted down and shot on sight.
Available reports indicate that by March 20, when the city was recaptured and the uprising smashed, at least 25,000 had died, thousands had lost their homes, and additional thousands had fled to neighboring Iran.
The Soviet Union’s attempt to subsume Afghanistan in its Communist camp of nations was aided by the local disaffected intelligentsia, bureaucrats, and young, Soviet-trained military officers. The swiftness with which the Communists succeeded revealed the sickness within the Afghan society which had been caused by an ineffectual, corrupt, nepotistic, and oppressive feudal regime.
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was a watershed in the post-World War Two period. It was the first time that the Soviet Union invaded a country outside its direct sphere of influence. This departure by the Soviet Union from the tacitly agreed upon modus vivendi between the United States and the Soviet Union, sparked the largest covert operation in U.S. history in support of the Afghan resistance against Communism and the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
The Afghans fought and sacrificed almost two million of their compatriots in their struggle for freedom and the independence of their country. There is no doubt that their epic resistance accelerated ― if not actually brought about ― the collapse of international Communism and the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
First and foremost, the defeat of the powerful Red Army by a 3rd World nation, pricked the balloon of Soviet invincibility which contained protected the Soviet nomenklatura: the KGB, the military and the Party elites. Exacerbated by body-bags and maimed and wounded returning to Soviet cities and towns for the first time since the end of WWII, the mind-set of superpower superiority was traumatized.
It is no accident that the momentous events of 1989 followed; Tiananmen Square demonstrations in Beijing in June, the first ever free election in the Communist world in Poland in September and the fall of the Berlin Wall in November. These are only a few of the “unthinkable” events that precipitated Communism’s collapse as a major competitor to the free world.
No reflection on the resistance of the Afghan people to Soviet Communism would be complete without comment on subsequent events. At the war’s end, the fabric of Afghan society was destroyed -- economically, socially, politically and culturally-- almost entirely by Soviet and Communist actions. It was on the near corpse of a nation that subsequent cancers developed, such as fragmentation of the population, chaos, civil war, banditry, the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
It must be emphasized that the nationwide Afghan resistance never engaged in terrorism against civilian targets; that the fundamentalist Hekmatyar and other contingents which were so heavily favored by the Pakistani military at the time were the exception to the rule; that Arab fighters who came much later in the conflict and established Wahabism and Deobandism and Madrassas in Pakistan border areas with the consent of the Pakistani rulers were not an Afghan phenomenon.
Saudi funding with Pakistani logistical and political support fed, clothed and indoctrinated Afghan children who were impoverished refugees fleeing Soviet and Communist brutality. Indeed, it is now well known after years of denial, that the Taliban were a creation of the Pakistani Interservices Intelligence(ISI).
Soviet Communist subversion, invasion and destruction of Afghanistan is really responsible for the global threat of terrorism emanating from that part of the world, today.
True, the Afghans shed their blood for their own freedom. But in doing so, they also bestowed an invaluable gift on the world community. The United States won the Cold War without a direct military confrontation with the nuclear-armed Soviet Union although many shots were fired in proxy wars in Korea, Vietnam, and elsewhere. Central and Eastern Europe and large parts of Asia freed themselves from the iron grip of the Soviet Union. Democracy and individual freedom, only a distant dream for most of humanity, became a realistic goal for hundreds of millions of people. For all of that, the global community owes a large debt of gratitude to the valiant people of Afghanistan.
April 3, 2009