The April Revolution
When a group of ultra-left-wing Pashtun nationalist Communists - the Khalq ("Masses") wing of the Soviet-sponsored People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan - overthrow President Mohammad Daoud Khan on April 28, 1978, the so-called "April Revolution" seemed to usher in a new era in Soviet-Afghan relations and provided further confirmation of the revolutionary direction of the Third World. Only years earlier, Communists had come to power in Angola and Ethiopia, aided in their wars with neighboring enemies with Cuban troops and Soviet military advisers. While Egypt had shifted its allegiance to the United States under Anwar Sadat, much of the Middle East consisted of Soviet client states, such as Hafez Assad's Syria or Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Soviet military bases ringed Eurasia from the Black Sea to Tartus on the Eastern Mediterranean to Assab (now in Eritrea, then in Ethiopia) and Aden, in what was then South Yemen. Combined with Pakistan's fragile state after its 1971 defeat to India, the toppling of the Shah in Iran in the winter of 1978-1979, and Soviet strategic nuclear parity with the United States, the Revolution in Afghanistan first fit into the pattern of the decline of American prestige and power in the Third World, indeed in the world altogether.
My Best Friend, or My Worst Enemy?
Yet as Moscow quickly realized, as in so many other Third World locales, its new allies were to prove less than reliable. Whatever his faults, Daoud had served as the Minister of Defense and had extensive experience dealing with the outside world. The new leading clique of Khalqist Communists, on the other hand, were either products of an intelligent but grossly isolated Kabuli intelligentsia that still thought in terms of romantic Pashtun nationalism – as in the case of General Secretary Nur Mohammad Taraki – or thuggish recruiters of military officers, like the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Hafizullah Amin. In any event, unlike their more moderate Parcham (“Flag”) colleagues in the PDPA, by and large the Khalqist wing of the PDPA insisted that Afghanistan could only be transformed via violent socialist revolution, even if it meant conducting purges and mass killings reminiscent of the worst years of Stalinism. For men like Taraki and Amin, the Revolution could only be secured by following the example set by the Soviet Union in the 1930s; only by doing so could they build a strong state and consolidate a Kabuli state capable of extending the Revolution to tens of millions of Pashtun brethren in Pakistan, destroying the illegitimate “Punjabi dictatorship.”
Moscow, however, was poorly informed of the true intentions of the Khalqists. Some soviet scholars of Afghanistan like Nikolay Dvoryankov, a scholar of Pashto-language literature who had “discovered” Taraki for the Politburo in the 1950s and 1960s and helped raise his political consciousness, remained tethered to a romantic idea of Revolution that Khalq embodied. For them, Parcham – increasingly on the run as Khalq ramped up a campaign of terror in Kabul and the countryside – embodied the worst counter-revolutionary tendencies of bureaucratized Communist Parties. The entire point of Revolution was that it had to be swift, violent, and anti-democratic. Moscow’s lack of preparation came vividly to the forefront when Taraki and Amin conducted a joint visit to Moscow in the winter of 1978. Having expected to deal with the two Afghans through Dari-language interpreters (of which there were several), leaders like Brezhnev and top diplomats like Stanislav Gavrilov (one of the rising stars in the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs for Afghan matters) were bewildered when the pair insisted on speaking Pashto in public appearances and conducted themselves as Pashtun nationalists who also happened to be Communists.
Toward the "Second Stage of the April Revolution"
As the killing escalated to a point where the regime in Kabul lost control, and as the Soviet advisers in the country were targeted (as a battle in Herat in spring 1979 underscored), Moscow seemed to have a second Somalia on its hands. Having extended aid to a “socialist” regime, Soviet diplomats and aid specialists found themselves supporting an ultra-nationalist regime unsparing in its use of violence and threatening to turn strategic regions of the globe into potential theaters of an East-West nuclear conflict. In the meantime, Taraki had begun to plead with Moscow to send a “limited contingent of Soviet forces” into the country to clamp down on unrest and protect Soviet advisers in-country.
The risks for the USSR in the event of a regime collapse were clear enough: having tried to overthrow Daoud in 1975, Pakistan could turn Afghanistan into a protectorate of its own, severely diminishing the Soviet presence in South Asia. Islamic fundamentalist groups could potentially seep into the Tajik or Uzbek SSRs, degrading the internal security in a sensitive region of the USSR. And while the prospect may seem overblown today, Soviet leaders – operating at a time of the lead up to the NATO Double-Track Decision and the deployment of middle-range nuclear missiles in Europe – feared that a Western-aligned Afghanistan could serve as a base for strategic missile forces. Just as the U-2 flight from Peshawar had exposed the vulnerability of the USSR’s south to bomber attacks, American missile bases in Shindand or Bagram would leave the USSR surrounded on virtually all sides by hundreds of Pershing II and Cruise missiles.
What to do? Although the Turkestan Military Brigade of the Soviet Army, based in Central Asia, had already begun to conduct logistical preparations for a limited invasion in the summer of 1979, it was only after Amin’s murder of Taraki in September 1979 that Politburo leaders – in particular Yuri Andropov, Dmitry Ustinov, and Andrei Gromyko – agitated for a Soviet invasion to remove Amin (who was viewed as untrustworthy, having murdered a favored client of Moscow’s) and provide enough security to install a quisling regime led by the Parchamists, most of whom had been in exile at Afghan diplomatic missions in Eastern Europe since the summer and fall of 1978. On December 9, 1979, a cryptic handwritten note – “On the Situation in ‘A’” – vaguely approved the “evaluations and measures set forth” by Andropov, Gromyko, and Ustinov, and entrusted the troika “to keep the CC Politburo informed on the status of the execution of the outlined measures.” On December 27, 1979, Soviet special forces conducted an assault on the Tajbeg Palace where Amin had ensconced himself and assassinated the Khalq leader. That same day, Soviet ground forces began conducting a large ground invasion of the country with almost 2,000 tanks and some 80,000 soldiers. Having halted Khalq’s quest to build “Pashtunistan” through violence, however, the Soviet Army and its leadership now found itself accidentally destroying that vision for Central Asia’s future.