To understand why the Soviets intervened in Afghanistan on 24th December 1979, we first need to go back a few decades.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Afghanistan was still a quite fragmented country. Most of the population lived in rural areas, in their own tribes, with their own laws and social structures to follow. But if we were to identify a government of that time, it would be the monarchical political government of King Zahir Shah. As soon as World War II ended, King Zahir saw the need for Afghanistan to modernize, and as smart as he was, he used the Cold War situation to his own benefit.
While the major parts of the Cold War were filled with proxy wars, where the US and USSR supported different sides internationally, both superpowers also used soft power to get more influence around the world. Seeing this, King Zahir asked both superpowers to aid in building urban structures such as dams and bridges, and both powers did so in the hopes of getting more influence in Afghanistan. Another, more important and influential aid they did provide was education.
As part of the country’s modernization, the US and USSR welcomed Afghan college students to come to their countries to study, go through military training, and bring back to Afghanistan the new skills and knowledge they learned. However, knowledge wasn’t all that they brought back. As the students reentered their country, there were differences in ideological beliefs. Students from the US believed in the power of liberalism, while those from the USSR believed in communism, and this was the first step to a divided Afghanistan.
Those who became radical communists grouped up at Kabul University, and created the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, or the PDPA, under the man Nur Muhammed Taraki. At first, they were nothing but part of college and street fights against other Islamic groups. However, on July 17 1973, Daoud Khan, King Zahir’s power-hungry cousin, staged a bloodless coup against the monarchy and established a government using the help of the PDPA militants and minds. This provided the very first opportunity for PDPA to sit in the chairs ruling Afghanistan.
With PDPA members in power, drastic changes were seen in the government, as the communists were extremely atheistic, were giving women more rights, and were collecting new taxes for things like land reforms.
Yes, in a modern society that sounds like amazing work. But if we think of all these actions from the viewpoint of Islamic tribal groups, atheism was just simply unacceptable, the equality was disturbing their traditional social feudal structures, and the taxes were completely unnecessary as they lived just fine as they were.
That was when the resistance began.
Albeit the tribes didn’t rebel together, primarily due to their generational blood feuds and predestined cultural differences, their goal was the same: to fight for god, for religion, for family and for the faith they believed in. So comes the resistance’s name Mujahideen, a “holy war”, with the warriors as jihadis or “holy warriors”.
Seeing the formation of a completely uncoordinated but extremely determined and wildly mannered resistance forming, Daud Khan, scared of losing power, made the worst decision possible at that time: he chose to betray. He believed that his ties with the PDPA would lead to his downfall, so in less than two years of power, he began cutting all ties with the party.
The reason why that was the worst decision possible was that the communists made up most of his military, and one thing we have learnt from the Soviets and from humanity, in general, is never underestimating the power of belief. So, rather than allowing themselves to be cut off, the communists retaliated from inside and outside of the government. With hatred in their hearts, they began the Saur revolution of 1975. They completely destroyed, yes, literally destroyed Daud Khan and any that called him family, to establish the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan for the next decade or so.
But like how there is a difference between “existing and living”, and there is a difference between “hearing and understanding”, though Afghanistan became the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan and became a communist state, the question is… was it really? Now, that’s something to explore in the next episode of some more extremely random history with me!
history.com editors. “Cold War.” HISTORY, 22 Aug. 2018, www.history.com/topics/cold-war.
“The Afghan-Soviet War (1979-1989) | FULL DOCUMENTARY.” Www.youtube.com, youtu.be/Ge6ricoCrmA. Accessed 28 Feb. 2022.
“A Communist History of Afghanistan.” The Indian Express, 27 Aug. 2021, indianexpress.com/article/research/a-communist-history-of-afghanistan-7473493/.
Synovitz, Ron. “Afghanistan: History of 1973 Coup Sheds Light on Relations with Pakistan.” RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty, RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty, 18 July 2003, http://www.rferl.org/a/1103837.html.
Written By: Padma
#2 Soviet-Afghan War Series: So what happened 42 years ago?