An article makes the rounds on the internet every few years purporting that the United States has killed more than 20 million people since WW2, across 37 nations. The first nation listed is Afghanistan, which is my sole focus today. and the United States is listed as culpable for 1–1.8 million deaths.
The article attributes 1–1.8 million deaths in Afghanistan to the United States, including all deaths associated with the Soviet-Afghan War which the article holds the United States responsible for. The article establishes American culpability through based on a 1998 interview with Zbigniew Brzezinski, influential national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter. The article quotes Brzezinski:
According to the official version of history, CIA aid to the Mujahadeen began during 1980, that is to say, after the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan on 24 December 1979. But the reality, secretly guarded until now, is completely otherwise. Indeed, it was July 3, 1979 that President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. And that very day, I wrote a note to the President in which I explained to him that in my opinion this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention.
Brzezinski then claims that “That secret operation was an excellent idea. It had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap and you want me to regret it?”
The implication is clear: the United States delivered aid to anti-Soviet insurgents in Afghanistan, and thus drew the Soviets into a “trap” — a trap in which hundreds of thousands of Afghans were collateral. Unfortunately, and somewhat ironically, I find this narrative (picked up by segments of the Left) to be incredibly American-centric, minimising the actions of the Soviet Union, and almost entirely erasing the central characters of the war — the Afghan people. Below I outline a more detailed chronology of the outbreak of the Soviet-Afghan War. While it will not fully absolve the United States of responsibility, it will contextualise the United States’ actions. Importantly, it will present a narrative that gives Afghans their due agency.
The Rise of Afghan’s Communists
Political divisions in Afghanistan reach far back in history, but one of the key divisions most relevant to the Soviet-Afghan War is from 1965 — the year the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, an Afghan Marxist-Leninist political party, was formed. It was the PDPA, its relationship with the Soviets, its actions, and its internal politics that would drive the Soviet invasion in 1979. Almost immediately upon formation, the PDPA was divided into vicious factionalism. Babrak Kamal led the Parcham faction, mainly consisting of urban intellectuals, and Nur Mohamed Taraki and Hafizullah Amin led the Khalq faction, supported mainly by Pashtun tribesmen.
In 1973, the PDPA supported a coup against the king of Afghanistan. Of particular importance was Colonel Kadyr of the Khalq faction. While this coup did not see the PDPA come to power, it did see the formation of the first Republic of Afghanistan, led by Mohammed Daoud Khan. The PDPA’s influence grew following the coup, and Colonel Kadyr established the United Front of Afghan Communists, a secret organisation within the Afghan military.
Following the coup, the Soviet Union established official and cordial relationships with Daoud’s government. The KGB, in contact with both factions of PDPA, encouraged them to end their in-fighting, and work together in support of Daoud. Against this advice, Colonel Kadyr and his military clique began plots for another coup. Kadyr kept this hidden from the KGB, fearing that he would not be given support by the Soviets for such an action.
By 1977 Daoud’s government, concerned quite rightly by PDPA infiltration and the threat of coup, escalated repression and mass arrests. Under intensifying repression, Khalq and Parcham put their differences aside and reunited the PDPA. Taraki and Kamal were nominated General Secretary and Deputy respectively. Amin, despite his influential position within Khalq, faced accusations of being a CIA asset and did not receive a position.
In April 1978, Mir Akbar Khaibar, a prominent member of Parcham, was assassinated. It was (and still is) unclear who was responsible, and accusations were levelled against both Daoud and Amin. Tens of thousands attended Khaibar’s funeral which soon became a political rally against Daoud. Fearing an uprising, Daoud reacted by cracking down against the PDPA. Kamal, Taraki and other leaders were arrested. Amin, however, avoided arrest long enough to send a message to Colonel Kadyr, ordering him to launch a coup. Changes of power in Afghanistan are rarely peaceful, and this Colonel Kadyr’s coup was particularly bloody. Dozens in the military were killed; Daoud and his whole family were massacred.
Released from prison, Nur Mohamed Taraki becomes president of Afghanistan: the PDPA take power.
The PDPA in power
Socialist rule was not without its benefits, and women famously walked the streets of Kabul in skirts. This westernisation was not warmly greeted outside of ubran areas, and the PDPA’s time in power would be marred with mismanagement and bloodshed, culminating in the Soviet invasion. Repression began almost immediately. Local leaders, mullahs, two past prime ministers and a number of generals are among forty people swiftly executed. Islamists previously stewing in prison were sentenced to death, and potential sources of opposition were assassinated, including 96 men from the Mujaddidi clan. The countryside quickly slipped away from the control of Kabul, if it can ever be said to have held it in the first place.
Law and order, never particularly secure in Afghanistan, collapsed. In one high-profile incident, the American Ambassador Adolph Dubs was kidnapped and murdered in February 1979.
The next month, a combined mutiny and popular uprising took over the city of Herat. The PDPA turned to the Soviets for intervention, but they were rebuked. The Soviets were highly critical of the PDPA’s leadership, its repression (particularly against Islam), and for not considering the realities of Afghan society. Without Soviet assistance, the PDPA retook the city through a bloody campaign of bombardment. An estimated 25,000 die. Herat marks a significant turning point — both as an egregious act of violence against Afghan citizens and a black mark in the PDPA’s relationship with the Soviets.
In April 1979 members of the Soviet leadership, including Gromyko, Andropov, Ustinov and Ponomarev penned a policy document highly critical of the PDPA. They note that Afghanistan was not ready for a socialist revolution, and they criticized the PDPA’s inexperience, their excesses, their bloody infighting, and their alienation of broad swathes of Afghan society. They stressed the need to allow freedom of religion, to follow the rule of law even when suppressing insurgents, and to allow better democratic participation.
To the dismay of the Soviets, the PDPA did not change course. Uprisings continued with revolts sweeping across numerous provinces. In June, thousands of Hazaras took to the streets of Kabul armed with knives and rifles to protest communist rule. Taraki and Amin conduct purges of the PDPA, exiling, arresting, torturing and executing a number of key Parcham figures.
The PDPA again petition the Soviets for armed intervention but are firmly rebuked. Even their suggestion that Soviet troops could disguise themselves in Afghan uniforms is denied.
US gets involved
The case of US involvement is often overstated, quite literally. Articles such as this and this report $500 million of aid was channeled to Afghan opposition groups, however I cannot find an original source for this figure. The first article sources Robert Gates’ memoir From the Shadows, but this provides a figure of $500,000, one thousand times smaller. I believe someone has misread “million” as “billion” along the way, and then this has been repeated across the internet.
In reality, in July 1979 President Jimmy Carter earmarked just $500,000 of non-lethal aid to support opposition to the PDPA. This only occurred following the mass arrests, exiles, uprisings, mutinies and bloodshed outlined above. At this time, it is estimated that the PDPA controlled only half of the country. This project included propaganda and psychological warfare operations only, such as providing radios, and no weapons were provided. The operation was spent within six short weeks.
US involvement prior to the Soviet invasion can, at the absolute most, be seen as an exacerbating force. Afghanistan was already in effective civil war, and there were already calls by the Afghan government Soviet involvement. Even if we stress the instability caused by this $500,000 of non-lethal aid, we will see that the Soviet decision to invade Afghanistan was not driven primarily by insurgency in the countryside, but by the turmoil in the halls of power of Kabul.
Game of Thrones: Afghanistan
Throughout 1979, Amin had been busy consolidating power for himself, and by the Summer he was a member of the Politburo, head of the Central Committee, Prime Minister and Deputy Chair of the Supreme Council of National Defence. Furthermore, he had managed to manoeuvre several family members and other loyalists into key positions. For example, his son-in-law was Chief of the General Staff. A key opponent, Karmal of the Parcham faction, was outmanoeuvred and sent into exile. A “Gang of Four”, Aslam Watanjar, Minister of Interior, Sayed Muhammad Gulabzoy, Minister of Communications, Sherjan Mazdoryar, Minister of Border Affairs, and Asadullah Sarwari, Director of State Security, formed a bloc as a counter to Amin’s growing power.
In September, the KGB noted its concerns about Amin in a brief to the Soviet Central Committee. It suggested Amin be removed from power for his role in the use of mass terror, intransigent focus on military rather than political solutions, and his failure to broaden a base of support (at this point, the PDPA numbered only 15,000). The KGB urged the Soviet Central Committee to pressure Taraki into relasing political prisoners, incorporate local leaders — including mullahs — into government, and in general just be less repressive.
The KGB showed strong support for the Parcham faction and suggested Amin and Taraki be replaced with Babrak Karmal. This suggestion was not favoured by the Soviet military who quite naturally had closer relations with the Afghan military, with its strong Khalq influence. From exile, Karmal did in fact try to organise a coup in early September 1979, however this failed following a tip off to Amin by the Indian government. Information reaching Moscow was confused and often contradictory, with different factions reporting different facts. This was exacerbated by, despite being increasingly more involved, poor organisation and governance on the ground. For example, the Soviets cycled through four ambassadors to Afghanistan in two years, only one of whom held experience with Central Asia.
In September 1979, against the advice of the KGB, Taraki left Afghanistan to attend a meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement. In Taraki’s absence, the rivalry between Amin and the Gang of Four escalated dramatically. Fearing arrest, the Gang of Four went into hiding and circulated leaflets calling for opposition against Amin.
On the 14th of September, Taraki rushed back to Afghanistan. The weakness of his position is evident, as Amin did not initially allow for his plane to land. Taraki tries to mediate a reconciliation between Amin and the Gang of Four, however this ends in a bloody shootout with Taraki’s aides and bodyguards left for dead and Amin running for his life. Amin, now openly defiant against Taraki, threatens to have him stripped of power, claiming the shootout was an attempted assassination.
The Soviets once again urged reconciliation between the factions of the PDPA. On the night of 14 September, Soviet pilots waited in their planes with engines running, just in the case they would need to quickly mobilise and rescue Taraki. Highlighting the tension present, Amin ordered the Afghan army to shoot down any plane leaving Bagram airfield.
On 16 September, having consolidated most organs of state under his patronage, Amin expels Taraki and the Gang of Four from the PDPA in a meeting carefully guarded by his loyal armed forces.
Amin’s Brief Reign
In the next week, in a surprising twist of circumstance for a Stalin-quoting, ruthless communist, Amin began to move closer to the United States. In meetings with diplomats and the US Under Secretary of State Amin notes he would like to improve relations. Simultaneously, criticisms of the Soviet Union grew, including accusations the Soviets were behind the (alleged) attempted assassination of Amin.
On 8 October, Taraki is assassinated under the order of Amin. The Soviets would not find out until days later. Repressions continued under Amin, as do uprisings. The 7th Infantry Division, stationed just outside of Kabul, mutinies.
Having had enough, on 10 December the Soviet Union begins to draft plans for the deployment of 75–80,000 troops to Afghanistan. On 12 December, the Politburo meet. Andropov raises the old accusation that Amin was a CIA asset, which seems to marry well with Amin’s turn towards the United States. Babrak Kamal, still in exile, is put forward as a viable alternative to Amin. Gromyko’s memoirs note the significance of Taraki’s murder in the decision to intervene:
This bloody act [the assassination] produced a shocking impression on the Soviet leadership. Brezhnev was particularly upset by the murder. It was in that context that the decision was finally taken to introduce a limited contingent of Soviet forces into Afghanistan.
Having determined that it would be impossible to work with Amin, the Soviet leadership moved forward in their plans to replace him. On 13 December, the KGB attempted to assassinate Amin with a poisoned soft drink, but instead poisoned his nephew, the head of the counter-intelligence service. In a subsequent attempt a few days later, an entire dinner party falls ill. Ironically, Amin is treated by Soviet doctors who were unaware of the plot to kill him.
On Christmas Day 1979, Soviet troops crossed into Afghanistan. This was welcomed by Amin, who believed that the Soviets had finally agreed to support him militarily against insurrections. Two days later, however, the Soviets revealed their intentions and stormed Amin’s palace. Within forty-five minutes, hundreds of guards, Amin himself, and the palace cat were all dead.
A recording of Karmal is quickly broadcast across the radio, and Karmal returns to Kabul to take the mantle of president. In true Afghan fashion, Karmal’s first acts, against the wishes of the Soviets, is to conduct a purge and repression of the Khalq faction.
Brzezinski, Memory and a Soviet Vietnam
It was only in 1980, as the Soviets struggled to stabilize Karmal’s regime and became embroiled in an increasingly lengthy and bloody war, that the United States began Operation Cyclone. At first with modest beginnings, this operation would escalate and funnel billions of dollars of arms to the Afghan Mujaheddin, mostly through the Pakistani ISI. Operation Cyclone has become a focus point in discussions of the Soviet-Afghan War and is used to frame the September 11 attacks as blowback from US actions. These discussions are fair and vital, however, they are often linked disingenuously with Brzezinski’s comments and the prior aid given to the Afghan rebels, to purport that the United States were a driving factor in the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
So what of the Brzezinski interview? Is that not evidence that the United States tried to lure the Soviet Union into the war?
Firstly, President Carter denies that this was his intention, and Marshall Shulman, the aide to the Secretary of State claims they worked hard to avoid such a thing. It is also key to read Brzezinski’s comments in context:
Question: The former director of the CIA, Robert Gates, stated in his memoirs that the American intelligence services began to aid the Mujahiddin in Afghanistan six months before the Soviet intervention. Is this period, you were the national security advisor to President Carter. You therefore played a key role in this affair. Is this correct?
Brzezinski: Yes. According to the official version of history, CIA aid to the Mujahiddin began during 1980, that is to say, after the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan on December 24, 1979. But the reality, closely guarded until now, is completely otherwise: Indeed, it was July 3, 1979 that President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. And that very day, I wrote a note to the president in which I explained to him that in my opinion this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention.
Q: Despite this risk, you were an advocate of this covert action. But perhaps you yourself desired this Soviet entry into the war and looked for a way to provoke it?
B: It wasn’t quite like that. We didn’t push the Russians to intervene [emphasis mine], but we knowingly increased the probability that they would.
Yes, even Brzezinski, in the very same interview used to evidence his culpability, claims they were not pushing for Soviet intervention, although he acknowledges it may have increased the probability they would. In the following question, he also speaks of drawing the Soviets into their “Vietnam war”.
Q: When the Soviets justified their intervention by asserting that they intended to fight against secret US involvement in Afghanistan, nobody believed them. However, there was an element of truth in this. You don’t regret any of this today?
B: Regret what? That secret operation was an excellent idea. It had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap and you want me to regret it? The day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter, essentially: “We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam war.” Indeed, for almost 10 years, Moscow had to carry on a war that was unsustainable for the regime, a conflict that brought about the demoralization and finally the breakup of the Soviet empire.
However, memory can be a fuzzy thing. Primary sources at the time show that Carter, Brzezinski and Gates were surprised by the intervention. The CIA did not believe that the Soviets would intervene, and from our chronology above we also see that the Soviets adamantly refused to intervene until finally Amin pushed them over the edge in late 1979. In What We Won it is shown that the CIA did not believe the Soviets would intervene significantly, Carter was surprised by the intervention, and regrets the poor intelligence. His surprise is evident in his diary:
According to Carter’s diary, the president and his team decided to regard the Soviet invasion as “a radical departure from the reticence which the Soviets had shown for the last ten years since they overthrew the government of Czechoslovakia” and “to make this action by the Soviets as politically costly as possible.”
Brzezinski is also unlikely to have laid a trap for the Soviet Union to fall into a “Vietnam War” situation. The day after the Soviets crossed into Afghanistan, Brzezinski penned a memo outlining his scepticism towards such a venture:
In Ghost Wars, Steve Coll suggests that in the interview above, Brzezinski implies “he had slyly lured the Soviets into a trap” however:
His contemporary memos — particularly those written in the first days after the Soviet invasion — make clear that while Brzezinski was determined to confront the Soviets in Afghanistan through covert action, he was also very worried that the Soviets would prevail. Those early memos show no hint of satisfaction that the Soviets had taken some sort of Afghan bait. Given this evidence and the enormous political and security costs that the invasion imposed on the Carter administration, any claim that Brzezinski lured the Soviets into Afghanistan warrants deep skepticism.
I believe the full narrative I have outlined above should show the relative unimportance of US actions, prior to the Soviet invasion. By the time the, lets be blunt, trivial amount of non-lethal aide had been signed by President Carter, Afghanistan was already in open revolt. It was popular uprisings and mutinies that led to incidents such as the Herat Uprising, not non-lethal US aid. Furthermore, the incessant factionalism and violent politics of Afghan governance existed from the very creation of the PDPA, and while outside the remit of this essay, extend much further back. While I traditionally shy away from “Great Man” versions of history, Amin and his numerous feuds are key components in the invasion. In fact, it was not mass uprisings or insurrection that compelled the Soviets to finally militarily intervene, but Amin’s rise to power.
Sorry for the poor citing this time around. I drew predominately from Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979–89, by Rodric Braithwaite. I also drew from Revolution Unending: Afghanistan, 1979 to the Present by Gilles Dorronsoro, What We Won: America’s Secret War in Afghanistan, 1979–89 by Bruce Riedel, Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan and Bin Laden by Steve Coll, and a few other notes linked in the text above.