San José State University
Department of Economics
Thayer Watkins
Silicon Valley
& Tornado Alley

The Communist Regime
in Afghanistan

This is the story of the communist regimes that ruled Afghanistan from 1978 to 1989; how they came to power, how they ruled and how they fell from power. At first it might seem paradoxical that communism would ever come to a country as conservative and traditional as Afghanistan. But it is not so odd at all. In actually communism as it developed under Stalin is a form of feudalism, almost tribalistic feudalism. For the intellectuals of a feudal country the ideology and practices of communism are much closer to their culture than the Western market economies. So the intellectuals of Afghanistan found it easier to understand the Party-dominated society of the Soviet Union than they did the seemingly chaotic societies of the West. When this cultural familiarity was coupled with the common belief that socialism and central planning were progressive it was easy for Third World intellectuals to say, "Yes, let us leap frog over the messy social system of capitalism and achieve the promised land of communism."

The episodic course of communism in Afghanistan stems in part from communism's Leninist nature and in part from the special nature of Afghanistan. Afghanistan is not truly a nation. It is a geographic area, filled with diverse tribal groups. It was a mountainous place of refuge for these tribal groups and it was a buffer zone between the Russian Empire and the British Empire. Afghanistan can only work as a country with some federationist structure but unfortunately forces from within and/or from outside of Afghanistan keep trying to impose a unitary political structure. The disparate elements have to resist forcefully this assimilation and prevent their own annihilation, and sometimes in the process some one of these elements gains control of the central authority. So Afghanistan history is filled with episodes of control by one ethnic or political group and then another.

One movement of importance in twentieth century Afghanistan was the reformists. A variety of political factions supported reform in Afghanistan and those factions were allies when they were far from power and rivals when they were near to power. Thus Marxist intellectuals could support other non-Marxist reformists when any reform was doubtful. The story of the Afghan reformists is told elsewhere.

Marxism should be distinguished from the adherence to communism which is more specifically the creation of Lenin and Stalin and which is only nominally Marxist. Soviet communism turned out to be basically industrial feudalism with elements of Russian nationalistic tribalism. Maoism is an even more primitive social system that is basically and blatantly tribalistic. Marxism within Maoism is little more than anti-capitalistic rhetoric.

Probably the first major figure in Afghanistan who could be identified ideologically as a communist is Abdul Rahman Mahmudi. He established a radical newspaper called Nida-ye Khalq, the Voice of the Masses, and then formed a political party called Khalq, the Masses, among the students at Kabul University. This took place in the late 1940's and early 1950's. Mahmudi was imprisoned but then released just before his death in 1963. Mahmudi's relatives continued his political movement into the 1970's. This movement then gave rise to a Maoist movement organized around the journal Shula-ye Jawid, Eternal Flame.

In the 1960's one of the most prominent leftists was Mir Muhammad Siddiq Farhang who identified himself as a democratic socialist. Nur Muhammad Taraki was another prominent leftist of the period. Taraki worked in Bombay for the Afghan Fruit Company and joined the Communist Party there. Taraki was later a key figure in the communist movement in Afghanistan after his return to Afghanistan from India.

The Overthrow of the Monarchy and
the Creation of the Republic of Afghanistan

King Zahir

Mohammad Zahir Shah was the king of Afghanistan until July 17th, 1973. He was overthrown by his cousin, who was also his brother-in-law, General Mohammad Daoud Khan. General Daoud proclaimed the end of the monarchy and the formation of the Republic of Afghanistan.


General Daoud governed Afghanistan for five years.

The Leftist Coup d'État

In 1979 a prominent leftist, Mir Akbar Khyber, was killed by the government and his associates, Nur Mohammad Taraki, Barbrak Karmal and Hafizullah Amin, fearing that a similar fate lay in store for them, organized a coup d'état.


After the coup succeeded Taraki became President and Hafizullah Amin became prime minister. Barbrak Karmal went into exile in Moscow.


Taraki and Amin imposed extreme reforms to be carried out in a short period time with little concern for the Afghan culture. Some measures such as the emancipation of women were desirable but, given the cultural setting, were imposed too rapidly. These measures provoked resistance which spread throughout the country.

The Downfall of Nur Mohammad Taraki

Taraki as president of Afghanistan attended a conference of so-called nonaligned(?) nations in Havana, Cuba. On his way back stopped in Moscow to meet with Leonid Brezhnev. Brezhnev advised Taraki to ease up on the drastic social reforms and to seek broader support for his regime. Brezhnev also advised Taraki to get rid of his prime minister, Hafizullah Amin. Unbeknownst to Taraki his body guard was an agent for Amin. The bodyguard reported to Amin the intention of Taraki to strip him of his power.

After Taraki returned to Kabul he requested that Amin meet with him. Amin agreed to the meeting only if his safety was guaranteed by the Soviet ambassador. Such assurances were provided, but not in good faith. Amin knew however what Taraki's intentions were and the demand for his safety being guaranteed by the Soviet ambassador was probably a shrewd ploy on the part of Amin to mislead Taraki. Being forewarned, Amin used the palace guard to take Taraki prisoner. Amin then took control of the government. A few days later Amin's government announced that Taraki died of an "undisclosed illness". The "undisclosed illness" was that of being held down by the Palace Guard while he was strangled and smothered with a pillow. Taraki's "illness" only lasted ten or fifteen minutes.

The Regime of Hafizullah Amin and Its Downfall

The Soviets accepted Amin's acquisition of power and tried to work with him. But Amin was, of course, very wary of the Soviets. The Soviets wanted to put troops in Afghanistan because they feared there would be an American invasion of Iran as a result of the hostage crisis. Amin feared the Soviet troops would be used to depose him.

Amin fearing for his survival and uncertain of whom he could trust started putting his relatives into positions of power. Amin put one of his nephews in charge of the secret police, but that nephew was assassinated. Amin moved his headquarters out of Kabul in concern for his own safety.

The Soviet Invasion

The Soviets decided to invade Afghanistan. They sent paratroops to capture and execute Amin. After Amin was taken care of, a bogus call was make for Soviet troops to enter the country. According to the Soviet's cover story they were only responding to a call for assistance from the Afghan Revolutionary Central Committee. According to them they were only complying with the 1978 Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Good Neighborliness. The execution of Hafizullah Amin was, according to the Soviets, the action of the Afghan Revolutionary Central Committee.


That committee then elected as head of government Barbrak Karmal, who was in exile in Moscow. Karmal returned to Afghanistan in a Soviet transport plane. He presided over the occupation of Afghanistan by 115,000 Soviet troops.

The Soviet Occupation

(To be continued.)

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