Afghanistan Analysts Network – English


Thematic Dossier XVIII: The PDPA and the Soviet Intervention

AAN Team 8 min

40 years ago today, the Saur Revolution, as it was called – although it was in reality never anything more than a military coup d’etat – threw Afghanistan into upheaval and subsequently, decades of conflict. To mark the event, we have put together a dossier of AAN dispatches and papers. They include four new dispatches which consider the coup and its consequences and previous publications which look at the war crimes of that era and the resistance, the 1979 Soviet intervention and the successor parties of the PDPA, which are still active today.

A Five Afghani postage stamp celebrating the ‘Saur Revolution’ of April 1978.A Five Afghani postage stamp celebrating the ‘Saur Revolution’ of April 1978. Photo: Democratic Republic of Afghanistan. Wikipedia - CC0.

On 7 Saur 1357 – 27 April 1978 – a group of military officers aligned with the leftist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) overthrew President Daud Khan and seized power. Their leader, Nur Muhammad Taraki, called the coup a short cut to “the destiny of the people of Afghanistan.” However, his party base was limited to some members of the urban intelligentsia, including some military officers. The new regime tried to transform Afghanistan, by force, into a modern, socialist state, imposing reforms and killing tens of thousands of people who were or appeared to be enemies of their new state. They included members of the old elite, mullahs, landlords, scholars, tradesmen and school children.

The persecution prompted resistance, both popular uprisings and mutinies in army garrisons. Twenty months later, the Soviet Union invaded to prevent the pro-Soviet Afghan state from collapsing. It stayed for ten years, while the United States, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and others funded and armed the resistance, which coalesced into the various factions of the mujahedin. Since then, Afghanistan has endured repeated cycles of conflict.

In this dossier, we consider various aspects of the PDPA and the Soviet military intervention.

The ‘Saur Revolution’, War Crimes and Resistance

1. An April Day That Changed Afghanistan 1: Four decades after the leftist takeover

Author: Thomas Ruttig
Date: 25 April 2018

Forty years ago, Afghanistan experienced its second military coup d’état within five years. The authoritarian President Muhammad Daud had seized power in 1973 without much attention abroad and even little notice in Afghanistan – Daud was a sardar (prince) and seen as just another new king, although he proclaimed a republic. It was the second coup, on 27 April 1978, that changed Afghanistan forever. The ‘Saur (April) Revolution’ toppled Daud and killed most of his family. Within 19 months, Soviet troops would invade to save the regime. The invasion, and the reaction of the West and regional powers, internationalised the conflict and turned into the last hot battle of the Cold War. AAN’s co-director Thomas Ruttig looks back at the events and their background.


2. An April Day that Changed Afghanistan 2: Afghans remember the ‘Saur Revolution’

Author: AAN team

Date 27 April 2018

It is forty years, today, since the coup d’etat which brought the leftist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) to power. That event has had far-reaching consequences, plunging the country into a conflict from which it has yet to emerge and changing the course of almost every Afghan’s life. AAN has been speaking to a range of people about their memories of that day and how the coup affected them personally. They include students and workers, PDPA cadre and those who went on to become mujahedin or refugees, those who rejoiced at news of the coup and those whose close family members were subsequently disappeared (interviews by the AAN team, compiled by Kate Clark).


3.  An April Day that Changed Afghanistan 3: The war crimes of the ‘Saur Revolution’

Author: Patricia Gossman

Date: 30 April 2018

The coup d’etat that brought the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) was a watershed for Afghanistan, driving it into a conflict from which it has yet to recover and ushering in a whole new level of violence by the state against its citizens. Forced disappearances, the routine use of torture for punishment as well as to gain confessions, and massacres of civilians all marked the bloody period from 27 April 1978 until 24 December 1979 when the Soviet Union invaded. The veteran Human Rights Watch Afghanistan expert, Patricia Gossman*, here looks at those crimes and their legacy.


4. Assadullah Sarwari Freed from Prison: What chances of war crimes trials in Afghanistan?

Author: Ehsan Qaane and Sari Kouvo

Date: 6 January 2017

Assadullah Sarwari, one of a handful of convicted Afghan war criminals, has been released from prison in Kabul. As head of the intelligence service immediately after the 1978 communist coup d’état, he was responsible for the torture and arbitrary execution of thousands of detainees. Yet, the lack of transparency and the irregular and illegal aspects of his detention and prosecution (including 13 years of pre-trial detention and a continued three and a half years of detention after his sentence had been fulfilled) point to fundamental problems with the Afghan state’s capacity to deal with complex war crimes. This is significant, argue AAN’s Ehsan Qaane and Sari Kouvo, not the least in the light of the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) ongoing preliminary examination.


5. A 36-Year Wait for Justice? Dutch arrest suspected Afghan war criminal

Author: Kate Clark

Date: 1 November 2015

The Dutch police have arrested an Afghan Dutchman on suspicion of war crimes. Sadeq Alamyar has been accused of involvement in one of the worst atrocities of the Afghan war: the killing of hundreds of men and boys in the village of Kerala in Kunar province by an elite unit, on the night of 19-20 April 1979. As Kate Clark reports, the ‘Kerala massacre’ as it became known, has been well documented by human rights investigators, but 36 years on, this is the first time a suspected perpetrator may finally face justice.


6. Death List Published: Families of disappeared end a 30 year wait for news

Author: Kate Clark

Date: 26 September 2013

This week some Afghan families have finally been able to hold a fateha (mourning ceremony) for fathers, brothers and sons who disappeared more than thirty years ago. Evidence of the fate of their relatives came with the publication by the Dutch prosecutor’s office of a list of almost 5000 people killed during the first 20 months of communist rule, following the 1978 coup d’etat. But as AAN Senior Analyst, Kate Clark reports, these 5000 were only a fraction of the total number who were forcibly disappeared during this period or killed in subsequent phases of the war. There is still a long way to go in terms of dealing with the legacy of the horrors of the last thirty years. (With input by Thomas Ruttig.)


7. A Second ‘Death List’: More on those forcibly disappeared in the civil war

Author: Patricia Gossman

Date: 28 May 2014

After last year’s release of a ‘death list’ containing almost 5000 names of men who ‘disappeared’ in the late 1970s, another list is to be publicly available soon, this time listing 671 men who were forcibly disappeared during the civil war in Kabul in the mid-1990s. The document was put together, at the time, by a human rights group seeking to help the families, and will now be part of a digital database by the Afghanistan Documentation Project, containing documents related to war crimes and human rights violations committed in Afghanistan since 1978. The list features the names of some of those captured by the various rival militia forces during the intense fighting that engulfed the Afghan capital after May 1992 and includes students, labourers, merchants and civil servants. AAN guest author Patricia Gossman has sifted through the list and considers the tenacity of the phenomenon of disappearances in Afghanistan and how powerful the publication of the names of the disappeared can be.


8. Failings of Inclusivity: The Herat uprising of March 1979

Author: Charlie Gammell

Date: 15 March 2015

In the spring of 1979, Afghanistan was almost in open rebellion against the government of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA); first uprisings happened around the country. One, that started today 36 years ago in Herat, succeeded in driving out the ‘Khalqi’ government and controlling the city for three days of chaotic independence in which no one clear leader emerged. It was put down by government troops in a crackdown which, some claim, led to the deaths of over 20,000 civilians. Documents from the Soviet communist party’s politburo suggest the uprising in Herat was a decisive moment in the drift to the invasion. Those who took part in it reflected the wide variety of rural and urban Herati society – Sufis, Maoists, mullahs, teachers, students. Their unity of purpose masked their differences – differences which have still to be reconciled today, says our guest author Charlie Gammell.


The Soviet Intervention

9. An April Day That Changed Afghanistan 4: The evolution of the PDPA and its relationship with the USSR

Author: Thomas Ruttig
Date: 3 May 2018

After the leftists of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) seized power in the Saur Revolution of April 1978, the Soviet Union became Kabul’s key backer, to the extent of invading the country in 1979 to prevent local insurgencies and military rebellions toppling its new ally. AAN’s Thomas Ruttig here explores the relationship between the Soviet Union and the successive PDPA governments and armed forces that it backed, in an attempt to clarify how the chain of command worked. This is important because a person in authority who orders a war crime or fails to stop it being committed is considered guilty of that crime. The issue here is: who was actually in command in the PDPA governments and armed forces.


10. Six Days That Shook Kabul: The ‘3 Hut uprising’, first urban protest against the Soviet occupation

Author: Thomas Ruttig

Date: 22 February 2015

Today 35 years ago, the first large, urban uprising against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan took place in Kabul. It was eight weeks after Soviet tanks had rolled into the country to save the regime of the PDPA, which had taken over power in a coup d’etat 20 months earlier and quickly run up against resistance, particularly in rural areas. Many of the earlier, rural uprisings had been spontaneous, as there were no strong political organisations able to organise a more effective resistance yet. AAN co-director Thomas Ruttig summarises the events.


11. Crossing the Bridge: The 25th anniversary of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan

Author: Thomas Ruttig

Date: 15 February 2014

It was the last hot conflict of the Cold War: the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan between Christmas 1979 and February 1989. 25 years ago today, the last Soviet soldiers left the country, defiantly waving their banners and insisting they had not lost. A truce with Ahmad Shah Massud, the main northern mujahedin leader, had secured them an almost smooth withdrawal. The Soviet-backed regime held out unexpectedly for three more years, before collapsing after Yeltsin’s Russia stopped aid and major components of the armed forces defected to the mujahedin. Today, with the withdrawal of NATO combat troops looming, there is the question of whether history will repeat itself. AAN’s Senior Analyst Thomas Ruttig, who was in Kabul in 1989, looks back and also scrutinises what advice former Soviet general have for today’s foreign forces.


12. Two Interventions: Comparing Soviet and US-led state-building in Afghanistan

Author: Martin Kipping

Date: 15 April 2010

Although there is a broad consensus that building a capable and legitimate state is key to success in Afghanistan, there has been little systematic comparison between the current US-led intervention and the Soviet state-building intervention that took place between 1979 and 1989. This paper aims to remedy that by analysing the trajectories of both interventions. It focuses on three sectors of state-building: the security sector, fiscal policy, and state legitimation, and explores how issues of ownership and sequencing have influenced the outcomes of both efforts.


13. AAN Reads: The Soviets in Afghanistan, In Their Narrative

Author: Thomas Ruttig

Date: 3 June 2011

Rodric Braithwaite’s ‘Afgantsy’ has already deservedly been widely praised for its Soviet and Russian sources-based account of the Soviet intervention years in Afghanistan. AAN’s Senior Analyst Thomas Ruttig joins in, but finds that Artemy Kalinovsky’s ‘The Long Goodbye’ is a more than worthy addition on this issue.


The PDPA successor parties of the Afghan Left

14. The Ghost of Najibullah: Hezb-e Watan announces (another) relaunch

Author: Thomas Ruttig and Ali Yawar Adili

Date: 21 August 2017

A new attempt is underway to relaunch Hezb-e Watan, the ruling party that was revamped by President Najibullah in 1990 when he renamed the PDPA and tried to shed it’s communist past. Although the intention is to bring together an important segment of the former leftist forces in Afghanistan, the relaunch also has the potential to cement the existing fragmention. Whatever the case, the party will be entering the fray seeking to mobilise and court support as Afghanistan’s pre-election period begins to heat up. Thomas Ruttig and Ali Yawar Adili look into the party’s post-1992 history and the relationships between its many successor groups and discuss how this may affect its revival.


15. Islamists, Leftists – and a Void in the Center: Afghanistan’s Political Parties and where they come from (1902-2006)

Author: Thomas Ruttig

Date: 1 January 2006

With his new publication Thomas Ruttig presents us with a piece of work that is truly remarkable and unique in various regards. It is far more than a mere enumeration and characterization of political parties in Afghanistan, but rather an abstract of Afghan history with a particular focus on the development of organised political movements.




Daud Khan History PDPA Saur Revolution Soviet Union Taraki