Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Context and Culture

Failings of Inclusivity: The Herat uprising of March 1979

Charlie Gammell 16 min

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 (*).

Commemorating the uprising: a statue in Herat. Photo: Charlie Gammell

The Herat uprising or qiam of 15 March 1979, known in Herat by its Afghan date Qiam-e 24 Hut (in the rest of Afghanistan, it is commonly referred to as the Herat Uprising, qiam-e Herat), was a largely chaotic and ill-directed affair. It resulted in Afghanistan’s major western city being conquered – or liberated – by an assortment of various rebel groups and opportunists for a few days, before the government in Kabul managed to retake the city, at great cost to its inhabitants. Soviet sources estimated (here, p 34) that 20,000 Heratis took part in the uprisings across the province and in the city.

The suppression of the uprising – which occurred nine months before the Soviet military intervention – saw government tanks from Kandahar attack rebel positions in the city, positions which were weakened by the majority of the rebels having returned to their villages and homes after the initial days. A bombing campaign took out positions taken by rebels at strategic points in the city and its suburbs. The Ilyushin Il-28 aircraft sent in from Shindand air base were effective in scattering the resistance and caused damage to people and buildings alike. It was Herat’s first taste of war from the air. This initial attack was, despite assertions to the contrary, notably by Ismail Khan was certain that Soviet pilots bombed the city, carried out by Afghan pilots trained by Soviet mentors. Herat would have to wait for the war to begin to experience the full horrors of war from the air. During the years of jihad, Herat experienced the very worst of the war. Incident reporting from 1985 and 1986 show Herat as suffering the highest casualty rates, on all sides, and the highest incident count of any province in the country. One English visitor to Herat in the autumn of 1988 estimated the central district of Injil to be the “most damaged few square miles of Afghanistan.” (1)

Within a week, the qiam had ended and retribution was to follow. It has been alleged by Ismail Khan, among others, that over 24,000 Heratis were killed, both during the army’s response to the uprising and the intelligence service’s systematic rounding up of suspects in the months following. (He said the same to the author in an interview in Herat in January 2014.) This number was given some credence with the discovery, in 1992, of a mass grave to the north of Herat in which the bodies of 2000 people were found; however, many Heratis maintain these were actually bodies killed by the Khalqi intelligence agency (AGSA) (2) before the qiam erupted.

An ‘Islamic revolution’?

The qiam is occasionally termed wrongly an ‘Islamic revolution’ by some of Herat’s historians and writers. (3) The uprising sprang from a hatred of Khalqi oppression and that government’s reforms and their often brutal implementation, couched very much in the language of conservative, Afghan Muslim values, but it did not necessarily have a politicised Islamic narrative of the sort which were being formulated by Jamiat-e Islami, Hezb-e Islami and other Islamist parties in Peshawar and Kabul at the time. Herat had reacted apathetically to the coup which brought Daud to power in July 1973 and the Saur Revolution of July 1978 had been no different. The national membership of the PDPA at this time was little more than 12,000 people, mostly teachers and students. However, their impact in Herat was even less; other left-wing groups, in particular the Maoist Shola-ye Jawed (Eternal Flame) enjoyed more significant support there; their members figured prominently in the jihad as well as the qiam. (4)

Western interpretations of the qiam at the time saw it as, variously, an anti-Pashtun uprising organised by Burhanuddin Rabbani of Jamiat-e Islami from Mashhad and Peshawar (the top leaders of the PDPA came from the predominantly Pashtun Khalq faction – although this is not stressed in this particular theory), or that the events arose directly from opposition largely to the government’s land reforms. The CIA at the time thought the qiam had been made in Pakistan. (5) In a meeting of the Politburo on 17 March 1979, Soviet military and intelligence figures described the events in Herat as the work of “bands of saboteurs and terrorists, having infiltrated from the territory of Pakistan, trained and armed not only with the participation of Pakistani forces but also of China, the United States of America, and Iran” who were “committing atrocities in Herat.” It implicated the mujahedin. (6)

Everyone, somehow, got it wrong; there was almost no involvement of Iranian, Chinese or Pakistani agents in the qiam, either its planning or execution. Mashhad’s Jamiat-e Islami office had been aware of the unrest that was brewing in Herat in the weeks leading up to the qiam, but this hardly indicates, as one eyewitness and former mujahed asserted when I spoke to him in Herat in January 2014, that Iran had somehow influenced events. The truth, as is often stated by those who participated, is closer to the uprising having been a few days of rage at the brutal Khalqi oppression, an insurrection assisted by a mutinous army which, along with the rebels, chose to melt into the background when Kabul reasserted control.

How the events unfolded

In the early spring of 1979, much of Herat city and the districts were experiencing a tense, febrile atmosphere. Night-letters castigating the Khalqi government were in circulation in the city and murmurs of more frequent disappearances and torture in prisons and villages were becoming louder; occasional disturbances were reported.

The exact beginnings of the qiam are difficult to discern with any accuracy, and, as with many myths, the same story may be told as happening in different districts, and different parts of the province claim to have been the source of the uprising; “It all started in Pashtun Zarghun [district],” runs one account; “It was a beaten mullah in Ghurian” runs another; “It all started because of that article in [the local, then state-run newspaper] Etefaq-e Islam saying that God did not create the world and that man comes from a monkey” runs a third. (7)

In Pashtun Zarghun in early March, as per the reliable account of Herati historian Ahmad Shah Farzan in his important work, Qiam-e Herat, with prisons reportedly bursting with inmates, a local mullah at Friday prayers exhorted his flock to resistance against the communists, to defend their faith, customs, honour and dignity after a green flag of Islam, placed on a governmental building by rebels, had been torn down by the Khalqis. The government’s reprisals against this sermon were swift, with arrests made. The people of Pashtun Zarghun, led by their mullah, rose up against the Khalqis, and in a symbolic attack, highly indicative of the locus of Herat’s hatred for the Khalqi regime, targeted first the offices of the AGSA intelligence agency and the district centre, the hated heart of the Khalqi presence in the district. The green flag of Islam was placed again on the roof of the AGSA offices and chaotic and violent riots ensued.

To the west of Herat, in the district of Ghurian, on 9 March, a similar act of rebellion took place led by a man by the name of Khwajah Zabihullah. It involved rushing attacks on the district centre and spontaneous acts of violence directed at the regime and their representatives. From there, horses were sent east to Zendeh Jan, closer to Herat city, with a young soldier by the name of Nur Ahmad Ghuriani, to spread the news of these events in the districts. Farzan tells us of Zendeh Jan’s prisoners being sprung, although not before potential troublemakers had been executed by the AGSA in the mountains of Zendeh Jan and talks of sporadic violence in uprisings in the village of Shakiban.

Word of these uprisings, similar in scale to other disturbances occurring in the Hazarajat, Kunar and Kabul at this time, (8) soon made its way to Herat city, its bearers passing from east to west, inflaming the city with talk of an uprising. The villages of Teyzan, Ziyaratgah, Kart and Siyawoshan added their voices to the chorus of opposition. They marched to Gozarah, poised to enter Herat under the leadership of a Sufi pir by the name of Ghulam Nabi. While Farzan paints a picture of a vaguely organised but coherent assembling of protestors under the control of men who would go on to be future mujahedin commanders in the jihad against the Soviets, accounts from oral testimonies of eyewitnesses reveal a more chaotic scene in which anything approaching coherence or organisation was absent. Unity came solely by hatred of the Khalqis.

On the morning of 15 March 1979, Herat was tense; protestors had come in from areas such as Ghurian, Shakiban and Zendeh Jan and massed at the Iraq Gate to the west of the city. These men, armed with little more than their bare hands, or with shovels, hammers or pitchforks, faced tanks, lined up to repel any popular onslaught. The qiam began in several locations, with people attacking not only the Iraq Gate, but also the Qandahar and Malek Gates, flooding the narrow streets of the Old City and falling literally upon anyone they could see who might be construed as foreign or Khalqi. Soviet advisors in the city, if found, were killed. The number of those killed varies but a sensible estimate is that a handful of foreign advisors were killed during the uprising. (9) A reliable eyewitness and a great friend of mine from Herat, Hedayatullah, described the events to me as follows”

People were just running every which way, screaming “Death to the Khalqis,” “Death to Russia,” looting stores and setting abandoned vehicles on fire. It was chaos, angry chaos, and I had no idea, really, what was going on. I remember one old man, mad with rage, coming up to a group of us and screaming, “Give me a gun! I want to find a Khalqi and kill him and then be killed so I can go to heaven a martyr!”

Guns were actually hardly used by the protestors simply because there was almost no military expertise among them; AK-47s were discarded in favour of shovels and other heavy implements. Sayed Abdul Wahab Qatali, builder of Herat’s Mujahedin Museum, recalls how he and his fellow protestors, having stormed Herat’s citadel, found a cache of weapons and after a few bemused moments attempting to work out how to load the guns, cast them aside. Fighting took place in the narrow streets of the Old City, at the foot of the citadel and the wide streets of Herat’s great avenues running north towards the Gawhar Shad Mausoleum. Some government forces, mostly police and army, fired on the rebels to disperse them, but others simply tore off their government uniforms, burned them and fled the scene. Few were willing to die for the Khalqis; most were more concerned with saving their skin, surviving the mob.

The rebels attacked the symbols of Khalqi rule – photos of President Taraki, posters of the party, the newly-adopted red flags – as if they were living beings. Banks, government buildings and Herat’s prison were all attacked, too. The fighting lasted until nightfall, despite heavy rain in the afternoon. As dusk settled on Herat, with the government forces still in control of the Friday Mosque and maintaining a semblance of order at key strategic points of the city, the streets were effectively no man’s land. Bodies were strewn at the places of the most intense fighting, the three city gates. Eyewitnesses talk of groups of mourners wandering the rain-soaked streets, dressed in black.

On 17 March 1979, as Herat’s villages and countryside rose up in anger and rebellion and chaos reigned on the streets of the city, news of the unfolding drama reached Herat’s 17th Army Division, stationed in Zalmay Kot, a village some two kilometres to the north-east of the city, on the road leading to Badghis. The division was ordered by Kabul to put down the uprising by any means possible and to bring some order to Herat. The situation was one of great confusion; as seen in the discussions between Soviet military figures and Taraki, (details here), neither side having accurate information. However, out of solidarity with the rebels – the 17th Division and Herat in general were not well disposed towards Khalqis –  the division mutinied and turned Herat’s qiam into a takeover of the city. There are dramatic accounts of then Turan (Captain) Ismail Khan and Sardar Khan Rasul making rousing and eloquent speeches at the division’s headquarters, inciting their fellow soldiers to join the rebellion, turning on their superiors and freeing the political prisoners who were held in awful conditions on the base. But the reality of their involvement, and their influence on events, is questioned by some, including Farzan. According to him, a group of officers, including Allahuddin Khan, who later went on to play a key role in the jihad in Herat province as a commander for Jamiat-e Islami, and Abdul Aziz Sarwari, a man who is reported to have made an impassioned speech rejecting the orders of the Khalqis to kill ordinary Muslims, took over the munitions store and freed political prisoners held on the base. Then, the mutinous members of Herat’s 17th Division led an attack on the city to take over key government offices and check-posts. The commander of the 17th Division fled to the airport (p 33).

Transcripts of top-secret Politburo meetings held in Moscow indicate that, of the total number of approximately 9,000 men, the vast majority deserted and that members of the 17th Division’s Artillery Regiment, of which Ismail Khan was a member, fired on those who decided to stay loyal to Kabul, and “went over to the insurgents.” The final assessment of these documents is that the entirety of the Artillery Regiment and the Infantry Regiment from the 17th Division abandoned their posts and joined the rebels. Soldiers from the Division also took up strategic positions on Takht-e Safar hill and in the north of Herat, at Guzargah, so as to have a strategic advantage in which they could both view their newly-acquired territory and control the city at the same time. Those officers and soldiers loyal to the regime fled, mostly to the safety of Herat’s airport. Those who rebelled in the 17th Division were largely men frustrated with the corruption and lack of transparency in the Sovietised Afghan army – party membership was the key to advancement – and with many of Herat’s soldiers favouring Maoist ideas, or simply being apolitical, the lack of advancement had caused serious resentment amongst Herat’s soldiery.

Opportunists, thieves, Maoists…

What happened during these few days of ‘independence’ is difficult to assess with any accuracy. Conflicting reports abound, but the most convincing picture is one of ungovernable chaos and a lack of clarity as to either who ruled the city, or in whose name they could claim to do so. The anti-Khalqi unity of the qiam had provided no blueprint for a coherent political response and the diversity of those involved meant that arriving at a political consensus within the short time they held the city was unlikely. The majority of the rebels who had entered Herat from the surrounding areas simply returned to their villages and district centres at nightfall, more concerned with avoiding government reprisals than political experimentation. Sher Agha Shongar, a reckless and impulsive man with a fondness for male and female prostitutes, and the bandit Qamar-e Dozd (dozd, meaning ‘thief’ in Dari, was his nick-name), formed a committee which attempted to govern Herat for the short period of time that it remained ‘free’. (10) Such men typified an opportunist’s approach to the qiam in which loyalty to newly-won influence and unity behind opposition to a common enemy defined this post-qiam honeymoon. As if to prove this theme, Shongar, sensing a shift in political fortunes, later defected to the government, renouncing his erstwhile insurrectionary ideology. He was assassinated in 1985 whilst visiting a hospital in Herat.

The essence of the qiam is often portrayed as an Islamist triumph, or at least a segue into the eventual Islamist triumph of the fight against the Soviets. Herat’s newspapers during Ismail Khan’s governorship in the 1990s also placed a great emphasis on an Islamist line, running a seamless narrative from the events of March 1979 to the ‘victory’ in 1992. Etefaq-e Islam, Herat’s daily, for example, published a commemorative edition in April 1992, championing the triumph of Islam over the forces of Soviet Russia. The edition featured articles placing the qiam as the starting point of an Islamic Revolution, an Islamic Revolution which had been decisively won by those who fought in the name of Jamiat-e Islami.

This narrative, however, ignores the role played in the qiam and the jihad by non-Jamiat and non-Islamist fighters and by ordinary Heratis. The qiam was representative of a variegated society in Herat, one which included, for example, a 4,000 strong community of Jews until 1979. Many had left by the time of the qiam, but those who remained were caught up in the qiam, not necessarily playing active roles. The networks established by the Maoist Shola-ye Jawed movement, active in the city since the 1960s, had proved to be important in their espousal of opposition in the years leading up to the Saur Revolution, but such was their persecution by the Khalqis that they had already been forced underground. Even the mujahedin saw fit to persecute and execute Shola-ye Jawed and other non-Islamist mujahedin groups. (11) However, many of the main protagonists of the qiam were known to have had Maoist sympathies, as reflected in Farzan’s account of the time and his description of a pre-qiam Herat. On the walls of Herat’s Mujahedin Museum, among the photos of martyrs, we see not just photos of bearded mujahedin, but also moustachioed youths in sunglasses and clean-shaven men, an indication that this was not solely the preserve of Islamist fighters, as Herat’s gaudy memorial to the qiam (see photo) would have us believe.

The Taleban’s own celebration of this day during the Emirate years, as seen through articles in their editions of Etefaq-e Islami also placed the events, unsurprisingly, in a fashion which ignored both the variegated nature of the qiam, and also its chaotic lack of direction. I am often asked by Heratis, “Why did the qiam fail?” It is a question which invariably leads me to the conclusion that its failure was a result of the lack of a coherent leader, a sustainable narrative (essential to all revolutions) and a philosophy to bind the disparate participants. The same reasoning applies to the jihad to which the qiam gave rise.

The inability of the qiam and the narrative of jihad to include Shola-ye Jawed or those simply motivated to fight for their nation and an Islam removed from the politicised rhetoric of the Peshawar mujahedin tanzims, is symptomatic of its failures – failures of inclusivity. The success of the uprising was its unity against oppression and tyranny – a unity of city and countryside, civilian and soldier: the war to which it gave rise failed to build on that unified opposition to a hated government and to create a pluralistic and coherent message of political rule. In the absence of a coherent ruler, or a coherent narrative, those with backing and financial support – Jamiat and the other six main Sunni mujahedin parties that, from 1981 onwards, exclusively received the aid channelled through and distributed by Pakistan – could channel the popular, if inchoate, opposition to the Khalqis into a more or less coherent message of opposition as a jihad. But this approach struggled to paper over the cracks of division and divergent opinions amongst those who fought the Soviets, between the Islamist fighting a jihad, and some other groups – like the Maoists, but also non-leftist groups – seeing their resistance against the Soviet more as a national liberation struggle. Indeed the jihad in Herat is as much a story of internal division among the mujahedin, as it is about heroic opposition to the Soviet Union. The process begun by the qiam still resonates today; and the questions asked inchoately in the chaos of Herat in spring 1979 are still waiting to be satisfactorily resolved.


(*) Charlie Gammell is a historian of Afghanistan and Iran. Currently, he is writing a history of Herat entitled The Pearl of Khorasan, which traces the city’s history from 1221 to the present day. He has worked in Afghanistan since 2009, variously as a Persian and Pashto interpreter and head of office for ICRC, in Herat, Khost and Jalalabad, and as a consultant for UNESCO on Herat-related projects.


(1) Quoted from: Habib Kawyani, Jonathan Tinker, Report of a Journey to Herat, 1988: For Afghanaid, autumn 1988, p 7.

Herat was one of the frontlines of the war, and yet almost totally cut off from its centre. The province as a whole experienced what one might call a first tier level of destruction. Incident reporting from both 1985, and 1986 show Herat as experiencing the highest casualty rates, on both sides, and the highest number of incidents. For example, in 1986 the number of cases of Soviet attacks in Herat was recorded at 686, the next highest being Parwan, at 534 (see: National Committee for Human Rights in Afghanistan, Russia’s Barbarism in Afghanistan Vol. II, July 1985; Peshawar, p 123).

For more accounts of Soviet bombing in Herat, see Radek Sikorski, Dust of the Saints: A Journey to Herat in a Time of War, London: Chatto and Windus, 1989, and Nick Danziger, Danziger’s Travels, Beyond Forbidden Frontiers, London: Grafton Books, 1987.

(2) The intelligence agency, AGSA (De Afghanistan de Gato Satunkey Edara, Office for the Protection of Afghanistan’s Interests), was renamed KAM (Kargari Estekhbarati Muasesa, Workers Intelligence Agency) after the Hafizullah Amin coup in September 1979 and then the more familiar KhAD (Khedamat-e Etela’at-e Daulati, State Security Service) after the Soviet invasion on Christmas 1979 which brought the non-Khalqi Babrak Karmal to power. KhAD as a name became generic for the Afghan government’s intelligence services and is widely used in popular speech even to this day.

The PDPA, or Khalqi regime was brought into power by what was officially called the ‘Saur Revolution’ of 27 and 28 April 1978, which deposed President Muhammad Daud, himself the beneficiary of a coup carried out in cooperation with the other PDPA faction (Parcham) in July 1973. The ‘Saur Revolution’ was carried out by military officers sympathetic to or members of the PDPA. They established a military council, headed by Abdul Qadir, then the commander of the Air Force. It handed over power after two days to Nur Muhammad Taraki, a founding member of the PDPA and General Secretary of the party (which had operated in semi-underground conditions) who was from the Khalq wing.  He was then elected President of the Revolutionary Council of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, ie head of state. One of his deputies was Hafizullah Amin, Chairman of the Presidium of the Revolutionary Council and Chairman of the Council of Ministers, who, after the Saur coup, ordered the arrest of hundreds of his opponents.

(3) Ahmad Shah Farzan, Qiyam-e Herat [The Herat Uprising], Mashhad: Entesharat-e Farbad, 1995; Sayed Sharif Yusefi, Qiam-e Golgun-e Kafnan-e 24 Hut-e Herat, [The Blood-Soaked Uprising of Herat of 24th Hut] Kabul; 1985.

(4) Mark Urban, War in Afghanistan, London: Macmillan, 1990, p 12, and Ahmad Shah Farzan, Qiyam-e Herat …, p 24.

(5) For land reform as a motivating cause, see, R. Grönhaug, ‘Scale as a Variable in the Analysis: Reflections Based on Field Materials from Herat’ in F. Barth (ed) Scale and Social Organisation, New York: Wenner-Green, 1973. For anti-Pashtun and Shiite motivation, see Richard Newell, ‘The Government of Muhammad Mussa Shafiq: the last chapter of Afghan Liberalism’, Central Asian Survey, 1982, p 92. For the work of Rabbani and Jamiat-e Islami, see Olivier Roy, Islam and Resistance in Afghanistan, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992, pp 86–92. On the CIA assessment: Afghanistan: Implications for Warning. For a more detailed analysis of the links between the Khalqi reforms and the uprising, see Charlie Gammell, ‘The Place of Herat in a Modern Afghanistan: Lessons from the March 1979 Uprising,’ Asian Affairs, 46:1, pp 51-67.

(6) “The Soviet Union and Afghanistan, 1978-1989: Documents from the Soviet and East German Archives,” and “Transcripts of CPSU Politburo Discussions on Afghanistan, 17-19 March 1979,” Woodrow Wilson Centre, Cold War International History Project Bulletin 8-9, Winter 1996-97, pp 136-45, and here p 137.

(7) The most comprehensive account of the uprising is found in Farzan’s Qiam-e Herat. English readers should look especially at Radek Sikorski, Dust of the Saints: A Journey to Herat in a Time of War, London: Chatto and Windus, 1989, pp 222-36. Sikorski’s account stresses the Islamist nature of the rising and places Ismail Khan at the centre of the military response.

(8) For the Kunar uprising, see Anthony Hyman, Afghanistan Under Soviet Domination, 1964-83, London: The Macmillan Press Ltd, 1984, p 127; on the Hazarajat, see two papers by Niamatullah Ibrahimi, here and here, for AAN, p 19-20.

(9) Giustozzi, Antonio. Empires of Mud: Wars and warlords in Afghanistan. London: Hurst & Company, 2009. p 64.

(10) Gilles Dorronsoro, Afghanistan: Revolution Unending, London: Hurst and Co, 2005, p 100; Afghan News, A Biweekly Bulletin of Jamiat-e Islami Afghanistan, Vol 1, 1985, p 5.

(11) Shola-ye Jawed (The Eternal Flame) was the name for the quickly splitting Maoist movement which is often referred to as Sazman-e Jawanan-e Mutaraqi (SaJaM, Progressive Youth Organisation) or Jamiat-e Dimukrasi-ye Nawin (New Democracy Movement, a reference to Mao Zedong’s concept of ‘new democracy’). Shola-ye Jawed was the title of the movement’s short-lived periodical, founded in April 1968. (For background, see this AAN paper.)

While fighting, like the Islamist tanzim, against the Soviet occupation, they were branded by them as (another type of) ‘communists,’ and therefore often persecuted. As a result, the Sholayis had two face two dangerous enemies: the Kabul government and its Soviet allies and the Islamist mujahedin. Hekmatyar, for example, would imprison and execute his rivals in the intra-opposition struggles which would later drive Afghanistan’s ruinous civil war of the 1990s. Maoist leaders killed by mujahedin (mainly Hekmatyar’s Hezb), albeit in Peshawar, include the leaders of a Herat-based group, Rahayi, Dr Faiz and the leader of its women’s wing, Mina Keshwar. Maoist mujahedin groups were also persecuted by Jamiat-e islami (north of Kabul) and Khomeinist Shia groups (in the Hazarajat). Many could not sustain heir struggle and joined mainstream Islamist fronts.


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Charlie Gammell

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