Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Political Landscape

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

Thomas Ruttig 22 min

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.

Tanks in front of the presidential palace on 28 April 1978, one day after the Saur coup. Photo: Cleric77, Wikipedia - Creative Commons 3.0Tanks in front of the presidential palace on 28 April 1978, one day after the Saur coup. Photo: Cleric77, Wikipedia - CC BY-SA 3.0

The following is part 1 of a short series about the events of April 1978. The next part, on the day of the anniversary, 27 April, will present eyewitnesses’ accounts of the events. Another part will look at the relationship between the PDPA and the Soviets after the Soviet military intervention in late 1979.

On 27 April 1978, parts of the Afghan army’s 4th Tank Brigade based in Pul-e Charkhi on the eastern outskirts of Kabul moved towards the former royal palace where President Muhammad Daud was chairing a cabinet meeting. (1) The tanks were ostensibly meant to protect the president — that was what the brigade’s chief of staff, Lieutenant-Colonel Muhammad Rafi, and two battalion commanders, majors Muhammad Aslam Watanjar and Sherjan Mazduryar, told their commander. But actually the tanks were on their way to topple Daud.

What the commander did not know (unless he was complicit) was that the three young officers belonged to a clandestine left-wing network in the military linked to Hezb-e Demokratik-e Khalq-e Afghanistan (People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, PDPA), a semi-legal party founded in 1965. Their civilian leaders had been arrested the day before, and the cabinet was meeting to decide their fate.

The arrests of the PDPA leaders came after the murder of the party’s main theoretician Mir Akbar Khaibar on 17 April 1978, followed by mass protests at his burial two days later. About 10,000 to 15,000 people poured into Kabul’s streets in what the government saw as a show of force for the PDPA after its reunification less then a year earlier, in July 1977. Since 1967, because of tactical differences and personal feuds among some of its leaders, the PDPA had split into factions. The largest factions were Parcham (banner) led by Babrak Karmal (Khaibar also belonged to it), and Khalq (People), led by Nur Muhammad Tarakay. (2) Both factions maintained networks in the armed forces. Karmal and Tarakay were among the leaders whose arrests provoked the reaction from the young officers. Both of them would also assume ministerial posts and be quickly removed from them again in the tumultuous months that followed.

The PDPA claimed to have 18,000 members in 1978, although independent sources estimated the party’s membership at 4000, up from 1500 a decade earlier. (3) It had gained a following among university and high school students, as well as the small but growing ranks of industrial workers. Starting in 1965, students had been protesting against difficult living conditions, particularly for poorer students from the provinces who lived in dormitories in Kabul where food rations were handed out irregularly. Other issues were corruption in the entry exams and the lack of job opportunities after graduation – problems that sound familiar in Afghanistan today (see AAN analysis here). The workers demanded better working and living conditions, and the right to set up legal trade unions. At the time, the only worker associations permitted were self-help groups that collected money for colleagues falling ill or passing away.

Organised labour activities had increased significantly by 1968. One source listed 21 workers’ strikes between April and June that year alone. This was not confined to Kabul but also spread to towns such as Gulbahar, Jabal us-Seraj, Pul-e Khumri and Kunduz, where decades of government development programmes and private investment had created an industrial base. The workers were supported by students and farm labourers. Andreas Kramer, a German development worker, describes how workers from the the refineries in Shebarghan and the textile mill in Pul-e Khumri marched hundreds of kilometres toward Kabul in 1968, before the police broke up their procession by force. At least one other strike, at Kabul’s largest industrial site, Jangalak, also ended in violence. These strikes were either organised by the PDPA or its Maoist rivals from Shola-ye Jawed (Eternal Flame) (read an AAN paper about this group here). (4)

The PDPA’s small but vocal group of four MPs elected in 1965 – all later Parchamis – brought up these problems in fiery speeches in parliament. (5) A well-known contemporary image shows Karmal at the forefront of a Parchami First of May demonstration in Kabul. It was during this period that Afghan politicians earned the activist bona fides they would later bring into power during the Soviet occupation: Karmal, whose self-chosen second name translates as “friend of labour”, marched alongside his unofficial romantic partner Anahita Ratebzad, a parliamentarian who would later become Minister of Education, and alongside Sultan Ali Keshtmand, who later served as Prime Minister.

In the same year, when the first commoner in the position of prime minister faced a vote of confidence (the position was previously reserved for members of the royal family), Parcham encouraged students to occupy parliament. This resulted in clashes with the West German-trained riot police, the ghund-e zarba, which shot dead three students. The day, 3 Aqrab, (23 October) became a students’ action day for many years.

The clandestine officers’ groups and Parcham

One of the clandestine officers’ groups had been founded in 1964 by Khaibar, whose murder sparked unrest four years later. Olivier Roy, a French scholar, described him as the “only real Marxist” in the PDPA. Various sources refer to the officers’ group as the Revolutionary Army Association or the Communist Union of Army Officers, but it is unclear if the group ever used an official name. There was a parallel Khalqi network within the security forces run by Tarakay’s deputy Hafizullah Amin, a teacher who did some postgraduate studies in the US but was expelled for left-wing political work before graduating—and who also climbed briefly into Afghanistan’s highest office in 1979.

Khaibar, a graduate of Kabul’s military academy, had been imprisoned for political agitation in the armed forces in 1950. In prison he met Karmal, a leading voice of the students’ association at Kabul University. (6) Khaibar was said to have ‘converted’ Karmal, four years his junior, to Marxism during their time in custody. When both of them were released in 1956, Khaibar returned into the ranks of the police as an instructor at the Kabul Police Academy. In 1960, both founded one of the first mahfel, political discussion circles, that preceded the PDPA. Khaibar also became joint editor-in-chief of Parcham’s eponymous party newspaper during its short existence in 1968 and 1969. It can be assumed that Khaibar started his recruitment within the armed forces on the PDPA ticket and, after the party’s split in 1967, merged the clandestine officers’ group with his cellmate’s Parcham faction.

It is not clear whether the leading officers of the 1978 coup — Rafi, Watanjar and Mazduryar — belonged to the same or different networks in the military. Rafi was later known as a Parchami, while Watanjar and Mazduryar were Khalqis. In any case, the difference cannot have been that big as they seem to have cooperated closely during the coup.

The Daud-Parcham alliance and its end

Daud had known the Parchami leader – the son of a general and part of the Afghan elite himself – since Karmal’s student activism days in the late 1940s. Although serving as Minister of War (1946-48) and Interior (1949-51) during that period, Daud had already been plotting to take power then, trying to ally himself with the reform-minded intellectuals and students such as Karmal. (The attempts were not particularly successful and he played a role in suppressing the reformist movement.) Daud’s ambitions then were put on the backburner for a while when the monarch, Muhammad Zahir, appointed him Prime Minister in 1953. He held the post for ten years, until 1963.

But in 1963, Daud was sacked and sidelined as a result of his confrontational policies toward Pakistan, which had led to severe economic problems for landlocked Afghanistan. He also suffered as a result of the king’s political reforms, turning Afghanistan from an absolute into a constitutional monarchy. Ironically, the plan was Daud’s own; he had proposed the changes to the king himself in 1962. But the reforms did not happen the way Daud suggested. The new constitution that came into force in 1964 barred members of the royal family from holding government offices and from becoming members of a political party. Many Afghans, among them the sidelined ex-prime minister himself, saw the constitution mainly as a means to keep Daud away from power. This put Daud back onto a path of confrontation with the king, and he turned to Parcham for support. Daud sought the backing of Parcham’s clandestine officers network starting in 1971, some sources report. This did not remain secret. Embassy cables later revealed that US diplomats were aware of Daud’s preparations to take power latest by 1972 (read the document here).

The alliance with Parcham worked out in 1973, during the overthrow of the king. Half of Daud’s first cabinet was made up of Parchamis, and many of the young officials he dispatched to the provinces to revamp the country’s ineffective, corruption-ridden administration were members or sympathisers of the group. Many of them had studied in the Soviet Union. (7) But, as the historian Amin Saikal wrote, the alliance between Daud and the Parchamis “was not based on ideology” rather solely on Daud’s desire “to wreak vengeance on Zahir Shah and seize power in pursuit of his own vision of Afghanistan.”

The Daud-Parcham alliance was over again soon, as Daud started sidelining Parcham. With one exception, all its ministers were removed from the cabinet by 1975. Karmal, who never had received a cabinet or similar position under Daud, was under de facto house arrest. Daud also dismissed or demoted many Parcham members in the armed forces. Colonel Abdul Qader, one of the leaders of the July 1973 coup who had been made deputy commander of the Air Force, was particularly humiliated: In 1974, after he challenged the president to make good on his promise to legalise political parties, Daud made him the director of the Kabul slaughterhouse.

These moves prompted the PDPA’s Khalq and Parcham factions to re-unite in July 1977, facilitated over more than a year by the Indian Communist Party and Ajmal Khattak, a leftist Pashtun nationalist poet and politician from Pakistan who lived in exile in Kabul. The unification took place in Jalalabad, and Tarakay became party leader with Karmal as his deputy, likely due to the fact that Khalq had more members than Parcham (2500 against 1000 to 1500). Their clandestine military networks were kept separate but cooperated against Daud after the arrest of the party’s leaders in April 1978.

It is still unknown who killed Khaibar, the event that triggered the April 1978 upheavals. Hezb-e Islami (Gulbuddin) claimed the assassination years later, but a more common theory points at Daud’s secret police and at his Khalqi rival Amin. Bruce Flatin, who served as a US Embassy political counsellor in Kabul from 1977 to 1979, later said that a West German police officer, who was then a police adviser to the Afghan Ministry of the Interior, told him that the same weapon used to kill Khaibar had been used earlier to kill another union leader. (8) and “that fact indicated that both killings may have been a government-type assassination” (read interview here). Amin may have wanted to sideline Khaibar and his Parchami military organisation in the re-united PDPA and take over himself by provoking a coup among the remaining left-wing officers who, as with Watanjar and Mazduryar, were closer to Khalq. Cordovez/Harrison’s finding that Qader, a Parchami, was initially hesitant to join the coup indicates that he may have perceived it as Khalqi-led. (9)

… and the PDPA turned the first tank that entered the palace into a memorial for the ‘Saur Revolution’. Source: Afghanistan Today/Afghanistan Hoy, propaganda book, Moscow 1986

The PDPA takes over

Qader endured his assignment at the slaughterhouse and returned to his military duties, reinstated as Air Force chief of staff, but seized the opportunity to seek revenge for his humiliation. On 27 April 1978, fighter jets flown by pilots under his command supported Watanjar’s tanks and started pounding the presidential palace. When commando units also joined the coup, the resistance put up by Daud’s Republican Guard at the palace broke down. After Khaibar’s assassination, Daud might have wrongly assumed that the threat against him emanating from leftist army infiltration was over. Several sources even reported that the army units were still celebrating the PDPA leaders’ arrest when the coup started.

This coup was much more violent than the first one in 1973. The PDPA regime later talked about some 100 people killed on 27 April. Western eyewitnesses quoted in the Washington Post described the fighting:

“I never knew the Afghan army had so many tanks […]. They were everywhere, hundreds and hundreds of them, and many of them had been knocked out in the battles. It was all very fierce stuff.” […]

(Read the full story here.) Louis Dupree, another eyewitness, recounted how, in the weekend traffic, private cars were swerving in and out of tank columns and how traffic police tried to give directions to the tanks.

Daud refused to capitulate and drew a pistol on the officers who came to arrest him. He was executed along with all 18 of his family members in the country at the time, including his wife, his brother, and their children and grand children, five of them underage. (10) They were buried in unmarked graves until 2009, when Daud received a state burial (read here).

It was also Qader who, as the head of a Revolutionary Military Council, announced the success of the coup over national radio on the afternoon of 27 April. (According to one source, Watanjar read out the same text in Pashto.) Two days later, the military council handed power over to a civilian government. On 30 April, the first two decrees of the new government wee published, announcing that PDPA leader Tarakay was appointed head of state and prime minister. Karmal and Amin were made his deputies; Amin also was foreign minister. All of them had been liberated by the military plotters on 28 April who knocked down the mud wall of Sedarat prison in central Kabul with their tanks. Amin was leading operations with a handcuff still around one wrist. Qader became the PDPA’s first defence minister. The country was renamed Democratic Republic of Afghanistan.

The new regime allied itself with the Soviet Union, while claiming to be non-communist, and embarked on radical reforms. This alienated the landed elite and the religious establishment, as well as large parts of the population. Growing armed resistance, often spontaneous, was organised by nationalist and even leftist groups, although both were later completely sidelined by the mujahedin parties. This rebellion soon brought the regime to the brink of collapse. It answered with brutal repression against everyone it considered an enemy. While related atrocities in Kabul are relatively well-known (see AAN reporting here and here), similar ones in the provinces are less notorious. For example, the author was told by a tribal elder in Uruzgan province in 2008 how the local PDPA leadership invited all provincial elders for a shura, only to have them arrested: “They were tied together with ropes around their necks and led away. We never saw any of them again.”

In September 1979, Amin assassinated Tarakay and put himself at the helm. Tarakay had established a close personal relationship with then Soviet leader Leonid Breshnev, so the killing cost Amin the backing of Moscow. (Qader, Rafi, Watanjar and Mazduryar had all long been sidelined.) Allegations spread in the party that Amin was a CIA agent. His alleged plans to broker a peace deal with Hezb-e Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who belonged to the same tribe as Amin, finally persuaded the Soviet leadership to intervene militarily. They toppled and killed Amin, replacing him with Karmal, in an alliance with the Khalqi officer group around Watanjar.

The rest is history. The country, a backwater of the Cold War that had preserved its non-aligned status and used it to attract massive foreign aid from both East and West, became the last battleground of the Cold War where the US also took revenge for the Soviet-assisted defeat in Vietnam.

What caused the coups?

The 1973 and 1978 coups did not emerge spontaneously and are closely linked. Lesser-noticed domestic developments had undermined Afghanistan’s relative internal stability of forty years that followed Zaher Shah’s accession to power in 1933 after the assassination of his father Muhammad Nader Shah, and led to the build-up of domestic political tension and finally the first coup in 1973.

This included profound changes in Afghanistan’s social fabric as a long-term result of Amanullah’s modernising reforms in the 1920s and demographic change. These reforms have often been described as a failure. But they were never reversed, only slowed down. Over the following decades, they led to a growth of the educated class that was inadequately absorbed by the stagnating state bureaucracy, dominated until 1964 by the extended royal clan. The educated youth and the growing intellectual class – called roshanfekran (enlightened thinkers) in the country – turned into a breeding ground for the re-emergence of the reformist political current that began with the first constitutional movement (mashrutiat) at the start of the century. This movement continued with the Young Afghans who inspired and pushed forward Amanullah’s reforms and became active again during a political opening in the late 1940s and early 1950s under the name Wesh Zalmian (Awakened Youth). They were the recruitment pool for the new political groups that emerged after the passing of the 1964 constitution.

Secondly, there were tense relations with Pakistan immediately after British India’s partition in 1947. The failure to grant the Pashtun-inhabited areas of the new country the choice of independence or re-accession to Afghanistan led to permanent irredentist politics in Kabul. In 1949, a Loya Jirga in Kabul proclaimed its support for the self-determination of ‘Pashtunistan’ and declared the 1893 Durand Agreement void. Since then, Afghanistan has not given up its claim to these areas and Kabul has supported armed rebellions among the Pashtuns and Baloch in Pakistan. Daud became a prime protagonist of this policy, building his appeal among the reformist and nationalist intelligentsia.

Thirdly, Afghanistan’s rejection by the US drove Daud into the arms of the Soviets. Since 1944, Kabul was repeatedly told by Washington that the country was of no particular interest. The US told Kabul in 1951 that “it would help if the Pashtunistan claim is dropped” and in 1954 that “extending military aid to Afghanistan would create problems not offset by the strength it would create.” In 1955, Afghanistan declined to give in to pressure from Washington to join the anti-communist Baghdad Pact (later CENTO) and remained neutral. The USSR opened its territory when Pakistan blocked the transit trade with land-locked Afghanistan. As a result, Kabul started military cooperation with the Soviet Union that year. An increasing number of Afghan officers and civilians were trained in the Soviet Union. Some of them adopted communist, or at least nationalist anti-Western ideas, and started recruiting followers. The increasing Afghan-Soviet relations and activity of left-leaning political forces also led to a crisis between the Afghan monarchy and the Islamic clergy which traditionally had bestowed religious legitimacy on the leadership.

Fourth, the crackdown by Daud and his Parchami against the Islamist groups gave Pakistan a chance to mirror Afghanistan’s policy of supporting armed insurgents on its territory. Pakistan received the fleeing Islamist survivors with open arms and offered training. The US became part of the game early on, contributing financial aid to the Islamist leaders as early as 1973, according to Pakistani officials involved then (quoted here). After the Soviets invaded, these Islamist groups became the basis for the mujahedin movement fighting them and the major force opposing the PDPA regime.

These social and political tensions were exacerbated by an environmental crisis, resulting in the drought of 1969 to 1972 which led to crop failures, food shortages and food price hikes across the country. Thousands died of starvation, mainly in the northwestern provinces of Herat, Badghis and Ghor, parts of the Hazarajat and Badakhshan (see telegrams from the US Embassy in Afghanistan here; here and here). German magazine Der Spiegel reported in October 1971:

Thousands of Afghans leave their villages in the Southwest of the country. They move to Iran or West Pakistan. Afghans attack Afghans. They fight for food and access to water. (…) The herdsmen and farmers slaughter their animals or sell them at knockdown prices to their neighbours in Iran, the USSR or West Pakistan. [… A]t least 70 per cent of sheep flocks will not survive the winter unless foreign countries urgently help the Afghans.

The inadequate response of the government further undermined the legitimacy of the monarchy. US sources (here and here) reported that foreign aid, including wheat, was left to rot at the Kabul airport. According to the US Embassy, “provincial officials including governors [showed] extraordinarily poor leadership” or often were “ruthlessly exploiting the situation,” selling food aid in the markets. Journalists and foreigners were kept out of most affected areas, and the central government was reluctant to declare an emergency in order to avoid being blamed (read more here). Afghan-German writer Matin Baraki wrote that a large part of the assistance delivered by the UN was misappropriated by a member of the royal family who was the honorary chairman of the Afghan Red Crescent, redirected to the military, hospitals and boarding schools or sold in the bazaar. Donors criticised the lack of a coordinated plan of action and the absence of a relief coordinator at the cabinet level. This behaviour undermined the standing and legitimacy of the monarchy among large parts of the population.

Inter-dynastic problems also played a role. While Daud stood for political reform and saw the Islamists as the major challenge to his aims, a more conservative strand of the royal family – represented by his uncle, Sardar Shah Wali Khan and his son General Abdul Wali, the commander of the central army corps in Kabul – had the King’s ear and was able to slow the pace of reform. There were even tensions over private relationships, indirectly alluded to by the historian Saikal as “the context of an intensified polygamic-based power rivalry.”

In any case, Daud’s coup d’état in 1973 ended a ten-year interlude under Zaher Shah that had been relatively democratic in the context of Afghan history. It also set an example that violent regime change was possible. The PDPA learned this lesson. Daud’s regime was also much less effective than often described. Flatin, the former Kabul-based US diplomat, deflated this posthumous mystification, calling Daud’s post-1973 republican regime “a one-man type of rule“ and Daud as not having “enough energy to found and run this new republic of his properly. There was dissatisfaction everywhere.“

First page of first issue of “Khalq” newspaper, 1966. Source: screen shot

Where did the PDPA come from?

The PDPA was only one of a number of parties-in-waiting that emerged after Zaher Shah started his top-down democratic opening in 1963. They included royalists; Islamists; liberal and social democrats; Pashtun and non-Pashtun ethno-nationalists; as well as Marxists, both pro-Moscow and pro-Beijing. The PDPA was officially founded on 1 January 1965 in Kabul after a series of meetings between a number of mahfel, who had established a PDPA kamita-ye tadaruk (preparatory committee). Finally only five of them participated, those of Tarakay (who became party leader), Karmal (his deputy), Taher Badakhshi (who later founded his own leftist-ethnonationalist group, known as Settam-e Melli), Ghulam Dastagir Panjsheri (a later minister) and Zaher Ufoq. In contrast, some moderate leftists opted out of the party during the preparation process, in particular senior historian Mir Ghulam Muhammad Ghobar who had been a supporter of reformer-king Amanullah and elected parliamentarian in 1949. Karmal and Tarakay, too, had gained political clout as activists during the first democratic period and later suffered prison or exile.

In its documents, the PDPA avoided the term Marxism-Leninism. Instead, it talked about the “scientific world view” – and everyone knew what it meant. “This party did not hide that its aim was the establishment of a socialist society,” one of its co-founders, Karim Misaq, was later quoted as saying. The Soviets were less enthusiastic about the PDPA, particularly because of its notorious factionalism; they did not want to be forced to say whether Parcham or Khalq was the ‘real’ brotherly party in Afghanistan. (As a rule, the USSR only recognised one communist party per country.) Vladimir Plastun, a leading Soviet specialist on Afghanistan, told the author that Moscow did not believe either of the two factions were really communist parties as per the Soviet definition.

While the new constitution contained the right to form political parties, its implementation was predicated on a pending law on political parties. This law had passed parliament and awaited the king’s signature. The king chose not to sign the law, however, fearing that extremist groups might get the upper hand in parliament (read US Embassy cable here). Laws about provincial councils, the right to demonstrate and an independent judiciary were also unsigned (see here). This “royal indecision and caution” proved to be, as Saikal called it, a “fatal mistake.” While the moderates obeyed, either dissolved their groups or decreased their activity, the leftists and the Islamists went underground and started to infiltrate the armed forces, viewing a coup d’état as the only possible way to power. As a result, this only half-hearted democratic opening, almost paradoxically, led to a further destabilisation of the country and to a radicalisation and diversification of the opposition that opened the way for the second, PDPA-led coup in 1978.

Did the Soviets orchestrate the 1978 coup?

There seems to be a growing consensus among those studying Afghanistan that, despite close contacts between PDPA leaders and the Soviet Embassy in Kabul, the Soviets did not engineer the 27 April coup. Much of what was written earlier was coloured by the Cold War. It was clear, though, also to the Soviets, that various groups including the PDPA were working toward a military takeover. On the part of the PDPA, these preparation were well advanced in 1977. Khaibar’s assassination and the remaining party leaders’ arrest likely resulted in the coup plans being accelerated.

A large volume of analysis written after the Cold War seems to show that the Soviets were surprised by the coup. Soviet documents show instructions to their ambassador in Kabul and the chief military advisor, ordering them to have no dealings with the PDPA leaders and leave it to the local KGB. The KGB people, however, told Tarakay and Karmal that the conditions were not ripe for socialism in Afghanistan and that they should instead unite to support Daud. Rodric Braithwaite, a former British ambassador to Moscow who studied all available Soviet sources about Afghanistan for a book published in 2011, comes to the conclusion that “reliable evidence that the Russians were behind the coup is lacking.” At best, KGB advisors were privy to plans for a coup at a later stage, but the coup came, as Braithwaite put it, “like a bolt out of the blue to Soviet officials in Kabul, even the KGB representative.” Former US president Jimmy Carter wrote in his memoirs that even Brezhnev had told him that the Soviets first heard about the coup on the radio.

This does not contradict Rubin’s assumption that the PDPA “probably received financial assistance from the Soviet Union, aided by some Parchamis whose state position gave them access to Soviet aid and trade.” The Swiss editors of a collection of Soviet documents concluded that even though Daud’s relationship with the USSR had become less close in his final years, a change of power in Kabul “was in no way in the interest of the Kremlin in spring 1978.” In other words, they found Daud still much more reliable than the notoriously squabbling PDPA leaders.

That the Soviets were not behind the coup does also not mean that some PDPA leaders were not interlocutors, informants or even agents of Soviet intelligence services. This has been repeatedly claimed, among others by Vassili Mitrokhin, a KGB archivist who defected to the West and claimed the KGB had recruited “long-serving” Karmal in the mid-1950s; Tarakay “possibly” at the same time; and Qader and Ratebzad “informally.” Former PDPA leaders also made such allegations in books published after they fell from power.

The end of the revolution: Soviet military debris at Kunduz airport. Photo: Thomas Ruttig (2007)

Coup or revolution?

The question of whether the events of April 1978 were a coup or a revolution is not a theoretical matter and remains hotly contested in Afghanistan. The answer has been a make-or-break question particularly for leftist, former leftist and pro-democratic groups and has prevented them at various times from joining hands against what they perceive as the overriding problem for their country, the Islamist threat. Many of them are successor organisations of the now defunct PDPA (renamed Hezb-e Watan, or Fatherland Party in 1990; read AAN analysis here) while others stood on the other side of the barricades between 1978 and 1992 and were persecuted by the PDPA. For the next generation of progressive Afghan politicians, it remains a central matter of concern whether the groups that emerged from the PDPA develop a critical look at the regime’s deeds or continue glorifying it.

There is however no question that the takeover of power was achieved by a military coup. Some authors have described the three-day delay before the handover from the military council to the civilian PDPA government as a measure to avoid exposing the PDPA leaders’ involvement in case the coup went wrong. This argument does not carry water: There was no need to conceal any PDPA role. Daud was informed by his intelligence services that there were coup preparations (which he took too lightly, after Khaibar’s death); the links between Khaibar’s officer group and Karmal’s Parcham as well as the close relationship between the two men were equally well known; and the remaining key leaders’ arrest after Khaibar’s funeral showed that they were not unknown entities. The quick handover of power from the military council to the civilian PDPA government, though, was unusual for leftist military revolutionaries in countries without a strong Marxist party (see Mengistu’s Ethiopia). This most likely indicates that there was no plan to establish a military dictatorship.

This could have opened the way for the coup to become a real revolution that overturned Afghanistan’s socio-political relations. The radical reforms envisioned – including land reforms; debt cancellation for landless farmers; implementation of a 42-hour working week; paid maternity leave for working women – could have led in this direction. But the PDPA leadership, overconfident after their easy takeover of power, underestimated the resistance particular their land reforms would create because of the strength of relations between landowners and share croppers, whom the PDPA simplistically viewed as between ‘oppressive feudals’ and ‘oppressed farmers’ waiting for liberation. They also underestimated the influence and staying power of the clergy, and started answering any resistance with brutal force. This cost them most of their initial support. The Soviet invasion in late 1979, meant to stabilise their regime, dealt their project the death blow. Under the conditions of a full-blown guerrilla war, it became nearly impossible to carry out any constructive reform programme.

The authoritarian and bureaucratic model with its one-party state, mostly copied from the Soviet Union, was also incapable of mobilising sufficient support for such a programme. When the Soviet leadership under Gorbachev realised this in its own country and told Karmal in October 1985 to “broaden the base of the regime, forget about Socialism, share power with those who have real influence, including with mujahidin leaders […] and try to act so that the people will see that it is getting benefits from your revolt,” it was too late. Too much blood had already been shed.

Edited by Graeme Smith


The above rendering of the fateful events on and around 7 Saur 1357 (27 April 1978) is based on the following literature, as well as the author’s research on the democratic movements of 1947-52 and 1963-73 and political party development in Afghanistan:

  • Andeshmand, Muhammad Akram, Hezb-e Demokratik-e Khalq-e Afghanistan – kudeta, hakemiat wa furupashi 1357-1371 [PDPA – coup d’etat, rule and downfall] (Kabul 2009)
  • Andrew, Christopher/Mitrochin, Das Schwarzbuch des KGB 2 (German version, 2006)
  • Arnold, Anthony, Afghanistan’s Two-Party Communism (1983)
  • Bradsher, Henry S., Afghan Communism and Soviet Intervention (1999)
  • Braithwaite, Rodric, Afgantsy (2011)
  • Bucherer-Dietschi, P./Stahel, A.A./Stüssi-Lauterburg, J. (eds), Strategischer Überfall – das Beispiel Afghanistan (1991)
  • Emadi, Hafizullah, State, Revolution and Superpowers in Afghanistan (1997)
  • Farahi, Abdul Ghaffar, Afghanistan During Democracy & Republic 1963-1978 (2001)
  • Halliday, Fred, “Revolution in Afghanistan”, New Left Review (1979),
  • Halliday, Fred/Tanin, Zahir, “The Communist regime in Afghanistan 1978-1992, institutions and conflicts”, Europe-Asia Studies (1998)
  • Kakar, M. Hassan, Afghanistan (1995)
  • Korgun, V.G., Intelligencija v politicheskim zhizni Afganistana (Moscow 1983)
  • Majid, Walid, “Prime minister Daoud’s relationship with Washington (1953-1963)”, paper for the Institute for Afghan Studies
  • Male, Beverley, Revolutionary Afghanistan (1979)
  • Roy, Olivier, Islam and Resistance in Afghanistan (French original from 1985)
  • Rubin, Barnett, The Fragmentation of Afghanistan (1995)
  • Saikal, Amin, Modern Afghanistan (2004)

All possible misinterpretations or mistakes should only be blamed on the author, who also declares his interest to hear from readers if they have more information about the events described (please contact [email protected]).


(1) Read Barnett Rubin’s 1994 biography of him in Encyclopaedia Iranica here.

(2) In most sources in non-Afghan languages, Tarakay is spelled Taraki. The author chose the lesser used version to reflect that the name is not pronounced as Tarakee but with the diphthong “ai” as in “to buy” or in Khaibar (in English sources often: Khyber).

The author also uses the adjective Khalqi only for the eponymous PDPA faction or its members, not for the entire PDPA – according to its Dari name, Hezb-e Demokratik-e Khalq-e Afghanistan – whose members are often also summarily called “Khalqis.”

(3) See a list of the quote and other literature consulted for this text above, above, at the end of the main text.

(4) Shola-ye Jawed, just as Khalq and Parcham, were not the official names of the groups but of the groups’ often only shortlived newspapers which were much better known publicly than their actual names. Shola-ye Jawed, for example, was called Jamiat-e Demokratik-e Nawin (New Democratic Association), a term borrowed from Mao’s rulebook who had coined it for the system in his own country.

(5) Those four got seats in the 1965 parliamentary election, so far the most open one in Afghanistan’s history. Also Tarakai, Amin and some more Khalqis had run, but with no success. In 1969, when the government’s grip had been tightened again, only Karmal made it again, but also this time Amin, giving the Khalq faction its only ever seat in parliament.

(6) The Kabul University Students Association was the first-ever social organisation in Afghanistan legalised, and initially even encouraged by the government. It existed only from March to November 1950. The association was banned again after it started challenging the monarchy; one student started a public conference without mentioning the king in his opening remarks, a behaviour unthinkable of at that time. In 1951, students held demonstrations in favour of its re-legalisation. One protest, on 21 June 1951, began with a meeting at French-supported Esteqlal Lycée and led to the royal palace where, among others, Karmal gave a speech which led to his arrest. He was released in 1956.

(7) Even Daud’s adopted son Sayed Abdulillahi, who became Vice President in 1977; his chef de cabinet Muhammad Hassan Sharq, another future prime minister under the PDPA; and the first commander of his presidential guard Zia Majid were said to be Parcham sympathisers. (The PDPA’s Khalq faction remained in opposition throughout Daud’s reign.)

See a rendering of the events on the day of the 1973 coup by an accidental witness in the New York Times here.

(8) His name was Enam-ul-Haq Gran, a leader of the pilots’ union at the state carrier Ariana. The pilots went on strike in 1977 and Gran was shot by unknown assailants.

(9) Cordovez/Harrison also have one of the most accurate rendering of 27 April events, from the military side, is their 1995 book Out of Afghanistan (pp 25-8, online here)

(10) Wikipedia lists Daud’s direct family members murdered in April 1978 here.







Babrak Karmal Hafizullah Amin Mir Akbar Khaibar Muhammad Daud Nur Muhammad Tarakai Parcham PDPA