In 1963 the King of Afghanistan sacked his Prime Minister, Mohammed Daoud. Ten years later, Daoud deposed the King and declared a republic:
But Daoud was the King’s first cousin and his brother-in-law. So power remained in the hands of the royal Durrani clan.
His only opposition were a small group of revolutionary marxists called The Peoples’ Democratic Party of Afghanistan. But like all revolutionaries they had split into different factions and hated each other.
Then Prime Minister Daoud got paranoid. He decided the marxists were preparing a coup against him. So he ordered that they be arrested. But something strange happened. Hafizullah Amin, who was one of the marxist leaders, was not arrested. When the police arrived at his house they just confiscated lots of leftist pamphlets and surrounded the house. No-one knows why.
Amin was very jolly. Everyone liked him. Even the Islamists nicknamed him ‘the infidel’, but everybody in Kabul knew that he could never be trusted because he lusted after power so much.
As the police stood outside, Amin decided he really would stage a coup. He used his children to send out instructions to the revolutionary cells he had built up in the Afghan military, and within hours tanks began to rumble towards Kabul and the Presidential Palace.
Prime Minister Daoud knew nothing of all this and thought the marxists were under arrest. All the military commanders in Kabul were told to order their troops to sing and dance to celebrate the arrest of the “kafirs” — the communists.
But the next morning Daoud woke up to discover the coup underway. His Minister of Defence rang the local base commander and ordered him to move his troops to protect the Presidential Palace. The Commander replied:
“How can I? They’re all out singing and dancing as you ordered — and have been for hours”
Then he rang the 8th Rocket Division. The Commanding Officer said he would send the rockets, but instead he told his troops to keep dancing. He was waiting to see which side won.
Finally at 7pm the Minister of Defence and three of the Chiefs of Staff were found hiding in a chicken coop behind the palace. The rebels shot them and then went upstairs and slaughtered Daoud and 30 of his family. It was the end of a royal dynasty that had ruled Afghanistan for 150 years.
The new President of the revolutionary council was Mohammed Taraki. Hafizullah Amin was made Foreign Minister. At their first press conference Taraki insisted that they were not communists but socialists and politically democratic.
In the West it was assumed that the revolutionaries were just Soviet puppets who had been trained in Moscow. But in Kabul one American decided to find out if this was true. He was an anthropologist called Louis Dupree who worked in Afghanistan for the American Universities Field Staff.
What he discovered was rather surprising. Out of the 21 members of the revolutionary cabinet only one civilian had been educated in the Soviet Union. Three of the generals had received military training in the USSR, but none of the revolutionaries had ever attended or been invited to international communist meetings.
Dupree firmly concluded their revolution had not been born in Moscow.
In reality much of it may have been born in another country: America, where many of the revolutionaries had studied and had been indoctrinated with all sorts of new ideas about how to transform Afghanistan.
I am shocked — shocked! — to find that Communist indoctrination is going on in American universities!
Out of the top revolutionary elite who had taken over Afghanistan many had studied in America, and 14 of them had studied at just one American University — Columbia University in New York. They had gone there as part of what Columbia called “The Afghan Project” — an attempt to produce a new generation of teachers who would go back to Afghanistan and transform a tribal people into modern western style individuals.
They had been at Columbia in the 1960s when American universities had been swept by revolutionary student politics and this had done much to radicalise them. Above all Hafizullah Amin — who would organise the coup and be the main ideologist of the Afghan revolution.
Amin told Dupree that his radicalisation had happened when he went from Columbia to a course at the University of Wisconsin in Madison in 1963. Madison at that time was the main centre of what was called the “New Left” — a movement which was about to break out and take over most American universities.
Amin and the revolutionary Council put forth an American Progressive reform program:
The making of extortionate loans to the peasant farmers was banned. Every farmer was to be allowed to own their own land. There was no mention of collectivization. There would be equal rights for women, and forced marriages were banned.
The only problem was that the peasant farmers hated it. They were deeply conservative and didn’t want change. They weren’t interested in progress. Then the Islamist parties told them that the new regime was godless — and armed revolts began to break out.
By 1979 the Marxist revolution had become a disaster:
Large parts of Afghanistan were in revolt. In response Hafizullah Amin had begun a series of purges. He had already killed the royal supporters and many of the Islamists. But now he started to kill and torture the urban professionals — the doctors and teachers. Then he turned on the different factions in his own party and the revolution began to eat itself. Finally, in September, he had President Taraki killed. Taraki was held down and suffocated with a cushion.
Amin now had what he had always wanted. Supreme power. He tried to prove how nice and open he was by publishing a list of 12,000 people who had been killed in the purges. The only problem was that many Afghans have similar names — there are thousands of Mohammed Alis and Abdul Mohammeds — and tens of thousands of people descended on the Ministry of Interior desperately wanting details.
So he stopped publishing the list. Which led to more protests and violence.
The Soviets were horrified. The secret Politburo minutes and telephone transcripts that have recently been published by the Wilson Center — you can find them here — show the Soviet leaders shocked by what Amin was doing to Afghanistan. They are terrified that the country will descend into chaos.
Brezhnev shouted in a meeting in the Kremlin:
“What scum Amin is. You smother a man with whom you participated in a revolution!”
He seemed to have forgotten how many of his predecessors in Russia had behaved. But it was the turning point. The Soviets decided that that they would have to get rid of Amin.
Then Amin rang Brezhnev and pleaded with him for Soviet troops to help fight the Islamists. Much to Amin’s surprise Brezhnev said yes. What he didn’t realise was that the troops would be coming to kill him.
On the 12th December the first troops arrived in Kabul to kill Amin.
First they positioned snipers along the main highway. But Amin’s convoy drove too fast.
Then they tried again. This time they put poison in his can of Pepsi in the Presidential palace. But Amin’s nephew drank it instead.
Then — on the 27th — Amin gave a banquet in a palace outside Kabul. It was surrounded by minefields and protected by 2000 troops. But the Soviets smuggled in a chef who put poison in the food. This time it worked and all the guests slipped into comas.
The Afghans rang Kabul for help — and two Russian doctors turned up. They walked into a banqueting hall full of men and women lying on the floor with their eyes rolling in agony. The doctors found Amin upstairs in his underpants.
The doctors thought he was an ally of the Soviet Union so the pumped his stomach and revived him. Then the Russian troops attacked the palace.
The final image of Amin comes from one of the doctors. He describes watching Amin lurching along a corridor in the palace dressed only in Adidas shorts holding his hands high. They were wrapped in medical tubes which led to needles in his veins. He held the vials full of saline solution “as though they were grenades”. He was looking for the Soviets who he still believed would rescue him.
But when he found them they threw a grenade at him. And then they shot him.
The next day the Soviets installed their puppet ruler. He was called Babrak Karmal.