Civil War: Afghanistan (1978-1992)

Kanishkan Sathasivam. Civil Wars of the World: Major Conflicts since World War II. Editor: Karl DeRouen Jr. & Uk Heo. Volume 1, ABC-CLIO, 2007.


Afghanistan is a country of incredible ethnic diversity as well as geographic and climatic extremes. Largely agricultural and principally Muslim, the population has been subjected to repressive and authoritarian regimes and foreign control. Afghanistan became a sovereign state in the early twentieth century. The country has undergone two civil wars in the last half-century—the first from 1978 to 1992, which eventually resulted in the collapse of the Communist government, and the second beginning very soon thereafter, resulting in control of the country by the Taliban in 1996 and their subsequent removal by an international Coalition in 2001.

Country Background

Afghanistan is a landlocked country in Asia that shares a common border with several states (CIA 2005). These neighboring states include Iran to the west, with a 936-kilometer border; the former Soviet republics of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan to the north, with borders of 744 kilometers, 137 kilometers, and 1,206 kilometers, respectively; and China to the east, with a 76-kilometer border. The longest stretch of border is shared with Pakistan to the south and southeast and extends some 2,430 kilometers. The tiny border with China is the result of Afghanistan’s control of the Wakhan Corridor, a very narrow strip of territory that extends out to the east from the bulk of Afghanistan’s territory and separates Tajikistan (to the north of the corridor) from Pakistan-controlled Kashmir to the south. The territory of Afghanistan comprises 647,500 square kilometers of land, an area slightly smaller than Texas (CIA 2005). The country possesses very limited sources of freshwater, with many minor rivers but no significant lakes, and only about 12 percent of the land is arable. Extensive mountain ranges—including, in particular, the spectacular though very rugged and earthquake-prone Hindu Kush range—span the eastern and central parts of the country, with arid to semiarid plains in the north and the southwest. Thus, the people of Afghanistan are faced with a climatic pattern of extremely cold winters and very hot summers.

Afghanistan’s economy is largely based on subsistence agriculture; wheat and, to a lesser extent, barley are the major crops (Marsden 2002 ; Rubin 2002). The many nomadic tribes of Afghanistan also engage extensively in sheep and goat herding. During the last three decades or so, many Afghan peasants have turned away from the farming of legitimate crops to the farming of poppies because of the significantly greater economic return from that particular crop. There is hardly any industry to speak of in Afghanistan; what industry exists is heavily concentrated in Afghanistan’s few real cities—namely Kabul, Kandahar, Herat, Jalalabad, and Mazar-e-Sharif (Maley 2002). The country’s one major road circumvents the central mountains and links the major cities; there are virtually no railroads (Goodson 2001).

It is very difficult to ascertain reliable numbers for Afghanistan’s economy across the period just before, during, and immediately after the civil war (1978-1992), although Doyle and Sambanis (2000) claim a figure of US $198 for the annual per capita gross domestic product across those years. It is likely that even this very low figure includes a considerable amount of economic product generated largely by foreign economic assistance. It is estimated, for instance, that Afghanistan received approximately US$1.27 billion in economic aid and approximately US$1.25 billion in military aid from the former Soviet Union between 1955 and 1978 (Goodson 2001 ; Rubin 2002).

Although there are numerous written references to “Afghans” living in present-day Afghanistan that date as far back as 530 BC (Ewans 2002 ; Marsden 2002), most scholars agree that only in recent years has Afghanistan emerged as a true “state” in the modern (that is, West-phalian) use of the word. Nevertheless, considerable debate remains over precisely when Afghanistan became a truly sovereign state (Ewans 2002 ; Goodson 2001 ; Maley 2002 ; Marsden 2002). Some date the founding of the modern Afghan state to 1880, when Abdul Rahman Khan became emir of all Afghanistan. He was the first ruler to exercise political and bureaucratic authority across the territories of the country’s many autonomous tribes.

Most scholars, however, consider 1919 to be the correct date for the founding of a sovereign Afghan state. This year marked the beginning of the reign of Amanullah, grandson of Abdul Rahman, and it was at this point that Afghanistan established its ability to conduct its affairs—particularly its foreign affairs—without other nations’ control. Afghanistan’s increasing ability to govern itself was the result of the third Anglo-Afghan War (1919), which ended with the signing of the Treaty of Rawalpindi and the complete withdrawal of Britain from the affairs of Afghanistan. For this reason, Afghanistan itself celebrates August 19, 1919, as its independence day.

Afghanistan’s population was estimated at about 15 million in 1978 when the (first) civil war began, about 22 million in 1992 when this civil war ended, and about 30 million in 2005. On the bases of religion, language, ethnicity, and tribe, Afghanistan is an incredibly diverse and pluralistic state. It is an overwhelmingly Muslim country; less than 1 percent of the population practices other religions. The Muslims of Afghanistan are, however, divided along sectarian lines, with some 80 percent of the population being of the Hanafi Sunni branch of Islam and the remainder adhering to the Shi’a branch. The Shi’a of Afghanistan are further subdivided into the Jafari (Twelver) and Ismaili (Sevener) sects (Ewans 2002 ; Goodson 2001 ; Rubin 2002). Furthermore, scholars have identified more than fifty national groups that make up Afghan society when ethnic, tribal, and linguistic affiliations are taken into account. Afghan society, then, may be more appropriately thought of as a patchwork of minisocieties; the country consists of many minorities and no true majority. Although particular regions of the country may be identifiable as the primary locale of this or that Afghan group, no region is truly homogeneous in its ethnic, tribal, or linguistic makeup (Rubin 2002).

The Pashtuns (or Pushtuns) make up the largest national group in Afghanistan, although they account for only some 42 percent of the overall population (CIA 2005). They are concentrated in the eastern, southern, and southwestern parts of the country and spill over into the North-West Frontier Province and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of neighboring Pakistan. The Pashtuns speak their own language, Pashto, which is distinct from both the Persian dialect of Dari, which is spoken by most other Afghans, and from the Persian dialect of Hazaragi, which is spoken by the Hazaras. Nevertheless, as with cross-cutting religious and ethnic affiliations, some Pashtuns speak Dari, and some non-Pashtuns—mainly Tajiks and Uzbeks— speak Pashto (Rubin 2002). Although they make up only a plurality of the Afghan population, the Pashtuns have dominated Afghan society for well over two centuries. The Pashtuns are subdivided into several important tribes, which constitute the core of sociopolitical order and power within Afghan society (Ewans 2002 ; Goodson 2001). The two major Pashtun tribal confederations are the Durranis and the Ghilzais; the former was the ruling tribe of Afghanistan from 1747 to 1978 (Rubin 2002).

The southwest corner of Afghanistan is home to a small concentration of the Baloch people, a much larger number of whom live further south in the Balochistan Province of Pakistan (though there are also small numbers in neighboring Iran). In the north of Afghanistan are three other major national groups, each of which is associated with the peoples of the three neighboring former Soviet republics. The small Turkoman population lives in the northwest, the Uzbeks in the north central region, and the Tajiks in the northeast of the country. The Turkoman and Uzbek peoples are of Turkic origin, while the Tajiks are of Persian origin. Two more national groups of note are the Hazara and Aimak (or Chahar Aimaq) peoples of central Afghanistan. The Hazaras (also said to be of Turkic descent) make up the bulk of the Shi’a population of the country, being mostly Jafari Shi’a, with small numbers of Hazaras and Tajiks accounting for the Ismaili Shi’a.

None of these major national groups is entirely indigenous to Afghanistan; all of them except the Hazaras and the Aimaks overlap neighboring states (Goodson 2001 ; Rubin 2002). Furthermore, even the Hazaras and the Aimaks, although they are localized within Afghanistan, are thought to be ethnically and linguistically related to the people of eastern Iran. Culturally speaking, the Pashtuns are the most conservative of the various Afghan national groups. They are also highly tribally inclined in their identities and loyalties, along the lines of the peoples of the Arabian Peninsula. The Hazaras are also quite conservative but not as tribal as the Pashtuns, whereas the peoples of the north of Afghanistan tend to be relatively more progressive and modern in their thinking and lifestyles and for the most part do not adhere to tribal identities and loyalties (Goodson 2001). This amalgam of cross-cutting cleavages that constitutes Afghan society makes it very difficult to unequivocally classify Afghanistan as belonging to the broader Central Asia, South Asia, or Middle East regions, and for this reason many scholars Afghanistan as the “crossroads” where the three regions of Asia come together.

Ethnicity Population %in 1979 Population % in 2005 Primary Religion Primary Language Primary Location
Sources: CIA 2005, Goodson 2001, Rubin 2002.
Pashtun 46 42 Hanafi Sunni Pashto South and southwest
Tajik 23 27 Hanafi Sunni Dari Northeast
Hazara 10 9 Jafari Shi’a Hazaragi Central
Uzbek 8 9 Hanafi Sunni Turkic North
Aimak 5 4 Hanafi Sunni Dari West central
Farsiwan 4 2 Jafari Shi’a Dari West
Turkoman 2 3 Hanafi Sunni Turkic Northwest
Baloch <1 2 Hanafi Sunni Balochi Southwest
Qizilbash <1 <1 Jafari Shi’a Dari Kabul
Brahui <1 <1 Hanafi Sunni various Southwest
Moghol <1 <1 Hanafi Sunni various Herat
Nuristani <1 <1 Hanafi Sunni various East
Table 1: Afghanistan’s Multinational Demography

The political system in Afghanistan throughout the period before, during, and after the 1978-1992 civil war was decidedly authoritarian (Doyle and Sambanis 2000 ; Freedom House 2004 ; Gleditsch 2003). The Polity 4 Project (see Gleditsch 2003) generally rates Afghanistan as having warranted a score of -7 (-8 during the last three years of the civil war following the Soviet withdrawal) on its 21-point scale of autocracy (extreme of -10) versus democracy (extreme of 10) across the years before, during, and after the civil war. Similarly, for the post-civil war period from 1994 to 2001, Freedom House (2004) accords Afghanistan scores of 7—on a scale of 1 (best) to 7 (worst)—for both political rights and civil liberties and an overall “not free” rating.

The political system that existed in Afghanistan through 1963 was strictly monarchic, although the regime was a constitutional monarchy during its later years. With the resignation of the widely feared and highly unpopular constitutional prime minister, Mohammad Daoud, who was a cousin of the king, Mohammad Zahir Shah, the way was opened for Zahir Shah to experiment with a limited opening of the political system. The post-1963 period, the so-called New Democracy period, was based on a new, relatively progressive constitution that allowed multiple political parties to stand for parliamentary elections. Relatively free elections were held in 1965 and 1969, and commoners were elected to the position of prime minister. Nevertheless, the state’s bureaucracy remained incapable of providing basic services for the people, and economic development remained stagnant at best. Corruption and nepotism were endemic in all areas of the polity; as a result, social welfare declined, and political unrest increased across Afghanistan throughout the ten-year period of the New Democracy.

The state’s lackluster, perhaps even indifferent, response to a major famine that swept across the country in 1972 starkly framed the inadequacies and failings of the regime, and in July 1973 the former prime minister Mohammad Daoud overthrew Zahir Shah’s regime in a palace coup and proclaimed a new republican regime with himself as president and prime minister. Daoud’s republican regime proved to be no less corrupt and ineffective than the monarchy it replaced. It also proved itself to be quite brutal in the treatment of its political opponents, real and imagined, which very quickly soured enthusiasm for the new regime among the many Afghans—including the Communists—who had initially reacted very favorably to the coup. As a result, less than five years into his “revolution,” Daoud himself was overthrown in a military coup.

Conflict Background

The civil war that broke out following the military coup of April 27, 1978, was the first true intrastate war in Afghanistan’s modern history as a sovereign state. This civil war was an ideological struggle for control of the central government of the country and, by extension, for determination of the future political system of the country. The coup brought to power in Kabul a radical Communist government that immediately launched a campaign of repression and terror against perceived regime opponents. Initially, therefore, the cause of the antigovernment forces was merely resistance to the new government’s repressive policies. Communism became the point of contention in the civil war, with Islamism proffered as the ideological alternative to communism only in the aftermath of subsequent events.

On December 24, 1979, the Soviet Union launched a surprise invasion of Afghanistan with tens of thousands of troops in an effort to replace the ineffective and collapsing Communist regime with a new, stronger Communist government that would be backed up by the power of the Soviet Army. This transformed the rebellion from a struggle against repression into an ideological jihad, or holy war, against a government that was deemed the puppet of an occupying foreign infidel. This war lasted until April 28, 1992, when the Afghan resistance, the mujahideen, finally fully occupied Kabul and formally accepted the surrender of the capital by the last remnants of the Communist regime. The Soviets, for their part, had already withdrawn all their military forces from Afghanistan by February 15, 1989, as the consequence of the United Nations-brokered peace plan for Afghanistan known as the Geneva Accords. A subsequent UN-sponsored agreement, intended to provide a peaceful and stable political transition in a post-Communist Afghanistan, was rejected by many of the victorious mujahideen groups. Within months of the defeat of the Communists, the country was plunged into a new civil war that pitted the various factions of the mujahideen against one another in a ruthless struggle for political power.

The human costs of the civil war in Afghanistan from 1978 to 1992 were staggering. Although estimates vary, Doyle and Sambanis (2000) put the total number of military and civilian deaths during the civil war at about 1,200,000. Millions more Afghans were maimed in the war, many suffering devastating injuries, including the loss of limbs from exploding land mines. Estimates of the number of Afghans who were turned into refugees by the war also vary. Numbers provided by Marsden (2002) appear to reflect a broad consensus: some 3.2 million refugees had fled to Pakistan and an additional 2.9 million were living in Iran. Of these refugees, some 2.8 million are estimated to have returned to Afghanistan by early 1994. It is also estimated that perhaps 2 million more Afghans were internally displaced in the country, most fled from rural areas to cities and towns for protection and sustenance (Ewans 2002 ; Goodson 2001). Official casualty counts for the Soviet Army, released after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, claimed 13,833 killed and nearly 50,000 wounded (Maley 2002), although many others argue that the true casualty figures were likely three times higher.

The Afghan army boasted 100,000 soldiers in 1978, reasonably well trained and equipped by the Soviet Union. A further 10,000 troops served with the air force, and some 30,000 additional personnel were members of the paramilitary central police force (Goodson 2001). Most analysts agree that by the end of 1980, however, desertions had decimated the ranks of the Afghan army and reduced its true strength to about 30,000 troops. This remained the case through 1985 before troop numbers finally began rising slightly. The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan initially began with some 85,000 troops by early 1980, with troop strength averaging about 105,000 in the years thereafter (Ewans 2002 ; Rubin 2002). Several thousand Soviet troops were deployed as “advisors” with the Afghan army all the way down to the battalion and company levels. During the early part of the occupation, the Soviet Army deliberately chose to send ethnic Tajik, Uzbek, Kirghiz, and Turkoman soldiers to Afghanistan in the expectation that they would be better positioned to counter the Afghan resistance. It soon became shockingly clear, however, that these soldiers sympathized with the plight of the Afghans, and so the Soviet Army was subsequently forced to send only ethnic Russian troops to Afghanistan (Ewans 2002). For their part, the various groups that made up the mujahideen collectively accounted for some 150,000 fighters at the height of their strength, although these fighters would not all be available for combat at the same time.

Sources: CIA 1998; Doyle and Sambanis 2000; Freedom House 2004; Gleditsch 2003; Marsden 2002.
War: Government vs. the mujahideen
Dates: April 1978 to April 1992
Casualties: Approximately 1,200,000
Regime type prior to war: −7 (rangingfrom-10 [authoritarian] to 10 [democracy])
Regime type after war: Complete collapse of central political authority; not free
GDP/capita year war began: US $198
GDP/capita 5 years after war: US $800
Insurgents: Seven major and several minor groups
Issue: Ideological struggle for control of central government
Rebel funding: The United States, Saudi Arabia, and others
Role of geography: Rebels hid in mountains and across international borders
Role of resources: Not applicable
Immediate outcome: Government collapse and rebel victory
Outcome after 5 years: Authoritarian (Islamic fundamentalist) government in a new civil war
Role of UN: Failed attempt to mediate among rebel groups and create a post-civil war transitional government; no peacekeepers
Role of regional organization: Not applicable
Refugees: Approximately 6,100,000; some 2,800,000 repatriated by 1994
Prospects for peace: Unfavorable
Table 2: Civil War in Afghanistan

The Insurgents

Most scholars agree that seven major mujahideen groups emerged early in the civil war, all of them made up of Sunnis and operating from the sanctuary of Pakistan. This was largely due to Pakistan’s insistence that it would recognize and aid only these seven groups, an effort by Pakistan to maintain some semblance of cohesion within the resistance. These seven groups were eventually brought under a nominal common front known as the Seven Party Alliance by about 1985. Several minor Shi’a groups are also identifiable, although they were largely ineffective during much of the civil war and prone to internal strife. In 1989, the Iranians—who were the primary backers of these groups—were finally able to pressure most of these groups to merge under an umbrella organization to enhance their relative power and influence within Afghanistan. This organization was known as Hezb-i-Wahdat (Unity Party) and led by Abdul Ali Mazari, and it largely controlled the Hazara area of central Afghanistan (the Hazarajat).

The seven Sunni groups are further classified by scholars into two broad categories: Islamist and traditionalist. The Islamist groups were devoted to the cause of destroying the existing Communist regime in Afghanistan so that it could be replaced with an Islamic republic. In addition to their opposition to the Communists, these groups also firmly rejected any political system for Afghanistan that included the restoration of the monarchy. By contrast, the so-called traditionalist groups were also essentially Islamist in orientation but were open to the idea of the return of the monarchy, this being a part of their general unwillingness to use their Islamist ideology to dismantle or destroy long-standing and widely accepted Afghan customs and traditions.

There were four Islamist resistance groups:

Hezb-i-Islami (Islamic Party): Led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a Pashtun from the north of Afghanistan, this was the favored group of the Pakistanis because of Hekmatyar’s ruthless zeal for jihad, but it was viewed with trepidation by many Afghans for the same reason. The group was also renowned for its strong organizational structure and robust operational capabilities.

Hezb-i-Islami (Islamic Party): Led by Mohammad Yunus Khalis, also a Pashtun, this was a splinter group from Hekmatyar’s group and confusingly continued to carry the same name. It was best known as the group of Abdul Haq, the well-respected commander of the resistance in Kabul. Ittehad-i-Islami Bara-yi Azadi Afghanistan (Islamic Union for the Freedom of Afghanistan): Led by Abdur Rasoul Sayyaf, another Pashtun, this was a rather small group that was notable for its financial support from Saudi Arabia.

Jamiat-i-Islami (Islamic Society): Led by Burhanuddin Rabbani, a Tajik, this was a relatively moderate Islamist group that included some of the best battlefield commanders of the mujahideen. One of them was the famed commander Ahmed Shah Massoud, also a Tajik, who proved himself to be a major thorn in the side of the Soviets in the Panjshir Valley area just north of Kabul. Another well-respected commander was Ismail Khan, who operated very successfully in the area of Herat in the northwest.

There were three traditionalist resistance groups:

Mahaz-i-Milli Islami-yi Afghanistan (National Islamic Front of Afghanistan): Led by Pir Sayed Ahmed Gailani, a Pashtun and a member of the Sufi sect within Sunni Islam, this group represented the most liberal strains of the Afghan resistance and also held close ties to the historically dominant Durrani tribe and to the Afghan royal family. Jebha-i-Milli-i-Nejat-i-Afghanistan (National Liberation Front of Afghanistan): Led by Sibghatullah Mojaddidi, also a Pashtun and a Sufi.

Harakat-i-Inqilab-i-Islami (Movement of the Islamic Revolution): Led by Mohammad Nabi Mohammadi, a Pashtun as well, this group became a very radical Islamist group in the later years of the war and was the group most closely associated with the rise of the Taliban in 1994.

Although the Afghan mujahideen received its funding from several sources, the provision of financial and material support from two countries, the United States and Saudi Arabia, is especially noteworthy. The United States began offering military aid to the mujahideen (and humanitarian aid to the Afghan refugees in camps in northern Pakistan) very soon after the Soviet invasion of December 1979, once it became clear that the Soviet Union was planning on a lengthy occupation of the country. Though this aid amounted to just tens of millions of dollars during the early years of the war, aid began to rise sharply by the mid-1980s, especially because Saudi Arabia agreed to match U.S. aid almost dollar for dollar at this time. United States aid allotments for the mujahideen were as follows (Rubin 2002): US $30 million in 1980, US $50 million in 1981, US $120 million in 1984, US $250 million in 1985, US $470 million in 1986, US $630 million in 1987, and US $700 million in 1989.

By 1990, the mujahideen appeared incapable of defeating the Afghan government in spite of the complete Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan (which was completed by February 1989), and with the end of the Cold War, the United States began to sharply cut back its military aid to the mujahideen. However, since Saudi Arabia had been matching U.S. aid from 1985 on, the Saudi government replaced the United States as the resistance’s principal financial backer. This began in mid-1989, when the Saudi government allocated US$435 million for 1990, which was one-and-a-half times the U.S. allocation of US $280 million for that year (Rubin 2002). When the mujahideen failed to bring down the Afghan government by February 1990 (as expected by the CIA), exactly one year after the withdrawal of the Soviet Union, U.S. funds began to dry up and had to be supplanted by additional Saudi and also Kuwaiti funds. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait used government funds as well as private monies from various princes, and together they provided as much as US $1 billion in aid between February and July 1990 (Rubin 2002). Most of this aid, however, was channeled specifically to the Wahhabi groups within the mujahideen, especially Hekmatyar’s group.

When Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, however, and these Wahhabi groups expressed vehement opposition to the Kuwaiti-Saudi alliance with the United States, much of the financial support for these groups from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait was terminated, although a portion of this lost aid was made up by millions of dollars in aid from Iraq, Libya, and private Arab sources (estimated at about US $400 million annually thereafter). U.S. aid to the mujahideen fell sharply in 1991, and all aid was terminated in 1992 (Rubin 2002).


During the Afghan civil war, unlike many guerrilla wars, the issue for the rebels was never one of smaller numbers of fighters relative to the forces of the government. Numerically, the mujahideen groups were actually superior in numbers to the Afghan army because of mass desertions and defections from the army, and even the introduction of a large contingent of Soviet troops did not fully offset the imbalance. The issue for the rebels in this civil war was their huge disadvantage in military firepower; they were fighting the armed forces of the Soviet Union, a superpower, not the Afghan government and its army (Ewans 2002; Goodson 2001; Maley 2002; Marsden 2002). Therefore, the main geographic factor that aided the rebels was their ability to obtain sanctuary in neighboring Pakistan, where Soviet forces dared not pursue them for fear of sparking a full-fledged war with the United States. Furthermore, Pakistan offered the rebels not only protection from Soviet pursuit but also a secure base for recuperation, resupply, training, and the recruitment of fresh fighters from among the millions of refugees living there.

Geography also played a part in helping the rebels within Afghanistan (Ewans 2002; Goodson 2001). As described earlier, the central and eastern parts of Afghanistan are covered with extensive, rugged, and very inhospitable mountain ranges; the capital city of Kabul is actually located in a valley within the eastern mountains. The other major urban centers of Kandahar (in the southwest), Herat (in the northwest), and Mazar-e-Sharif (in the north) are therefore separated from Kabul by the mountains, with the mountains effectively dividing the country along an east-west axis. No direct overland routes exist north to south or east to west; Soviet and Afghan military garrisons in the various cities were isolated from one another and were unable to quickly support each other when they came under attack from the rebels. All supplies, including food, freshwater, and fuel, had to be moved around the country by aircraft—generally helicopters, because even well-developed airfields did not exist in most parts of the country. The overland route south to Kabul from the Soviet border was especially perilous for Soviet military convoys, because the only road that could accommodate motorized traffic passed through numerous narrow mountain passes and valleys, in particular the Salang Pass, whose long tunnel cuts through the mountains.


The battlefield tactics employed by the mujahideen largely centered on small-scale hit-and-run attacks against isolated Soviet and Afghan government military outposts and convoys (Ewans 2002; Goodson 2001; Maley 2002; Rubin 2002). The mujahideen never proved capable of major set-piece battles against the Soviet and government forces, and guerrilla warfare was the norm. On those rare occasions when the mujahideen did engage in set-piece operations, those battles usually were disastrous for the rebels. The mujahideen operated as small groups of fighters who were localized to particular areas of the country. Each group was led by a single commander, typically a tribal leader or other charismatic local leader with whom the men under his command had a patron-client relationship. A good example was the group commanded by Ahmed Shah Massoud, which operated in the Shomali and Panjshir valleys in the northeast corner of Afghanistan. Dozens of these groups functioned throughout the country and were essentially independent from one another, though each claimed affiliation with one or another of the seven major mujahideen parties listed previously. The affiliation with one of the seven major Pakistan-based parties was necessary because it was only through these seven parties that Pakistan was willing to provide money, weapons, and training for the mujahideen. However, the sincerity and closeness of these declared affiliations were always open to question, and the local commanders inside Afghanistan rarely took direct operational orders from the leaders of the seven parties. The vast majority of these small mujahideen groups were located in the Afghan countryside, although resistance cells also successfully operated in Kabul and other urban centers.

The mujahideen received their weapons and weapons-handling training from a covert supply network that was established in Pakistan (Rubin 2002; Sathasivam 2005). The intelligence agency of the Pakistani military, the ubiquitous Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), formed the heart of this network, and the Pakistani government absolutely insisted that the ISI would be the only conduit for military aid being sent to the rebels through Pakistani territory. By insisting that the ISI would be the only point of contact with the mujahideen, Pakistan sought to maintain complete control over not only the activities of the external providers of the aid, the United States and Saudi Arabia, but also the activities and the power of the various mujahideen groups. Pakistan did this by favoring those groups that adhered to its wider political and military ambitions (Maley 2002; Sathasivam 2005). The CIA and the al-Istakhbarah al-’Amah, the Saudi intelligence agency, managed and coordinated procurement of weapons for the mujahideen using the funds provided by the U.S. and Saudi governments (Ewans 2002; Rubin 2002). The weapons procured typically consisted of small arms (rifles, grenades, rockets, etc.) and were obtained from China, Egypt, Israel, and other places. The Chinese even set up a special factory to manufacture weapons specifically for the mujahideen, to be sold to the CIA. The United States was very careful not to provide any American weapons to the mujahideen, with the notable and hugely consequential exception of the advanced, man-portable Stinger antiaircraft missiles in 1986. The CIA transported the weapons by sea or air to Pakistan, where it handed them off to the ISI. Pakistan then transported the weapons to depots along the Afghan border for distribution to the various mujahideen groups and also provided food, clothing, and medical supplies for the rebels. The nonmilitary supplies and transport services provided by Pakistan were also paid for by U.S. and Saudi funds transferred directly to Pakistan.

Soviet and Afghan government tactics to counter the mujahideen evolved through two major phases (Ewans 2002; Goodson 2001; Maley 2002). During the first few years of the war, through 1983, the Soviet and Soviet-led Afghan forces essentially waged a high-intensity conventional campaign that took full advantage of their massively superior firepower. Large-scale mechanized units fully supported by armor, artillery, and airpower were sent into every one of Afghanistan’s provinces. Urban areas were directly occupied and the populace subjected to severe repression. Rural areas, on the other hand, were simply subjected to utter devastation. Where significant ground forces were available, these would sweep through villages and valleys, wiping out everything in their path. All the civilians were driven from their homes or killed; buildings, livestock, crops, and irrigation systems were destroyed and the areas sown with mines and booby traps. A particularly reprehensible Soviet tactic, one that directly affected children, was the sowing of roads and trails with antipersonnel mines that could be mistaken for toys (Goodson 2001; Maley 2002). The countryside was almost entirely depopulated, and its inhabitants congregated in refugee camps in Pakistan and Iran. Where ground forces were unavailable to carry out these scorched-earth tactics, massive aerial carpet bombing was the preferred alternative.

After 1983, once the countryside had been largely emptied of people, Soviet and Afghan government forces transitioned to a different style of military operations (Ewans 2002; Goodson 2001; Maley 2002). They established permanent garrisons in the cities and only sent out forces on sweeps to keep open the main road that ringed the periphery of the country and connected its cities to one another. The Afghan government did not care at all about controlling the countryside, and so it was generally satisfied with exercising its authority over only the 15 to 20 percent of the territory that contained most of the country’s population. A combination of repression and the distribution of goods and services using Soviet aid money within the cities kept the urban population relatively passive, and some rebel commanders, tired of a war that appeared beyond their capacity to win, even allowed themselves to be bought off by the government. Whenever a particular mujahideen commander and his unit became too bothersome, the Soviet Army orchestrated a major counterinsurgency campaign in that area that was targeted at that particular mujahideen unit. These operations eschewed armor, artillery, and mechanized infantry, and instead relied heavily on the use of special operations (Spetsnaz) and airmobile forces supported by airpower—especially helicopter gunships. The relative effectiveness of these Soviet tactics eventually prompted the Reagan administration to send Stinger antiaircraft missiles to the mujahideen.

Causes of the War

More than two-and-a-half decades of the worst kind of civil war began with the mysterious assassination of a single individual on April 17, 1978 (Ewans 2002; Goodson 2001; Maley 2002; Rubin 2002). The individual, Mir Akbar Khyber, was a rather prominent political activist of the Parchami faction of the Afghan communist movement. The fractious Afghan Communist movement had been unified under the auspices of the Hezb-i-Demokratik-i-Khalq-i-Afghanistan (People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan [PDPA]) in 1965 during the New Democracy period as a means of furthering political power and standing. The leaders and the rank-and-file members of the PDPA were largely intellectual and urban, middle-class people and very pro-Soviet. The three key individuals who brought about the formation of the PDPA were Nur Mohammad Taraki, Babrak Karmal, and Hafizullah Amin; Taraki was its leader. By 1967, however, Karmal had fallen out with Taraki and formed a splinter faction called Parcham (Banner). Those of the PDPA still loyal to Taraki then became known as the Khalq (People) faction. Ten years later, in 1977, with socioeconomic conditions in Afghanistan deteriorating badly under the Daoud government, which had initially come to power with the tacit support of the Communists, and with the Khalq and Parcham factions reunified within the PDPA, word began to spread of PDPA plans to stage a coup against the government. So, when Khyber was assassinated in April 1978, many blamed the Daoud regime, others blamed the Khalqis, and some even suspected the CIA and the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. As large, pro-PDPA and antigovernment crowds gathered for Khyber’s funeral, the government panicked and launched a major crackdown against the PDPA, imprisoning all of its leaders. On April 27, 1978, a small number of military officers in the Kabul area with Communist sympathies, apparently acting on their own without guidance from the PDPA, launched a coup against the government (Ewans 2002; Goodson 2001; Maley 2002; Rubin 2002). Army and air force units under the command of these officers quickly took control of the city and eventually stormed the presidential palace. Daoud and most of his family, including women and children, were slaughtered.

The PDPA quickly established itself in government and proclaimed a people’s “revolution.” This revolution was such in name only, for it was a revolution imposed from the top down rather than a grassroots mass movement. In its early months in office, the government moved very slowly with its policies, seeking to calm the nervous public while it used that time to settle internal differences within the PDPA (Ewans 2002; Goodson 2001; Maley 2002; Rubin 2002). Taraki became both president and prime minister, but Amin and Karmal were given prominent posts within the cabinet, as were other major Parchami figures. Within just a few weeks, however, the Khalqis, acting under the leadership of Amin as the regime’s new security chief, began a purge of the Parchamis from the government. Karmal was sent off to Czechoslovakia as ambassador, as were a few other individuals, but others fared much worse, being imprisoned or dying under suspicious circumstances. By the end of 1978, Amin had also set his terror machine upon other segments of the political and social establishment, in particular the military, the clergy, the bureaucracy, intellectuals, professionals, and former politicians; many thousands of innocent Afghans were labeled enemies of the regime and executed. Afghanistan’s middle class was especially devastated by Amin’s actions.

A key reason for the split between the Khalq and Parcham factions of the PDPA was Parcham’s opposition to Khalqi plans for an immediate and radical transformation of Afghan social and political life. The Khalqis, especially Amin, wanted to use their revolutionary zeal to impose upon the country a strictly secular Marxist system with the complete dismantling of traditional tribal customs and all influences of Islam from public life (Ewans 2002; Goodson 2001; Maley 2002; Rubin 2002). For example, women would now be educated by male teachers and treated by male doctors; older uneducated people would be forcibly educated (by younger teachers); tribal customs regarding leadership succession, marriage, inheritance, and so forth would be abolished; no mention of Islam would be allowed in public, and even the Afghan flag with its green stripe representing Islam would be replaced with an all-red flag very similar to those of other Communist states. Furthermore, a Treaty of Friendship was signed with the Soviet Union under which thousands of Soviet civilian and military “advisors” were allowed into the country to oversee the implementation of Amin’s various policies. (Amin had assumed the prime minister’s office by early 1979, a move that essentially sidelined President Taraki.)

Beginning in the summer of 1978 and continuing into 1979, thousands of Afghans—ordinary citizens and elite alike—were brutally murdered. Entire families were wiped out, and in at least one instance an entire village of more than a thousand people was completely destroyed (Ewans 2002 ; Goodson 2001 ; Maley 2002 ; Rubin 2002). Widespread public opposition to the PDPA’s policies had begun to emerge by September 1978, especially among the various non-Pashtun segments of Afghan society. Surprisingly, it was the Pashtuns who were initially the most tolerant of the PDPA’s policies, mainly because most of the PDPA leadership was Pashtun, but by 1979 even the Pashtun tribes were beginning to rise up against the government. Large numbers of the Afghan army were also beginning to desert their units, and many others refused to take action against their civilian brethren. A particularly important turning point was the Afghan government’s destruction of the city of Herat in March 1979. A major revolt in that city resulted in hundreds of government officials and Soviet citizens, including women and children, being hunted down and butchered in public. In retaliation, the government used a massive artillery and air bombardment and an armored assault to subdue the city, killing perhaps 20,000 people in the process. By the summer of 1979, large-scale revolts were occurring in every part of the country, and entire brigades of the army were defecting to the side of the rebels. These events made the Afghan government even more reliant on Soviet military aid.

By this time, the Soviet Union was increasingly nervous about Amin’s extremism and began plotting his removal with Taraki and the exiled Karmal (Ewans 2002 ; Goodson 2001 ; Maley 2002 ; Rubin 2002). On September 14, 1979, when Amin arrived at the presidential palace to meet with Taraki, he was ambushed and wounded. He escaped, however, and used military units loyal to him to counterattack the palace, where he murdered Taraki. Amin declared himself president on September 17 and immediately unleashed assassins throughout Kabul to kill all those he suspected of being his enemies, including many leading members of his own Khalqi faction. The Soviet government now found itself in the worst possible position: still stuck with Amin, who now had complete power in Kabul and fully suspected Soviet complicity in Taraki’s attempt on his life. Aware that the Soviets were out to get him, Amin now began a lame attempt to try and reconcile with various Afghan groups, the Pakistanis, and even the United States. Amin released some political prisoners, called off some government offensives against rebel groups, and even released the names of some 12,000 people he claimed had been murdered by Taraki—even though it had been well established that Amin had been their true executioner.

Not surprisingly, Amin’s efforts were for naught; he found himself completely isolated and friendless when the Soviet invasion began on the night of December 24, 1979. On December 27, Soviet Spetsnaz forces stormed Amin’s hideout, and he was killed. By early January 1980, the country was firmly under the control of some 85,000 Soviet troops, and the Soviets installed Babrak Karmal as the president of Afghanistan (Ewans 2002 ; Goodson 2001 ; Maley 2002 ; Rubin 2002). Had the Soviet Union chosen to withdraw all, or even most, of their forces at this stage, twenty years of bloody war in Afghanistan might have been averted. The Soviet decision to embark upon a full-fledged occupation of the country became a rallying point for the various Afghan factions despite their disparate interests and ambitions, especially for the Pashtuns, who fully joined in the war only after the Soviet invasion. Thus, although the Afghan civil war began in the summer of 1978 as a popular rebellion against the country’s Communist government, it was transformed into an ideological jihad only in early 1980. The Soviet occupation forces became the war’s primary target; the Afghan government was merely an associated, secondary target.


Conflict Status

The Afghan civil war discussed here formally ended on April 28, 1992, when the Afghan Communist regime represented by Mohammad Najibullah (who had replaced Babrak Karmal as president in 1986) collapsed in the face of the occupation of Kabul by several mujahideen factions. It is crucially important to note, however, that war in the country ceased only temporarily and that the fourteen-year-long struggle against communism was supplanted by a new, nine-year-long civil war that pitted the various mujahideen groups against one another (Ewans 2002 ; Goodson 2001 ; Maley 2002 ; Marsden 2002 ; Rubin 2002). The second Afghan civil war began within months of the April 1992 conquest of Kabul by the mujahideen, but there was no precise date to its beginning, for internecine conflict among the mujahideen groups began during that same period. Several attempts were made to form governments of national unity during the years after the ouster of Najibullah, but invariably one or another group felt dissatisfied with that particular arrangement and took up arms against the government. The emergence of a new, very radical Islamist group in October 1994, the Taliban, complicated matters considerably, and it was this group that ultimately prevailed in capturing and successfully holding on to Kabul in September 1996 (Marsden 2002). Although several opposing groups continued to wage war against them, especially in the form of the so-called Northern Alliance, the Taliban remained the formal government of the country from late 1996 until their removal from power in December 2001 by an international coalition of forces led by the United States.

A large number of the estimated 6.1 million displaced Afghans who had been living in refugee camps in neighboring Pakistan and Iran or who had been internally displaced, perhaps 2.8 million in all, returned to their homes during the 1992-1994 period after the end of the first Afghan civil war (Marsden 2002). This process of refugee repatriation slowed down sharply, and tens of thousands of new refugees began to flee the country in 1994 as the second Afghan civil war began to expand significantly, especially with the advent of the Taliban. In the aftermath of the defeat of the Taliban regime in the 2001 U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, some 3.1 million refugees returned to their homes during the 2003-2004 period, including some 600,000 internally displaced persons (Library of Congress 2005). It is estimated that since the most recent wave of refugee repatriation, there are perhaps 2.5 million Afghans still living in Pakistan and Iran. It is useful to note here, however, that unlike the refugees who fled the Soviet occupation to Pakistan, those who fled to Iran were allowed by that country’s Islamic government to permanently settle in Iran if they wished to do so.

Duration Tactics

The first Afghan civil war lasted fourteen years, which is a relatively long time. The long duration of the civil war is attributable to two major factors. The first is, of course, the direct military intervention of the Soviet Union, which without question bolstered the survivability of the Afghan Communist government but which also served to delegitimize that government even as it strengthened and legitimized popular opposition to that government (Maley 2002). This factor is discussed further in the following section.

The second factor that contributed to the war’s long duration was the absence of meaningful political unity and military coordination among the various mujahideen groups. This resulted from two core problems on the antigovernment side. First, as discussed previously, Afghan society was and historically had been a deeply divided society with multiple cross-cutting cleavages along religious, linguistic, ethnic, tribal, and ideological lines. These societal divisions were mirrored among the various rebel groups and were further exacerbated by the personal ambitions and egos of the various mujahideen leaders and commanders (Ewans 2002 ; Goodson 2001 ; Marsden 2002). Second, the problem of Afghanistan’s existent societal divisions was greatly amplified and even deliberately reinforced by the military dictatorship in neighboring Pakistan, led by General Mohammad Zia ul-Haq. Pakistan held two particular geopolitical ambitions with regard to Afghanistan. One was the permanent neutralization of the historical Pashtun demand for the creation of an independent Pashtun homeland (Pashtunistan) encompassing the Pashtun lands in both Afghanistan and Pakistan (Marsden 2002). The second Pakistani ambition was the establishment of a very pro-Pakistan government in Kabul that would be formally allied with and perhaps even subservient to Pakistan, thereby providing Pakistan with its long-coveted “strategic depth” vis-à-vis India, its geographically much larger historical rival (Sathasivam 2005). Thus, Pakistan openly manipulated the various Afghan rebel groups and fostered competition and rivalry among them to ensure a pliant, non-nationalist, post-civil war regime in Kabul.

External Military Intervention

Although several countries—Pakistan, the United States, and Saudi Arabia in particular— were extensively involved in providing political, financial, and material (including military) support for the antigovernment forces in the Afghan civil war, the only country that became directly involved in the fighting was the former Soviet Union. The details of the Soviet invasion and subsequent occupation, the nature of the operations of the Soviet Army and the devastating impact these operations had on millions of Afghan civilians, and the political impact of the Soviet intervention in terms of rallying Afghanistan’s divided peoples toward a common cause have been extensively discussed previously. Thus, it is more useful to discuss here somewhat briefly the geopolitical considerations that compelled the United States government to take up the cause of the antigovernment and anti-Soviet resistance in Afghanistan with such intensity and vigor.

To begin with, it is arguable that in the initial aftermath of the Soviet invasion, having been taken by surprise by that event, the United States was genuinely concerned that the Soviet Union held wider ambitions to also bring Pakistan and Iran under its direct or indirect control. The Pakistanis were certainly fearful that the Soviets (perhaps acting jointly with the Indians) were going to invade them next, and they transmitted their fears unequivocally to Washington (Sathasivam 2005). Furthermore, the United States had just recently lost a crucial regional ally in Iran following the Islamic revolution in that country. President Carter’s decision to set up in 1980 what was then called the U.S. Rapid Deployment Force, a combined force of land, sea, and air units tailored for direct U.S. military intervention in the Middle East, attests to the seriousness of U.S. strategic concerns.

In the subsequent years of the early to mid-1980s, however, with the Soviet Union showing no signs of further military expansionism in the region and indeed finding itself seriously challenged by the anti-Soviet insurgency in Afghanistan, United States policy vis-à-vis the Afghan insurgency clearly evolved from a merely defensive policy meant to block the further erosion of U.S. strategic interests in that region to one of taking the offensive against the Soviets and making them pay—and pay dearly—for their strategic misstep in Afghanistan. In other words, for the United States, helping the mujahideen represented more than driving the Soviets out of Afghanistan; rather, it became a potent policy instrument with which to drain Soviet power in the broader context of the Cold War.

Conflict Management Efforts

Immediately following the Soviet invasion, in early 1980, the United States and other interested parties brought a resolution before the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) that rejected Soviet arguments justifying the invasion, condemned Soviet actions in the strongest possible terms, and demanded an immediate Soviet withdrawal. The resolution acquired widespread support in the UNGA, including most third-world governments, leaving only the Soviet Union and its closest Communist allies voting against it. Nevertheless, because the Soviet veto made a UN Security Council (UNSC) resolution infeasible, and UNGA resolutions were essentially nonbinding, the UN was unable to play any meaningful role in resolving the Afghan conflict for much of its duration. Resolutions condemning the occupation and demanding a Soviet withdrawal were introduced and passed in the UNGA annually thereafter, purely for symbolic effect.

Although the UN was not able to play a formal and direct role in the Afghan civil war, the “good offices” of the secretary-general of the UN could be utilized to facilitate negotiations among the parties concerned, and indeed such a process of discussions between the Afghan and Pakistani governments began as early as April 1981 (Maley 2002). Although these two governments were the only formal parties to these negotiations, the Soviet and U.S. governments were clearly also principal parties to the negotiations, albeit behind-the-scenes parties. A series of exchanges of communications between the Afghan and Pakistani governments—with UN officials acting as intermediaries—occurred between early 1982 and early 1988 and eventually resulted in the Geneva Accords, which were signed on April 14, 1988. In addition to Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Soviet Union and the United States were also party to the accords in their capacity as guarantors of the agreement (Maley 2002).

The key provision of the accords was the complete withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan, scheduled to be completed by February 15, 1989. In exchange for the Soviet withdrawal, the United States was expected to cease all aid to the mujahideen once all Soviet forces had left Afghanistan. The agreement created a furor in the United States on the eve of its signing, when it was revealed that, although the United States would stop aiding the rebels, the Soviet Union could continue to send aid to the Najibullah government in Kabul. A last-minute crisis was averted with a tacit understanding between the Reagan administration and the Kremlin that the United States would fully honor its commitment to stop aiding the mujahideen only in parallel with a similar Soviet commitment to terminate aid to the Afghan Communist government (Maley 2002). Subsequently, the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to terminate their respective military aid programs by January 1, 1992, which, ironically, coincided with the final collapse of Communism in the Soviet Union itself and that country’s own disintegration.


Although the Geneva Accords proved successful in bringing to an end the Soviet occupation phase of the Afghan civil war, it possessed two major interrelated shortcomings, both of which would return to haunt the search for peace in Afghanistan (Maley 2002). First, the accords provided no mechanism for establishing a new, broadly legitimate, central government that would include the various mujahideen groups. Pakistan was especially unhappy with this deficiency, envisioning the death of its long-standing dream of a Pakistan-friendly regime in Kabul, and almost refused to sign the accords. Under significant pressure from Washington, the Pakistani government eventually signed the Geneva Accords, but many within the Pakistani political, military, and intelligence establishments became embittered and resentful and, in particular, distrustful of U.S. motives and aims (Sathasivam 2005). Second, because the Geneva Accords completely excluded the participation of the various mujahideen groups in the negotiation of the accords as well as their implementation, much antipathy and disillusionment was engendered within these groups, especially toward the United Nations and the United States.

Serious consequences for the future stability of Afghanistan followed from each of these two shortcomings of the 1988 Geneva Accords (Ewans 2002 ; Goodson 2001 ; Maley 2002 ; Marsden 2002 ; Rubin 2002). First, the Pakistani government, and especially the ISI, moved further and further toward backing the most radical of Islamist groups in Afghanistan, particularly after the cutoff of U.S. aid for the Afghan resistance and also U.S. aid for Pakistan itself during the early 1990s (Sathasivam 2005). The ISI, which for its part had also increasingly come to be dominated by radical Islamists during the latter years of the war in Afghanistan, held to the view that an Islamist government in Kabul, so long as it was a Sunni regime and not Shi’a, would be the most pro-Pakistan government possible in Afghanistan. It was to this end that the Pakistani government aided and abetted the Taliban’s subsequent rise to power in Afghanistan during the mid-1990s.

Second, on account of having been treated in a rather condescending and exclusionary manner by the UN during the negotiations for the Geneva Accords, all the various Afghan mujahideen groups to one extent or another resisted attempts by the UN to mediate and broker transitional political arrangements in Afghanistan during the period leading up to and following the collapse of the Najibullah government in Kabul in April 1992 (Goodson 2001 ; Rubin 2002). The only party to the civil war that was enthusiastic in its support of and praise for the UN secretary-general’s peace plan of May 21, 1991, was the Najibullah government, because the UN plan envisioned a continuing political role for Najibullah himself in any transitional central government in Afghanistan (Maley 2002). But this provision in the UN plan was precisely the element of the plan that all the major mujahideen groups unanimously rejected.

By the time the UN secretary-general reached the obvious conclusion that any interim political arrangement for Afghanistan must exclude any role for Najibullah, in early 1992, it was too late. The Najibullah government was collapsing, with many of his allies beginning to act against him and in their own personal interests (Maley 2002). Furthermore, the main mujahideen groups, in particular the groups led by Rabbani and Hekmatyar, could now clearly see that they held all the cards and could dictate the form of any transitional government. As a result, the mujahideen groups rejected the UN’s final effort to establish an interim council to take over the governing of the country and instead proclaimed their own Islamic Jihad Council as the future governing body. It was this body, led by the veteran mujahideen leader Sibghatullah Mojaddidi, that eventually flew into Kabul to accept the government’s formal surrender on April 28, 1992. Thus it was that the UN’s peacemaking efforts died with the Najibullah government in April 1992, and the stage was set for a tragic new civil war in a land already ravaged beyond belief (Ewans 2002 ; Goodson 2001 ; Maley 2002 ; Marsden 2002 ; Rubin 2002).

The central legacy of the 1978-1992 civil war in Afghanistan, born of the scorched-earth tactics of the Soviet Army and the Afghan communist government, was the creation of an entire generation of embittered Afghans mired in the abject misery of losing everything they valued: their families, their lands, their homes and their possessions. For thousands upon thousands of such Afghans, there was nothing left to live for other than to fight and die for some radical cause, for of all the things these people had lost, their greatest loss was the loss of all hope.