This is an paper I wrote back in May, 1990 for a Revolution and Political Violence class I was auditing. It fills in some background on Afghanistan that may be useful to people, so I'm putting it up here. Aside from fixing a few typos it is as it was written many years ago. This was an interesting paper to write, in part because -- unlike most class required writing assignments -- this one had an upper limit on the page count. Fitting the modern history of Afghanistan into five double spaced pages was something of a challenge. I note that I was correct about the rebellion continuing, ignored, and that everyone would have been better off if our attention had not wandered from this remote place after the Russians left. But we can't be everywhere. Can we? Should we?

There is every indication, by the way, that after the American intervention is over, life in Afghanistan will once again return to normal; fighting, and growing opium. The ongoing rebellion will keep going on.

Afghanistan: The Ongoing Rebellion


Robert M Brown

The hill tribes that make up the present day nation of Afghanistan have a history of rebellion that dates back as far as the history of government being imposed on them. The Persian Empire, 2,500 years ago, found it best to rule the towns and leave the tribes alone. The situation has changed remarkably little since then.

Afghanistan has the misfortune to occupy a vital strategic crossroads between near and far east, and India and the plains north of the Himalayas. At least since the time of Alexander the Great, this has made Afghanistan a desirable piece of real estate for conquerors. Changes in trade routes since ancient times has had little effect on this situation. In modern political geography, Afghanistan still occupies a critical strategic place. It borders Iran, Pakistan, the Soviet Union, and China, much to the interest of all of these nations.

The area of modern Afghanistan did not become a recognizable political entity until only 300 years ago, when the Persians conquered the region and Ahmad Shah became the first Emir of Afghanistan.(1) Since that time, Afghanistan has been most often ruled by one or another imperial power, either directly or indirectly. In the last 200 years, the great powers have usually chosen to manipulate Afghanistan indirectly, due to the volatile nature of the hill tribes. The few exceptions have been short-lived, and usually expensive in lives, money, and prestige.

In modern times, the Russian Empire, and the Soviet Union, has had the greatest interest in Afghanistan of any of the great powers. Since the end of the revolution and civil war, in particular, the Soviet Union has been interested in pacifying this potentially troublesome spot on their border. Northern Afghanistan also has some tempting agricultural land, and a foothold south of the Himalayas has long been a Russian ambition.(2,3)

After the first World War, Afghanistan happened to be relatively free of great power influence, and chose to make the best of the preoccupied state of those powers by invading India. The resulting Treaty of Rawalpindi (1919) gave Afghanistan total freedom from British control.(4) Encouraged by this success, Amanullah, then King of Afghanistan, tried to gather in the Russian provinces of Turkestan and Uzbekistan. The attempt failed, but the Russians have not forgotten it.

In 1954, Mohammed Daoud, cousin to the King, was given responsibility for management of the government. Concentrating on improving the country's economy, the decision was made to develop closer ties to the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union, at this time, was more than happy to cooperate, and poured resources into the development of Afghanistan. A portion of Afghanistan's civilian and military professionals began to be trained in the USSR.(5)

Rather than a drift towards the Soviet Union politically, this represented a gamble on the part of the Afghan government. Daoud was attempting to -- and had some success in -- play the two superpowers against one another. Afghanistan did indeed benefit from competing foreign aid packages, though the Soviet involvement was to be important years later. (For example, the bridges built under Soviet direction had far greater weight capacity than necessary for the civilian traffic in the area. In fact, they were strong enough to carry Soviet main battle tanks.)(6)

In the mid 1960's, the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan formed, and almost immediately split into 2 factions (the Khalqis under Nur Mohammed Taraki, and the Parchamis under Babrak Karmal), bitterly opposed to one another. At the same time, Soviet popularity in Afghanistan began to decline fairly rapidly as the '60's went on, and Soviet economic aid faded. (In the cities, that is; the atheistic Communists had never been popular among the devoutly Islamic hill tribes.)

In 1973, after ten years out of power, Daoud returned, this time backed by the military, and overthrew the monarchy. His main supporters in this venture were the core of Afghan officers who had been trained in the Soviet Union. They, and other Communists, were given a number of important places in the new government, alarming many. But Daoud was still at heart as unaligned as ever and in 1975, when he felt his hold on the country was strong enough, he began weeding out the Soviet controlled or sympathetic members of his government.(7) The oil boom at this time gave Daoud other avenues to pursue in his efforts to improve the Afghan economy, and investment capital began to flow from the Arab world instead of the Soviet Union.

In 1977, distressed by this loss of influence, the Soviet Union began to take steps. Pressure was brought to bear on the PDPA factions to reconcile their differences (with limited success), and KGB activity increased.(8) In spite of this, the coup that took place in 1978 seems to have been influenced and supported by the Soviet Union, but not quite controlled by it. Nevertheless, Daoud was killed, and the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan proclaimed.

After Daoud's overthrow, the Khalq faction of the PDPA, under Taraki came to power. Trying to rule amid numerous conflicting factions (KGB, his own army, the city populace, the hill tribes, Islamic fundamentalists), Taraki was killed in September of 1979 when Hafizulla Amin of the Paracham faction of the PDPA seized power. Amin, backed though he had been by pro-Moscow Communists, was never really trusted by Moscow, and was destined to be replaced by Babrak Karmal in December of 1979.

That month, in response to the chaotic situation in Afghanistan, the Soviet Union attempted to cut the Gordian Knot by sending in tanks and paratroopers. Their advisors and infrastructure already in place were instrumental in paralyzing the Afghan Army. Within ten days, the Soviets had 50,000 troops in the country, and firmly controlled the cities and government.(9) Unfortunately for them, this prompted a full-scale rebellion of the hill tribes that would go on for ten years.

The Soviets, attempting to bring the country under control and keep the disturbance from spreading to their own Islamic population, tried to chip away at the guerrillas' support. What this usually meant was killing enough of the population that the guerrillas would either leave or die. In ten years about five million left, and tens of thousands died. The remainder, however, kept fighting.

The Afghans, naturally enough, sought to persuade the Soviets to leave. They did this by making themselves too much of a bother to subjugate. While Soviet losses in material and men where not excessive, the expense of maintaining such a long counterinsurgency operation in such inhospitable terrain seems to have been the deciding factor. In 1989, the Soviets withdrew their forces (or at least, most of them). The PDPA remains in power, but the hill tribe insurgency seems to have lessened in intensity. The home grown Communists, it seems, are less odious than the imported brand.

With the Soviet involvement minimized, the Afghan situation has gotten little attention in the western press. It seems certain, though, that the hill tribes are still maintaining a low level insurgency against the central government; that is what Afghans have always done and, it seems, may always do.


Arnold, Anthony. Afghanistan: The Soviet Invasion in Perspective. Hoover Institution Press, Stanford, California. 1981

Dunnigan, James and Austin Bay. A Quick and Dirty Guide to War. William Morrow, New York. 1986.

Ghaus, Abdul Samad. The Fall of Afghanistan: An Insider's Account. Pergamon-Brassey's International Defense Publishers, New York. 1988.

Klass, Rosanne. Afghanistan: The Great Game Revisited. Freedom House, New York. 1987.


1. Dunnigan, James. A Quick and Dirty Guide to War. p.96.
2. Ibid.. p.104.
3. Shroder, John, and Abdul Tawab Assifi. "Afghan Resources and Soviet Expansion." Afghanistan: The Great Game Revisited, Rosanne Klass, ed. p.126
4. Ibid., p.97.
5. Arnold, Anthony. Afghanistan: The Soviet Invasion in Perspective. p.32.
6. Ibid.. p.40.
7. Ghaus, Abdul Samad. The Fall of Afghanistan. p.190.
8. Ibid.. p.195.
9. Dunnigan, James. A Quick and Dirty Guide to War. p.124.

Comments? Don't forget to flame me.

Or would you rather go Home?

Copyright 1990, 2001, 2011 Robert M Brown, All Rights Reserved.