Democratic Republic of Afghanistan: 1978-1992

The war in Afghanistan began on April 27, 1978, when the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), a small, faction-riven Marxist-Leninist party, launched a coup, overthrowing and killing then President Muhammad Daoud Khan and most of his family. Nur Muhammad Taraki became president and Hafizullah Amin, deputy prime minister. The PDPA then embarked on an ambitious and ruthless campaign to transform Afghanistan into a modern socialist state by overturning traditional practices with respect to land tenure, marriage, education, rural debt and other social institutions. During this period, the forces of the PDPA, principally the intelligence services, in addition to the regular army and police, committed war crimes on a massive scale. The attempted reforms and repressive measures sparked resistance, particularly in the countryside, where they were seen as a direct attack on Islam. The PDPA crushed the uprisings, but, lacking popular support, soon faced widespread resistance and mutinies in the army. Internal divisions within the PDPA contributed to the bloodshed.

President Taraki was assassinated in September 1979. Amin, the strongman of the regime, became president. Mass arrests continued, targeting those suspected of opposing the regime and its reforms: former government officials, religious leaders, tribal leaders, teachers and other intellectuals, and political activists, Maoist, Islamist and ethnically-based. The fate of many of those arrested was often forced disappearance or execution in Pul-i Charkhi, the prison on the outskirts of Kabul, or at other detention facilities. The PDPA also bombed areas of resistance, killing many civilians. Tens of thousands of refugees fled the country, most settling in Iran and Pakistan. Resistance organizations, known as the mujahidin, set up bases in these countries.

As the political and security situation deteriorated, the Soviet Union, which had backed the PDPA, intervened to end President Amin’s rule. On December 27, 1979, thousands of Soviet forces poured into Afghanistan. President Amin was killed and replaced by President Babrak Karmal. The new government, unlike the previous one, was largely under the control of the Soviet Union, whose forces in the country soon numbered 100,000. There were Soviet advisers in every ministry. The KGB established a new Afghan intelligence organization, known by its acronym, KhAD, headed by Dr. Najibullah. Documented abuses included many instances of arbitrary detentions, harsh interrogation and torture, and summary trials and execution. KhAD was the principal agency responsible for these violations.

The Soviet invasion sparked a nationwide resistance movement and swelled the ranks of the mujahidin. By the early 1980s more than five million refugees were living outside the country, most having been driven out by indiscriminate bombing and reprisal killings of civilians.

In February 1986 the Soviet Union, under President Gorbachev, reached a decision to withdraw its forces by the end of 1988. In May 1986, the head of KhAD, Najibullah, was “elected” general secretary of the PDPA. In November, he replaced Karmal as president of the Revolutionary Council, and Karmal went into exile in the Soviet Union.

In January 1987, following a meeting in Moscow where senior PDPA leaders were informed of the withdrawal plans, president Najibullah announced the government’s new policy of “national reconciliation,” which was to include a power-sharing agreement among political parties, amnesty for some political prisoners and a cease-fire. Najibullah became president of the newly named Republic of Afghanistan. The Geneva Accords, outlining the provisions of the Soviet withdrawal, were signed on April 14, 1988, by Afghanistan, Pakistan, the U.S. and the USSR. Military and economic aid from the US and USSR continued to their respective clients. In June 1990, Najibullah renamed the PDPA the Watan (Homeland) Party, and formally renounced socialism.

The period between the withdrawal of Soviet forces in 1988-1989, and the collapse of Najibullah’s government in 1992 saw several significant changes in the patterns of abuse by all parties to the conflict. The government invoked an Islamic identity for the state, and adopted some reforms in the law to relax the absolute control of the state. The reforms were largely cosmetic, however. Arrests decreased but did not cease. Bombings of resistance strongholds in the countryside, while less frequent, continued, killing many civilians.

At the same time, divisions within the resistance became more marked, as the various parties vied more openly for what they saw was the eventual—if not imminent—change of regime in Kabul. This period also saw the increased prominence, and virtual autonomy, of militias ostensibly loyal to the communist regime, but whose allegiance was based primarily on cash payments, and who engaged in violence against civilians and looting. Mujahidin groups also committed war crimes. Many of those based in Pakistan who had the support of Pakistani military and intelligence agencies operated with impunity and had considerable control over the Afghan refugee population. Mujahidin factions maintained prisons where they held, tortured and in some cases executed members of rival factions as well as civilians. Some mujahidin groups assassinated of political opponents; some also carried out attacks on NGOs involved in work with women.

Who Are We

The Afghanistan Documentation Project is the product of a partnership between the War Crimes Research Office and the Pence Law Library of the American University Washington College of Law and the U.S. Institute of Peace. It was established to collect and create a fully searchable and publicly accessible database of documents regarding human rights and humanitarian law violations committed in Afghanistan since 1978.