108. Telegram From the Embassy in Afghanistan to the Department of State1

8665. Subj: (LOU) Preliminary Thoughts on Why Moscow Forcibly Imposed a New Government in Afghanistan.

1. (C—Entire text)

2. Summary: Most observers have consistently downplayed the possibility that Moscow would support—much less back militarily—the overthrow of the Khalqi regime in favor of one led by the former Parcham wing of the Afghan leftist movement. This skepticism flowed from a conclusion that Babrak Karmal and his Parchamists were really no different from their Khalqi rivals, that the great mass of the Afghan population considered both groups equally evil Communists and atheists, and that Babrak himself was probably too pro-Soviet in Afghan eyes to be credible as a genuine nationalist. Thus, the general feeling was that a “Babrak alternative” would not be able to solve any of the problems which the Khalqis themselves had been unable to solve, and that Babrak’s apparent pro-Soviet views would result in an even narrower political base for the Parchamists than the Khalqis had in their worst days.

3. Persuasive reasons for Moscow’s decision to overthrow Hafizullah Amin and install Babrak are, therefore, difficult to discern, since we presume that the Soviets are also aware of the handicaps a Parchamist regime would encounter, especially its total lack of legitimacy in view of the Soviet military action installing them in power. The Soviets may have concluded that a policy of risking potential disaster but also potential success was preferable to the disaster they could see looming if they had continued to back Amin. A demonstration of support for [Page 306] ideological brethren, and a willingness to run risks in order to preclude the demise of a Socialist revolution may also have played a part in Moscow’s decision. Whatever the case, an active Soviet military presence here would seem to be a long-term prospect, and we consider it likely that the Soviets will expand their occupation throughout the country. End of summary.

4. In considering future political developments here, one scenario we have consistently considered as plausible yet unlikely has been a Soviet supported (perhaps with direct military force) seizure of power from the Taraki-Amin led Khalqis by some group of “alternate” leftist leadership. Because it was presumed that such a Soviet-supported group would necessarily be ideologically and politically acceptable to Moscow, the exiled Parcham wing of the Afghan leftist movement—including its long-time number one, Babrak Karmal—was viewed as a prime contender for this role. During the years before the Afghan Left seized power in April 1978, the Parcham wing was generally believed to have a larger following among Afghan intelligentsia, and was supposed to be popular among leftist university students. The Khalqi faction, on the other hand, focussed its recruitment on the military, a background which explains why the Khalqis under Taraki-Amin prevailed in their struggle against the Parcham in the first few months following the April 1978 revolution. Moreover, Babrak Karmal and some of his followers were also generally believed to be more pro-Soviet than were the Khalqi leaders, although information on this point was difficult to verify. Thus, some observers had believed that Moscow would quite readily throw its weight behind the Parchamists should the Khalqis falter seriously in their efforts to build a revolutionary Afghanistan.

5. Most observers, however, downplayed the possibility of the foregoing scenario, principally because it appeared to hold little promise for solving any of the serious difficulties being confronted by the leftist party in power. Most Afghans, certainly the mass of the population, see no difference between the two leftist groups, and consider them as equally evil, Communists and atheists. Informed Afghans and foreigners also believed that past differences between the two factions were based more on personal animosities than on opposing doctrinal views, revolutionary zeal, etc. Babrak’s perceived pro-Soviet ardor added to doubts that he would represent an any more viable or popular alternative should the Khalqi position become drastically eroded. Thus, this particular analysis, to which we adhered, concluded that the accession of Babrak and the Parcham would have virtually no ameliorating impact on the hostility of the insurgents fighting for the overthrow of a Communist regime in Kabul, nor would it present any broader appeal to the Afghan middle or upper class, with the possible exception of a [Page 307] small group of university students. This particular advantage, however, would perhaps be counterbalanced by the loss of support within the Khalqi-leaning military which a Parcham accession would entail. Despite the events of the past eighteen hours, we see no reason to alter this analysis, and can only conclude that Babrak will have no better chance to advance the revolution than did his predecessors, and that his base of support could even be much narrower than Amin’s in his last days.

6. The means by which Babrak came to power virtually guarantees instability, strife, and bloodshed here. By having ridden to power on the guns of the Soviet Army, Babrak will hardly have many admirers among Afghans, and this episode could conceivably provide the catalyst the various insurgent groups need to form their own united front against the “new” central government. A delayed reaction against the Soviet forces may still explode. The cohesion of what remains of the Afghan Army in the field is also questionable, as we anticipate that many individuals and units may wonder why they should continue fighting fellow Afghans for the sake of a leadership forcibly imposed by Moscow. A collapse of the army cannot be ruled out.

7. Because we must presume that the Soviets are aware of the risks of the “Parchamist option,” we have difficulty discerning convincing reasons for Moscow’s decision to intervene militarily to overthrow one regime and impose another, a move which hardly enhances Soviet prestige around the world and, in Afghanistan would appear a blunder of great magnitude. It could be, of course, that the Soviets were in a desperate quandary: for example, to continue with Amin represented likely disaster, while forcing a change in the Afghan regime may have been viewed as at least holding out the possibility of improving the chances of the revolution, despite the real potential disaster outlined above. At the same time, the episode may well underscore Moscow’s commitment that the world’s “correlation of forces” now favors the USSR, thereby demonstrating to the world the risks the Kremlin is willing to run in order to preclude reversal of a socialist revolution, especially on the USSR’s borders. Whether or not the Soviet action was designed as some sort of “signal” related to the Iranian or other international situation is for others to assess, but we think it was not, primarily because beating up on the Afghan Army does not necessarily represent a feat of arms that would [garble—concern?] major or even medium powers.

8. Despite the uncertainties surrounding Moscow’s decision to undertake this aggressive action—and we assume Hafizullah Amin believed the thousands of Soviet troops airlifted into Kabul were destined to assist him, not put him in his grave—an active Soviet military role in Afghanistan in support of the puppet government of Babrak [Page 308] Karmal is probably a long-term prospect. In view of last night’s actions, we sadly anticipate Soviet troops will now overrun all important cities and strategic areas and will directly enter the fray against the insurgents.

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, Cables File, Box 1, Afghanistan: 12/28/79. Confidential; Niact Immediate; Sensitive. Sent for information Immediate to Moscow. Also sent for information to Beijing, Athens, Islamabad, Jidda, London, New Delhi, Paris, USNATO, CINCPAC (also for POLAD), and CINCEUR (also for POLAD). Printed from a copy received in the White House Situation Room.