Excerpt from Afghanistan: The Soviet Invasion and the Afghan Response, 1979-1982 by M. Hassan Kakar
For more than a week beginning 15 March 1979, the people of the city of Herat and its environs, joined by the military division stationed there, rose in rebellion. About twenty-five thousand of them were killed before the Khalqi government was able to suppress their uprising, principally with the assistance of the Soviet warplanes that bombed the city from bases across the border in the Soviet Union. Of the many antigovernment uprisings this was the biggest, and the government felt a danger to its survival. To avert the danger, Premier Nur Mohammad Taraki first held a telephone conversation with A.N. Kosygin, the Soviet premier, and then flew in secret to Moscow to persuade his comrades there to suppress the uprising with their own military men from the Central Asian republics disguised as Afghans.
The telephone conversation between Taraki and Kosygin, which occurred on 18 March 1979 and is transcribed here, shows how desperate Premier Taraki had become. He was desperate because he believed that “the power of the people is the power of God.” Now the full weight of this power had been turned against his government. The text also throws light on the sociopolitical situation of the country, a situation that is in contrast with what the government was depicting in its propaganda. The text is here reproduced in full with the permission of the Journal of South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, which published this and other documents related to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in vol. 17, no. 2 (winter 1994). The conversation was carried on through the Soviet interpreter in Kabul, an assistant to the chief military adviser, General-Lieutenant Gorelov, and written down by someone named Batsanov.
Kosygin Tell comrade Taraki that I want to give him warm regards from Leonid Ilyich [Brezhnev] and from members of the Political Bureau.
Taraki Thank you very much.
Kosygin How is comrade Taraki; he does not get too tired, does he?
Taraki I do not get tired. Today we have had a meeting of the Revolutionary Council.
Kosygin That’s good, I am very glad. Ask comrade Taraki whether he can describe the situation in Afghanistan.
Taraki The situation is not good, it is getting worse. During the last month and a half from the Iran side four thousand servicemen in civil[ian] clothes penetrated into the city of Herat and into military units. At present all the 17th infantry division is in their hands, including the artillery regiment and anti-aircraft battalion which is firing at our planes. Fighting continues in the city.
Kosygin How many people are there in the division?
Taraki About five thousand men. All ammunition and store houses and depots are in their hands. Foods and ammunition are carried by planes from Kandahar to our comrades who are fighting there against them.
Kosygin How many of your people have remained there?
Taraki Five hundred men. They are on the Herat airfield and the division commander is with them. As a reinforcement, we sent there by planes from Kabul an operation group. This group is on the Herat airfield since early morning.
Kosygin And what about the officers of the division? Have they become traitors or [are] some of them…together with [the] division commander on the airfield[?]
Taraki A small part of the officers have remained faithful, the rest of them are with the enemy.
Kosygin Are some of the workers, citizens and office workers in Herat on your side? Or anyone else?
Taraki We do not have active support of the population. Almost all of the population is under the Shi’ite slogans.“Do not believe the atheists, follow us”—their propaganda is based on this slogan.
Kosygin How large is [the] Herat population?
Taraki 200 or 250 thousand people. Their behavior depends upon the situation. They go to where they are led. At present they are on the side of the enemy.
Kosygin Are there many workers there?
Taraki Very few; only one or two thousand people.
Kosygin What do you think is the situation in Herat?
Taraki We think that either this evening or tomorrow morning Herat will fall and be in hands of the enemy.
Kosygin And what are further perspectives?
Taraki We are sure that the enemy will form new units and will continue the offensive.
Kosygin Do you have armed forces to defeat them?
Taraki If only we had them…
Kosygin What are your suggestions concerning this situation?
Taraki We ask you to render practical and technical assistance with men and armament.
Kosygin This is a very complicated problem.
Taraki Otherwise the rebels will go to Kandahar and then to Kabul. They will bring half of Iran into Afghanistan under the flag of [the] Herat division. Afghans who have run away to Pakistan will come back. Iran and Pakistan have a common plan against us. Therefore if you inflict a blow on Herat now the revolution may be saved.
Kosygin The whole world will learn about this immediately. The rebels have radio sets and they will inform the world right away.
Taraki I ask you to help us.
Kosygin We must take counsel about this.
Taraki While you will be taking counsel Herat will fall and both the Soviet Union and Afghanistan will have still greater difficulties.
Kosygin Maybe you may tell me now what assessments you can offer concerning Pakistan and then Iran? Do you have connections with progressive-minded people in Iran? Can you tell them that at present your chief enemy is the United States[?] Iranians are very embittered against the United States and probably this can be used for propaganda purposes.
Taraki Today we have broadcast a statement to the Iranian government pointing out that Iran interferes in our home affairs in the Herat region.
Kosygin And what about Pakistan? Don’t you consider it necessary to make a statement to it?
Taraki Tomorrow or the day after tomorrow we shall make the same [kind] of statement to Pakistan.
Kosygin Can you rely upon your army? Is it trustworthy? Maybe you can assemble your troops to deliver a blow on Herat?
Taraki We believe our army is trustworthy. But it is impossible to withdraw troops from other cities in order to send them to Herat because this will weaken our positions in the cities.
Kosygin But if we give you quickly additional planes and arms will you be able to raise new units?
Taraki This will take much time and meanwhile Herat will fall.
Kosygin Do you believe that if Herat falls Pakistan will act the same way as Iran does?
Taraki The possibility of this is very great. The spirit of Pakistani people will stiffen after that. Americans lend them adequate support. After Herat falls Pakistanis will also send soldiers in civil[ian] clothes who will begin to capture towns and the Iranians will interfere actively. Success in Herat is the key to all other problems connected with the struggle.
Kosygin What political actions or statements would you like us to make? Have you got any consideration [suggestions] in this respect?
Taraki It is necessary to combine propagandistic and practical assistance. I suggest that you mark your tanks and planes with Afghan signs[,] then nobody will know anything. Your troops could move from Kushka and from Kabul.
Kosygin To reach Kabul will also take time.
Taraki Kushka is very near to Herat. As for Kabul troops can be brought there by planes. If you bring troops to Kabul and they will move from there to Herat we think that nobody will know the truth. People will think that they are government troops.
Kosygin I don’t want to distress you but such a fact is impossible to conceal. It will become known to the whole world in two hours. Everybody will shout that the Soviet Union has started intervention in Afghanistan. Tell me, comrade Taraki, if we bring arms and tanks to Kabul by planes will you you be able to provide tank-men?
Taraki Very few of them.
Kosygin But how many?
Taraki I don’t have exact data about this.
Kosygin If we send you tanks, necessary ammunition and mortars by planes immediately will you find specialists who could use them?
Taraki I can’t answer this question. Soviet advisers can answer it.
Kosygin As I understand you have no well-trained military personnel at all or very few of them.
Hundreds of Afghan officers have been trained in the Soviet Union. Where are they?
Taraki Most of them are Muslim reactionaries or they are also called Muslim Brothers. We can’t rely on them, we are not sure of them.
Kosygin How many people live in Kabul now?
Taraki About one million men.
Kosygin Can you recruit fifty thousand soldiers if we send you arms by planes immediately? How many soldiers can you recruit?
Taraki We can recruit some men, first of all young men, but it will take much time to train them.
Kosygin Can you recruit students?
Taraki It is possible to recruit students and pupils of the 11th or 12th grades of the Lyceums.
Kosygin Can’t you recruit workers?
Taraki There are very few workers in Afghanistan.
Kosygin And what about the poorest peasants?
Taraki We can recruit only students of the Lyceums, pupils of the eldest forms and a small number of workers. But to train them will take much time. When it is necessary we are ready to do anything.
Kosygin We have taken a decision to send you urgently military equipment, to take upon ourselves the repair of planes and helicopters free of charge. We have also decided to send you 100,000 [sic] tons of grain and to raise the cost of gas from 21 US dollars per thousand cubic meters up to 37.82 US dollars.
Taraki That is good, but let us talk about Herat.
Kosygin All right. Can you now form several divisions in Kabul of progressive people upon whom you may rely? Can you do that in other places too? We would give you necessary arms.
Taraki We have no officers. Iran sends service men in civil[ian] clothes to Afghanistan. Pakistan also sends soldiers and officers in Afghan clothes. Why can’t the Soviet Union send Uzbeks, Tajiks, Turkmen in civil[ian] clothes? Nobody will recognize who they are.
Kosygin What else can you say concerning Herat?
Taraki We want Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Turkmen to be sent to us because they can drive tanks and besides all these peoples live in Afghanistan too. Let them wear Afghan clothes, Afghan badges and then nobody will recognize them as foreigners. We think this is very easily done. Judging by the example of Iran and Pakistan we see that it is easy to do.
Kosygin But you oversimplify the problem, while this is a complex political, international problem. Yet despite all this we shall have consultations and then give you our answer. I think that you should try to form new units. You can’t rely only upon people who come from elsewhere. [The] Iranian revolution is an example: the people threw out all Americans and all other peoples too who tried to show themselves as defenders of Iran.
Let us make an agreement: we shall take counsel and then give you our answer. And you on your side counsel your military men and our advisers. Certainly there are forces in Afghanistan who will support you at the risk of their lives and will fight for you. These forces are to be given arms immediately.
Taraki Send us fighting infantry machines [armored personnel-carriers] by planes.
Kosygin And do you have men who can drive them?
Taraki We have 30 or 35 men who can drive them.
Kosygin Are they reliable? Will they not go over to the enemy together with the machines? Our drivers do not know the language.
Taraki But you send machines and drivers who know our language—Tajiks, Uzbeks.
Kosygin I expected you to give such an answer. We are comrades and are fighting [a] common fight, therefore we must not feel shy before each other. Everything is to be subordinated to the fight. We shall call you and tell you our opinion.
Taraki Please give our regards and best wishes to comrade Brezhnev and to members of the Political Bureau.
Kosygin Thanks. Remember me to all your comrades. I wish you firmness in solving problems, assurances and well-being. Good bye.