Afghanistan has had a long history of living under foreign rule. Once a protectorate of the British Empire, Afghanistan became fully independent in 1919, but its vulnerable monarchy led by King Zahir Shah was unable to unite the country’s many ancestral tribes into a central government. This set up the conditions for internal political instability. The monarchy came to an end in 1973 when Zahir Shah’s cousin, Mohammed Daoud Khan, led a bloodless coup against the king, declared himself president and foreign minister and established a secular republic.
President Daoud’s own rule came to a violent end on April 27, 1978 in what was known as the Saur Revolution when pro-Communist rebels stormed the palace in Kabul and killed him and his family. The ensuring domestic turmoil encouraged foreign intervention, and the Soviets invaded the following year.
Kenneth Yates, an information officer for the United States Information Agency (USIA), the public affairs branch of the U.S. foreign affairs community, describes the events of the 1978 revolution in Afghanistan. The local offices are referred to as the “United States Information Service” (USIS).
Yates was interviewed by Charles Stewart Kennedy in March 1997. Please follow the links to read another account of the 1978 revolution, and to read more about post-colonial instability, Afghanistan , coups-d’état or to read Kenneth Yates’ entire oral history.
“At the time, the Soviets really had control of the country”
Kenneth Yates Information Officer for USIA in Kabul (1976-1978)
YATES: Their prime minister was a prince of the royal family, Mohammed Daoud. The problem with Afghanistan was that it was never a unified country. The borders were created by the British. The British invaded Afghanistan three times and lost three times. They did foolish things. For example, they would build fortresses as they would do in Europe and put them on the highest hill to command the surrounding territory. This was great for artillery but lousy for water. The Afghans thought they were crazy and they were.
Those fortresses the British built still stand unoccupied and pristine, since nobody could ever use them because of the lack of water. If the British built and occupied one of these hilltop fortresses, the Afghans would simply surround them and wait for them to die of thirst. The British tried and tried and tried. They saw Afghanistan as an important buffer between British India and the Russian empire.
However, the interior part of the country hasn’t got much to pull it together. The center of the country is mountainous and occupied by the Hazara. In the north, you have all the Turkmen types. In the south, you have the Pashtuns. To the west, of course, you have the Persians. You have the Dravidian culture in the southern part of the Indian peninsula, the Turkish culture to the north and the Persian culture to the west. In the middle of all this are the leftovers from the time when Genghis Khan swept through, the Hazara…
We [the U.S.] didn’t have much of a policy, because we didn’t have much interest in Afghanistan. At the time, the Soviets really had control of the country. They had everything but the flag. They were the advisors in the military and the teachers in most of the higher institutes of learning. They controlled the medical system, and there were strong communist supporters throughout the government. Essentially, they had a throttle-hold on the country at that point, so we didn’t have any specific or direct influence.
You may recall that back in the Eisenhower days, the king asked the U.S. to supply them with weapons, but we refused. He then went to the Russians, and the Russians came across with the weapons. That is essentially what brought the Russians in, our refusal to give them arms. Now, you can say this was a wise decision to stop the spread of armaments, and this was clearly the intent of the Eisenhower administration’s policy. We have to draw the line somewhere, and this is as good a place as any. But the consequences of that decision later on meant that the Russians had full sway in Afghanistan…
When I got there in 1976, the Afghans were making progress. They had leather factories going and were making significant strides in women’s rights, giving them education and bringing them into the workplace. Traditionally in Afghan society, women were not given an education. They were considered to be barefoot, in the kitchen, and pregnant. That is what their function was. Only males could receive education.
When we gave aid under the USAID [U.S. Agency for International Development] program, a stipulation was that whenever we built a school, it had to be coeducational or at least divided in the middle, so that all the boys were on one side and the girls on the other. I visited some of those schools and saw the education that the girls were receiving. Smart kids.
On the other side, we gave aid also for social welfare progress. We had gotten out of the capital intensive projects such as dams and roads. Previously, USAID programs had built all of the east-west roads; the Russians built all the north-south roads. The roadbeds were different, although all very good. Ours were built for internal communication, and the Russians were obviously built for external communication.
The Russians were extracting stuff, copper, oranges, and natural gas. They were sucking the place dry. It was clear what they were up to. The Afghans were very unhappy, because the Russians were pumping natural gas out of Afghanistan, but the meter telling how much gas they were taking was on the Russian side of the border. The Russians would report to the Afghans how much they had taken. The Afghans were not sure the Russians were being honest in the amount.
Afghans were uncomfortable with the Russians and didn’t trust them. The Russians were nonbelievers, atheists. They didn’t have a book, the book being the Bible, or in this case the word of Mohammed. They were ambivalent about Christians; since they had a book, they must have a soul. The Russians had no book, and thus no soul.
If you shot a Russian, it was of no consequence. You would be more distressed over shooting a dog, because, although the dog couldn’t read, it had a function, to protect the family or caravan. A Russian had no soul and no function. There was nothing lost, in the Afghan way of thinking.
The Russians had a big embassy in Kabul, much bigger than ours. Their policy of assignment was that Russian Foreign Service Officers would be assigned there for life. Every six months, we had a Russian/American night as part of our detente activities, because the two Ambassadors had set the practice up as an expression of good will. Nobody ever wanted the responsibility of setting these up, and it was usually relatively junior members of the embassy who ended up doing it.
“You could hear the grinding of the armored personnel carrier as it crept slowly along”
I had a bird’s eye view of [the April 27 coup]. I was in the office on the Saturday morning in April, as usual to pick up the traffic and read and work on the wireless file. A few of our local employees were in the back, working on a project for our print shop. It was about 10:30 when I heard a commotion and a big explosion somewhere outside, not very far away.
In no more than about 30 seconds after that, the telephone rang and the Marine guard at the embassy asked if I had heard anything funny? The embassy was about a mile, or a mile and a half, from the USIS offices. I said that I had. He thought I had better leave for home, because there was something serious going on.
The American Embassy where the Marine Guard stood watch was somewhat outside of town on the road to the airport. He said that they had seen a column of tanks heading into town a few minutes earlier. What had happened was, the tanks had proceeded down the airport road and had come to a stop in front of the Ministry of Interior, about a block and a half away from the USIS building. They had fired a round into the ministry and that was what I had heard.
I shooed everybody out, the local employees who were working in my graphics shop and those in the print shop, locked the place up, and went home. By the time I got home, things had started in earnest. I put the car in the garage and locked the gate…
Inside the yard, our house man, Saqui, was mowing the lawn. We had an enormous lawn. The house had been owned by a German couple many years ago and then a mayor of Kabul or some other high ranking official had lived there. It was an enormous piece of property. Saqui was mowing the lawn, and I told him there was trouble and he should come into the house, which had very thick walls.
Saqui said, “No, no, I am cutting the lawn, and I am almost done. Just another five minutes, no problem.”
He kept pushing the hand mower, and I repeated my insistence that he come into the house. Just as I finished the sentence, there was a “tut-tut-tut” through the trees above our heads and leaves began to flutter down around our ears from the shells going through the trees. Saqui then decided the idea was probably good and came into the house.
Afghans were fighting Afghans, so they were all using the same equipment and wearing the same uniforms. Our house covered the better part of a half a block, with the remaining part the block consisting of a Mercedes dealership and a small battery factory.
At one point, an armored personnel carrier appeared on one side of the block. You could hear the grinding of the armored personnel carrier as it crept slowly along, obviously searching. It had a machine gun mounted on top. On the other side of the block, the other side of the compound, was a tank. If you looked out the window, you could see the phosphorus streak of every third or fourth shell when the tank fired. They weren’t firing at us in the house, but they certainly were close.
This cat and mouse game went on for about an hour and then ceased, as they tired of the game and moved away. I never knew what finally happened. There also was a machine gun on the top of a police box which was about a block away to the southwest, and whichever factions controlled the police station kept firing over the yard beside the house. So there was a lot of stuff flying around.
I didn’t feel directly threatened at that time, because the walls of the house were pretty thick and would have stopped any kind of ordinance from a smaller weapon. The danger was aircraft. In the early afternoon, they starting strafing the royal palace which was about two blocks away on the other side of a park in “Sharinow,” the new city of Kabul, near the Blue Mosque.
I was on the northwestern side of the palace. The jets were approaching from the south, strafing the palace and then lifting up. Just about where the house was, they would hit the afterburners to give enough boost to come around to make another run. There were one or several jets continuously at the game for at least an hour and a half.
The problem was stray shots that landed in places that were unintended. At one point early in the afternoon, I was in the kitchen. I had moved the refrigerator slightly away from the wall, since I thought that crouching behind it would increase my safety while in the kitchen which had thinner walls than the other parts of the house and therefore did not provide the same protection.
I decided I would eat as solid a lunch as I could, before it got dark and we possibly lost power. Behind the refrigerator was an interior wall and then a small room about 6 feet wide, somewhat bigger than a closet, where we stored firewood. It also served as a pantry. On the other side of the external pantry wall was a battery shop where they repaired car batteries.
While crouching behind the refrigerator trying to wolf down a piece of steak I had managed to fry for lunch, even though everything had to be done reaching up from the crawling posture on the floor, there was a bang next door, a sort of thud and crash. I didn’t pay much attention to it, with all the noise of the jets passing over.
Not until later did I learn that a stray rocket that had been fired at the palace hit the shop, was a dud and didn’t go off. Luck was with me that afternoon, since had the missile exploded, it would have blown me away or at least buried me in the rubble of the pantry and kitchen wall.
I was thankful for the inefficiency of Russian arms. It was probably old ammunition. The Russians were famous for giving the Afghans old junk that the Soviet forces could not rely on any longer. At the time, I was thankful for that policy. The strafing, noise, and vibration went on for about an hour and a half.
“The worst part of the fight was the uncertainty of what was going on”
Then about 3:00 in the afternoon, there was a sudden violent thunderstorm. That sort of event was most unusual in Kabul. Normally, a dust storm arrived around 3 to 4 in the afternoon. You could almost set your watch by it. On the days I was at home in the afternoon, we would race around, slamming all the windows shut just as the wind began to suddenly pick up and the rolling ball of dust would come from the east and blanket everything exposed with a thick coating.
On this day, however, all the military firing and explosions must have stirred up the atmosphere enough to disturb the usual patterns and prompt thunder heads. Whatever the cause, the heavy rain and gusting winds drove the jets away and ended the strafing. When the rain let up, the jets did not return to the strafing pattern over the royal palace, and the battle shifted more to the west.
Light bombers could be seen coming from the north east, probably from the Bagram Air Base, on their way to the western part of town where the sound of explosions could be heard. They were bombing military positions west of the city. Thereafter, the bombing ceased in the vicinity of the Blue Mosque, although small arms firing continued.
The fight went on for about a day and a half. I spent most of that time crawling around on the floor. I didn’t dare go upstairs where stray rounds might pick off the curious head above the window sill… The worst part of the fight was the uncertainty of what was going on and the prospect of losing communication with others.
When the fighting started, the telephone system was, of course, the first thing to get damaged. I had one of those Motorola hand-held radios that the embassy had issued for just such emergencies. Before the experience of the revolution, those radios were a significant bother. They had to be left in a plugged-in charger so that they would have a full battery, but the Marines used the channels to run tests now and then, and the things could go off at all hours.
Those of us who had not gone through a real emergency did not have enough experience to know how valuable they would become when things got hot. People who didn’t have them suffered. In the beginning, I was able to maintain contact with the embassy by telephone. When the telephone system started to go down, it turned out I could call the western part of Kabul, but the embassy could not.
For some strange reason involving the exchange system, the embassy could still call me by phone. So the embassy was able to relay a message to me, and I could then call the AID people out in the western part of the city and pass the information along. Of course, they could pass information on the fighting in that area back to the embassy.
“They went overboard to make sure that the foreigners who were not combatants were not injured”
If anything, their experiences were much more severe than mine. I remember a call to one of the AID workers in the western part of Kabul. He said, “What do I do? What do I do? I have two bodies in my driveway.” I told him not to touch them and stay with his family under the heaviest furniture. The greatest danger seemed to be curiosity, since the diplomatic community was not among the combatants and had not taken sides. But inadvertently being in the way was a real danger.
For example, we in Kabul had a visiting baseball team from the American school in Pakistan. Parents in Rawalpindi doubtless were worried about their children, and there was a great sense of urgency to get word back that everybody was accounted for and safe. We got most people accounted for. They were told to stay inside, keep their doors locked, and stay underneath tables or anything heavy.
As it turned out, they did and no one was hurt. While unscathed, there was some psychic damage. The wife of one of the political officers did not have a portable phone, and she could not understand anything that was going on. Her husband was caught in the embassy when the fighting started and could not return.
Without his presence at home and lacking one of the usually bothersome radiophones, she became distraught with fear and worry and suffered enough psychologically to require medical attention, adding to the concern of the rest of the community. The noise of the jets and the firing and explosions just were too much…
The fighting gradually cooled over a day and a half. In the interim, I finally lost telephone communication with the embassy and could no longer provide news and information back and forth with the western part of the town and the USAID compound there. Remarkably, however, the power remained on, and my trusty radiophone kept me in touch.
On the morning of the second day, I crawled upstairs to look out and make sure that the quiet was real and that there was nothing moving. I saw one taxi, as I peered over the second story window sill onto the street running across the front of the house.
Unbelievable as it was, a tennis racquet slung over his shoulder, a German man dressed in tennis whites pedaled into view on a bicycle, going to the German club which was about a block to the north. To insist on the usual set of tennis in the morning, in the face of the fighting and destruction of the previous hours, was amazing, a display of total disdain for an obvious situation, one that I had not seen before or since. He had to be either crazed by the fight, simply did not care, or had found refuge in the sanity of habit. Perhaps he reasoned it was not his fight, and no one would bother a diplomat on a simple errand of tennis. I have no idea if he was able to play his game, but the sight was remarkable, nonetheless.
I later learned that several Peace Corps volunteers almost got hit, about the same time as I was crouched behind the radiator. A live rocket that strayed from its intended path into the Royal Palace flew over the Blue Mosque and killed seven Afghans in an apartment immediately opposite the mosque. The apartment that received the deadly munition was next to the one where the Peace Corps volunteers were gathered. Fate was measured in fractions of degrees in altitude and direction of the errant missile.
It was perhaps the closest call for any of the Americans resident in Kabul. After the fight was over, Afghan military people – I don’t know from which side – came around to ask if we had any damage and offered to fix whatever was necessary. They went overboard to make sure that the foreigners who were not combatants were not injured in any way.
From all of the later reports, it was evident that the Afghans took great pains to check on all foreigners and to repair whatever damage their houses suffered from the fight. Some houses had multiple bullet holes and other related damage, but no one had been seriously hurt. Perhaps it was the traditional sense of Afghan hospitality in action.