The years of opportunity for the soviets in Afghanistan, 1953-1963

Prince Daoud, a cousin of King Zahir, who meanwhile had come to power (1953), tried once more to convince the American government of the Afghan government's good will and of its desire to settle the dispute with Pakistan through diplomatic channels. He met Vice-President Nixon during his short visit to Kabul in 1953. But another prerequisite was demanded, namely that Afghanistan should abandon its long tradition of neutrality to join Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, and Turkey as a party to the Baghdad Pact.

This was enough to push Prince Daoud, who was already tired of American lack of comprehension, into the open arms of Moscow. In Moscow, the new post-Stalin leaders were following these events with great interest. They had already started their Peace Policy towards the Third World and were eager to draw Afghanistan into their sphere of influence. 

In 1953, three developments coincided that fundamentally affected Afghanistan's internal conditions and foreign relations: (1) the extension of the U.S. containment policy to the countries adjacent to Afghanistan; (2) the death of Stalin; and (3) a change of government in Afghanistan. The U.S. containment policy led to its military alliances with Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Pakistan through CENTO and South East Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) pacts. The security- interests of Afghanistan, which shared long borders with both Iran and Pakistan, were ignored, and the country was left isolated. After Stalin's death, Khrushchev- initiated a number of major policy changes toward nonsocialist countries. Under the new leadership, Moscow's doctrinaire approach of "whoever is not with us is against us" was replaced by a pragmatic policy of "peaceful coexistence." The theory of the "inevitability" of war with capitalist societies was abandoned. At this time, Soviet foreign policy toward Afghanistan and other nonaligned countries grew more aggressive than before. On September 20, 1953, King Zahir Shah appointed his first cousin, Mohammad Daoud, as prime minister. As a former general, Daoud was a powerful and impatient leader with strong nationalistic views. He wanted to pursue the Pashtunistan issue forcefully and to develop Afghanistan, using foreign aid, in a few decades without paying necessary attention to the side effects of these policies.

In 1954, when Afghanistan and Pakistan were increasingly at odds over the question of Pashtunistan and tensions were growing between India and Pakistan over the Kashmir dispute, the leadership of Pakistan decided to join the U.S. sponsored SEATO. The following year, Pakistan joined the Baghdad pact (later CENTO), thus becoming a key link in the chain of security pacts the United States was building to contain Soviet expansion. However, the United States' policy of containment in the region was flawed; it ignored the security interests of Afghanistan and overlooked the internal dynamics and political and economic motivations of Pakistan and Iran for joining the U.S. sponsored pacts.

The United States proceeded to provide Pakistan and Iran with military and economic aid and repeatedly rejected Afghanistan's concerns about the military build-up of its neighbors. According to Leon Poullada, an American diplomat in Kabul, "[d]uring these crucial years, American diplomats in Kabul and those supervising Afghan affairs in Washington, with few exceptions, had little knowledge of the country and could hardly mumble more than a few words of bazaar Farsi."10 The actions of these ill-informed and inexperienced U.S. strategic planners, who did not take the local, national and regional disputes into account, aggravated regional rivalries and frustrated the needs and security of nonaligncd Afghanistan in the region. The strengthening of Pakistan reduced the possibility that Pakistan would come to terms with her weaker neighbors. In fact, Pakistan, as a newly established country, regarded Afghanistan and India as more immediate enemies than either the Soviet Union or the People's Republic of China [1].

As it happened, Pakistan used American-supplied arms internally against Pashtuns and Baluchs and externally against Afghanistan and India in conflicts arising from border disputes. In 1955, border disputes led Pakistan to close once again the border that was serving as Afghanistan's trade link with the Indian Ocean. After the border was closed, Afghan leaders drifted into what the Afghans called the Soviet web. In the same year, when the government of the United States protested Pakistan's use of American planes and military equipment in the Bajuar fighting between Afghan and Pakistani irregulars, Ayub Khan, the President of Pakistan, rejected the protest in a public speech [2].

Thus, it was to an Afghanistan angry with the United States, dissatisfied with its own economic progress, and alarmed over the Pashtunistan situation, that Khrushchev and Bulganin went in December 1955 with their new policy of "peaceful coexistence." They granted a SI00 million loan to Afghanistan on extremely favorable terms. This loan was the largest grant given by Moscow to any country other than allies. Moreover, the Soviet government promised to increase substantially its economic assistance to Afghanistan and to support the Afghan government on the Pashtunistan question.

By backing Afghanistan on the Pashtunistan issue, the Soviet Union seemed more interested in weakening and destabilizing Pakistan, a pro-American country, than in supporting the legality of Afghanistan's claim: although advocating a plebiscite in Pashtunistan, the Soviet Union persistently opposed the holding of a plebiscite in Kashmir and sided wholeheartedly with the Indian position [3].

Finally, in 1956, Daoud accepted the offer of Soviet military aid in the amount of S32.4 million. This military aid to Afghanistan resulted in an orientation of the Afghan armed forces toward the Soviet Union. Russian became the technical language of thousands of Soviet-trained officers. Each year between 250 and 300 Soviet scholarships (each for six years) were offered to Afghan students for study in the Soviet Union. According to one source, the Soviet Union was offering close to 600 full scholarships each year to military and civilian students combined, but the Afghan government was reluctant to send more than 250-300 students [4]. Moreover, Soviet, Czech, and Bulgarian teachers and advisors becamc active inside Afghan military units. Afghan armed forces became dependent upon Soviet arms and Soviet and Eastern European advisors. By a conservative estimate, there were over 4,000 Soviet-trained military and paramilitary officers on duty by the time of the 1978 coup. Afghan scholars believe that the decision to accept Soviet military and civilian scholarships in large numbers was one of the most fateful choices ever made by the Afghan government. To make things worse, only second-rate high school graduates and the students from poor socioeconomic backgrounds were sent by the Afghan Government to the Soviet Union. Because of the popularity of European and U.S. education in Afghanistan, high level graduates were sent either to the West or were accepted at Afghan institutions of higher education. In the 1960s and early 1970s, the majority of the civilian students who went to the Soviet Union were those who could not pass entrance examinations at Afghan colleges. Most Afghan students preferred an institution of higher education in Afghanistan to accepting a Soviet scholarship [5].

Furthermore, the Soviet- trained returnees were treated as second-rate personnel and were viewed with suspicion by both the Afghan elite and the religious figures. It was not surprising, therefore, that many underprivileged Soviet-trained military and civilian officers played crucial roles in the 1973 and in 1978 coups. Daoud, like many other nationalist Afghans, believed that the Kremlin would gain very little from its attempts at undermining Afghanistan, a tough and unruly country which had traditionally rejected foreign domination. As an Afghan general, Daoud might have read "Afghanistan," written in 1921 by a Soviet General. In this book, the general advised against the occupation of Afghanistan: "The place is both worthless and exceedingly dangerous, it has no resources to speak of, and is inhabited by an uncultured, half-savage, but ferocious and warlike population, which though lacking in all elementary discipline will unite in the name of Islam against the outsider [6]. Daoud expressed his outlook in the following words: "Our whole life, our whole existence, revolves around one single focal point, freedom. Should we ever get the feeling that our freedom is in the slightest danger, from whatever quarter, then we should prefer to live on dry bread, or even starve, sooner than accept help that would restrict our freedom [7].

His judgment about his own countrymen proved to be true, but he failed to anticipate that one day the Soviets and some of their Afghan friends might behave differently. To most Afghan scholars and political observers, Moscow's political and strategic objectives in Afghanistan in the 1950s and 1960s were not much different from Soviet objectives in other weak countries in the 1930s and 1940s. They were, first, designed to prevent Afghanistan from establishing warm relations with the West or its pro-West neighbors; second, to develop Afghanistan economically and make it an example of the success of Soviet cooperation and assistance to Third World countries; third, to establish its presence in Afghanistan and control its economy and foreign policy; fourth, through Afghanistan, to intimidate and, if necessary, destabilize Pakistan and Iran. To support their argument, Afghan observers present some of the important Soviet foreign policy initiatives toward Afghanistan and the region. In 1919 Leon Trotsky, then Commissar of War, declared, "[t]he road to Paris and London lies through the towns of Afghanistan, the Punjab, and Bengal." Twenty years later, under the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939, Hitler accepted Stalin's demand and gave the U.S.S.R. a free hand in the region. Five decades later, Khrushchev mentioned in his memoirs that "the highways Moscow built for Afghanistan in the 1950s were designed for Soviet military transport in the case of war with Iran or Pakistan [8].

When on September 6, 1961, after some border clashes, Pakistan closed its border for the third time in eleven years – this time for almost two years- Moscow once again promised an airlift of Afghanistan's perishable fruits and transit privileges. In addition, the Soviets offered a loan totaling S450 million for Afghanistan's second five- year plan. This was virtually the total amount needed for the plan. The Afghans understood the implications of this massive offer that it would cost them their independence – and turned it down.

During the decade of Daoud's leadership (1953-1963), Afghanistan made progress in education, agriculture, health, public works, and, of course, military organization. However, a number of adverse consequences resulting from this progress were more serious than Daoud or the King could imagine. Daoud's modernization policies alienated the conservative and nationalist rural people on whom Afghan independence depended. Soviet influence in the Afghan armed forces reached a level that even Daoud himself, who returned in 1973 as dictator- president, could not change. This growing Soviet role in Afghanistan eventually cost Daoud and thousands of other Afghans (including Daoud's whole family) their lives, and Afghanistan its independence, some twenty-five years later [9].



  1. Louis Dupree, Afghanistan (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973), - 510.
  2. Arnold Fletcher, Afghanistan: Highway of the Conquest - (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1965), - 223. 3 Alvin Z. Rubinstein. Soviet Policy toward Turkey. Iran and Afghanistan - (New York, 1982), - p. 134.
  3. Interview with an Afghan historian Hesari, - Kabul. July 9, 2015.
  4. Based on the author's experience as Assistant Director and later Director General of Cultural and Foreign Relations at Kabul University during 1967 1970 and 1972-1974,
  5. Andrey Yougen - Yeuich Snesarev, Afghanistan, quoted in Time Life Supplement, September 25 - October 1987.
  6. Guenther Nollau and Hans Juergen Wiehe, Russia's Southern Flank: Soviet Operations in Turkey and Afghanistan - (New York: Praeger. 1963), - p. 136. 8 Freedom, August 1, 1985, - p. 8.
  7. Anthony Arnold. Afghanistan: The Soviet Invasion in Perspective (Stanford, Calif.: Hoover Press. 1981), - p. 40.
Year: 2016
City: Almaty