KABUL, -- On the morning of April 27, 1978, Afghan President Sardar Muhammad Daud Khan was expecting his interior minister at the sprawling 19th-century Arg-e Shahi Palace in the heart of the Afghan capital, Kabul.
According to Afghan journalist and author Daud Junbish, Daud Khan, 68, wanted Abdul Qadeer to brief him on the situation following a government crackdown on the pro-Soviet Marxist Peoples Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA). Daud Khan’s government had rounded up most top PDPA leaders following a funeral for their slain colleague. Key party ideologue Mir Akbar Khyber had been assassinated outside his Kabul home on April 17, 1978.
Around the same time some four kilometers away in the historic fort of Bala Hissar, Shahnawaz Tanai, a young Soviet-trained special forces officer, had received secret orders to topple Daud Khan’s republican government.
More than four decades later, Tanai says he still believes the aftermath of Khyber’s murder forced jailed PDPA leader Hafizullah Amin to order a military coup. Amin oversaw the PDPA’s secret organization within the Afghan military.
“The conditions were not ready for a coup,” Tanai, who was a member of the PDPA’s Khalq or Masses faction, told Radio Free Afghanistan. “In a way, the coup was imposed on us after Daud Khan attacked our party by rounding up its leaders. He then wanted to move against the party’s supporters within the military.”
Sulaiman Layeq, a leader of the sometimes rival Parcham faction, agrees. The 89-year-old remembers being incarcerated at Pul-e Charkhi alongside Amin and the PDPA’s top leader Nur Muhammad Tarakai in April 1978.
“The coup was carried out in broad daylight,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “Party members had no choice but to accept the coup as fait accompli even while it was ordered by one individual.”
The coup was largely carried out by troops loyal to Amin stationed near the notorious Pul-e Charkhi prison east of Kabul where he was held. Two young military officers, Aslam Watanjar and Muhammad Rafi, led a tank column from the Afghan Army’s Fourth Armored Corps to capture Arg and other key installations around Kabul, some 20 kilometers away. Their advance and later attacks in Arg and elsewhere in Kabul were supported by Afghan Air Force Officer Abdul Qadir.
Writing in his book Twenty-four Hours That Shook Afghanistan, Junbish says that by around 10:30 a.m. in Arg Daud Khan and his cabinet were still unaware a tank column was en route to Kabul. Around that time, a bodyguard barged into the meeting to ask the Afghan leader whether he knew about the advancing tanks. But Daud Khan had no idea what they were up to.
Tanai says rebellious forces had captured the headquarters of Afghanistan’s state radio and television less than a kilometer from Arg around 11:30 a.m. Half an hour earlier, they had cut the links between Arg and the Afghan Defense Ministry.
He says he was ordered around midday to attack the besieged presidential palace where the guards were offering stiff resistance.
By evening, the rebellious officers loyal to the PDPA had captured most of the army and air force installations around Kabul and had taken over the communications and defense ministries. They had also freed the PDPA leaders from Pul-e Charkhi.
In the evening, Watanjar announced the coup to the world.
“For the first time in history of the empire -- the sign of oppression and cruelty -- the power of the family of [King] Nadir Khan has ended,” he said in a radio broadcast in Pashto, naming Daud Khan’s uncle, who had restored the Durrani monarchy after a brief interregnum in 1929. “All the state power is now in the hands of the people,” he added as he hinted at who was behind the coup. “The state power is now firmly in the hands of the revolutionary military council.”
Inside Arg, Daud Khan and his family, guards, and cabinet members continued resisting into the early hours of the next day. But all of them were eventually killed on April 28, 1978. The coup ended nearly 250 years of Durrani monarchy in Afghanistan.
Pacha Mir, head of maintenance at the Afghan Army’s armored corps, was tasked with burying the slain president and his family near Pul-e Charkhi. Their secret grave was finally discovered in 2008. He was given a state funeral the following year.
PDPA leaders called their coup the Saur Revolution after the month in the Afghan calendar that it took place. Reflecting on the aftermath of their coup, Layeq says the vanity of the Afghan leaders destroyed whatever good they expected from the coup.
“I think the bottom line in Afghanistan is that all [leaders] want to survive on their own,” he noted.
On the streets in Kabul, the coup is still blamed for all of Afghanistan’s woes. “It was a black day for Afghanistan,” said Kabul resident Bakhtiar, who goes by one name only. “The destruction of our homeland began on that day.”
Syed Rahman Niazi, another Kabul resident, blames the coup for their miseries. “Blood was shed to gain power that fateful day,” he said. “After the coup, our rulers killed Afghans and we were forced to abandon our homes. They showed no mercy to us.”
The coup’s leaders quickly fell out with one another. In September 1979, Amin deposed Tarakai. Most historians agree it was Amin who ordered Tarakai’s killing the following month.
Amin’s rule, however, was short-lived. Amin, his extended family, and supporters were killed by Soviet special forces on December 27, 1979 before invading Afghanistan. The Red Army then propped up another PDPA regime for the next decade as it occupied Afghanistan.
Afghanistan’s neighbors, Pakistan, Iran, China, the United States, Arab monarchies, and the Western world generously funded anti-Soviet jihad by Afghan Islamist guerillas known as mujahedin. The departure of Soviet troops in February 1989 didn’t end the war in Afghanistan.
Even the fall of the PDPA regime, then renamed the Homeland Party, on April 28, 1992, didn’t bring the war in Afghanistan to an end. Kabul was destroyed in the ensuing civil war. The emergence of the Taliban in the mid-1990s added a new dimension to the civil war and ultimately paved the way for the current phase of the war in Afghanistan.
Afghans have endured every imaginable atrocity during the various phases of war in their country. More than 1 million Afghans are estimated to have been killed and injured during the various phases of war.
The fighting has also displaced more than 10 million Afghans during the past four decades, making Afghans one of the largest refugee communities worldwide.
Abubakar Siddique wrote this based on reporting by Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Rehmatullah Afghan from Kabul, Afghanistan.
Correction: This story has been corrected to reflect the actual date of Afghan President Hafizullah Amin's killing in December 1979.
The Story was first published on May 6, 2019.