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Poisonings, Assassination, And A Coup: The Secret Soviet Invasion Of Afghanistan

Operation Storm-333: The Secret Soviet Plot To Assassinate The Afghan President
Operation Storm-333: The Secret Soviet Plot To Assassinate The Afghan President

KABUL -- Afghanistan's communist President Hafizullah Amin was lying unconscious in his bed.

A KGB agent who had infiltrated Amin's staff as a cook had poisoned the president and his ministers during lunch at the Tajbeg presidential palace in Kabul.

It was December 27, 1979.

Two Soviet doctors, unaware of the KGB plot, worked desperately to revive Amin at the palace. His ministers were rushed to a military hospital.

"The doctors put tubes through his nose and mouth to pump his stomach," Faqir Mohammad Faqir, the interior minister, who had rushed to the palace, tells RFE/RL. "When his stomach was cleaned out, the doctors took him to the bathroom. For 30 minutes they poured cold water over him."

After four long hours, Amin gradually regained consciousness. Still groggy, he muttered to Faqir, one of his most trusted men, to go to the nearby Defense Ministry building.

Afghan President Hafizullah Amin in 1979
Afghan President Hafizullah Amin in 1979

A few hours later, the Afghan president was lying in bed in his underpants when scores of KGB special forces stormed the presidential palace, killing Amin and his family members amid fierce clashes. Soviet forces also seized key government buildings and military installations in Kabul in a coordinated attack.

Moscow considered Amin, who had studied in the United States, an unpredictable ally. Some in the Kremlin suspected he had attempted to forge links with Washington. Meanwhile, his penchant for using brutal methods to crush his rivals fueled growing opposition to communist rule in Afghanistan.

Moscow installed Babrak Karmal, a rival communist leader, as president the next day. Thousands of Soviet troops and hundreds of planes and tanks crossed into Afghanistan in the following days.

The invasion was the start of a devastating, decade-long Soviet occupation that would set Afghanistan on a path for decades of conflict.

"The Soviet invasion was the worst day for Afghans," says the 86-year-old Faqir as he trudges through the empty halls of the Tajbeg Palace, which is now being reconstructed. "It was the darkest day," he adds. "The most miserable day for Afghans. The misery that started that day continues until today."

'So Much Firing'

When Faqir arrived at the Defense Ministry, army chief Yaqub Khan was at a meeting with several Soviet military advisers in his office.

After greeting the guests, Faqir turned to sit down on a couch, when there was a burst of gunfire. He dashed to an adjacent room to take cover.

"After a few moments, Yaqub Khan entered the room and fell on the bed," Faqir says. "He had been shot twice and seriously wounded."

Minutes later, Khan died.

Then-Interior Minister Faqir Mohammad Faqir (center) stands next to army chief Yaqub Khan, with then-President Nur Mohammad Taraki seated in front.
Then-Interior Minister Faqir Mohammad Faqir (center) stands next to army chief Yaqub Khan, with then-President Nur Mohammad Taraki seated in front.

Drenched in Khan's blood, Faqir grabbed his handgun and aimed it at the door.

"There was so much firing that you couldn't hear anything," Faqir says, retelling the story as he slowly trudges through the National Museum, which back then housed the Defense Ministry. "The [Soviets] were throwing hand grenades, firing rockets, and using Kalashnikovs."

'They Look Like Russians'

Khan's secretary, Dawlat Waziri, was sitting at his desk at the Defense Ministry building when the shooting erupted.

"I got up, grabbed my Kalashnikov, and I opened the window," says Waziri, who was then 26 years old. "I saw that there was gunfire coming from down there, so I fired a few rounds."

Waziri says the attackers were wearing "yellow uniforms and woolen hats." "I thought to myself, 'They look like Russians,'" he says.

He then stormed into Khan's office where, he says, he saw a Soviet translator shoot his boss.

Waziri rushed out the door and into the hallway. He spotted a Soviet soldier and dashed to take cover. "Before I could fire, he fired at me," he says. "A bullet struck my wrist. I dropped my Kalashnikov. Then another bullet struck me in the stomach and one in my right leg."

Waziri stumbled into a nearby room. A grenade landed nearby, smashing the door and setting it on fire.

He was cornered.

"I thought for a second, 'Why did the Russians fire at me?'" Waziri recalls. "Just then, they were about to throw a second grenade. So, I opened the window and jumped out."

Waziri broke his legs and shattered his hip in the jump from the second floor.

He passed out.

'Shots Were Fired'

Before the attack, hundreds of Soviet paratroopers -- members of the Soviet Army's Muslim Battalion -- and KGB special forces had surrounded the palace, taking cover in the heavy snow.

The KGB forces stormed the palace while the Soviet troops provided a ring of security around the building.

Soviet troops surround the Tajbeg Palace on December 27, 1979.
Soviet troops surround the Tajbeg Palace on December 27, 1979.

"Our job was to neutralize any reinforcements that came to Amin's aid," Vytas Luksys, a former Soviet paratrooper from Lithuania, tells RFE/RL.

"It was dark," recalls Luksys in the capital, Vilnius. "There wasn't much time to think about what was happening where. We had to focus on carrying out our orders. We heard that shots were fired, but we couldn't pay much attention to it."

The KGB special forces, most of them in sportswear or plainclothes, went floor to floor battling the Presidential Guard and members of Amin's family.

No reinforcements came to Amin's help, much to Luksys's relief. "I don't know how I would have fared," he says. "We had very little experience with night-vision devices, guns, and machine guns."

Within hours, the battle was over. Over 200 Afghans were killed and over 1,000 surrendered. Declassified KGB files said over 100 Soviet personnel were also killed in the fierce clashes.

Amin is believed to have died of gunshot wounds.

All his male relatives at the Tajbeg Palace were either killed in the clashes or executed. His wife, daughter, and grandchildren were sent to prison.

'It Was Better To Die'

Faqir had been holed up inside one of Khan's personal rooms for seven hours when he heard a colleague's voice. "He said, 'If anyone is in the room he should put down his weapon and come out,'" he says. "He was my friend, so I decided to come out."

When Faqir came out he was handcuffed by Soviet troops. "That was when I realized that the Soviets had attacked us," he says. "I shouldn't have left the room. I didn't want to surrender. It would have been better to die."

Soviet forces whisked Faqir away to their military headquarters. He was sentenced to death and transferred to Pul-e Charkhi, the notorious prison outside Kabul where Amin was alleged to have sent thousands to their deaths.

The leadership of the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan in 1978. Faqir is standing on the right.
The leadership of the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan in 1978. Faqir is standing on the right.

Waziri, meanwhile, woke up in an operating room in the hospital the day after the invasion.

"I was piled up along with the dead bodies," Waziri says. "When they realized I was still alive, they took me to the operating room in the hospital." He would be in the hospital for 13 months recovering from his wounds.

Afterward, Waziri served as an officer in the Soviet-backed Afghan army.

Luksys visited the Tajbeg Palace the next morning to find scenes of destruction. "It was a big beautiful palace that had been turned into a mess," he says. "There were beautiful carpets. Furniture, tables, intricate stucco, very pretty chandeliers."

"There was blood, but no dead bodies by that time," Luksys recalls.

After the storming of the palace, Soviet forces wrapped the bodies of Amin and his family members in carpets and buried them in unmarked graves.

Their bodies have never been found.

'Biggest Betrayal'

The element of surprise was key to the Soviet Union's lightning seizure of Kabul.

The Soviet decision to topple Amin was a shock, including to the Kabul regime, which had forged close ties with Moscow since communists seized power after a bloody coup in 1978.

"The Soviets committed the biggest betrayal," Faqir says. "We had a brotherly relationship. We had no idea that the Russians would attack us."

Faqir was released from prison in 1989 after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, having served 10 years and three months.

Luksys served two years in the Soviet Army before leaving in 1981.

Tajbeg Palace on December 27, 1979
Tajbeg Palace on December 27, 1979

Military Quagmire

The events of December 27, 1979 would have a lasting effect, unleashing a four-decade war that has yet to end.

The Soviet Army soon got bogged down in a costly military quagmire against the mujahedin, the U.S.-backed Islamist rebels.

The Soviet Union pulled its troops out of Afghanistan in 1989 after an estimated 2 million Afghans and at least 15,000 Soviet soldiers had been killed. Millions of other Afghans were displaced, living mainly as refugees in Pakistan and Iran.

The mujahedin toppled the communist regime from power in 1992. But within months, a devastating civil war erupted among the warring mujahedin factions, paving the way for the rise of the Taliban.

By then, the Soviet Union no longer existed.

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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.