Nur Mohammad Taraki

Being the president of the Republic of Afghanistan, between the fall of the Afghan monarchy in 1973 and the formation of an Islamic state in 1992, was a risky business: four out of the five presidents (excluding interim presidents) met untimely deaths. We have articles on Mohammad Najibullah, charting his rise and grisly end at the hands of the Taliban, and also former presidents Mohammad Daoud Khan and Hafizullah AminHere, we look at the life of another to die while in office, Nur Mohammad Taraki .

Following the Saur Revolution on 28 April 1978, and the disposal and killing of Afghanistan’s first republican president, Mohammed Daoud Khan, the pro-Soviet and communist Nur Mohammad Taraki proclaimed himself the new president and renamed Afghanistan the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, introducing a red Afghani flag not dissimilar to the hammer and sickle flag of the Soviet Union. Daoud’s death was not publicly announced and Taraki announced that former president Daoud had “resigned for health reasons”.

The Communist Era

As president, Nur Mohammad Taraki, born 15 July 1917, immediately set in motion a programme of Marxist reform – land reforms, the banning of forced marriages, discouraging women from wearing the veil, promoting literacy and, most controversially, the advancement of women. Their aim was to eliminate the “backwardness of past centuries within the lifespan of one generation.” But for factions within the government, this was too much too soon. The pace of reform became an issue and splits emerged, notably between Taraki and his prime minister, Hafizullah Amin.

Any reform was too much for the traditionalist Afghans – the redistribution of land cut through traditional boundaries and ignored local needs, and the liberation of women was a complete anathema to the Islamic Afghans for whom the woman’s place was very much at home.

In January 1979 the Ayatollah Khomeini swept to power in Iran and began supplying aid and arms to the Afghan Mujahideen, the Muslim ‘soldiers of God’, who resented the godless regime of the Afghanistan communist party – the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) and its Soviet backers.

Soviet Aid

Taraki ordered a severe repression of his opponents, establishing a secret police, the ‘Afghan Interests Protection Service’, who imprisoned and executed thousands without trial. In March 1979 rebels staged an uprising in the city of Herat. The Mujahedeen, chanting ‘God is great’, killed and flayed alive hundreds of Afghans and Soviet advisors and their families. Panicked, Taraki appealed to Moscow for help. But the Politburo declined to be drawn in, fearful of the reaction of Soviet Muslims and believing that intervention would only commit the USSR to a ‘Soviet Vietnam’.

Hafizullah Amin (pictured), led the reprisals, killing thousands in Herat and sending the Soviet-backed Afghan army out into the villages to mete out immediate punishment to anyone suspected of insurgency. Amongst the thousands killed were children, tortured and murdered in front of their parents who were then similarly dispatched. Entire villages were wiped out.

While Amin pursued his bloody programme of retaliation, Nur Mohammad Taraki, like Daoud before him, called in on Moscow to make a personal plea for Soviet reinforcement and again was refused, being told by Alexei Kosygin, the Soviet premier, “We believe it would be a fatal mistake to commit ground troops. If our troops went in, the situation in your country would not improve. On the contrary, it would get worse.” Leonid Brezhnev, who received Taraki warmly, recommended a slower pace of reform and, as a final piece of advice, told him to remove Amin, Afghanistan’s prime minister.

‘Serious Illness’

Amin, who had already survived a number of assassination attempts, was summoned in September 1979 by Taraki to a meeting at the People’s Palace. Amin, aware of Taraki’s intentions, came prepared. A shootout ensued, and although members of his entourage were killed, Amin escaped unhurt and returned later to have Taraki placed under arrest.

Taraki was taken to a cell and at some point tied down and suffocated with a pillow. Amin, as the new president, announced that Taraki had died of a “serious illness”. Brezhnev, who had so recently embraced Nur Mohammad Taraki, was shocked by the murder and wept on hearing the news.

Rupert Colley

Read more about the Afghan Wars from the 1830s to the present day in Afghan Wars: History In An Hour published by Harper Press and available in various digital formats and as downloadable audio.

See also articles on fellow-Afghan presidents, Mohammad NajibullahHafizullah Amin and Mohammed Daoud Khan.

Rupert Colley’s novella, My Brother the Enemy, set during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, is now available.