Hafizullah Amin – a summary

A former teacher, Hafizullah Amin was another Afghan president that met an untimely death. Instrumental in the overthrow of the first Afghan republican president, Mohammad Daoud Khan, during the ‘Saur’ Revolution of April 1978, Amin served in various capacities within the new communist government, headed by Nur Muhammed Taraki, eventually becoming prime minister.

In March 1979, Mujahedeen rebels staged an uprising in the city of Herat. Chanting ‘God is great’, they killed and flayed alive hundreds of Afghans and Soviet advisors and their families. Panicked, the Afghan president, Nur Mohammad Taraki, appealed to his Soviet backers for help. But the Politburo declined to be drawn in, fearing that intervention would only commit the USSR to a ‘Soviet Vietnam‘.


As Taraki’s prime minister, Hafizullah Amin led the reprisals against the Mujahedeen, 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 killed in front of their parents who were then similarly dispatched. Entire villages were wiped-out.

Whilst Hafizullah Amin pursued his bloody programme of retaliation, Taraki, like Mohammed Daoud Khan 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.” Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev, who received Taraki warmly, recommended a slower pace of reform and, as a final piece of advice, told him to remove Amin.

‘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 shoot-out 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 Taraki, was shocked by the murder and wept on hearing the news.

Hated, feared and suspect

Hafizullah Amin was universally unpopular – he was hated by the Afghan Islamists, feared by his own party, distrusted by the US and suspected by Moscow of being in the pocket of the CIA. The US ambassador in Kabul had been murdered in a shootout whilst Taraki was still in power but Washington suspected the killing was the work of Amin. Amin panicked, knowing his position and his life was vulnerable. His response was to use his secret police to purge the population of his enemies and instil widespread fear whilst his overtures to Moscow and Washington were ignored. Moscow even went so far as to plant an agent into his palace as a chef with the aim of poisoning Amin but it was his son-in-law who swallowed the poison and almost died.

The new situation in Afghanistan demanded a rethink within the Kremlin which concluded that the toppling of Taraki’s pro-Soviet regime set a bad example which could be repeated elsewhere in the communist world and that a show of force was needed.

During Christmas 1979 the Soviets moved in. Three days later, they stormed Amin’s palace and, in another gunfight, killed 200 of Amin’s bodyguards. Amin, found cowering behind a bar, was shot dead. Other government strongholds were captured and within another forty-eight hours Moscow was able to announce that Babrak Karmal, until recently the Afghan ambassador to Czechoslovakia, was the new president of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan.

The Soviet War in Afghanistan

Jimmy Carter, in his last days as US president, led the worldwide condemnation of the Soviet invasion, calling it the “most serious threat to world peace since the Second World War”. The US shipped arms to the Mujahedeen rebels, brought a halt to the ratification of the arms limitation talks (SALT II), increased military spending and, as a final gesture, announced its boycott of the coming summer Olympics in Moscow, the first to be held within the Eastern Bloc. Moscow, meanwhile, insisted that the Kabul government had invited them in and that Amin had been “executed by a tribunal for his crimes”. No one believed them.

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, Nur Mohammad TarakiMohammad Najibullah and Mohammed Daoud Khan.

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