Afghanistan: Soviet invasion and civil war

Introduction | Atrocities | Fatalities | Ending | Coding | Works Cited | Notes


As best as we can discern, throughout the entire period 1979 – 1998, at least 5,000 civilians were killed each year—although the data throughout leaves many questions unanswered. There is no doubt that an enormous number of Afghans died during the Soviet invasion; reasonable estimates place this between 800,000 – 1.5 million, but it is not clear how many were killed and who among them were civilians, or otherwise hors de combat. We cannot find sufficient evidence of a two-year period clearly demonstrating fewer than 5,000 civilians killed annually until the Taliban consolidated their control over most of the country by 1998. However, we note that the data on Afghanistan is sparse at all periods, including the Taliban years, leaving considerable gaps in what we can document.

We have divided the 20-year period into two phases, one lasting from 1978 to 1989, marked by the deployment, occupation, and subsequent withdrawal of Soviet forces; and a second phase of fighting largely among internal actors, including violence perpetrated by the Taliban as they consolidated control from 1989 to 1998.


1978-1989: Soviet Occupation and Withdrawal

In April 1978, the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA, an alliance of communist political parties, alongside officers in Afghanistan’s army and air force overthrew the nationalist regime led by Mohammad Daoud. Daoud’s policies, which modernized society and centralized power, had simultaneously sidelined the communists and alienated Afghanistan’s traditional society. But within short order, the new Democratic Republic of Afghanistan’s (DRA) also drew the ire of key Afghan groups, who launched attacks to unseat the regime. Growing unrest in late 1978 prompted Moscow to provide military assistance and advice to support the weakening government in Kabul.[1]

As unrest widened, so did the scope of Soviet involvement. Soviet combat forces increased their direct operations in 1979, deploying across the country by 1981 in combat against the Mujahedeen, or national resistance. The Mujahedeen, comprised of several fractious entities organized around personalities and often on ethnic lines, expanded attacks against Soviet-backed forces.[2] Demographic evidence suggests that fatal violence increased between 1983 and 1986, when large-scale Soviet offensives were at their peak, with particularly large actions in March 1980, July 1981, August 1984, and August 1985.[3] One potential explanation for the increase after 1983 comes from William Maley, who argues that in 1983, the Soviets shifted from a tactic of driving the Mujahedin from the countryside, to forcing the population out of contested areas, with widespread use of aerial bombardment.[4] Soviet forces regularly targeted civilians and deployed land mines across the country including urban areas. Violence also escalated during this period as the Mujahedeen increased their activities with new weaponry provided by the United States. As reported in Afghanistan: Lessons from the Last War, a National Security Archive electronic sourcebook edited by John Prados and Svetlana Savranskaya:

Despite signs of corruption in both the military and humanitarian aid programs as early as 1982, Congress ultimately provided nearly $3 billion in covert aid for the mujahidin, more than all other CIA covert operations in the 1980s combined. By 1987, the United States was providing the rebels with nearly $700 million in military assistance a year, more than what Pakistan itself was receiving from Washington. In 1984, [Congressman Charles Wilson (D-Texas)] Wilson used his powerful position on the House Intelligence Committee to tack on an additional $50 million for Afghan covert aid and convinced the CIA to purchase high-quality, Swiss-designed Oerlikon anti-aircraft missiles, which could pierce the heavy armor of the USSR’s most formidable counterinsurgency machine, the Hind Mi-24 helicopter. The CIA went even further in 1985, purchasing the sophisticated British-made Blowpipe anti-aircraft missiles. And in 1986, due to pressure from several congressmen and a number of bureaucrats at the State and Defense departments, the CIA provided the mujahidin with U.S.-made Stinger missiles, the most effective shoulder-held anti-aircraft weapon in the world.

In the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985 and largely followed the Afghan policies of his predecessor until 1986. He attempted to turn the tide of the war by appointing a new general, Mikhail Zaitsev, to lead the effort. In subsequent years, his policies would moderate Soviet engagement in the war, due to both internal and external pressures. As the Mujahedin became more effective, there was an increase in fatalities and wounding of Soviet soldiers. When these soldiers returned to the USSR, they became increasingly visible critics of Soviet policies.[5] Particularly among non-Russian peoples drafted into the military, resistance to the war began to increase. These voices only grew as Soviet policies liberalized under glasnost. These internal pressures coupled with international pressure to enable a UN-brokered agreement in 1988 outlining a phased withdrawal of Soviet combat troops, which was completed on February 15, 1989.[6]

Soviet support to the Moscow-friendly government in Afghanistan, led by Mohammad Najbullah, continued from 1989-1991, perpetuating the rifts and violence that had plagued the country for the preceding ten years.[7] The United States, to a lesser extent, also continued military assistance to the Mujahedeen. A coup attempt in 1991 against Gorbachev rattled the Soviet Union, whose leaders turned their focus to domestic affairs, sparking a firm cessation of military and economic assistance to Najibullah. Both the US and the USSR agreed to stop arms supplies to their preferred political players in 1991.[8] The massive infusion of military aid to multiple sides of the Afghan conflict, the power vacuum left behind from the Soviet withdrawal, and persistent ethnic divisions set the stage for continued fighting.

1992-1994: Peshawar Accords & Struggle for Power

Najibulah was overthrown in 1992, and battles between multiple armed factions began immediately, largely concentrated in urban areas. The most embittered fighting occurred in the capital, Kabul, primarily between Pashtun, notably Hezb-e Islami, led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and northern militias composed of Tajik force, the Jamiyat-e Islami, led by Burhanuddin Rabini and his second-in-command, Ahmad Shah Massoud, and Uzbek forces under Rashid Dostum.[9] This ‘Beirutinization’ of Kabul turned the city into an armed camp, and the standard of living fell dramatically, with power and water supplies erratic and food stocks low.[10] The involvement and support from regional power brokers, including Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Pakistan, deepened the rifts between these groups. Fluid alliances complicated power dynamics and prospects for a negotiated settlement among the groups.[11]

1994-1997: Rise of the Taliban and consolidation of control

Ahmed Rashid describes the Taliban as literally “orphans of the war”—many had grown up in refugee camps in Pakistan, distanced from Afghan culture. They were culturally distinct from the warlords, who “could recount their tribal and clan lineages” and remembered growing up on farms, steeped in Afghan history.[12] The Taliban ideology calling for a radically austere, ascetic, vision of Islam began to spread in the 1980s during the Soviet occupation, taking root in the Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan. The Taliban’s ideological movement stood in contrast to what the group perceived as corruption and extravagance prevalent among the Mujahedeen fighters.[13] In 1994, the Taliban began to conquer vast swaths of territory, seizing on the continued turmoil, political fragmentation and infighting of the warlords.

As Taliban forces spread across Afghanistan, several battles were conducted in major cities, like in Herat (February 1995). In 1995 the Taliban had taken control of nearly 50% of the country and made a push toward the capital, Kabul, which they conquered on February 26, 1996. Widespread violence came to a close around 1996,[14] but specific massacres against ethnic minorities extends the period of atrocities into 1998.

The Taliban offered a brutal version of peace and stability, which could appeal to communities that had been besieged by conflict for decades.[15] The group absorbed the major Pashtun opposition groups, but ostracized and committed atrocities against ethnic minorities, see below. Taliban leaders installed strict sharia law, asking citizens to lay down arms, and conquering them by force when they refused.[16] The rules that governed everyday life under the Taliban were strict, especially for women, and punishments were severe.


The best estimate of civilians killed during this time period (1979 – 1988) is 500,000, a figure that only represents a rough suggestion of scale, not an accurate accounting of individual lives.

From August – December 1987, a survey was conducted in Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan to estimate the number of war dead—inclusive of all causes of death during the war, so not limited to killing. Initial analysis of the data by Marek Sliwinski estimated that 9% of the population of Afghanistan had died as a result of the war by the end of 1987. This amounted to overall war mortality of 1 – 1.5 million dead.[17] In an interview on March 11, 1988, Sliwinski further notes that 80% of the victims were civilians, defined by age, including those either under 15 or over 55.[18] He also asserts that 46% of the deaths were caused by Soviet bombing. His data suggests that the conflict became significantly more lethal under Andropov (1982 – 1984), increasing again under Chernenko (1984 – 1985). There was a slight decrease in fatalities under Gorbachev (beginning in 1985) before the withdrawal.[19]

A 1991 paper by Noor Ahmad Khalidi builds on the same data that Sliwinski worked with, but argues that a more accurate estimation requires taking into account the effects of war on the age-sex structure of the Afghan population as well as other patterns of change in internal political borders, migration and questions about the 1979 baseline census. Khalidi posits that a total of 876,825 Afghans died as a result of the war, including 650,056 males and 227,769 females.[20] Khalidi also breaks down the data by year, which demonstrates a spike in violence between 1983 – 1986, a slightly wider timespan than Sliwinski noted, but including significant overlap:

Khalidi_Demographic Consequences

Source: Khalidi, Noor Ahmand (1991) “Afghanistan: Demographic Consequences of War, 1978-1987,” Central Asia Survey 10.3, 107.

While it is not possible through this method to separate civilians from combatants, one can guess that the majority of the females, in any case, were civilians. However, we have no capacity to estimate the number killed versus those who died as a result of conditions produced by the conflict. Further, Khalidi cautions against applying the patterns found in refugee camps to the larger population.[21]

We also have some evidence about this period from a handful of journalists, including Ahmed Rashid, who began covering Afghanistan beginning in the 1980s. For instance, he writes that 20,000 people were killed in Herat in March 1979.[22]

Data about fatalities, whether civilian or combatant, fades during the years of internal conflict. Qualitative studies[23] argue that civilians continued to be killed at high levels in the civil war period, but this number marks a decrease from the Soviet years. What little information exists suggests two potential points of decline in violence against civilians during this period: between 1989 – 1992 and 1995 – 1996. However, lack of information does not mean lack of violence and given the poor evidence available, we have decided to continue the “atrocity” period through the last well-documented, large-scale massacres in 1998.

Drawing on accounts from journalists and human rights activists allows only a fragmented picture of violence against civilians from the years 1989 – 1997. Below are a few of the numbers extracted from these reports, with notable contributions by Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani journalist who spent time inside Afghanistan during the warlord and Taliban years, and the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan (RAWA). The incidents help us understand the patterns of violence, suggesting that battles were carried out without regard for civilian safety, including ethnic cleansing and replete with targeted killings. Additionally, local soldiers appear to have had few barriers to resort to violence for any reason. The below is not a comprehensive record of civilian fatalities and cannot be used as such. It is intended to be illustrative.

1992 – 1995

  • Etienne Gille offers the number of at least 9,800 killed between April 1992 and March 1995[24], however, other studies, noted below in reference to more circumscribed time periods, suggest higher death tolls.


1993—documented by RAWA

  • Kabul, violence January – February: Rocket and artillery attacks on Kabul killed as many as 2000 people; Dozens of dead and injured civilians filled Kabul hospital; Kabul’s five hospitals reported more than 100 injured and 35 deaths today; At least 54 people were killed and more than 100 injured in one of the most severe rocket attacks on Kabul; 0ne thousand people have been killed and more than 3000 injured in fighting that has raged in the Afghan Capital Kabul over the last two weeks.
  • March – November 1993, Felix Ermacora in his report to the UN General Assembly’s third committee and also during an interview with journalists, said during the past eight months more than 10,000 people had been killed in Kabul (possibly drawing on the same number as reported by the Afghan Red Crescent).[25]

Few reports cover incidents from 1994 – 1995. RAWA offers some stories of atrocities during this period, but it is only a very small sample, none of which document large-scale massacres. Maley also reports an extended period of calm from March to October 1995.[26]

1996—In Ahmed Rashid (except where noted otherwise)

  • “In April 1996, the Taliban fired 866 rockets, killing 180 civilians…” (47).
  • The battle killed “hundreds” in Kabul[27]
  • In October, fighting between Masud’s forces and the Taliban at Bagram airbase resulted in “thousands of civilian casualties” (53).

1997—In Ahmed Rashid

  • In May 1997, 600 Taliban were murdered in the streets of Mazar-i-Sharif (59).
  • The Taliban killed about 70 people in a village south of Mazar, Qazil Abad (63).
  • Around 20 mass graves near Shebarghan were uncovered, revealing around 2,000 corpses of Taliban soldiers, who had been captured as POWs, beaten and starved before killed (63).
  • Ethnic cleansing between Tajik, Uzbeks, and Hazara in areas around Mazar, and killing Taliban POWS (63 – 64).
  • 600 Uzbek villagers in western province of Faryab (70).
  • In July 1997, Taliban captured some 800 Uzbek soldiers the majority of whom they killed (72).

1998—In Ahmed Rashid

  • Massacre when Mazar fell, 8 – 10, August, 1998 (73 – 74). Estimates of those killed in Mazar range from 5,000 – 6,000 (UN and ICRC numbers). This incident was reported by others as well, including Human Rights Watch. Rashid adds reports of other killing in area villages for a total of 6,000 – 8,000 people killed July – August, 1998.
  • September 13, 1998, 50 old men were killed after the village of Bamiyan fell to the Taliban. Notably, Rashid writes that this massacre occurred even after Mullah Omar “ordered his forces to restrain themselves against Hazara civilians” in response to international pressure” (76).

A November 1999 report by the International Committee of the Red Cross found that 53% of respondents reported that a family member had been killed in war over the past 20 years.

A large portion of the Afghan population suffered some form of displacement. An article[28] discussing findings of survey conducted amongst Afghans living in Pakistan for the UNDP in January 1989, estimates that over 3 million Afghans fled to Pakistan alone, a number that might have risen to 3.6 if refugees living outside the camps, mostly in urban areas, were also included.[29] According to Sliwinski, in 1979, 23% of the population lived in urban areas; by 1988, that number had increased to 85%.[30] 


Several factors appear to have contributed to the decline in violence in 1998. The scale of fighting lessened, and in many areas a harsh, but more predictable normality settled in. Despite drought and earthquakes, for instance, the WFP predicted a good harvest in 1998, which might also suggest a sense of normality had begun.[31] Over time, and particularly by 1997, the Taliban fell under increasing international pressure, from Russia, Turkey, the Central Asian states, the US (which had at times issued statements seemingly in support of the Taliban before 1997[32]) and Iran; Pakistan remained their largest supporter. A UNSC resolution of December 8, 1998 represented the toughest statement to date.[33] The pressure resulted in a UN-mediated series of talks in early Spring 1998, but fighting continued in the north by late Spring.


We code the primary cause of ending as the defeat of perpetrators (first the USSR, then the Taliban’s military victory) by a domestic force. Additional factors include the withdrawal of international forces, to account for the significant decline in killing following the USSR withdrawal. We also note that there were multiple victims groups and that non-state actors were secondary perpetrators.

Works Cited

Bennett, Andrew. 1999. Condemned to Repetition? The Rise, Fall and Reprise of Soviet-Russian Military Interventionism 1973 – 1996. Cambridge: Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

Dorronsoro, Gilles. 2013. Revolution Unending: Afghanistan, 1979 to the Present. Columbia University Press.

Burdman, Mark. 1988. “Interview with Marek Sliwinski: Geneva researcher documents Soviet genocide in Afghanistan.” 15:11, 45 – 46. Available at Accessed August 25, 2015.

Goodson, Larry P. 2001.Afghanistan’s Endless War: State Failure, Regional Politics, and the Rise of the Taliban. University of Washington Press.

Gleditsch, Nils Petter, Peter Wallensteen, Mikael Eriksson, Margareta Sollenberg, and Håvard Strand. 2002. “Armed Conflict 1946-2001: A New Dataset.” Journal of Peace Research 39(5).

Human Rights Watch. 1998. “Afghanistan: the Massacre in Mazar-i-Sharif,”

Human Rights Watch. 2000. “Fueling Afghanistan’s War,” December 15. Available at: Accessed Wednesday, August 12, 2015.

International Committee of the Red Cross. November 1999. “People on War: Country Report Afghanistan,” Geneva. Available at: Accessed May 20, 2015.

Khalidi, Noor Ahmand. 1991. “Afghanistan: Demographic Consequences of War, 1978-1987,” Central Asia Survey 10.3.

Lacina, Bethany. 2009. “Battle Deaths Dataset 1946-2008.” September 2009 Codebook for Version 3.0 (n.d.).

Maley, William. 2009. The Afghanistan Wars second edition. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Marsden, Peter. 1998. The Taliban: War, Religion and the New Order in Afghanistan. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Nojumi, Neamatollah. 2002. The Rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan: Mass Mobilization, Civil War, and the Future of the Region. Palgrave Macmillan.

  1. Prados, John and Svetlana Savranskaya. 2001. Afghanistan: Lessons from the Last War. National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book, No. 57, October 9. Available at:

Rashid, Ahmed. 2010. Taliban. Second Edition. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Reuveny, Rafael and Aseem Prakash,. 1999. “The Afghanistan War and the breakdown of the Soviet Union” Review of international Studies 25: 693 – 798.

Rubin, Barnett R. 2002. The Fragmentation of Afghanistan: State Formation and Collapse in the International System. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Yusuf, Farhat. 1999. “Size and Sociodemographic Characteristics of the Afghan Refugee Population in Pakistan,” Journal of Biosocial Science, 22, 269 – 279.

Za’if, ‘Abd al-Salam, 2010. My life with the Taliban. New York: Columbia University Press.


[1] Goodson 55.

[2] Goodson 58.

[3] Bennett 283.

[4] Maley 40 – 41.

[5] Reuveny and Prakash 697-698.

[6] Goodson, 69.

[7] Goodson 70

[8] Goodson 70-73.

[9] Rashid 21.

[10] Goodson 75.

[11] Dorronsoro 242.

[12] Rashid, 32.

[13] Nojumi 124.

[14] Goodson 77.

[15] Nojumi 121.

[16] Nojumi 135.

[17] in Khalidi 101.

[18] Burdman 45.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Khalidi 106.

[21] Khalidi, 113.

[22] Rashid 37.

[23] For instance, Goodson, Rashid.

[24] Quoted in Maley 170.

[25] Maley 170.

[26] Maley 172.

[27] Maley 34.

[28] He also summarizes major surveys done in the Pakistani camps.

[29] Yusuf 269.

[30] Burdman 46.

[31] Rashid, 129.

[32] Rashid, 180.

[33] Rashid 77.

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