A convoy of Soviet tanks wave to crowds after their arrival in Kabul from the eastern city of Jalalabad as part of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, May 15, 1988. The Soviet Union, after nine years of helping the Afghan government fight in a bloody civil war, began pulling out today.
Richard Ellis / Reuters

On April 14, 1988, in Geneva, representatives of the governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan signed three bilateral agreements intended to end the war in Afghanistan. An additional "Declaration on International Guarantees" was signed by the United States and the Soviet Union as states-guarantors. Secretary of State George Shultz and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze also signed one of the three bilateral agreements as witnesses.

These documents, collectively known as the Geneva accords, have been hailed as the key to Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan and a settlement of the conflict which has held the world spotlight since the Soviet invasion of December 1979. They have also been condemned by critics as a betrayal of the Afghan people and their ten-year struggle against communist domination.

The accords came into force on May 15, the date specified for the beginning of the withdrawal of Soviet troops. The documents do not, however, deal directly with the Soviet presence in Afghanistan per se. This is consistent with the insistence of both the Soviet Union and its Kabul client that the Soviet-installed regime is the lawful government of Afghanistan, and that any Soviet involvement in Afghanistan is a purely internal matter to be determined by that government on the basis of bilateral arrangements between two sovereign states.


The first of the bilateral agreements between Pakistan and Afghanistan, "Principles of Mutual Relations, in particular on Non-Interference and Non-Intervention," binds the two parties to refrain from various specified activities that could constitute interference in one another’s affairs. Its detailed clauses (Article II, paragraphs 1-13) effectively close off every means by which Pakistan could assist, or could permit its territory to be used to assist, the Afghan resistance. On the other hand, it does not specifically mention in any way the Soviet military presence in Afghanistan, or indeed any form of Soviet involvement. Both the Soviet Union and the Kabul regime insist that the agreement applies only to outside assistance to forces opposed to the regime, i.e., the Afghan resistance; this definition appears to have been adopted in the accords.

How intervention is defined also affects interpretation of the "Declaration on International Guarantees" signed by the United States and the Soviet Union, which commits them to noninterference and nonintervention. It also commits them to respect the Afghan-Pakistani nonintervention accord; the other accords are not specifically mentioned in the Declaration on International Guarantees.

The second bilateral Pakistani-Afghan agreement deals with the "Voluntary Return of Refugees." While repeatedly calling for such a return to be voluntary, this accord envisages the return to be completed within 18 months and makes no provision for refugees who may not choose to return to their homeland under present conditions or those that may evolve.

The withdrawal of uniformed Soviet military forces is mentioned only in the bilateral Pakistani-Afghan "Agreement on the Interrelationships for the Settlement of the Situation Relating to Afghanistan." Also called the fourth instrument, this is the agreement witnessed by Secretary Shultz and Minister Shevardnadze as the representatives of the guarantor-states "who have signified their consent with its provisions." Here troop withdrawal is finally mentioned in paragraphs 5 and 6—but only tangentially, as a separate bilateral determination between the Kabul regime and the Soviet Union, coordinated with but outside of the accords themselves:

In accordance with the timeframe agreed upon between the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the Republic of Afghanistan, there will be a phased withdrawal of the foreign [sic] troops which will start on the date of entry into force. . . . One half of the troops will be withdrawn by 15 August 1988 and the withdrawal of all troops will be completed within nine months. . . . The phased withdrawal of the foreign troops will start and be completed within the timeframe envisaged in paragraph 5 [emphasis added].

This refers only to uniformed forces, and does not specify the number of troops present in Afghanistan or to be withdrawn; it includes no restriction on any future return of Soviet troops; it does not require the dismantling of massive Soviet installations, many of them underground; and it makes no mention of the thousands of other, nonuniformed Soviet forces and personnel in Afghanistan—military, civilian and KGB—who control all agencies of the Afghan government. According to official Soviet and Afghan statements, these categories are in fact specifically excluded from this clause. At a news conference on April 28, the Afghan regime’s leader, Dr. Najibullah, said that even Soviet military advisers were permitted to stay under the terms of the accords, and would remain. The next day the U.S. State Department said its understanding was that "the Soviets had committed themselves to a complete withdrawal," including military advisers, but did not offer evidence of such a commitment or specify whether their continued presence would violate the accords.

The accords specify no procedures for enforcing, verifying or even monitoring the withdrawal of Soviet troops; for that matter, the accords contain no provisions for the enforcement of any terms. An unsigned annex sets out procedures for monitoring their implementation by United Nations personnel, but only by two five-man observer teams stationed in Kabul and Islamabad (enlargeable to a maximum of 50 men if necessary). Their job is to assist the U.N. representative, who apparently has no enforcement powers himself; complaints of violations will be confidentially referred to the appropriate governments and the U.N. secretary-general. Since the withdrawal of Soviet troops is based on a separate agreement between Moscow and Kabul, their withdrawal does not appear to be covered by even this minimal supervision.

Not part of the Geneva accords themselves is a brief additional "U.S. Statement" submitted in Geneva by Secretary of State Shultz, stating that "if the U.S.S.R. undertakes . . . to provide military assistance to parties in Afghanistan, the United States retains the right . . . likewise effectively to provide such assistance." This embodies the concept of "symmetry" enunciated by the State Department in early March in response to a severely critical Senate resolution concerning the cutoff of U.S. aid to the resistance despite continued Soviet military assistance to Kabul. This statement appears to contradict the guarantees being signed.

The accords will almost certainly become increasingly controversial. They were rushed to completion and signature in a few weeks, after six years of glacial progress and stalemate; the negotiations were shrouded in secrecy until after the accords were signed. They have been hailed by their supporters as a vindication of the Reagan Doctrine that will force the Soviets out of Afghanistan, end the war and create an opportunity for Afghan independence and self-determination. Critics of the accords insist that they will not accomplish these objectives, and that they represent a reversal of U.S. policy as repeatedly stated since the Soviet invasion by two administrations and the Congress, with widespread public support. The key provisions, some say, are unworkable and unenforceable. The State Department’s legal analysis remained classified even after the accords were signed.

What then are these accords all about? How were they arrived at, and what is likely to be their effect?


On April 27, 1978, after two centuries of Russian efforts to gain a foothold, the Soviet Union seized virtual control of Afghanistan through a bloody military coup carried out by its agents in the Afghan air force and tank corps under the guidance of the Soviet embassy in Kabul. As a result the Afghan communist party, the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), was installed in power. Within a few months, the population began to realize the nature of the new regime, and thousands of Soviet advisers, backed by 15,000-20,000 Soviet troops, arrived to direct the process of setting up a communist regime, headed initially by Nur Mohammad Taraki with Babrak Karmal and Hafizullah Amin. Spontaneous armed opposition to the new regime erupted nationwide, taking shape under the banner of Islam. After a power struggle within the PDPA, Taraki and Amin emerged triumphant; later Amin had Taraki killed and took over alone, from September to December 1979.

On December 24-27, 1979, faced with the possible over-throw of communist control, the Soviet army invaded. Special forces accompanying the invading Soviet army killed the erratic and insubordinate Amin on December 27, after the failure of clandestine Soviet assassination attempts. Babrak Karmal, then in the Soviet Union and more thoroughly controlled by the KGB, was proclaimed the new president and arrived in Kabul a few days later.

Moscow apparently expected the need for an overt Soviet military presence in Afghanistan to be short-lived, and in any case expected that international reaction would be manageable. This proved not to be the case; with the added element of a struggle for national independence against the Soviet occupation, the resistance spread and intensified, attracting more and more world attention and gaining wide international support. The Soviet Union then dug in for a long-term war of subjugation along lines developed in its century-long conquest of Central Asia; in addition to the military action, the Soviets began the systematic creation of an infrastructure for permanent political and economic control. These policies continued and were even intensified by Mikhail Gorbachev after he became the Soviet general secretary in March 1985.

The United States, which had accepted the 1978 coup with equanimity and responded in a low-key manner even to the killing of U.S. Ambassador Adolph Dubs in February 1979, reacted with shock to the Soviet invasion. It refused to recognize the Karmal regime. The SALT II treaty was withdrawn from the Senate, and the policies subsumed under "détente" were derailed. It became the official policy of the United States—enunciated by Presidents Carter and Reagan and supported, with unusual bipartisan unanimity, by both houses of Congress and the American public—to provide all necessary aid, both military and humanitarian, to the Afghan people for the stated purpose of helping them to regain the independence, self-determination and freedom of their country.

Despite an initial flurry of activity, however, the United States undertook no major role in efforts to negotiate a settlement, leaving that to the United Nations. In a special session convened immediately following the invasion, the U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution calling for the withdrawal of "foreign troops" from Afghanistan, a resolution repeated every year thereafter with increasing support (despite strenuous Soviet lobbying). The General Assembly resolution of November 18, 1981, authorized the secretary-general to attempt to negotiate a political solution to the crisis. Negotiations were begun in June 1982. The formal parties to the "proximity talks" were the Kabul regime and the government of Pakistan. Since Pakistan refused to recognize the Kabul regime, they were conducted indirectly by the intermediary, U.N. Undersecretary General for Special Political Affairs Diego Cordovez, who shuttled from capital to capital or, in Geneva, from room to room.

In these talks, the United States and the Soviet Union were officially consulted; in fact, Soviet advisers were always present at negotiations to instruct their Afghan clients. The government of Iran, which had refused to participate without the inclusion of the Afghan resistance, was officially kept informed. But neither the organized Afghan resistance nor any other representative of the non-communist people of Afghanistan, including the millions of refugees, was included in the negotiations or kept officially informed. Pakistan in effect served as negotiator on their behalf.

The negotiations were formally convened in pursuance of the General Assembly resolution of November 1981, which listed four essentials for a political solution: (a) the preservation of the sovereignty, territorial integrity, political independence and nonaligned character of Afghanistan; (b) the right of the Afghan people to determine their own form of government and to choose their economic, political and social system free from outside intervention, subversion, coercion or constraint of any kind whatsoever; (c) the immediate withdrawal of the "foreign" troops from Afghanistan; (d) the creation of the necessary conditions which would enable the Afghan refugees to return voluntarily to their homes in safety and honor.

But in fact the Geneva negotiations were not conducted on this basis; they proceeded on a very different agenda proposed by the Kabul regime in 1981, an agenda for ending "outside interference" while retaining communist control of Afghanistan and legitimizing the regime. This was not generally known, in large part because of the extraordinary secrecy that enwrapped the negotiations from their inception until after the ink was dry on the accords. Aside from scraps of information selectively leaked, this remained the case even after Mr. Cordovez reported in late 1983 that the negotiations were "95 percent complete." The uncompleted five percent, of course, was the issue of Soviet withdrawal. At that time the withdrawal of Soviet uniformed forces would probably have led to the collapse of the Afghan regime, which was still extremely shaky and had consolidated few agencies capable of sustaining it against overwhelming popular armed opposition. Negotiations remained stalemated for the next four years while the Soviet Union worked to remedy that situation.

As for the United States, policy toward Afghanistan had been characterized for nearly 70 years by what one former American diplomat described as "ignorance, incoherence, inconstancy and appeasement." U.S. policy was long marked by a dismissal of Afghanistan’s strategic importance. Even after the invasion, the State Department and other agencies viewed the Afghanistan issue primarily as a factor in U.S.-Soviet relations, i.e., an impediment to progress on other more important issues. Not until 1984-85 did Washington discernibly begin to address policy regarding Afghanistan itself, and then only under pressure from concerned members of Congress.

The primary spokesmen for the issue were, in the Carter Administration, National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski and, in the Reagan Administration, U.N. Ambassador Jeane J. Kirkpatrick and the president himself. All of them took a strong position, enunciating a clear-cut U.S. policy of support for the Afghan resistance for the purpose of restoring genuine Afghan independence and self-determination. This policy received virtually unanimous support from both houses of Congress. American aid to the resistance (and U.S.-supported aid from other countries) was initiated by Dr. Brzezinski shortly after the invasion but it was neither sufficient nor effective for some years. Those responsible for implementing stated policy made no consistent, energetic effort to do so.

The behind-the-scenes struggle over the provision of effective military aid to the Afghan resistance was protracted and tortuous. From 1985 Congress increasingly pressed for effective action, but there was a struggle for policy control and bureaucratic turf-fighting among the agencies concerned. Moreover, a disproportionately large share of U.S. aid went to the most extreme, radical, anti-Western groups, which had no broad base of political support among the Afghan people but drew their strength from the financing they received from Libya, Iran, elements in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, the radical international Muslim Brotherhood and the United States. This funding was used to create power bases that they would not have been able to win on their own. It also undermined efforts to establish greater operational and political unity among the resistance groups.

In 1984 Congress voted several million dollars in humanitarian aid (food and medical aid in particular) for the civilian population inside Afghanistan. The State Department, however, failed to disburse the funds, leading Congress to set up the Joint House-Senate Task Force on Afghanistan chaired by Senator Gordon J. Humphrey (R-N.H.). Tensions between Congress and the State Department over policy and its implementation continued to grow.

The State Department was accused of resisting efforts to undertake strong economic, diplomatic and political measures against the Kabul regime. Congress unanimously called on the secretary of state "to make vigorous efforts to impress upon the Soviet leadership the penalty that continued military action in Afghanistan imposes upon the building of a long-term constructive relationship with the United States." As late as October 1987 Congress, again unanimously, complained that although the Administration’s policy on Afghanistan called for steadily increasing pressure on all fronts—military, political and diplomatic—such pressures had "decreased rather than increased; in the absence of a coordinated and aggressive policy by the administration regarding the war in Afghanistan, the Congress has been forced to implement unilaterally numerous programs to bring ‘steadily increasing pressure’ to bear on the Soviet Union."


Meanwhile, the situation both in the field and in negotiations began to change significantly. Following his accession to power in early 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev intensified Soviet military action against both the resistance and the civilian population in Afghanistan; he also moved to solidify and support Afghan communist control, and escalated pressures on Pakistan through political means, military incidents and greatly increased terrorist subversion. At about the same time, under congressional pressure, significantly enlarged and improved covert U.S. aid, estimated at $600 million a year, began to flow to the Afghan resistance. Rather suddenly, the almost-forgotten Geneva negotiations emerged from obscurity to be proclaimed the focus of all hopes and expectations for a solution to the Afghan war—with the withdrawal of Soviet military forces their primary if not their sole goal.

The first sign that something might be stirring beneath the surface came in December 1985, when Mr. Cordovez announced that the State Department had committed the U.S. government to serve as co-guarantor (along with the Soviet Union) of any agreements that might at some future date emerge from the negotiations. This appeared to be a reversal of stated U.S. policy; it was promptly denied by the White House and President Reagan himself.

When Mr. Cordovez insisted that such a commitment had been made, the State Department issued a series of contradictory explanations and denials, leaving it unclear whether anything had or had not been promised; whether whatever had (or had not) been done had the approval or even the knowledge of the president; and whether it would or would not be binding. State Department officials said that nothing had been promised but that whatever had been offered was dependent on "satisfactory" accords.

In early 1986, however, a former high-level official privately described the commitments as a "180-degree turn," and in 1988 former National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane told columnist William Safire they were "a fundamental change in policy" about which he had not been consulted. In February 1988, two articles in The New York Times reported that commitments had indeed been made in 1985 without the president’s being informed until the story broke in the press. A few weeks later, Safire reported additional details of how it happened. But the initial controversy over possible secret commitments undercutting official U.S. policy simmered down as lack of progress at Geneva made the issue appear academic.

In 1986, about the time that the rebels’ use of Stinger missiles began to hamper Soviet control of the air, Mr. Gorbachev began first to hint, then to say openly that he might be ready to withdraw Soviet ground forces, even as Soviet forces were intensifying the war against both the resistance and the civilian population. In September 1986 Gorbachev claimed to be withdrawing several thousand troops, calling in the world press to witness the supposed "withdrawal." It turned out to be only the regular semiannual Soviet troop rotation in which the troops being withdrawn had already been replaced. (This could recur: Gorbachev’s later insistence on beginning the Soviet troop withdrawal in mid-May 1988 may have been related to the fact that this was again the scheduled time for troop rotation.)

He also made his famous reference to the Afghan war as a "bleeding wound," but he was speaking of it as Afghanistan’s wound. It is not true, as widely believed, that the Soviet Union had, then or now, suffered a military defeat, taken heavy casualties or paid a debilitating economic price in Afghanistan. It is true that the Soviets failed to achieve a quick success that would erase the issue from international attention, and as a result suffered some political setbacks and faced others. The increasing effectiveness of the resistance forces may have prodded the Soviets to conclude they would face growing problems in the future. Equally important, however, by 1986 Moscow had had time to strengthen its puppet regime in Kabul. With international attention focused solely on the withdrawal of uniformed Soviet forces, Moscow could shape a scenario that would defuse international criticism while leaving the U.S.S.R. in effective control.

Throughout 1986 and 1987, the Soviets and their Afghan clients made extensive preparations inside Afghanistan. These were of two sorts; the first to consolidate control—through such organs as the secret police (KHAD, now called WAD), Border Guards, mercenary tribal militias, as well as a reconstructed military; through a tightening grip on the Afghan economy; and through a Sovietization program affecting all aspects of Afghan society. The second was to set up a facade of legitimacy for the regime in preparation for the political campaign launched at the end of 1986 to persuade the world that peace was nearly at hand.

Babrak Karmal, installed in power by the invasion, had proven unable to control the divided Afghan communist party, let alone the country, and was unacceptable to world opinion; in 1986 he was replaced by the KGB-trained former head of KHAD, Dr. Najibullah. Throughout 1987 cosmetic changes in political institutions were made: a hand-picked Loya Jirga (Great National Assembly) was convened; a new constitution adopted; rigged but ostentatious local and parliamentary elections held; and a "government of reconciliation" announced, a recycled version of Babrak Karmal’s failed "broadening the base" campaign in 1981. A law was issued legalizing political parties other than the PDPA; however, the parties must provide the regime with a complete list of their membership and funding sources and wait two months for approval.

In November 1987 Soviet sources began to float rumors of an early Soviet military withdrawal. With the next Geneva negotiations scheduled for February 22, 1988, Soviet Foreign Minister Shevardnadze said that a Soviet troop withdrawal could begin on May 1 if accords were signed by March 1. (This was a concrete formulation of the 60-day implementation interval already agreed upon.) Shevardnadze’s statement got little public attention until, the Geneva meeting having been postponed by two weeks, Mr. Gorbachev made his dramatic public proposal on February 8 to begin withdrawing troops on May 15—if the accords were signed by March 15. Moscow also agreed to complete its withdrawal in nine months instead of the four years it had demanded five years earlier. This was greeted as a startling breakthrough.

Mr. Cordovez, the Soviet Union and the Kabul regime promptly called upon the United States to fulfill its 1985 commitments, and the State Department, though still hedging on whether they existed, responded as though they did. It then became known that the United States would be committing itself to cut off all U.S. military aid to the resistance when the Soviet troop withdrawal began.


At this point a great deal of hectic and confusing activity began, both publicly and behind the scenes, as proponents pressed to get the accords signed by the Soviet deadline and skeptics attempted, without success, to find out exactly what was in the still-secret agreements.

The Soviets and the Kabul regime were pressing for swift acceptance of the accords, without changes and by the Soviet-imposed deadline. The Afghan resistance and refugees were opposed to such a settlement. President Zia ul-Haq of Pakistan came under great Soviet pressure, including a campaign of subversion and terrorism on Pakistani soil, to sign the accords. He found them so defective that his government initially refused to sign without significant changes. When the Pakistan government raised questions about issues not resolved by the accords, the Soviet Union at first threatened to cancel its troop withdrawal if the accords were not signed by its deadline, and then reversed itself, saying that withdrawal would begin whether the accords were signed or not.

Meanwhile in the United States, Congress had been attempting to ascertain and influence the U.S. government’s position and role in the proposed settlement. In late February the Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs held hearings at which Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Robert A. Peck testified:

The obligation which the United States would undertake as a "guarantor" would relate exclusively to our own policies and actions. We would bear no responsibility for the actions of others, or for the successful implementation of the agreement as a whole. We and the Soviet Union would agree to the same basic commitment regarding noninterference and nonintervention. We would be prepared, if completely satisfied with the agreement, to prohibit U.S. military assistance to the Afghan resistance. We would expect the Soviet Union to show reciprocal restraint under the Geneva accords in stopping its military support for the Kabul regime. . . . The commitments of all the parties would enter into effect on an agreed date following signature; at the present time this is expected to be at the end of 60 days.

At the same hearing, Vincent M. Cannistraro, assistant to the assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, testified that the only monitoring force—the ten to 50 men mentioned in the annex—would be

intended to function as an observer or monitoring group rather than as a peacekeeping force . . . to conduct investigations . . . in response to reports of alleged violations of the Geneva agreement. . . . They have virtually no capability to influence, restrain or otherwise adjudicate local disagreements over alleged violations of a cease-fire or withdrawal accord. . . . The force would . . . have to have a physical presence at each major activity within the country and at each major border crossing.

That seems an impossibility for 50 men in a mountainous country larger than France. Moreover, though it is unclear in the accords, the U.N. teams will apparently not monitor the withdrawal of Soviet troops. Press comments indicate widespread confusion on this point.

These statements, particularly Mr. Peck’s, outraged some senators. On February 29, 1988, Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd declared on the floor of the Senate, "I am shocked at the language. . . . I am not only shocked, I am stunned. . . . This does not comport with what Secretary Shultz and the President have said to me. . . . This would be a sellout by the United States, if I understand it correctly . . . and it would be a shameful sellout." Told that the State Department had declined to provide Senator Humphrey with the text of the accords, Byrd continued: "The Senate must not be kept in the dark," and asked whether "the Administration may be so eager to come to an agreement with the Soviets on a START treaty, so eager for a summit that [it] may be about to enter into an agreement detrimental to the interests of the Afghan resistance. This country ought to be very careful," he added, "that it does not commit a dishonorable act to accommodate the Soviet Union."

The Senate unanimously passed a resolution calling for the continuation of U.S. aid of all kinds to the Afghan resistance as long as Soviet aid goes to the Kabul client regime, along with a number of other requirements for a satisfactory diplomatic solution.

Under Senate pressure, the State Department reformulated U.S. policy to require "symmetry," i.e., U.S. military aid to the Afghan resistance as long as the U.S.S.R. provides similar aid to its client regime in Kabul, a policy reiterated in the statement submitted by Secretary Shultz in Geneva on April 14. How this position is to be reconciled with the accords, including U.S. guarantees to ensure noninterference, has not been revealed. Furthermore, given the geography of the region, it is unclear just how the United States can, practically speaking, deliver significant support to the Afghan resistance if Pakistan fulfills its obligations under the accord on noninterference and nonintervention.

The Soviet Union immediately denounced the Senate action and the new U.S. policy of symmetry, accusing the United States of obstructing peace. Moscow also declared that Soviet aid of all kinds to the Kabul regime would continue indefinitely; the Soviets claim that, unlike aid to the resistance, its aid has legal status under bilateral agreements going all the way back to the Afghan-Soviet Friendship Treaty of 1921, and is unaffected by the accords.

Pakistan, strengthened by Senate and other support and concerned about defects it saw in the accords, still did not want to accept the present Kabul regime as cosignatory; it called instead for the establishment of an independent interim government acceptable to the majority of the Afghan people. It argued that this should occur before the signing took place for two reasons: to sign the accords with the Soviet-installed regime in Kabul would in some degree grant it long-sought legitimacy; and without a government acceptable to the Afghan people, most of the more than three million refugees who have been living in Pakistan for nearly a decade would probably refuse to go home.

The March deadline came and went, and was extended. President Zia held firmly to his position despite intense pressure. As April began and the Soviet withdrawal deadline approached, high-level officials began shuttling between Moscow, Washington, Islamabad and Kabul in a burst of feverish activity. The Kabul regime kept a low profile and apparently played a minor role, but Najibullah finally went to Tashkent, where he met with Gorbachev. In Geneva, U.N. Secretary Cordovez and Robert Peck for the United States insisted that the negotiating session would not adjourn without a signed agreement, however long it took. Senator Humphrey flew to Pakistan and Geneva, cabling President Reagan to report the unanimous opposition of the Afghan resistance to the accords under negotiation. One resistance figure told an American despairingly: "Everything we fought for is lost. We have been betrayed."

The Soviet Union’s pressure on Pakistan included a scarcely veiled threat to reactivate Afghan irredentist claims against its Northwest Frontier and Baluchistan provinces, raising the specter of communal strife. Terrorist activities in Pakistan intensified. The State Department, too, undertook a strenuous effort to persuade Pakistan to drop its reservations, accept the Kabul regime as cosignatory and sign. Eventually, under the intense pressure from all quarters, including its domestic opposition, the government of Pakistan agreed and the accords, still totally secret, were signed on April 14 to enter into force, despite the late signing date, on May 15 as the U.S.S.R. had insisted.


The primary virtue claimed for the accords is that they will lead to the withdrawal of Soviet uniformed forces from Afghanistan by February 1989. Although the Soviets had said they would withdraw in any case, supporters point out that the accords offer the advantage of a specified timetable. Yet, as noted, there is no mechanism for verification or enforcement of the Soviet pledges.

Neither is there an authoritative definition of what comprises a "complete" withdrawal. The Soviet Union has never made public the exact size of its "limited military contingent" in Afghanistan, and deployment has varied with military needs. The method of troop rotation (which takes place twice a year throughout the entire Soviet army) is that new troops are introduced in small units over a period of time and are dispersed to various posts, while those whose tour of duty is finished are subsequently sent home en masse. In the nearest thing to an official Soviet figure given so far, an editor of Pravda, in a recent interview with the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun, said that there were 90,000 troops in Afghanistan. For several years the U.S. State Department has been saying that the number is "approximately" 115,000. Some independent analysts have estimated deployment varying from 150,000 to 170,000 in recent years. This range is very large indeed; what is the correct number? Nobody but Moscow knows. This greatly complicates efforts to ascertain whether the Soviet Union has fulfilled even the vague and limited obligation mentioned in the Geneva accords.

Information provided by captured or defecting Soviets and Afghan communists indicates that several thousand Soviet Central Asian troops of all ranks have been seconded to the Afghan armed forces, particularly the KHAD-controlled Border Guards. They are reportedly infiltrated into all important units, wearing Afghan uniforms and are to remain there, assuming Afghan identity. How will such reports be checked, and if they prove to be accurate, what action will be taken?

How far will Soviet troops be withdrawn? Will large numbers be stationed immediately across the border from Afghanistan, where they can continue to conduct sorties against the Afghan resistance? Will Soviet aircraft continue to carry out attacks against Afghan territory from bases in the U.S.S.R. as they have in the past? What will happen if the Afghan regime, faced with increasing opposition, invokes the 1978 or 1921 treaty to ask that troops return at some time after the withdrawal? None of these questions was addressed in the accords or by subsequent statements.

What are the prospects for the bilateral agreement between Afghanistan and Pakistan on noninterference and nonintervention? If carried out to the letter this accord, particularly the specific provisions of Article II, would bar the government of Pakistan from providing any sanctuary or assistance to the Afghan resistance or any other opponents of the present regime in Kabul—and from allowing anyone else to provide such assistance through the territory of Pakistan. Few details are overlooked; even allowing the press to interview opponents of the Kabul regime could be construed as a violation (paragraph 12). It is this agreement above all that aroused so much opposition to the signing of the accords. As guarantor, the United States essentially committed itself to cut off aid of any sort to the Afghan opposition, and to make sure its ally, the government of Pakistan, does the same.

As for Afghanistan’s pledge not to intervene in Pakistan: the bombings, assassinations and other terrorist actions, threats and subversion carried out there by KHAD/WAD agents have not stopped. On one day, April 10—just before the signing—there were four incendiary explosions and bombings in four different cities, including the massive destruction of the Pakistani arms dump near Islamabad which left nearly a hundred dead and more than a thousand wounded. President Zia openly labeled the Islamabad explosion sabotage, and Pentagon and Pakistani sources have identified it as the work of KHAD. One analyst described it as "a classic spetsnaz operation." Other, less dramatic incidents continue.

The U.N. General Assembly’s call for a commitment to Afghanistan’s territorial integrity is negated by the refusal of both Moscow and Kabul to acknowledge the Soviet annexation of the Wakhan Corridor, which occurred de facto in May 1980 and was confirmed by a secret treaty in June 1981. It was announced on Kabul radio, then hastily denied, but an Italian journalist managed to get into the Wakhan and photographed the Soviet flag flying over government offices.

"Preservation of the nonaligned character" of Afghanistan is equally dubious; the Kabul regime has adopted the simple expedient of announcing itself to be independent, nonaligned, neutral and nonsocialist, repeating the formula on such occasions as the anniversary celebrations of the Russian October Revolution and the birthday of Lenin.

A massive program of Sovietization is being imposed on every aspect of Afghan society. Since 1978, and especially since 1986, hundreds of agreements, treaties and protocols have been concluded between the Afghan regime and the U.S.S.R. and Eastern-bloc countries, particularly East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria and, in the last year or so, between individual Soviet republics, oblasts and cities and their Afghan counterparts. These give the Soviets and their allies total control of Afghanistan’s economy, its rich natural resources, education, media and other social and political institutions. Political and economic structures are being set up to control and possibly detach the mineral-rich provinces north of the Hindu Kush ranges from the southern areas which have been so devastated by the war.

This extensive network of agreements was not addressed in the accords, but it and other factors raise questions about genuine independence and self-determination for Afghanistan, an issue removed from the agenda before the talks began. As specified by the Kabul regime: "No questions concerning the existing regime in Afghanistan, its type of government or other of its internal matters can be discussed."

Many are assuming that the Kabul regime will quickly collapse as soon as Soviet forces are gone, its members fleeing to sanctuary in the U.S.S.R., Eastern Europe or possibly a Soviet-controlled northern zone of a newly divided Afghanistan, where a government infrastructure rivaling Kabul has already been created. But it is not certain that the Kabul regime will speedily collapse; it now has in place a group of military and paramilitary forces that may be capable of maintaining the regime, especially if the resistance is isolated and deprived of aid.

Much has been made of the fact that the Afghan army fighting the resistance is filled with conscripts who have little loyalty to the regime and are often actively opposed to it, and who desert, often to the resistance, at the first opportunity. This is true of the infantry. It is not true of the air force and the tank corps, the branches which carried out the coups of 1973 and 1978, whose personnel are for the most part trained in the Soviet Union and selected carefully for indoctrination. Several analysts estimate that by now roughly 90 percent of the Afghan air force officers are loyal to the regime, as are many of the Border Guards, armored divisions, commandos and other quality ground forces created since 1981. Defectors also report a secret Afghan army numbering 18,000-20,000, which has been trained in the Soviet Union, is loyal to the communist regime and has been held in reserve to replace Soviet forces when they are withdrawn. Since it is estimated that only 15,000-20,000 of the Soviet troops in Afghanistan are used in the actual fighting, such a trained reserve army might effectively replace them. In addition, the regime has established well-paid paramilitary forces totaling more than 100,000, including locally based tribal militias. Even if the personnel in these forces are not ideologically committed to the regime, they have in many cases gone too far along the path of collaboration to be able to turn back; their future and even survival now depend on the survival of the regime.

KHAD/WAD, the secret police trained by and modeled on the KGB, has taken over key positions in all major government ministries and departments. Directed by 1,500 Soviet KGB officers, it now has an estimated annual budget of $160 million (covering operations in Pakistan as well as Afghanistan), 4,000 Afghan officers who have received advanced training in the Soviet Union, and many thousands of agents. Even if some of the latter are coerced or bought, they too are now dependent on the regime for their own survival. The survival of the regime depends not on its control of the entire countryside but on its control of several key cities—above all, Kabul, which has reportedly been turned into a fortress. In the past year or so, its defense perimeter has been extended to 30 kilometers and so reinforced that some resistance units which once operated freely in and around the capital can no longer even penetrate its defenses.

This does not mean, of course, that the regime cannot be overthrown. It has many internal problems to contend with, in addition to the resistance and the almost universal hatred of the people. But the assumption that it will, in the words of Robert Peck, "splinter and fall of its own weight even before the final Soviet pullout . . . and [that] its early demise will be inevitable" seems unduly sanguine. The present leadership may not necessarily remain in place. Najibullah might step aside or be forced out as president, to be replaced by one of several Soviet-controlled agents without visible communist party connections. Such a figure could claim to head a noncommunist "government of reconciliation." But it would be so in name only, no more acceptable to the resistance than the present regime; in this scenario the war would most likely continue.


Prospects for the voluntary return of approximately 3.5 million Afghan refugees currently in Pakistan do not appear very bright. The text of the bilateral agreement on refugees is vague and unclear about implementation. It emphasizes that return of refugees is to be "voluntary"; after 18 months the signatories are to "consider any further arrangements that may be called for." It is not clear how millions of refugees are to be persuaded to return to live under a government they detest, reject and have fled, particularly when the most likely alternatives they would be returning to face are either continuation of the present regime, with or without the addition of a few non-PDPA faces, or a state of insurrection and continuing warfare.

The Afghan regime promises in Article II of this accord to grant returning refugees the same rights, privileges and obligations it offers to its other citizens—promises which for nine years have proven to be unsuccessful inducements. Over the past years only a few thousand have responded to such invitations to return made by the Kabul regime. The phrase "in safety and honor," used in all General Assembly resolutions to describe conditions enabling the Afghan refugees to return to their homes, appears nowhere in the accord. The Kabul regime claims to fulfill this requirement by its offers of "amnesty" (with varying conditions attached), which simply invite the refugees to return and accept, on the basis of unguaranteed promises, the regime in existence.

All reliable surveys of the refugees indicate that they will not return home until "the Russians" have left their country. However, this should not be taken as an indication that Soviet troop withdrawal alone will result in a mass movement homeward. The vast majority of the refugees are unsophisticated farmers and villagers who see no difference between Soviet personnel, Afghan communist party members, Marxist sympathizers and collaborators. To ordinary Afghans, they are all the same—"the Russians and the servants of the Russians."

In his most recent report (February 26, 1988), the Special Rapporteur on Afghanistan of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights states that no significant number of refugees will go home until a government in which they have confidence has been established—which by definition excludes a communist or Soviet-dominated regime. His report vindicates Pakistan’s earlier demand for an interim government before the signing of the accords, lest their signing legitimize and entrench the present regime and the refugees refuse to go home.

What if the majority of refugees do not choose to return voluntarily at this time? There are disturbing reports that the assistance on which they survive may be cut off, leaving them no alternative but to go home. It is unlikely that the government of Pakistan would order its troops to attack the refugees, and unlikely that Pakistani troops would turn their weapons on Muslim women and children even if so ordered, but certain Pathan tribes in the Administered Tribal Territories (where most of the refugee camps are located) have threatened to evict the Afghans forcibly. The likely reaction of well-armed resistance men to any attempt to move their families by force can be easily imagined, and could result in grave turmoil in Pakistan. In this event, the international recognition of Pakistan’s hospitality to millions of destitute refugees for nearly a decade would be buried by an image of inhumanity.

The land to which the refugees would return has been transformed by Soviet weaponry and tactics into a desert wasteland. Out of 22,000 villages in prewar Afghanistan, an estimated 15,000 have been destroyed and another 5,000 made uninhabitable. Most refugees will have no homes to return to—only heaps of rubble—and no money with which to reconstruct their lives. Millions of farm animals have been deliberately slaughtered. The millennia-old irrigation systems on which farming depends have been destroyed, the orchards and vineyards cut down, the fields strewn with an estimated five million mines. Water supplies, health care, educational systems, road networks—all have been wiped out, especially in the belt south of Kabul, which Najibullah has offered to put at the refugees’ disposal.

A massive international program of reconstruction and resettlement aid, to be budgeted at one billion dollars for the first year, is planned by the United Nations. U.N. sources have said that this aid will be channeled through the Kabul regime, which will not only help to support the regime but will give Kabul leverage in rural areas that it has not been able to achieve in ten years of war. Officials of private humanitarian agencies fear a repetition of the Ethiopian tragedy: the resettled refugees would be forced to accept government control or face starvation. There would no longer be a relief infrastructure in Pakistan for them to return to.


The role of the Soviet Union is formally established by its signature on the Declaration on International Guarantees, and on the Afghan-Pakistani nonintervention accord as a witness. But it remains unclear what precisely it has agreed to do. Since interference is defined in a way that fails to cover the Soviet involvement in Afghanistan, it is unclear just what "interference" the U.S.S.R. has guaranteed to halt. Does interference include the presence of well over ten thousand Soviet, East-bloc and even Cuban military, economic and political advisers? They were not under discussion in Geneva, and Soviet and Afghan leaders have flatly declared that these advisers will remain in Afghanistan.

What then is the value of the Soviet role as guarantor of this accord? Is it solely as a parallel to the U.S. guarantees? Supporters of the accords might say that the Soviet guarantee opened the way to the policy of symmetry, which will enable the United States to match Soviet military aid to its clients with American aid to the resistance. A letter on this from Shevardnadze to Shultz is still held secret. Putting aside the practical and logistical problems of such U.S. aid, neither the accords nor the "symmetry doctrine" says anything about what the U.S.S.R. can provide to its own forces until their withdrawal is complete. The Soviet Union can therefore oversupply its own forces with enough weapons and matériel to last for a decade if it chooses—and there is nothing in the accords to prevent them from leaving it all behind when they depart. Moscow could then invoke the doctrine of symmetry, claiming to have voluntarily ceased supplying the Afghan army and calling on the United States to halt its aid to the mujahedeen. That is exactly what appears to be happening.

These are obviously accords that the Soviet Union was eager to see signed, preferably with but even without American guarantees. They fulfill the first and most essential requirement of its time-tested strategy for subduing resistance and armed insurrections, i.e., to isolate the area, the rebellious population and its forces. Once isolated, they can in time be crushed. Tsars and commissars alike have tested and developed this strategy, from the Caucasus in the 1850s to Turkestan in the 1920s; the process has usually taken about 20 to 25 years to complete. Thus, to their critics, the Geneva negotiations and the resulting accords have provided a solution to the wrong problem: an arrangement for the long-term Soviet consolidation of control in Afghanistan without the overt use of its uniformed military forces, and in a manner satisfactory to world opinion.


Article II

For the purpose of implementing the principle of non-interference and non-intervention each High Contracting Party undertakes to comply with the following obligations:

(1) to respect the sovereignty, political independence, territorial integrity, national unity, security and non-alignment of the other High Contracting Party, as well as the national identity and cultural heritage of its people;

(2) to respect the sovereign and inalienable right of the other High Contracting Party freely to determine its own political, economic, cultural and social systems, to develop its international relations and to exercise permanent sovereignty over its natural resources, in accordance with the will of its people, and without outside intervention, interference, subversion, coercion or threat in any form whatsoever;

(3) to refrain from the threat or use of force in any form whatsoever so as not to violate the boundaries of each other, to disrupt the political, social or economic order of the other High Contracting Party, to overthrow or change the political system of the other High Contracting Party or its Government, or to cause tension between the High Contracting Parties;

(4) to ensure that its territory is not used in any manner which would violate the sovereignty, political independence, territorial integrity and national unity or disrupt the political, economic and social stability of the other High Contracting Party;

(5) to refrain from armed intervention, subversion, military occupation or any other form of intervention and interference, overt or covert, directed at the other High Contracting Party, or any act of military, political or economic interference in the internal affairs of the other High Contracting Party, including acts of reprisal involving the use of force;

(6) to refrain from any action or attempt in whatever form or under whatever pretext to destabilize or to undermine the stability of the other High Contracting Party or any of its institutions;

(7) to refrain from the promotion, encouragement or support, direct or indirect, of rebellious or secessionist activities against the other High Contracting Party, under any pretext whatsoever, or from any other action which seeks to disrupt the unity or to undermine or subvert the political order of the other High Contracting Party;

(8) to prevent within its territory the training, equipping, financing and recruitment of mercenaries from whatever origin for the purpose of hostile activities against the other High Contracting Party, or the sending of such mercenaries into the territory of the other High Contracting Party and accordingly to deny facilities, including financing for the training, equipping and transit of such mercenaries;

(9) to refrain from making any agreements or arrangements with other States designed to intervene or interfere in the internal and external affairs of the other High Contracting Party;

(10) to abstain from any defamatory campaign, vilification or hostile propaganda for the purpose of intervening or interfering in the internal affairs of the other High Contracting Party;

(11) to prevent any assistance or use of or tolerance of terrorist groups, saboteurs or subversive agents against the other High Contracting Party;

(12) to prevent within its territory the presence, harbouring, in camps and bases or otherwise, organizing, training, financing, equipping and arming of individuals and political, ethnic and other groups for the purpose of creating subversion, disorder or unrest in the territory of the other High Contracting Party and accordingly also to prevent the use of mass media and the transportation of arms, ammunition and equipment by such individuals and groups;

(13) not to resort to or to allow any other action that could be considered as interference or intervention.


The United States has agreed to act as a guarantor of the political settlement of the situation relating to Afghanistan. We believe this settlement is a major step forward in restoring peace to Afghanistan, in ending the bloodshed in that unfortunate country, and in enabling millions of Afghan refugees to return to their homes.

In agreeing to act as a guarantor, the United States states the following:

(1) The troop withdrawal obligations set out in paragraphs 5 and 6 of the Instrument on Interrelationships are central to the entire settlement. Compliance with those obligations is essential to achievement of the settlement’s purposes, namely, the ending of foreign intervention in Afghanistan and the restoration of the rights of the Afghan people through the exercise of self determination as called for by the United Nations Charter and the United Nations General Assembly resolutions on Afghanistan.

(2) The obligations undertaken by the guarantors are symmetrical. In this regard, the United States has advised the Soviet Union that, if the USSR undertakes, as consistent with its obligations as guarantor, to provide military assistance to parties in Afghanistan, the U.S. retains the right, as consistent with its own obligations as guarantor, likewise effectively to provide such assistance.

(3) By acting as guarantor of the settlement, the United States does not intend to imply in any respect recognition of the present regime in Kabul as the lawful Government of Afghanistan.

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  • Rosanne Klass is Director of the Afghanistan/Southwest Asia Center of Freedom House in New York, editor of Afghanistan—The Great Game Revisited, and author of an earlier book on the Afghans.
  • More By Rosanne Klass