The overthrow of the monarchy in Afghanistan in 1973 was a seminal moment in the country's history and in U.S. policy in Central Asia. The return of Mohamed Daoud Khan to power was aided by the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA, the Communist party) and military officers trained in the Soviet Union. Even as Communism was making its first substantive gains in Afghanistan, the United States was wrestling with how best to pursue its strategy of containment. Stung by the experience of Vietnam, President Richard Nixon concluded that the United States could not unilaterally respond to every instance of Communist expansion. In the turbulent years that followed, U.S. diplomacy and Daoud's desire for nonalignment combined to mitigate Soviet influence in Afghanistan. However, the U.S. triumph was fleeting insofar as Daoud's shift toward nonalignment triggered the erosion of Soviet-Afghan relations, culminating in the overthrow of his government and the final ascension of the PDPA.


On 17 July 1973 the citizens of Kabul woke to the sounds of their government being overthrown. Residents tuning in to the radio for information were greeted by the sound of martial music occasionally interrupted by a gruff voice stating, “This is an announcement of the military government of Afghanistan. Stay off the streets and do not interfere with the soldiers.”1 By mid-morning, the monarchy that had for centuries stood as the political keystone of Afghan governance no longer existed. Instead, Prince Mohammed Daoud Khan, the former prime minister and strongman who had governed Afghanistan from 1953 to 1963, again occupied the seat of power.

Officials in Washington who were monitoring events in Afghanistan found surprisingly little to discuss about the reports from the U.S. embassy in Kabul. After the chaotic 1960s, when the United States had become embroiled in intractable conflicts abroad while enduring social upheaval at home, President Richard Nixon and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger had plotted a new course for U.S. foreign relations that would avoid the pitfalls of the recent past. They aimed to mitigate the volatility of the Cold War through the process of détente while also reducing Washington's foreign commitments. As such, the U.S. response to the 1973 coup in Kabul was not formulated in the bowels of the White House or Foggy Bottom: rather, it had been decided four years earlier on the island of Guam. The Nixon Doctrine reflected the administration's recognition of the limits of U.S. power in the wake of Vietnam and the need to place U.S. foreign policy on a sustainable basis through the use of regional proxies.

Following the 1973 coup in Afghanistan, the United States invoked the Nixon Doctrine as the basis for U.S. relations with the Daoud regime. Aware of Soviet sensitivities about Afghanistan, the United States—through careful engagement and in collaboration with partners such as Iran—was able to respond successfully to Daoud's desire to counter Soviet influence in Afghanistan. The resulting shift in Kabul's foreign policy toward true nonalignment marked a triumph for the Nixon Doctrine and the measured application of U.S. power. However, this success proved to be short-lived. Although the Nixon Doctrine was effective in aiding Daoud's move toward nonalignment, the limits of détente in the Third World—and, in particular, the unwillingness of the USSR to abide by U.S. gains in Kabul—set in motion a process that eventually cost both Daoud his life and Afghanistan its political independence.

Afghanistan in the Cold War

Geography has shaped Afghanistan's relations with the outside world for centuries. Wedged between the Russian Empire and British India, Afghanistan's foreign policy developed as a quest to preserve its independence by balancing its powerful neighbors.2 The British withdrawal from India in 1947 presented an existential threat to Afghanistan, which was deprived of a counterweight to the USSR. This fear of unchecked Soviet influence was particularly acute in light of Moscow's postwar actions in Iran and Eastern Europe.3 However, the nascent Cold War offered a solution to Afghanistan's balancing problem. The United States possessed a keen interest in countering Soviet advances without threatening Afghan sovereignty. In 1946 the Afghan government began to submit aid requests to Washington, seeking to deepen U.S. involvement in Afghanistan.4 Over the following decades, the United States provided significant aid, including a comprehensive development program known as the Helmand Valley Authority (HVA).5

Nonetheless, U.S. willingness to help Afghanistan remained limited. Despite Kabul's persistent requests, Washington refused to supply arms to Afghanistan for fear of angering Pakistan, a key Cold War ally that shared a disputed border with Afghanistan. The dispute stemmed from the Durand Line, which placed a significant portion of the Pashtun tribal area inside Pakistan. The Pashtun Afghan majority rejected the Durand Line as a legacy of British imperialism, thus fueling numerous crises between Afghanistan and Pakistan.6 Washington's willingness to provide arms to Pakistan but not Afghanistan created a double standard that irked Afghan officials. Following a clash in 1955 when the Pakistani military used U.S.-made arms against Afghan forces, Prime Minister Daoud lodged a grievance with the United States.7 In response, the State Department submitted a formal complaint to the Pakistani government but took no real action to punish Islamabad.8 Frustrated by Washington's limp response, Daoud invited the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and Soviet Prime Minister Nikolai Bulganin to visit Kabul.9

Although fear of the USSR is what first drove Afghanistan to look to the United States for support, U.S. reluctance to supply arms to Kabul nudged Afghanistan back toward the Soviet camp.10 Unlike Washington, Moscow had no qualms about supplying arms to Kabul. When Khrushchev and Bulganin visited Afghanistan in 1955, they offered Daoud the equivalent of $100 million in aid, the largest offer ever made to Afghanistan and the largest sum provided by the USSR to a non-Communist country.11 By supplying military equipment and training, the Soviet Union gained considerable influence in the Afghan military establishment.12 When Afghan officers were sent to the USSR for training, they were required to take classes in Marxism and the history of the international Communist movement. Although many officers returned to their home country jaded after encountering pervasive racism and disrespect for Islam, some were persuaded by the ideology and formed a Communist cell within the Afghan military.13

After the Soviet aid announcement, the United States attempted to rectify its earlier missteps. President Dwight Eisenhower visited Kabul in 1959.14 Eisenhower realized that Afghan-Soviet ties were too strong to be completely severed and that the United States should instead focus its energies on restoring balance to Afghanistan's foreign policy.15 This goal could be achieved by manipulating the Afghan government's mistrust of its northern neighbor. Specifically, Kabul's own desire to maintain the pretense of balance afforded the United States greater potential influence than was warranted by actual U.S. involvement.16

Although Daoud was adept at playing the Cold War game, his relentless pursuit of the Pashtun issue succeeded only in corroding relations with Pakistan, eventually spurring Islamabad to cut off all trade with Afghanistan in the early 1960s. Domestically, Daoud's efforts to modernize Afghan society offended religious conservatives and vested political interests. In 1963, faced with royal opposition and economic distress stemming from the closure of the Pakistani border, Daoud was forced to resign as prime minister.17

Daoud's departure in 1963 heralded a new era in Afghan governance known as the “Democratic Experiment” based on the Westminster model of democracy. Afghanistan had a legislature, but King Zahir Shah served as the chief executive and central government figure.18 In reality, the Democratic Experiment was a chaotic system that U.S. Ambassador Robert Neumann described as an arrangement in which real power was held by none but everyone was kept busy and confused.19 The military was increasingly drawn into politics and became responsible for preserving order.20 However, discontent festered within the military ranks, where junior officers—especially those trained in the Soviet Union—became disgruntled by unfair treatment, poor pay, and the government's general incompetence.21

The Democratic Experiment was also when Afghanistan's indigenous Communist Party first emerged. Thanks to Soviet education programs from 1950 to 1978, about 7,000 Afghans returned to their home country well versed in Marxist ideology.22 Some of these former students joined together in 1965 to found the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA). In 1968, internal disputes caused the group to splinter into two factions: the Khaliq (masses) and the Parcham (banner).23 The division within the PDPA was a constant obstacle for the PDPA, limiting its strength and breeding intense feuding between the factions. The Soviet Union welcomed the creation of the PDPA as a way to prevent Afghanistan from drifting too close to the West. However, Moscow remained unwilling to risk its friendly relations with the Afghan government by overtly supporting the PDPA.24

Another threat to the government came from Daoud, who had reluctantly accepted his dismissal in 1963. During the Democratic Experiment, the rivalry between Daoud and the king gave rise to open hostility. Daoud even banned his wife, the king's sister, from visiting her brother.25 Daoud's scheming was known to the regime, but given Daoud's familial connection to the monarch, his behavior was seen as the personal responsibility of the king. Zahir Shah in turn played down Daoud's activities, believing that Daoud would never risk compromising the monarchy.26

The Nixon Doctrine and South Asia

When Nixon took office in 1969, the slow boil of Afghan politics was far from the mind of the new president. In Washington, the Vietnam War had triggered a crisis over how the United States conceived its foreign policy. As described by Kissinger, “the containment strategy of the early postwar period had projected the United States into the frontline of every international crisis; the soaring rhetoric of the Kennedy period had set goals that were beyond U.S. physical and emotional capabilities.”27 Before coming to the White House, Kissinger had written that foreign policy could no longer be based on “enthusiasm, belief in progress, and the invincible conviction that American remedies can work everywhere.”28 Faced with overextension abroad and disillusionment at home, the new administration endeavored to remedy the errors of the 1960s.

The centerpiece of this new vision of world affairs was détente. The conflict spanning two decades between the United States and the Soviet Union had proven to be strikingly dangerous, placing each of the rival powers under extreme strain. Rather than persist in this struggle, Nixon and Kissinger sought engagement with the Soviet Union in an effort to reduce tensions.29 The superpowers would still be vying for geopolitical advantage, but they shared an implicit understanding about the limits of this competition and a mutual respect for the other's interests.30 The goal of détente was not to end the Cold War but to manage it. For the United States, détente represented more than a respite from incessant Cold War crises: It was a chance to recover from a decade that had left the country fractured and exhausted.31

As détente attempted to improve the geopolitical climate, the Nixon Doctrine was a practical prescription for allowing the United States to preserve its global interest while avoiding the mistakes that had led to Vietnam. On 25 July 1969 during a press conference on Guam, President Nixon outlined three types of Cold War conflicts: internal subversion conducted by Communist groups, aggression by a neighboring state, and an attack by a nuclear-capable state such as the Soviet Union. Given these distinctions, Nixon argued that the United States was compelled to directly intervene only in the third scenario concerning states with nuclear weapons.32 In November, Nixon used a national address to elaborate on this foreign policy vision. The first two principles of the policy were designed to reassure U.S. allies that the United States would uphold existing treaty commitments and provide a shield to any allied state directly threatened by another nuclear power. However, the third point was a radical departure from previous administrations. Nixon stated that, in the face of other forms of aggression, the United States would provide military and economic assistance to the endangered country but would expect any country directly threatened to provide the manpower for its own defense.33 To bridge this shift away from direct U.S. intervention, Nixon intended to delegate the responsibility of protecting neighbors to regional proxies.34 The administration hoped that through these proxies armed by Washington, a shortfall between U.S. resources and the needs of Western interests could be averted. The administration claimed that the Nixon Doctrine was not disengagement; rather, it placed U.S. involvement on a more sustainable basis.35

The Soviet Union's interest in South Asia and Washington's unwillingness to consider the region a strategic priority made the area an apt theater for Nixon's new approach. The Nixon administration identified Iran and Pakistan as Washington's two regional proxies best suited to support U.S. interests. Iran could serve as a barrier to shield both Afghanistan and Pakistan from Soviet pressure while also sheltering the region from the turbulent Middle East.36 The Shah of Iran, with his aspirations of grandeur, relished the role as the lavishly armed defender of Western interests in South Asia.37 In Pakistan, political power had been consolidated under President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Although the United States and Pakistan had a long-standing alliance, this familiarity did not always translate into mutual confidence. In particular, Kissinger believed that Bhutto was capable of drawing close to any country that served Pakistan's interests, which in the 1970s meant an alliance with the United States.38

The policy change signaled that countries such as Afghanistan now faced the prospect of a much more limited U.S. role in their affairs. During Vice President Spiro Agnew's trip to Kabul in early 1970, he was asked by King Zahir Shah about the Pashtun issue. Agnew responded that the United States viewed Pashtunistan as a regional issue and expected Asian countries to resolve their problems without undue U.S. influence.39 Washington's reconsideration of its involvement in Afghanistan was also evident in its economic aid, which had traditionally been the centerpiece of Afghan-U.S. relations. Over the ten-year period from 1962 to 1972, U.S. aid fell by 90 percent to only $2.35 million a year—a small fraction of the Soviet commitment.40

The U.S. approach to Afghanistan took full shape in a 1969 country policy statement by the National Security Council (NSC) that guided U.S. policy for the following decade. The review affirmed that Afghanistan could not be viewed independently of its region or the impact that developments in Afghanistan could have on its neighbors.41 Ambassador Neumann argued in his 1969 review that a stable Afghanistan added little to the “dubious stability of the region” but that an unstable Afghanistan could have an exceedingly destabilizing effect.42 Afghanistan's location and ability to disrupt strategically sensitive allies such as Pakistan and Iran meant that the United States had a keen interest in keeping Afghanistan as placid as possible. The 1969 NSC policy statement on Afghanistan identifies the preservation of an independent, nonaligned Afghanistan and the improvement of Afghan relations with Iran and Pakistan as the two main objectives of U.S. policy.43

In accordance with the tenets of détente, Afghanistan's proximity to the Soviet Union meant that the United States needed to be cognizant of the concerns Moscow possessed regarding its southern neighbor. The Nixon administration believed that the emergence of China as a rival to the USSR had transformed Moscow's role in Asia from a source of revolution into a status quo power that had more to lose from regional upheaval than it could gain.44 This was particularly true in Afghanistan, which served as a buffer between the Soviet Union and U.S. allies in Iran and Pakistan.45 Soviet sensitivity as well as its dominance over the Afghan economy and military made it unrealistic for the United States to seek the exclusion of the Soviet Union from Afghanistan. Not only was the elimination of Soviet influence impossible; it was undesirable. The high degree of Soviet influence in Afghanistan as well as Moscow's preference for stability in the region meant it was unlikely that the Soviet Union would try to subvert the government or install a Communist regime.46 U.S. officials believed that as long as Kabul remained respectful of Moscow's wishes the Soviet Union would not act against the regime and that regional stability would be preserved.

Given that it was both impractical and undesirable to try to supplant Soviet influence in Afghanistan, the question remaining for the United States was how best to garner influence with the Afghan government without provoking Moscow's ire. Fortunately, the Afghans aided Washington in its quest. As the 1969 report notes, the Afghans had a “shrewd appreciation” for the dangers of being overly reliant on the Soviets and therefore treated U.S. aid with “considerable political importance,” assuring the United States “a significant level of influence without having to match Soviet economic assistance on a dollar for ruble basis.”47 Given U.S. unwillingness to challenge the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, the reduction in U.S. aid to Afghanistan during the Democratic Experiment was not indicative of disengagement; rather, it was a calibrated response to local challenges. Unwilling to confront Soviet dominance in Afghanistan for the sake of containment, the Nixon administration instead welcomed the opportunity to reduce U.S. involvement in Afghanistan without a corresponding loss of influence.

The 1973 Coup and the Return of Daoud

In 1970, Afghanistan was struck by a drought that lasted several years and caused a severe famine.48 The Afghan government's inadequate response to the famine further eroded popular support for the regime. In 1972, the popular pro-Western Foreign Minister Mohammad Shafiq became prime minister and attempted to cure the country's malaise by reforming Afghan governance. Both the PDPA and Daoud feared that, given time, Shafiq's policies might succeed, saving the Democratic Experiment at the cost of their own ambitions.49 If either hoped to take power, they could not afford to wait.

However, neither Daoud nor the PDPA was strong enough to act alone. Keenly aware that fractures within the PDPA made the movement too weak to maintain control of the country, the Communists sought an alliance with Daoud.50 Through this alliance, Daoud made contact with the disenfranchised elements in the Afghan military—particularly the Soviet-trained officer corps. This alliance was formalized in a secret 1971 meeting between representatives of Daoud and left-leaning military officers.51

On 11 March 1972, Wahid Abdullah, the director of information at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a confidant of Daoud, visited Ambassador Neumann's residence and asked the U.S. diplomat what Washington's response would be to Daoud's resumption of power. At the time, Neumann was well versed in the intricacies of Afghan politics. A former political science professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, Neumann had been tapped by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966 to serve as the U.S. ambassador in Kabul. During Neumann's long tenure in Afghanistan, he was able to cultivate personal connections with many key figures in the Afghan regime as well as the diplomatic community. At the time of Abdullah's approach in 1972, Neumann was not only the U.S. ambassador, but was also, in light of his long service in the Afghan capital, the dean of the diplomatic corps. Initially taken aback by Abdullah's approach, Neumann replied that it was improper for him to comment on a matter of Afghanistan's internal affairs.52 A few weeks later, on 27 March, Abdullah again approached Neumann—this time with a formal request from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the embassy. Given that the request came through official channels, Neumann sought guidance from Washington. Neumann did not consider Daoud's return through a coup likely given his loyalty to the dynasty. However, Neumann also stated that the United States should not ignore the request, as it would “confirm [Daoud's] longstanding suspicion [that the United States was] hostile to him and he is capable of bearing a long grudge.”53

After consulting with Washington, Neumann dealt with Abdullah indirectly through an embassy official and restated that it was improper for the United States to comment. However, he also noted that the position of the United States toward any government was based on that government's policies and actions—particularly toward Washington's interests and the peace and stability in the region.54

At 2:30 a.m. on 17 July 1973, U.S. embassy officials heard gunfire coming from the Royal Palace grounds. By 7:00 a.m., the embassy had learned that Daoud had apparently seized control while the king was visiting Italy for medical treatment.55 Around 7:40 a.m., Daoud made a brief radio address in which he denounced the corruption of the previous government, abolished the monarchy, and declared the founding of the Republic of Afghanistan.56

Chief responsibility for the shaping of the U.S. response to the coup fell to Neumann. Despite being a political appointee of the Johnson administration, Neumann was a Republican from California and well-regarded by Nixon's foreign policy team. Throughout his time in Kabul, Neumann wrote numerous personal letters to Kissinger concerning a wide range of international topics; his views commanded attention in Washington.

Daoud's emergence as head of state answered only one of many questions surrounding the coup. Uncertainty over the composition of the new government as well as over potential Soviet involvement became pressing matters for Neumann and his embassy. The inclusion of the PDPA (Parcham faction) and Soviet-trained officers in the coup initially sparked fears that Daoud was merely a figurehead and that the Communists were the real force behind the coup.57 Determining how much influence the PDPA actually wielded became the primary challenge for the embassy's officers.

The important role played by Soviet-trained officers in the coup also raised the specter of direct Soviet involvement. Although Soviet officials were aware of the plot, there is little evidence to suggest that the USSR was involved in planning or executing the operation.58 Yet, even if the coup was not a Soviet initiative, it did serve Moscow's interests by granting the PDPA a foothold in the Afghan government. Nevertheless, the U.S. embassy in Moscow claimed that Soviet diplomats had been caught by surprise by the coup.59

Even though Daoud came to power with Communist aid, he was no Marxist. Neumann, Kissinger, and the NSC all saw him as a nationalist who would not radically change course from Afghanistan's traditional nonalignment, despite forging closer ties with the Soviet Union.60 Even though the PDPA acquired a role in the new regime, the United States was confident that Afghanistan would not become a Communist country as long as Daoud dominated the government.

From the perspective of the U.S. embassy, Daoud himself was perhaps most anxious about how the coup was perceived. On 26 July 1973 he instructed Abdul Wahid Karim, director general of political affairs at the Afghan Foreign Ministry, to meet with Neumann as a “friend of Afghanistan.” Karim asked Neumann for his advice on how the regime could counter erroneous Western media reports that a “Red Coup” had occurred and that Afghanistan was under Soviet domination.61 Daoud feared that such perceptions would compromise Afghanistan's nonaligned status and affect foreign aid. In an earlier meeting, Daoud's brother revealed Afghanistan's greatest fear, pleading with Neumann not to abandon Afghanistan.62 The anxiety expressed to Neumann over Daoud's nationalist bona fides and how the coup was perceived abroad were not simply post-coup jitters but were an ongoing concern for Daoud. Theodore Eliot, Jr., Neumann's successor as ambassador to Kabul, recalls that Daoud repeatedly attempted to convince the United States that he was a patriotic Afghan and not a Communist. The challenge for Eliot was to convince Daoud that the United States actually believed him.63

The United States accepted Daoud as a nationalist and did not plan to abandon Afghanistan. This, however, did not ease the qualms of Washington's friends in Iran and Pakistan. In addressing these concerns, the intricacies of the Nixon Doctrine began to take effect. The question of recognizing the Daoud regime was one of the few times when a clear divide emerged between U.S. diplomats in Kabul and their bosses in Washington. Given Daoud's complete and seemingly unchallenged control of Afghanistan, U.S. recognition of the new government seemed a foregone conclusion. Furthermore, the embassy concluded that, in light of Daoud's suspicion that the United States disapproved of his return, it was in Washington's interest to recognize the new regime promptly and assuage these doubts. Neumann made this point emphatically when he warned that in light of Daoud's “hypersensitivity to imagined slight… I believe it very important for our future relations here to convey impressions quickly that [the] U.S. in no way opposes his takeover, so long as we are convinced [that the] change of regime is [a] purely internal affair.”64

However, the Nixon administration purposefully delayed recognition in order to consult with regional allies. Whereas the United States had reconciled itself to Daoud's return to power, both Iran and Pakistan were concerned by the events in Kabul. During a national address on the morning of the coup, Daoud indicated the only exception to Afghan friendship toward all countries was the ongoing Pashtunistan dispute.65 With Daoud's history of fiercely pushing the issue, this was not an idle comment, signaling instead an end to the relative tranquility that had characterized Afghan-Pakistani relations since 1963. Bhutto particularly feared that Daoud's government would become a Soviet tool to push for further territorial dismemberment of Pakistan.66 He thus requested that the United States consult with Pakistan prior to taking any action toward the new regime in Kabul.67 Although Iran was not under the same direct threat as Pakistan, the disappearance of another monarchy in the region worried the Shah.68

In response to Bhutto's request, the State Department informed the Pakistani ambassador that the United States preferred speedy recognition but planned to consult with Pakistan and Iran.69 Bhutto requested that the United States delay recognition until he and the Shah could meet in London on 23 July. The Pakistani leader feared that if the United States went ahead with the normalization of relations with Afghanistan it would look as if Washington were attempting to compel Pakistan to do the same.70 The Shah responded that, insofar as he and Bhutto would address the matter in London, further delay was unnecessary. On 21 July 1973, Iran recognized the Daoud regime, with the United States following the next day. Both Pakistan and Iran expressed their deep gratitude for the understanding Washington showed in delaying recognition.71

As Neumann had warned, the delay did not go unnoticed, and Daoud became suspicious. He asked the Afghan ambassador in Washington to seek recognition and even ordered Karim to ask Neumann about the delay.72 Neumann responded that the paperwork had piled up in Washington over the weekend and President Nixon had been ill. Although Karim evidently accepted this explanation (with no connection made to the pending London meeting), Neumann cautioned that if the United States waited any longer it would imperil relations with the new Afghan government.73 Iran's move forward freed Neumann from this diplomatic purgatory. To avoid conveying a false sense of support, the United States did not formally recognize the new government but simply stated a desire to continue Washington's “long-standing warm relations” with Afghanistan.74

With the recognition question resolved, the United States worked out its policy toward Afghanistan over the following days in concert with its two regional allies. In London, the Shah and Bhutto addressed the challenges posed by the new regime in Kabul. They decided that although Daoud was a nationalist, his goals could still serve the Soviet Union by destabilizing the region.75 As its regional proxy, the United States expected Iran to handle any situation that might arise with Daoud. The Shah agreed and proclaimed that he would not tolerate the further degradation of Pakistan's territorial integrity and would provide support to Pakistan, including U.S.-made weapons.76 Although the London meeting outlined the West's response if Daoud were to reignite the Pashtunistan issue, both the Shah and Bhutto agreed to a wait-and-see approach and act only if provoked.77

Following his meeting in London, the Shah traveled to Washington, where he discussed Afghanistan with both Kissinger and Nixon. The Shah viewed Daoud's coup as an example of growing Soviet influence, and he sought reassurance that the United States would continue to support him.78 In preparation for Nixon's meeting with the Shah, Kissinger advised the president to reassure the Iranian monarch that Iran was “the linchpin in our strategy in the Middle East and South Asia” and that Washington “will continue to respond as positively as possible to Iranian requests for military training, equipment, and technical personnel.”79 The administration concurred with the Shah that the situation in Afghanistan needed to be watched, particularly to determine how the Soviet Union would “play it.”80 This encouragement no doubt heartened the Iranian leader but did not completely ease his fears. During a reception, the Shah pulled aside Ambassador-Designate Eliot to warn that Daoud had brought several Communists into power and that Eliot should keep a close eye on the situation.81

Bhutto proved harder to reassure during his visit in September. Kissinger hoped to convince him that Washington had already made its commitment to Pakistan's territorial integrity clear to Afghanistan, India, and the USSR.82 To both the Shah and Bhutto, the Nixon administration expressed its ongoing support along with its preference that both countries resolve their problems with Afghanistan through diplomacy.

Whereas the coup had sparked concern in Tehran and Islamabad, what worried Moscow was the potential response of both governments. On 16 August 1973, Kissinger held a luncheon meeting with Soviet Ambassador Anatolii Dobrynin in which the Soviet official expressed the hope that the United States “would not encourage Iran into bellicose policies,” also promising a forthcoming note that would detail the Soviet position on Central Asian affairs.83 The note arrived that weekend, containing Soviet Communist Party leader Leonid Brezhnev's view. Brezhnev welcomed the news that the United States had taken a stand against direct interference with Afghanistan in talks with the Shah, adding that the coup had been an internal Afghan matter.84 In the spirit of détente, Brezhnev also believed that both the United States and USSR should use their influence to encourage a peaceful resolution to South Asian disputes, especially Pashtunistan. Despite this approach, Soviet officials were concerned about certain “alerting tendencies” in Iranian foreign policy—particularly the Shah's affinity for purchasing large quantities of arms.85 Brezhnev made his view explicit by affirming that “[the] Soviet Union is resolutely against having the region adjacent to its border turned into an area of mutual suspicions and even more so into a new hotbed of tensions.”86

Brezhnev's note highlights both how thoroughly the Nixon Doctrine was applied in the weeks following the Afghan coup, as well as the dangers inherent in this policy. The London meeting was a prime example of this policy in action. Daoud's return threatened Pakistan with the reawakening of ethnic tension in the Pashtun region. In response, the United States eschewed direct involvement or ill-advised security guarantees and instead encouraged its Iranian proxy to oversee the situation and guarantee Pakistan's security. Although the United States had compromised its own interests in delaying recognition, the Nixon administration allowed for a regional answer to be formulated that would limit future U.S. involvement. This approach comforted the United States, but the rapidly arming Shah and his expanded regional role posed a new challenge to the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union had reached an understanding with Washington through détente but saw the shah's new role as a potential threat to a strategically sensitive area. Moscow preferred that South Asia remain calm, but this did not mean the Soviet Union would tolerate an erosion of security on its southern flank.

The Years of Discord

Marred by a series of chaotic episodes and a burgeoning crisis over Pashtunistan, the first two years of Daoud's rule marked a low point in Washington's relations with Kabul. The first episode occurred on 18 October 1973 when Deputy Foreign Minister Abdullah summoned U.S. Deputy Chief of Mission Samuel Lewis for a late-evening meeting. Lewis learned that Daoud was dispatching Abdullah to Washington the following morning to deliver an important message to President Nixon concerning the October 1973 Arab-Israeli war. U.S. officials suspected that an Arab country—possibly Saudi Arabia—had asked Daoud to support a diplomatic measure calling for Israeli withdrawal from the occupied lands.87 Independent of the Middle East initiative, Abdullah would be the highest-ranking Afghan official to visit the United States since the coup, and the visit would offer a chance for a frank discussion about the Afghan situation. Furthermore, Daoud's and Abdullah's insistence that the message be delivered personally to Nixon suggested that Abdullah also had a private message from Daoud concerning the Soviet role in Afghanistan.88 Although the Middle East initiative was unlikely to succeed, Daoud's personal message intrigued Washington.

The administration made every effort to arrange a meeting with Nixon. From Kabul, Lewis cautioned that “any imagined slight of Daoud's messenger could have considerable adverse impact on our future relations with the regime.”89 In a letter to Nixon's deputy assistant for national security affairs, General Brent Scowcroft, the State Department argued that “in view of the new Afghan Republic's great sensitivity to slights, imagined or otherwise, we believe that [Abdullah] spending a few minutes with the President would help avoid giving the Afghans the impression that we oppose the new regime.”90

Despite these efforts, the short notice of Abdullah's visit and the existing strain on the president's schedule prevented Abdullah from meeting with Nixon. Because Kissinger was busy shuttling around the Middle East, Abdullah had to settle for speaking to Deputy Secretary of State Kenneth Rush. Both Rush and Assistant Secretary of State L. Bruce Laingen stressed to Abdullah that the failure to meet with Nixon “should in no way be interpreted that [the United States was] cool to Afghanistan or to [the] new regime, and that our close friendly relations should continue.”91 Abdullah declined to deliver the personal message from Daoud and noted that while he understood the lack of an appointment, “it would be difficult to explain this in Kabul.”92

The unenviable task of explaining the situation in Kabul fell to Lewis. He met with Daoud's brother Naim, who, while lacking an official government portfolio, oversaw much of Afghanistan's foreign policy. Despite the best efforts of Lewis, Naim was “visibly un-persuaded” by this explanation. Naim expressed Daoud's deep disappointment that his envoy had not received an appointment “as would be normal diplomatic practice in other nations.” As a result, Afghanistan “could not avoid drawing certain conclusions from this result.” In reporting this conversation, Lewis glumly warned, “Afghan pride has undoubtedly been severely wounded. We must assume that Daoud will find a way in the near future to show that even remote Asian nations are not powerless to make things less comfortable for the U.S.”93

This discomfort was felt most directly by Ambassador Eliot soon after arriving in Kabul. A career Foreign Service officer, Eliot had previously served in Sri Lanka and the USSR and had been a financial officer in Tehran from 1962 to 1966 and then the State Department's country director for Iran from 1966 to 1973. His decade of experience with Iran afforded him both an expertise in South Asian affairs and a personal relationship with the Shah. Eliot presented his credentials in Kabul on 21 November 1973, using the opportunity to deliver a conciliatory letter from Nixon to Daoud that expressed Washington's regret over the Abdullah affair. Despite this gesture, only a few days passed before Eliot had to defend U.S. intentions in Afghanistan. In September, Daoud had foiled an alleged countercoup headed by former Prime Minister Mohammad Hashim Maiwandwal. Two months after the plot was disrupted, Naim and Abdullah called Eliot in to explain alleged evidence of Washington's involvement in the Maiwandwal plot. The Afghans alleged that they possessed tapes and documents of Maiwandwal reassuring co-conspirators of U.S. support for their cause.94 Eliot categorically denied any U.S. involvement, adding that such action would be completely contrary to U.S. policy.95

In examining the allegations, which the Afghans themselves likely did not believe, the State Department speculated that the effort was either an attempt to appease leftists inside the Daoud government, a warning not to interfere in Afghanistan's internal affairs, or simply a signal that the United States would have to prove its friendship.96 Eliot and Naim met again after Eliot examined the evidence. Both agreed there was no proof of U.S. involvement. Although Eliot had no clear answer for why this allegation was leveled, he believed Daoud was attempting to signal that the United States would need to prove its friendly intentions toward his regime.97

The United States had ample opportunity to prove its intentions vis-à-vis the Daoud government as relations between Afghanistan and its neighbors deteriorated. In an address on 23 August 1973, Daoud expressed his desire to reopen the Helmand water treaty negotiated with Iran, and he again expressed his desire to resolve the Pashtun issue. Confronted with an opponent who was clearly a challenge to Western and Iranian interests—and perhaps even a Soviet proxy—the Shah began a campaign of agitation against the regime in Kabul. This included launching a minor border raid and ordering the expulsion of Afghans from Iran. The Shah also provided covert paramilitary assistance to Pakistan and groups inside Afghanistan who opposed Daoud's rule.98

These tensions with Iran paled in comparison to the nascent crisis that emerged between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The return of Daoud was particularly ill-timed for Bhutto, who was still smarting from Pakistan's defeat in the 1971 war with India and the subsequent loss of Bangladesh. Bhutto feared that in a future conflict designed to bring about the further dismemberment of Pakistan, India and Afghanistan would join together, forcing Pakistan to fight an unwinnable two-front war.99 To make matters worse, Bhutto was waging a counterinsurgency campaign amid a major surge in ethnic unrest in both Baluchistan and the North-West Frontier Province (Pashtun area).100 U.S. officials believed that Daoud's emotional attachment to the Baluchi and Pashtun causes was causing him to push for broader rights and freedoms for these groups in the face of what he viewed as Pakistani oppression.101 However, the crucial question was whether Daoud was content merely with greater autonomy for these groups within Pakistan, or whether he actively sought territorial changes.

The United States opposed any effort to redraw Pakistan's border and expressed this position to both parties on several occasions as well as to the Shah, who vowed to aid Pakistan if it were attacked.102 In addition to clarifying Washington's stance, U.S. diplomats constantly stressed the need for restraint and negotiations to resolve the dispute. Despite U.S. concerns, Washington's willingness to enter the fray had limits. As noted in the embassy policy review in 1974, Afghanistan's efforts might create a temptation for a more active U.S. role, but the United States should avoid being caught in the middle and “remain as far away from the role of ‘messenger boy’ as possible.”103

This position was reinforced in November 1974 when Kissinger stopped in Kabul for a brief visit with Daoud. The visit followed a recommendation from the embassy that high-level officials come to Afghanistan to demonstrate Washington's continued interest in the country.104 During Kissinger's short stay, he met with Daoud and other key officials, including Naim and Abdullah. Kissinger described Daoud as “an authoritarian fellow” who was nonetheless “still sensitive that we might see him as a kind of Russian stooge.”105 The conversation quickly shifted to Pakistan, and Kissinger concluded that “Daoud and colleagues were almost totally preoccupied with getting across to me their case on Pakistan.”106 For his part, Kissinger stressed the importance of Pakistan's territorial integrity and encouraged Daoud to resolve the issue through direct negotiations with Bhutto. However, although Kissinger noted that the United States would be helpful if possible, he did not offer a direct role for Washington in negotiations. Instead, her encouraged use of the Shah as a mediator.107 This response to the Pashtun crisis was a model application of the Nixon Doctrine. Rather than directly involving the United States as a mediator—a position that would harm U.S. relations with both parties—Washington turned to its regional proxy to handle the situation.

Despite U.S. calls for calm, Washington failed to stop either country from meddling in the other's internal affairs. Pakistan's support of Islamic militants in Afghanistan corresponded to Daoud's return and Kabul's increased backing of separatist elements in Pakistan.108 Such activities were irksome to both sides but rarely escalated to a level that would threaten either government. However, from the perspective of the U.S. embassy in Kabul, this dynamic changed on 22 July 1975 when, with the support of Pakistan and Iran, Tajik and religious groups tied to the Muslim Brotherhood revolted in the Panjshir Valley and Laghman areas around Kabul.109 By 25 July, the Afghan army had succeeded in restoring order, but wild rumors of hundreds of casualties circulated in the streets of Kabul.110 In the wake of the incident, the U.S. embassy described the uprising as “the most significant challenge to [the] police power of Daoud.”111

Foreign involvement alone could not be enough to explain the size and scope of the event. Daoud was angry with Pakistan over its role in the incident but was also seen as unwilling to risk a dramatic deterioration of the situation. Although the uprising had failed to generate any significant public support and had been quickly subdued, U.S. diplomats nevertheless thought the episode exposed Daoud's vulnerability. In his report, Eliot notes that although the July incident did not seriously threaten the Daoud regime, it frightened the Afghan government, which recognized that it could not continually provoke Pakistan without inviting a crisis.112 For U.S. diplomats in Kabul, the July uprising represented a catalyst for a dramatic shift in Daoud's foreign and domestic policies.113

Daoud's Gamble

The July incident serves as a convenient window through which to trace U.S. perspectives on the evolution of Daoud's government. In 1973, Daoud was seen to ally himself with leftist military officers and the Parcham PDPA faction in order to return to power. After assuming control of Afghanistan, Daoud gave leftists jobs in the government, including several cabinet posts and key military positions.114 The inclusion of Communists was not merely a payoff but also a means of solidifying Soviet support for the regime. During Daoud's visit to Moscow in 1974, Soviet officials indicated that Daoud's partnership with the PDPA was a necessary condition to receive Soviet aid.115 Lacking alternative sources for assistance—particularly military aid—Daoud cautiously accepted Soviet support, reasoning that it would prevent the Soviet Union from immediately seeking to replace him while also affording him time to consolidate his position.116 Yet the compromise government between Daoud and the PDPA was far from harmonious. The relationship was characterized by incessant jockeying for power and disagreements over the Marxist inclinations of the government or its shifts to favor the USSR.117

By 1975, the U.S. embassy saw Daoud as occupying an untenable middle ground in Afghan politics. On his left were the PDPA and the Soviet Union. Both had helped him come to power, but both were strikingly unpopular with the conservative Afghan population and undercut Daoud's nationalist appeal. Indeed, Daoud's partnership with the PDPA was seen as a major cause of the July uprising.118 Added to this concern were Daoud's own trepidations that the Soviet Union would eventually support the PDPA in a coup against him. Alluding to the 1968 Soviet intervention to crush the Prague Spring, the Afghan leader once quipped: “Do people think we haven't heard of the Czechs?”119

Daoud's political right consisted of religious factions that had long been enemies of his modernization agenda and now enjoyed Pakistani and Iranian support. Upon resuming power, Daoud and the PDPA had begun a campaign to stamp out these religious fundamentalists and remove them as a political force.120 This campaign had severely weakened the right, but, as demonstrated by the July uprising, foreign backing ensured that religious elements would continue to play a disruptive role in Afghan affairs.

Daoud was not an ideologue, but a shrewd survivor whose desire to remain in power left him with no qualms about shifting his political tack to meet his changing needs. In the summer of 1975, faced with threats on both flanks, Daoud moved against his erstwhile PDPA allies.121 By 1975, the PDPA was a dual threat to Daoud's tenure. Not only did the PDPA represent a government-in-waiting in case Moscow ever soured on Daoud, but the presence of Communists within his government lessened the popular support Daoud might otherwise have enjoyed. Moving against the PDPA offered Daoud a chance to remove a potential threat and rebuild bridges with Afghanistan's traditional power bases. Nonetheless, uncertainty over how the Soviet Union would respond to the marginalization of the PDPA meant that Daoud had to temper his actions and limit the extent of any purge.

Daoud hoped that sensitivity to disturbances near the USSR's southern republics would prompt Soviet leaders to value the stability offered by Daoud's stewardship of Afghanistan over Moscow's own ideological clients.122 This meant that, if forced to choose, Soviet leaders would sacrifice the well-being of the PDPA to keep Daoud in power and Afghanistan under control. Consequently, Daoud gambled that he could reduce the influence of the Communists within Afghanistan without alienating the Soviet Union.

Daoud had taken some steps against the PDPA after returning to power in 1973, and these efforts seemingly intensified in the summer of 1975.123 By early September 1975, Daoud had removed several leftist officials, including provincial governors and the director-general of public health services.124 These moves were followed by what the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) termed the “most extensive cabinet change since he was restored to power”: Daoud appointed a second deputy prime minister to undermine the leftist first deputy, transferred the Communist minister of internal affairs to a less sensitive cabinet post, and dismissed the Communist minister of agriculture.125 Even though Daoud clearly targeted Communists in his administration, he never cited ideology as the cause of their dismissal. Rather, he always justified his actions by claiming they were based on the official's ineffectiveness or some other grievance.126

By the end of 1975, Daoud had significantly marginalized the leftist factions within his government. In their stead, he returned many members of his own tribe, the Barakzai Mohammadazi clan, which had been the ruling family in Afghanistan since the early 1800s. Eliot saw the replacing of Communists with Pashtun technocrats as a popular move that signaled a “return to normalcy” for Afghanistan.127 However, this government reshuffle was only a cosmetic change that masked deeper structural problems. Daoud refrained from eliminating the PDPA leadership or more aggressively removing leftist military officers. As long as Afghanistan remained dependent on Soviet aid, especially for military training, Moscow would continue to wield influence over Kabul and the Afghan armed forces. For Daoud to redress the problem of the PDPA, he had to try to curail Afghanistan's dependence on the USSR. During this process, deft U.S. diplomacy proved to be a crucial factor.

The Quest for Nonalignment

Daoud's disenchantment with the Soviet Union began prior to 1975. During his visit to Moscow in 1974, Daoud had been discouraged by Moscow's ambivalence toward Pashtunistan and Soviet unwillingness to fund major industrial projects in Afghanistan.128 To the Afghan delegation, Soviet leaders appeared to want “Afghanistan to remain for them the provider of raw materials and the receiver of their manufactured goods, a classic example of colonial exploitation.”129 Concern was also growing over the ideological indoctrination that accompanied the training of Afghan officers in the Soviet Union. Afghan Deputy Foreign Minister Abdul Samad Ghaus noted that despite pledging not to use the Afghan military to subvert the government, “the Soviets gradually but doggedly tried to transform the officer corps into an instrument of Soviet policy.”130 To resolve these problems, Daoud needed to find new sources of economic aid and military training.

In Daoud's quest to diversify his foreign backing, the United States saw an opportunity to diminish Soviet influence in Afghanistan. Because the search for aid had initially fueled Afghanistan's tilt toward the USSR in the 1950s, the introduction of alternative aid sources could help restore balance to Afghan policy. The U.S. embassy in Kabul lobbied the diplomatic representatives of allies, particularly the oil-rich Gulf states, for generous aid to Afghanistan. These efforts paralleled Daoud's own as he and his chief lieutenants routinely solicited aid from wealthier countries. On one trip alone in July 1974, Naim and Abdullah visited Iran, Iraq, Libya, Algeria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait. These countries responded sympathetically to Afghanistan's request but made clear that improved Afghan-Pakistani relations would help loosen the purse strings.131

The regional aid, even when combined with U.S. assistance, remained a mere fraction of the amount offered by Moscow. However, when Washington's proxy, the Shah, decided to add his economic heft to this equation, the situation was dramatically altered. By mid-1974, after some prodding from the United States, the Shah began to revise his initial assessment of Daoud and acknowledge the advantages offered by the Afghan strongman. As described in a later CIA assessment, the Shah came to view Daoud “as probably more capable than anyone else in Afghanistan of maintaining firm control over the country and of preventing an upsurge of instability and turmoil that could affect Afghanistan's neighbors.” Furthermore, “the Iranians probably also see Daoud as better able to resist Soviet domination than any leader who might replace him.”132

In July 1974 the Shah offered Afghanistan an aid package totaling $2 billion over ten years.133 The amount totaled more than the sum of all aid offered to Afghanistan by every country since World War II, easily eclipsing the amount provided by the Soviet Union.134 Beyond the size of the commitment, the aid package was specifically designed to end the disproportionate influence of the USSR on Afghanistan's economy. Of the $2 billion offered, $1.7 billion would be allocated to an Afghan rail network that would be linked to the Iranian and Pakistani systems, thus providing Afghanistan easy access to Gulf ports and markets other than the Soviet Union.135 The remaining $300 million was earmarked for development projects designed to spur economic growth and end Afghanistan's chronic underdevelopment. Beyond balancing Soviet influence, the Shah's generosity also opened an avenue for rapprochement with Pakistan. Like the Gulf donors, the Shah made clear to Daoud that his assistance was predicated on an improvement in Afghan-Pakistan relations.

In light of these concerns, the July uprising, and a growing realization that the USSR was the only country to benefit from tensions along the Durand Line, Daoud took steps throughout the latter half of 1975 to demonstrate restraint in his dealings with Pakistan. On numerous occasions, Daoud refrained from increasing the militant propaganda targeting Pakistan and not to respond to moves by the Pakistani military near the border.136 This situation further improved after Daoud's got rid of the Communists in his government. Eliot speculated that the shakeup confirmed that Daoud was “not a Soviet catspaw willing to gear his policies to suit his Soviet neighbors.”137 By the end of 1975, the conditions seemingly ripened for détente between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The breakthrough came in April 1976 after several natural disasters in northern Afghanistan. Bhutto looked beyond past disputes and offered humanitarian aid to alleviate the suffering of Afghans affected by floods and earthquakes. Despite opposition from within his government, Daoud accepted the assistance.138 Furthermore, in light of the humanitarian crisis, Pakistan unilaterally ended its long-standing propaganda war and inflammatory broadcasts. Daoud later told Kissinger that the ending of the broadcasts paved the way for reconciliation between Afghanistan and Pakistan.139 In response, Afghanistan ended its own propaganda efforts, and the two countries negotiated a code of conduct to govern future broadcasts. The largest step toward resolving the dispute occurred in May 1976, when Bhutto accepted Daoud's invitation to visit Kabul. Bhutto's three-day visit in June began a series of direct negotiations between the two leaders. Although the outstanding issues remained unresolved, Daoud and Bhutto developed a rapport and eventually reached an accord over the Pashtunistan and Baluchistan issues.140

Because tensions over Pashtunistan in the 1950s had been the catalyst for Daoud to seek Soviet military aid, détente with Pakistan allowed Daoud to curb his dependence on Moscow. He did this by reducing the Soviet military presence in Afghanistan and finding new partners for military training. Throughout 1976 and 1977, Daoud removed Soviet military advisers from the lower ranks of the Afghan military, cutting their number from around one thousand to approximately two hundred.141 Although Daoud continued to allow Afghan soldiers to train in the USSR, he also developed training partnerships with India, Egypt, and even Pakistan in the hope of reducing Soviet influence on his military.142

The Nixon Doctrine and the efforts of officials like Kissinger and Eliot helped rebalance Afghanistan's tilt from Moscow. In addition to using the Shah as a proxy to mediate the Afghan-Pakistan dispute, Kissinger pressed Abdullah during a visit to Washington to outline concrete ideas of what the Afghans wanted from Pakistan so that Kissinger could relay the proposals to Bhutto.143 The United States also urged Saudi Arabia and Iran to supply the funds necessary to balance Soviet aid and offered moderate funding of its own. Kissinger successfully lobbied to extend U.S. involvement in the HVA beyond its scheduled termination date in 1974.144 Kissinger knew that the HVA offered only limited development benefits, but he recognized the project as symbolically important. To this end, he dispatched numerous officials from the U.S. Agency for International Development to Afghanistan, including its director, Daniel Parker, so they could identify programs where the United States could help. Total U.S. aid to Afghanistan from 1973 to 1978 came to roughly $89.8 million. Though modest, the attention from U.S. officials and the reactivation of numerous programs pleased Afghan leaders.145

U.S. diplomacy was most active in supporting Daoud's quest for nonalignment in the realm of high-level visits. Early in his tenure, Ambassador Eliot had identified visits by senior U.S. officials to Kabul as an effective means to demonstrate to both Daoud and Moscow that the United States cared about Afghanistan.146 These visits were paired with invitations for high-ranking Afghan officials to visit Washington. Included in this effort was Kissinger's stopover in Kabul in 1974 and Abdullah's trip to Washington in 1975.

This new element of Washington's engagement with Afghanistan gained greater importance as Daoud shifted away from the Soviet Union. In the summer of 1976, Daoud's brother and closest confidant, Naim, visited Washington to meet with President Gerald Ford, Kissinger, and other high-ranking officials. Naim conveyed two key messages: the importance of U.S. economic aid and Daoud's growing fear of Communists within Afghanistan and their Soviet backers.147 Whereas past discussions had focused on Afghanistan's dispute with Pakistan, that worry had been overshadowed by the threat stemming from the PDPA and the Soviet Union. During a meeting with Kissinger on 30 June 1976, Naim stated that Daoud had turned to the Soviet Union only because the United States had rejected Kabul's request for military aid. Yet the partnership with Moscow had entailed serious downsides. In an earnest appeal for U.S. help, Naim explained Daoud's growing discomfort with the security situation vis-à-vis the Soviet Union with particular concern regarding the reach of Soviet intelligence operatives. Naim stated plainly, “we are interested in balancing the situation.”148

Kissinger, aware of the significance of Naim's remarks, asked what Washington could do to help. Naim responded with two requests. The first was the predictable desire for increased U.S. participation in agricultural and educational ventures in Afghanistan. The second was unexpected: an explicit request for U.S. intelligence agencies to assist Afghanistan in counteracting the Soviet presence. In particular, the Afghans wanted to learn the intentions of the Soviet Union toward Afghanistan, as Naim believed Moscow had “no intention of applying in any way the process of détente towards Afghanistan.”149 Naim even floated the idea of shifting Afghanistan's arms supply policy away from the USSR, but he feared this move would raise Soviet suspicions.

In light of Naim's statements and the severity of the perceived Soviet threat, Kissinger and Naim agreed on a two-tiered system. On one level, the United States would conduct a visible but non-threatening campaign of high-level visits and prominent aid programs to signal U.S. interest in Afghanistan. The second-tier would be invisible cooperation on intelligence, with the United States providing information to Daoud through a secure channel and helping to train Afghanistan to meet its internal security needs. Upon Kissinger's instructions, Naim repeated the same points to President Ford on 1 July. Ford recognized the dilemma facing Daoud at the end of the meeting by telling Naim to “please tell your President we will do our best to help in the areas we discussed.”150

As part of the plan to increase the visibility of Washington's concern for Afghanistan, Kissinger adjusted his travel plans in August 1976 to include a visit to Kabul during his last trip to South Asia as secretary of state. As with the visit in 1974, Kissinger's second trip to Afghanistan lasted only a few hours, but it provided enough time to meet with Daoud. After discussing Afghanistan's rapprochement with Pakistan, Daoud, like Naim, told Kissinger of his growing fears of internal subversion. He began by stating that Afghanistan followed an independent line in political affairs that “may not be to the liking of the Left or to the liking of the Right.” However, over the past decade, Afghanistan had increasingly become subject to all kinds of insidious influences and subversive ideas. In light of these changes, Daoud wanted the United States to inform the Afghan government if Washington ever detected “a threat to our security.”151

Kissinger informed Daoud that the United States was prepared to share information concerning Afghan security. However, in a nod toward détente, Kissinger cautioned that the United States did not “consider itself in competition with the Soviet Union,” adding that for Afghanistan, “nonalignment is the best policy.”152 Yet Kissinger could not help but reflect on how the dynamics had changed since 1973. During the meeting, Kissinger joked, “For two years everyone was afraid of President Daoud, and now everyone speaks of you as such a gentle person. Have you changed?”153

The Fall of Daoud

Six months after visiting Kabul, Kissinger, the architect of détente and the Nixon Doctrine, left the White House for good. When President Nixon had assumed office, the United States had the limited aims in Afghanistan of improving Kabul's relations with its neighbors and reducing Soviet influence. Thanks to Daoud's ambitions and skillful diplomacy, these objectives had largely been achieved. By 1977, Daoud had banished most of the Communists from his government and established cordial relations with Iran and Pakistan. Unfortunately, this success for U.S. strategy lasted only a short while.

The U.S. government predicated its engagement with Daoud on the active involvement of U.S. regional allies in Pakistan and Iran. But by 1977, both of those states faced severe problems of their own. On 4 July 1977, Bhutto was overthrown in a military coup and replaced by Chief of Army Staff General Zia ul-Haq. Although the change of government in Islamabad was disconcerting, the increasingly fragile nature of the Shah's regime in Iran was of greater concern. By 1977, the oil bubble had burst, and the Shah's revenue stream was in decline. The sharp decline in revenue spurred the Shah to inform the United States that he would need to limit Iran's foreign aid.154 In a meeting with Naim and Abdullah in 1977, the Shah insisted that Afghanistan remained atop his list of recipients, but Afghan officials thought it prudent to revise their economic plans in case Iranian aid failed to manifest.155 Ultimately, of the $2 billion pledged, only $10 million was ever issued—in the form of a grant to a French company to conduct a railroad survey.

The U.S. government's own relationship with Afghanistan was also undergoing changes. With two major priorities seemingly achieved, the United States turned its attention to more routine concerns—notably, Afghanistan's voting record in multilateral organizations (where Kabul continued to side with Moscow) and narcotics trafficking. The Carter administration continued the practice of high-level visits as a cornerstone of U.S. engagement with Afghanistan. In July 1977, Abdullah again visited Washington to meet with the new secretary of state, Cyrus Vance. However, unlike previous meetings with Kissinger, the conversation with Vance did not concern the Pashtun issue but focused heavily on the recent coup in Pakistan and the narcotics problem. During the meeting, Vance extended a formal invitation to Daoud to visit the United States. Daoud heartily accepted, but because of scheduling difficulties, the trip was delayed and tentatively set for September 1978.156

Tranquil as U.S.-Afghan relations appeared in 1977, the dynamic stemmed from a misperception on the part of U.S. officials. Like Daoud, Washington had wagered that the Soviet Union would accept Daoud's transition toward nonalignment as long as Afghanistan did not pursue a course hostile to Moscow. To the U.S. embassy in Kabul, Daoud's gambit appeared to have succeeded and the Soviet Union seemed to have accepted Daoud's rebalancing. While asserting that “Afghan supporters of the Soviet cause are virtually without influence,” the embassy noted that Moscow would not “feel losses to any extent which would create Soviet suspicion that the U.S. might be threatening the USSR's vital interests.”157 Daoud himself played the key role in reassuring the Soviet Union by insisting his moves against the PDPA were not anti-Soviet and by continuing to vote against Washington in the United Nations.158 The attainment of U.S. diplomatic objectives without infringing on core Soviet interests encapsulated the essence of détente.

Unfortunately, this perception was wrong, and Moscow became increasingly suspicious of Daoud's reliability. Soviet leaders feared that Daoud was another Anwar Sadat who would accept their aid but then betray them and side with the West.159 The Soviet Union could accept a diminished role for the PDPA, but Daoud's moves to limit Soviet involvement in military circles and the presence of Western personnel inside Afghanistan—particularly U.S. and Iranian personnel—worried Kremlin leaders.160

The Soviet Union had encouraged the Parcham and Khalq factions to form a united PDPA for years, but these appeals for reconciliation gained increased urgency in 1976. Soviet officials regarded the PDPA not as a replacement for Daoud but as a source of leverage within Afghanistan, as well as a potential successor to Daoud in the event of his death.161 Daoud initially tolerated these Soviet efforts, but his patience wore thin as his suspicion of Moscow grew.162 Alarmed by Moscow's interference in Afghanistan's internal affairs, Daoud vowed to raise the issue with Brezhnev in a private meeting during the Afghan leader's visit to Moscow in April 1977.

At a high-level meeting on 13 April, Brezhnev stressed the importance the Soviet Union attached to Afghan nonalignment and complained about the number of aid workers from Western countries working in Afghanistan. He said “the Soviet Union … took a grim view of these developments and wanted the Afghan government to get rid of those experts, who were nothing more than spies bent on promoting the cause of imperialism.”163 Yet Daoud stood firm. Deputy Foreign Minister Ghaus, who was present at the meeting, recounted that Daoud “in a cold, unemotional voice” replied that Brezhnev's statement “could never be accepted by the Afghans, who viewed his statement as flagrant interference in the internal affairs of Afghanistan.” Daoud also said that although he valued Afghanistan's ties with the Soviet Union, “this partnership must remain the partnership of equals.” He finished by emphasizing:

We will never allow you to dictate to us how to run our country and whom to employ in Afghanistan. How and where we employ the foreign experts will remain the exclusive prerogative of the Afghan state. Afghanistan shall remain poor, if necessary, but free in its acts and decisions.164

With his statement finished, Daoud rose and left the meeting room, informing Brezhnev there was no longer a need for a private meeting.165

There is no indication that the United States was aware of how badly the Moscow meeting had gone. In reports on the visit, the U.S. embassies in Kabul and Moscow described the meeting as “routine,” focusing primarily on a vague economic agreement reached between the two sides and the joint communiqué issued at the summit's conclusion.166 The only reference to any difficulties came from a conversation between Eliot and Abdullah in which the Afghan official said the Soviet Union was unhappy about events inside Afghanistan, particularly concerning the success of U.S. policy. However, Abdullah was quick to add that Soviet officials had treated Daoud with great respect and were sensitive to his nationalist pride.167

In the wake of the Moscow conference, relations between the Soviet Union and Daoud continued to decline. The Soviet Union slowed the pace of development projects. Daoud even considered asking Moscow to reduce the size of its embassy in Kabul.168 In July 1977, after direct pressure from the USSR, the Parcham and Khalq factions finally agreed to reunite.169 But even if Soviet leaders saw a united PDPA as a means of pressuring Daoud, the Soviet Union did not want to see Daoud removed. Soviet diplomats feared that the PDPA was incapable of governing and that Afghanistan was unprepared for Marxism.170 As a result, when leaders in Moscow learned of plans by the PDPA for a coup, they attempted to dissuade their Afghan allies from undertaking any reckless course of action.171 The revolution, when it eventually came, did not occur on Moscow's order but as a local initiative of the PDPA that caught the Soviet Union by surprise. Throughout this period, the only indication the United States had that something might be amiss in Soviet-Afghan relations came during Vance's meeting with Abdullah in July.172 During the meeting, Abdullah drew attention to Afghanistan's delicate geopolitical situation—its long border with the USSR—and emphasized the desire for a “very visible U.S. presence in the country.” Vance responded by highlighting the U.S. aid efforts and reiterating the invitation to Daoud to visit Washington and meet President Jimmy Carter.173

On 17 April 1978, Mir Akbar Khyber, a high-ranking Marxist ideologue associated with the Parcham faction of the recently reunited PDPA, was mysteriously murdered. Although Khyber's killer was unknown, the PDPA rallied around the loss. Khyber's funeral on 19 April turned into a mass demonstration of surprising strength, gathering up to 15,000 participants.174 Daoud allowed the demonstration to occur, a first for his regime. However, he was taken aback by the Communists’ resurgence. In the days that followed the demonstrations, he initiated a crackdown on the PDPA and ordered arrests of the party's leaders aside from Hafizullah Amin, who was placed only under house arrest, allowing him to contact the PDPA's military allies and launch a coup. On 27 April 1978, military units allied with the PDPA entered Kabul. By the next morning, the palace had fallen, and Mohammed Daoud Khan and his family had been killed.175

The Saur Revolution caught the world by surprise, including the USSR, which received scant warning of the coup.176 The new government of Afghanistan initially claimed to be nationalist in nature, but the PDPA quickly abandoned this pretense and declared the founding of the Communist-led Democratic Republic of Afghanistan. Eliot expressed dismay that the PDPA had discarded the nationalist guise. The majority of the population, he predicted, would be unwilling to accept the leadership of a “minuscule Communist elite.” Eliot ended his post-coup analysis by noting: “we shall be interested to see what the first red May Day in Afghanistan will look like tomorrow.”177


Reflecting on his time in Afghanistan, Ambassador Eliot surmised that Daoud's fate had been sealed when he stalked out of the meeting with Brezhnev in April 1977. On that day, Daoud broke the cardinal rule of Afghan politics and took a stand that was fundamentally at odds with one of the country's powerful neighbors. Although Daoud was not moving into the embrace of the Western alliance, he seemed to have abandoned the Soviet-tinged nonalignment that was previously the hallmark of Afghan foreign policy during the Cold War. This single act also symbolized a point of triumph for U.S. strategy in the region. The Nixon Doctrine's reliance on proxies had proven remarkably adept at meeting the rigors of South Asia and in facilitating Daoud's quest for true nonalignment. Thanks to the intervention of allies such as the Shah and with subtle guidance from Washington, Kissinger, by the time he left office, had achieved his goal of ensuring the stability of the region by reducing Soviet influence in Kabul and integrating Daoud into a broader regional order.

Why, then, did this triumph of the Nixon Doctrine—so palpable during Kissinger's last visit to Kabul in 1976—prove to be so fragile and ultimately fleeting? Although the key practices of the Nixon Doctrine in South Asia were sound, the doctrine suffered from inherent flaws that undercut what success it was able to achieve. The first of these faults is tied to the Nixon Doctrine's dependence on regional proxies to uphold U.S. interests. Identified as a means of avoiding future Vietnams, regional proxies allowed the United States to enlist the strengths of its various allies as a means of supplementing its own abilities. In the case of Afghanistan, this meant using the Shah's oil wealth to balance Soviet foreign aid and mobilizing the Pakistani consumer base to wean the Afghan economy away from its reliance on the Soviet Union. Yet, even though the Nixon Doctrine allowed Washington to rely on regional partners, it made U.S. policy subject to the weakness of those same allies. By 1978, Bhutto had been overthrown, the Shah's $2 billion pledge had proven to be a fantasy, and the dubious stability of the government in Tehran was becoming apparent.178 When the regional framework built after 1973 to address the problem of Afghanistan was most needed, it simply did not exist.

The second failing of the Nixon Doctrine was a fundamental misunderstanding of what détente actually was and how it applied to the Third World. Détente was supposed to offer a reprieve from the volatility of the superpower confrontations of the past. While détente produced increased cooperation in areas such as arms control and European security, this new understanding did not preclude ongoing competition, and it most certainly did not extend to the Third World.179 As shown by Odd Arne Westad, the era of détente actually witnessed an increasingly active Soviet policy in the developing world and the emergence of several new conflicts between East and West.180 For Afghanistan, détente was not a shield that would protect it from the ire of the Soviet Union—a point that Naim made directly to Kissinger in 1976.181 Neither the Soviet preference for stability in Afghanistan nor the fig leaf of détente meant that the Kremlin would watch passively as Soviet prerogatives in Afghanistan were eroded. Even though Afghanistan was still a nonaligned state, the successes of U.S. policy in Kabul represented an unacceptable challenge to Soviet preeminence in a sensitive area, thus warranting a response.182 Even though the Soviet Union never wanted Daoud to be removed from power, both the drama of the 1977 Moscow summit and the subsequent effort to unify the PDPA were clear attempts to pressure the Afghan leader into falling back in line. Moscow's desire to undo the Nixon Doctrine's gains in Afghanistan signaled that the U.S. success in Kabul was not a fait accompli but a single gambit in an ongoing contest for Afghanistan's geopolitical future. However, Soviet countermoves would not have been fatal were it not for a third flawed assumption underlying both U.S. and Soviet strategies.

The most damning of the faults plaguing U.S. strategy in Afghanistan was a failure to appreciate the autonomy of local actors and their ability to act independent of their respective Cold War patrons. This oversight was by no means limited to Washington's dealings with Kabul. It was endemic throughout the Nixon-Kissinger era, which focused on great-power politics as the primary driver of world events while overlooking other global forces and local conditions.183 Because the global Cold War had unleashed the turmoil of the 1960s, engaging with the Soviet Union would allow the United States to curtail these destructive forces. Having started a dangerous reaction in the name of global competition, Nixon and Kissinger believed that this hazardous process could be governed through mutual understanding with the Soviet Union and ultimately reconfigured to suit their respective ends. In the case of Afghanistan, this meant that for as long as the superpowers continued to vie for influence in Kabul the contest was bound by a shared preference for stability in South Asia and recognition of Daoud's importance in mollifying Afghanistan. However, this belief in the ability of superpowers to control events was itself a fallacy.

Daoud and the PDPA were not mere chess pieces to be maneuvered by Washington and Moscow. Each was an autonomous actor, possessing distinct interests and independent initiative. This simple fact was never fully appreciated under the Nixon Doctrine and explains why its success in Afghanistan evaporated so quickly. The two crucial decisions of April 1978—the crackdown on the PDPA following Khyber's funeral and the subsequent order to launch the coup—were made by Daoud and Amin respectively. These decisions were reached by individuals in Kabul under their own impetus, producing a result that neither superpower desired. Even though the Saur Revolution saw the ascendance of Moscow's ideological client in the PDPA, Soviet leaders found themselves responsible for an unstable regime they never wanted and whose internal animosity was surpassed only by the antipathy of the population it now was expected to govern.184 As for the United States, the events of April 1978 proved bitterly ironic. When Daoud returned to power in 1973, he was feared to be a Communist who would destabilize the region. Through his own initiatives and active U.S. diplomacy, Daoud evolved into a source of regional stability who sought U.S. help to counter Communist influence in his country. Ultimately, these efforts produced a second coup five years later that realized the fears of 1973: an unstable Communist regime in Kabul that undermined regional stability.


The author thanks the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation and Ford Presidential Library, whose generous support made this research possible. He also expresses his gratitude to the editor and staff of the Journal of Cold War Studies, as well as the anonymous reviewers for their invaluable feedback throughout this process. Lastly, he thanks David Mayers, Andrew David, and Dominic Zarecki for their tremendous assistance with this project.



“Attempted Coup—Sitrep 3,” Cable No. 05197, from U.S. Ambassador Robert Neumann (Kabul) to Department of State, 17 July 1973, in Digital National Security Archives (DNSA), Washington, DC, Item AF00016.


Tom Lansford, A Bitter Harvest: U.S. Foreign Policy and Afghanistan (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2003), p. 77.


Ibid., p. 76.


Ibid., p. 81.


Nick Cullather, “Damming Afghanistan: Modernization in a Buffer State,” The Journal of American History, Vol. 89, No. 2 (April 2005), pp. 512–537. See also Leon Poullada and Leila Poullada, eds., The Kingdom of Afghanistan and the United States: 1828–1973 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995).


Robert McMahon, The Cold War on the Periphery (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994); and Angelo Rasanayagam, Afghanistan: A Modern History (New York: I. B. Tauris, 2003), p. 29.


Rasanayagam, Afghanistan, pp. 29–30.


Lansford, Bitter Harvest, p. 101.


Ibid., p. 101.


Peter Tomsen, The Wars of Afghanistan: Messianic Terrorism, Tribal Conflicts, and the Failures of Great Powers (New York: Public Affairs, 2011), pp. 88–93; and Poullada and Poullada, eds., Kingdom of Afghanistan, pp. 178–192.


Samuel Butterfield, U.S. Developmental Aid: Achievements and Failures in the Twentieth Century (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2004), p. 42.


Lansford, Bitter Harvest, p. 102.


Jeffery Roberts, The Origins of Conflict in Afghanistan (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003), p. 212.


Rasanayagam, Afghanistan, p. 36.


This appreciation for true nonalignment over Soviet leanings became a key component of American engagement with the Third World during the Kennedy era. See Robert Rakove, Kennedy, Johnson, and the Nonaligned World (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012).


“Country Policy Statement: Afghanistan,” National Security Council (NSC) Interdepartmental Group for Near East and South Asia, 6 August 1969, in U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1973–1976, Vol. E-7 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2007), p. 137; henceforth referred to as FRUS, with appropriate year and volume numbers).


Hasan Kakar, “The Fall of the Afghan Monarchy in 1973,” International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 9, No. 2 (Winter 1981), p. 198.


Amin Saikal, Modern Afghanistan: A History of Struggle and Survival (New York: I. B. Tauris, 2004), p. 157.


Robert Neumann (Kabul) to Assistant Secretary for Near East Affairs Joseph Sisco, 29 December 1970, in National Security Council Files (NSCF), Country Files: Middle East, Box 591, Richard Nixon Presidential Library (RNPL), Yorba Linda, CA.


Roberts, Origins of Conflict, p. 211.


Kakar, “Fall of the Afghan Monarchy,” p. 212; and Roberts, Origins of Conflict, p. 212.


Rasanayagam, Afghanistan, p. 47.


Alam Payind, “Soviet-Afghan Relations from Cooperation to Occupation,” International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 21, No. 1 (February 1989), pp. 113–115; and John Griffiths, Afghanistan: Key to a Continent (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1981), pp. 173–175.


Saikal, Modern Afghanistan, pp. 156, 164.


Ibid., p. 168.


Ibid., pp. 154–157, 167.


Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994), p. 707.


Seyom Brown, The Crises of Power: An Interpretation of United States Foreign Policy during the Kissinger Years (New York: Columbia University Press, 1979), p. 6.


Henry Kissinger, The White House Years (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1979); Henry Kissinger, Years of Upheaval (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1982); Anatoly Dobrynin, In Confidence: Moscow's Ambassador to America's Six Cold War Presidents 1962–1968 (New York: Random House, 1995); John Lewis Gaddis, Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of Postwar American National Security Policy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982); and Daniel Sargent, “From Internationalism to Globalism: The United States and the Transformation of International Politics in the 1970s,” Ph.D. Diss., Harvard University, 2008.


The joint communiqué following the 1972 Moscow summit best encapsulates this idea of a bounded competition. See Jeremi Suri, Power and Protest: Global Revolution and the Rise of Détente (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005), pp. 256–258.


Ibid., pp. 213–216.


Walter Isaacson, Kissinger (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992), pp. 240–241; and Kissinger, Diplomacy, pp. 707–709.


Kissinger, White House Years, p. 225.


Isaacson, Kissinger, p. 240.


William Bundy, A Tangled Web: The Making of Foreign Policy in the Nixon Presidency (New York: Hill & Wang, 1998), p. 68.


Kissinger, Years of Upheaval, p. 667.


Isaacson, Kissinger, p. 563; Roham Alvandi, “Nixon, Kissinger, and the Shah: The Origins of Iranian Primacy in the Persian Gulf,” Diplomatic History, Vol. 36, No. 2 (April 2012), pp. 337–372; and Roham Alvandi, Nixon, Kissinger, and the Shah: The United States and Iran in the Cold War (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2014).


Kissinger, Upheaval, p. 676.


“Memorandum of Conversation between Vice President Spiro Agnew and King Zahir Shah of Afghanistan,” 21 January 1970, in FRUS, 1973–1976, Vol. E-7, p. 33.


Although U.S. aid was small in financial terms, it was fairly large in terms of actual personnel in Afghanistan thanks to a large Peace Corps contingent. See Saikal, Modern Afghanistan, p. 158.


“Country Policy Statement: Afghanistan.”


Robert Neumann (Kabul) to Assistant Secretary for Near East Affairs Joseph Sisco, 29 December 1970.


“Country Policy Statement: Afghanistan.”


“Soviet Military Posture and Policies in the Third World: Volume I,” National Intelligence Estimate, NIE-11-10-1973, 2 August 1973, in DNSA, Item SE00470.


Odd Arne Westad, The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005), p. 300.


“Country Policy Statement: Afghanistan.”




Rasanayagam, Afghanistan, p. 60.


Henry Brasher, Afghanistan and the Soviet Union (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1983), p. 172; and Martin Ewans, Afghanistan: A Short History of Its People and Politics, 2nd ed. (New York: Routledge, 2002), p. 177.


Griffiths, Afghanistan, p. 180; Saikal, Modern Afghanistan, p. 172; and Tomsen, Wars of Afghanistan, p. 105.


Saikal, Modern Afghanistan, p. 173.


“Afghanistan—Political Uncertainties,” Cable No. 01806, from Neumann (Kabul) to State, 31 March 1972, in FRUS, 1973–1976, Vol. E-7.






Vladimir Snegirev and Valery Samunin, The Dead End: The Road to Afghanistan, ed. and trans. by Svetlana Savranskaya and Malcolm Byrne (Washington, DC: Digital National Security Archives, 2012), pp. 13–14.


“Attempted Coup—SitRep 2,” Kabul No. 05194, from Neumann (Kabul) to State, 17 July 1973, in DNSA, Item AF00014.


Abdul Samad Ghaus, The Fall of Afghanistan: An Insider's Account (Washington, DC: Pergamon-Brassey's International Defense Publishers, 1988), p. 107; and Payind, “Cooperation to Occupation,” p. 116.


Saikal, Modern Afghanistan, p. 174; Ewans, A Short History, p. 183; and Anthony Arnold, Afghanistan: Soviet Invasion in Perspective (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1985), pp. 58–59.


“The USSR and Afghanistan after the Coup,” Moscow No. 09119, from U.S. Ambassador Adolph Dubs (Moscow) to State, 1 August 1973, in DNSA, Item AF00130.


“Coup in Afghanistan,” Memorandum from Harold Saunders and Henry Appelbaum to Henry Kissinger, Washington, DC, 17 July 1973, in NSCF, Country Files: Middle East, Box: 591, RNPL.


“First Consultation with New Government,” Kabul No. 05546, Neumann (Kabul) to State, 26 July 1973, in DNSA, Item AF00111.


“Meeting with Daud's Brother Naim,” Kabul No. 5325, Neumann (Kabul) to State, 20 July 1973, in FRUS, 1973–1976, Vol. E-8.


Ambassador Theodore Eliot, Jr., phone interview, 15 October 2011.


“Afghan Coup: Initial, Indirect Contact with Daud,” Kabul No. 05257, Neumann (Kabul) to State, 18 July 1973, in DNSA, Item AF00038.


“Afghan Coup—Sit Rep 3,” Kabul No. 05197, Neumann (Kabul) to State, 17 July 1973, in NSCF, Country Files: Middle East, Box: 591, RNPL.


“SRG Mtg. on NSSM 182-Implications for US Policy on Probable Uses of Soviet Strategy and Policy in Eastern Mediterranean, Near East, Arabian Peninsula and South Asia,” Memorandum from Harold Saunders and Henry Appelbaum to Henry Kissinger, 12 July 1973, in National Security Council Institutional “H” Files, Meetings Files (1969–1974), Senior Review Group Meetings, Box: H-068, Folder: SRG Meeting-Soviet Strategy in Near East/South Asia NSSM 182 7/13/73, RNPL.


“Relations with Afghan Regime,” State No. 143875, State to Kabul, 21 July 1973, in NSCF, Country Files: Middle East, Box: 591, RNPL.


“Iranian Reaction to Afghan Coup,” Tehran No. 5036, Richard Helms (Tehran) to State, 18 July 1973, in DNSA, Item AF00035; Michael Ledeen and William Lewis, Debacle: The American Failure in Iran (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981), p. 49; and “Coup in Afghanistan,” Memorandum from Harold Saunders and Henry Appelbaum for Henry Kissinger, NSC, 17 July 1973.


“Relations with Afghan Regime,” State No. 143875, State to Kabul, 21 July 1973.


“Relations with Afghan Regime,” State No. 143877, State to Kabul, 21 July 1973, in NSCF, Country Files: Middle East, Box: 591, RNPL.


“Relations with Afghan Regime,” State No. 143949, State to Kabul, 21 July 1973, in NSCF, Country Files: Middle East, Box: 591, RNPL.


“Afghan Coup—Ambassador Malikyar Approach,” State No. 142631, State to Kabul, 20 July 1973, in DNSA, Item AF00061.


“Afghan Coup,” Kabul No. 5346, Neumann (Kabul) to State, 21 July 1973, in DNSA, Item AF00075.


“Relations with Afghan Regime,” State No. 143949, State to Kabul, 21 July 1973; and “Resumption of Relations with Afghanistan,” Kabul No. 5368, Neumann (Kabul) to State, 22 July1973, in DNSA, Item AF00084.


Kissinger, Upheaval, p. 675.


Ibid., p. 675; and Saikal, Modern Afghanistan, p. 175.


“Recognition of New Afghan Regime,” Memorandum from Harold Saunders and Henry Appelbaum to Henry Kissinger, 19 July 1973, in NSCF, Country Files: Middle East, Box: 591, RNPL; “Coup in Afghanistan,” Memorandum from Harold Saunders and Henry Appelbaum for Henry Kissinger, NSC, 17 July 1973; and Neumann (Kabul) to State, “New Regime's Concern with Neighbors,” Kabul No. 05277, 19 July 1973, in DNSA, Item: AF00047.


“The Visit of the Shah of Iran,” Memorandum from Kenneth Rush to President Nixon, Washington, DC, 24 July 1973, in NSCF, VIP Visits, Box: 920, RNPL.




“Your Second Talk with the Shah,” Memorandum from Harold Saunders to Henry Kissinger, 27 July 1973, in NSCF, VIP Visits, Box: 920, RNPL.


Eliot, Jr., phone interview; and “Memorandum of Conversation between President Nixon and Prime Minister of Pakistan Ali Bhutto,” 18 September 1973, in FRUS, 1973–1976, Vol. E-8, p. 340.


“Memorandum of Conversation between President Nixon and Prime Minister of Pakistan Ali Bhutto.”


“Memorandum of Conversation between Soviet Ambassador Anatoliy Dobrynin and Henry Kissinger,” Washington, DC, 16 August 1973, in NSCF, Henry Kissinger Office Files, Country Files: Europe-USSR, Box: 68, RNPL.


Personal Note, Anatoly Dobrynin to Henry Kissinger, 17 August 1973, in NSCF, Henry A. Kissinger Office Files, Country Files: Europe-USSR, Box: 68, RNPL.






“Travel to US by Special Personal Representative of President Daoud,” Kabul No. 07433, Samuel Lewis (Kabul) to State, 18 October 1973, in NSCF, Country Files: Middle East, Box: 591, RNPL; and “Background on DepFonMin's Sudden Trip to Washington,” Kabul No. 07546, Lewis (Kabul) to State, 22 October 1973, in NSCF, Country Files: Middle East, Box: 591, RNPL.


“Background on DepFonMin's Sudden Trip to Washington,” Kabul No. 07546, Lewis (Kabul) to State, 22 October 1973.


“Travel to US by Special Personal Representative of President Daoud,” Kabul No. 07433, Lewis (Kabul) to State, 18 October 1973.


“Appointment with the President for Afghan Deputy Foreign Minister Abdullah,” Memorandum from Thomas Pickering to Major General Brent Scowcroft, 21 October 1973, in NSCF, Country Files: Middle East, Box: 591, RNPL.


“Wahid Abdullah Visit,” State No. 209586, State to Kabul, 24 October 1973, in NSCF, Country Files: Middle East, Box: 591, RNPL.




Mohammed Daoud Khan to President Nixon, 18 October 1973, in NSCF, Presidential Correspondence 1969–1974, Box: 748, RNPL.


“US-Afghan Relations,” Kabul No. 08105, Theodore Eliot (Kabul) to State, 26 November 1973, in NSCF, Country Files: Middle East, Box: 591, RNPL.




“US-Afghan Relation,” No. 239732, State to Kabul, 7 December 1973, in NSCF, Country Files: Middle East, Box: 591, RNPL.


“US-Afghan Relations,” Kabul No. 08449, Eliot (Kabul) to State, 12 December 1973, in NSCF, Country Files: Middle East, Box: 591, RNPL.


Emadi, Superpowers and Afghanistan, p. 71; Ledeen and Lewis, Debacle, p. 55; and Ghaus, Fall of Afghanistan, pp. 148–149.


“Afghanistan: President Daoud's First Six Months,” No. 957, CIA Weekly Summary-Special Report, 15 February 1974, in CIA Record Search Tool (CREST) database, NARA; Memorandum of Conversation, President Nixon, Lt. General Scowcroft, Pakistan Minister of State, and Defense Aziz Ahmed, 23 May 1974, in NSA, Memoranda of Conversation, Box 4, Ford Presidential Library (FPL), Ann Arbor, MI; and Memorandum of Conversation, President Ford, Pakistan Foreign Minister Azizi Ahmed, 9 October 1975, in NSA, Memoranda of Conversation, Box 15, FPL.


Selig Harrison, In Afghanistan's Shadow: Baluch Nationalism and Soviet Temptations (New York: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1981); and “Pashtunistan—An Historical Survey,” Intelligence Memorandum No. 2464/73, CIA, in CREST.


Central Intelligence Bulletin, 21 November 1973, in CREST.


Memorandum of Conversation, the Shah of Iran, Secretary Kissinger, Lt. General Scowcroft, 16 May 1975, in NSA, Memoranda of Conversation, Box 11, FPL.


“Review of U.S. Policy towards Afghanistan,” Kabul No. 01090, Eliot (Kabul) to State, 21 February 1974, in DNSA, Item AF00168.




Telegram from Secretary of State Kissinger to Deputy Assistant for National Security Affairs Scowcroft, PSN, 046696, 1 November 1974, in FRUS, 1973–1976, Vol. E-8, p. 351.






Ghaus, Fall of Afghanistan, p. 120.


Anthony Hyman, Afghanistan under Soviet Domination 1964–1981 (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1982), p. 68; and “Violence Erupts in the Panjshir Valley,” Kabul No. 04881, Eliot (Kabul) to State, 28 July 1975, in DNSA, Item AF00197.






It is worth remembering that Daoud's removal from office in 1963 had been triggered by a major crisis with Pakistan. See “Afghan Investigation of July 1975 Insurgency,” Kabul No. 05137, Eliot (Kabul) to State, 7 August 1975, in DNSA, Item AF00201.


U.S. diplomats at the time dramatically overstated the July uprising and its significance to the Daoud regime. Although the U.S. embassy perceived the incident as a major threat to Daoud, in reality the uprising failed badly. The militants failed to generate any substantive popular support and were promptly crushed. Far from having evinced the strength of religious conservatives, the uprising's failure demonstrated that the conservatives posed only a relatively minor threat to Daoud. Without having much to fear from the religious right, Daoud was able to turn his attention to the challenge from the PDPA.


Ghaus, Fall of Afghanistan, p. 188.


Soviet leaders expressed satisfaction with Daoud after the summit and encouraged the PDPA to support the new regime. See “Top Secret Attachment, by KGB cipher Kabul,” 2 June 1974, trans. by Gary Goldberg, in Woodrow Wilson Center's History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive (HPPPDA); and Rasanayagam, Afghanistan, p. 63.


Ghaus, Fall of Afghanistan, pp. 159–162; and “Future of Daoud Regime,” Kabul No. 6755, Eliot (Kabul) to State, 17 September 1973, in FRUS, 1973–1976, Vol. E-8.


During this period, the Soviet Union continued to encourage the PDPA factions to reconcile and work with Daoud. See “CC CPSU Information for the Leaders of the Progressive Afghan Political Organizations ‘Parcham’ and ‘Khalq’ Concerning the Results of the Visit of Mohammed Daud to the USSR,” 21 June 1974, trans. by Gary Goldberg, in HPPPDA.


CIA Staff Notes: Middle East, Africa, South Asia, No. 10374/75, 5 December 1975, in CREST.


Roberts, Origins of Conflict, p. 209.


Steve Coll, Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 (New York: Penguin Press, 2004), p. 114; and Snegirev and Samunin, The Dead End, pp. 15–16.


Snegirev and Samunin, The Dead End, p. 16.


A CIA analysis of Soviet policy from early 1969 avers that Soviet leaders had “come to understand that under modern conditions even their security may rest partly on their ability to influence rather than to overthrow non-Communist governments.” See “Basic Factors and Main Tendencies in Current Soviet Policy,” National Intelligence Estimate, NIE 11-69, 27 February 1969, in DNSA, Item SE00435; Payind, “Cooperation to Occupation,” p. 112; and Ghaus, Fall of Afghanistan, pp. 162–163.


Henry Bradsher, Afghanistan and the Soviet Union (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1985), p. 57; and Thomas Barfield, Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010), p. 21.


CIA Staff Notes: Middle East, Africa, South Asia, No. 0850/75, 2 September 1975, in CREST.


CIA Staff Notes: Middle East, Africa, South Asia, No. 0860/75, 30 September 1975, in CREST.


Soviet leaders apparently accepted Daoud's reasoning, particularly the need for competent officials over ideological dullards. See Snegirev and Samunin, The Dead End, p. 17; and Ghaus, Fall of Afghanistan, pp. 191–193.


“Year-End Afghan Internal Assessment,” Kabul No. 08458, Theodore Eliot (Kabul) to State, 31 December 1975, in DNSA, Item AF00205; Ghaus, Fall of Afghanistan, pp. 191–193; and CIA, Staff Notes: Middle East, Africa, South Asia, No. 0866/75, 9 October 1975, in CREST.


Raja Anwar, The Tragedy of Afghanistan: A First-Hand Account (New York: Verso, 1998), p. 81.


Ghaus, Fall of Afghanistan, pp. 165–167.


Ibid., pp. 161–162.


Ibid., p. 148.


CIA, Staff Notes: Middle East, Africa, South Asia, No. 10374/75.


United States Intelligence Board, National Intelligence Bulletin No. 631, 1 August 1974, in CREST; and Arnold, Soviet Invasion, pp. 64–65.


United States Intelligence Board, National Intelligence Bulletin No. 631; and Anwar, Tragedy of Afghanistan, p. 77.


Ghaus, Fall of Afghanistan, p. 149.


CIA, Staff Notes: Middle East, Africa, South Asia, sc No. 10374/75.


“The Daoud Government and Relations with the USSR,” Kabul No. 06955, Eliot (Kabul) to State, 22 October 1975, in NSA: Presidential Country Files: Afghanistan, Box 2, FPL.


Ghaus, Fall of Afghanistan, p. 127.


“Memorandum of Conversation, Secretary Kissinger Conversation with President Daoud in Kabul,” 8 August 1976, in FRUS, 1973–1976, Vol. E-8, p. 297.


For a detailed account of these negotiations, see Ghaus, Fall of Afghanistan.


Bradsher, Afghanistan and the Soviet Union, p. 65; and Roberts, Origins of Conflict, p. 212.


Bradsher, Afghanistan and the Soviet Union, p. 60; and CIA, Staff Notes Middle East, Africa, South Asia, No. 426, 7 February 1975, in CREST.


“Memorandum of Conversation, Secretary Kissinger Conversation with Afghanistan Deputy Foreign Minister Waheed Abdullah,” 6 September 1975, in FRUS, 1973–1976, Vol. E-8.


Cullather, “Damming Afghanistan,” p. 535; and Ghaus, Fall of Afghanistan, pp. 154–156.


Ghaus, Fall of Afghanistan, pp. 154–156; and Emadi, Superpowers in Afghanistan, p. 76.


Eliot, Jr., phone interview; and “Review of U.S. Policy towards Afghanistan,” State No. 72260, State to Embassy Kabul, 10 April 1974, in DNSA, Item AF00169.


Eliot, Jr., phone interview.


“Memorandum of Conversation, Secretary Kissinger Conversation with Mr. Mohammed Naim,” 30 June 1976, in FRUS, 1973–1976, Vol. E-8, p. 247.




Ibid.; and “Memorandum of Conversation, President Ford Conversation with Mr. Mohammed Naim,” 1 July 1976, in FRUS, 1973–1976, Vol. E-8, p. 251.


“Memorandum of Conversation, Secretary Kissinger Conversation with President Daoud in Kabul.”






“Possible Change in Iranian Foreign Policy,” Tehran No. 12570, Richard Helms (Tehran) State, 31 December 1975, in NSA, Presidential Country Files, Iran Box 14, FPL.


Ghaus, Fall of Afghanistan, p. 150.


“The Secretary's Conversation with Waheed Abdullah October 1,” State No. 238361, State to Kabul, 3 October 1977, in DNSA, Item TE00581; and Ghaus, Fall of Afghanistan, p. 159.


“Annual Policy Assessment-1977,” Kabul, No. 00468, Eliot (Kabul) to State, 12 January 1977, in DNSA, Item AF00231.


“Afghan-Pak Relations—Current Crisis,” Kabul No. 1155, Eliot (Kabul) to State, 23 February 1975, in NSA: Presidential Country Files: Afghanistan, Box 2, FPL; Ghaus, Fall of Afghanistan, pp. 168–169; and Tomsen, Wars of Afghanistan, p. 108. See also CIA, Staff Notes: Middle East, Africa, South Asia, No. 883/75, 20 November 1975, in CREST; CIA, Staff Notes: Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, No. 781/75, December 5, 1975, in CREST; and CIA, Staff Notes: Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, No. 807/75, 12 December 1975, in CREST.


This is particularly significant since Egypt was one of the countries to offer military training programs to Daoud. See Saikal, Modern Afghanistan, pp. 180–186; and Ewans, A Short History, p. 184.


Snegirev and Samunin, The Dead End, pp. 18–19.


Ibid., pp. 19, 32–33; and Ghaus, Fall of Afghanistan, p. 171.


Ghaus, Fall of Afghanistan, p. 172.


Ibid., p. 179.






“Daoud's Visit to Moscow,” Moscow, No. 05177, Toon (Moscow) to State, 16 April 1977, in DNSA, Item AF00245; and “Afghanistan in 1977: An External Assessment,” Kabul, No. 00820, Eliot (Kabul) to State, 30 January 1978, in DNSA, Item AF00259.


“Afghan-Pak Relations—Current Crisis,” Kabul No. 02778, Eliot (Kabul) to State, 24 April 1977, in DNSA, Item AF00248.


Ghaus, Fall of Afghanistan, pp. 181–182.


Henry Brasher, Afghan Communism and Soviet Intervention (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 16–17; Anwar, Tragedy of Afghanistan, pp. 85–86; Selig S. Harrison and Diego Cordovez, Out of Afghanistan: The Inside Story of the Soviet Withdrawal (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), pp. 17–19; Tomsen, Wars of Afghanistan, p. 111; and Snegirev and Samunin, The Dead End, pp. 72–73.


Ghaus, Fall of Afghanistan, p. 187.


Brasher, Afghan Communism, p. 22.


The lack of foreknowledge about the growing pressures on Kabul represents an intelligence failure for the United States. However, this problem was not unique to Afghanistan. For studies examining related situations, see Robert Jervis, Why Intelligence Fails: Lessons from the Iranian Revolution and the Iraq War (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2011); Tim Weiner, Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA (New York: Random House, 2008); Michael Handel, “Intelligence and the Problem of Strategic Surprise,” The Journal of Strategic Studies, Vol. 7, No. 3 (1984): pp. 229–281; John Gentry, “Intelligence Failure Retrained,” Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 123, No. 2 (2008): pp. 247–270; and John Diamond, The CIA and the Culture of Failure: US Intelligence from the End of the Cold War to the Invasion of Iraq (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008).


“The Secretary's Conversation with Waheed Abdullah October 1,” State No. 238361, State to Kabul, 3 October 1977.


CIA, National Intelligence Daily Cable, CG NIDC 78-092c, 20 April 1978, in CREST.


Brasher, Afghan Communism, pp. 29–75; Harrison and Cordovez, Out of Afghanistan, pp. 25–35; Ghaus, Fall of Afghanistan, pp. 187–209; and Tomsen, Wars of Afghanistan, pp. 112–115.


Snegirev and Samunin, The Dead End, p. 25; and Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin, The World Was Going Our Way: The KGB and the Battle for the Third World (New York: Basic Books, 2005), pp. 386–388.


“Afghan Communist Leader Becomes Ruler of Afghanistan,” Kabul, Telegram No. 03372, Eliot (Kabul) to State, 30 April 1978, in DNSA, Item AF00272.


Ayesha Jalal notes that U.S. officials’ reliance “on a tyrannical monarchy utterly out of touch with the Islamic sensitivities of its own people to do their bidding in a volatile geostrategic region represented a complete failure of political and strategic imagination in Washington.” See Ayesha Jalal, “An Uncertain Trajectory: Islam's Contemporary Globalization, 1971–1979,” in Niall Ferguson et al., eds., The Shock of the Global (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press, 2010), pp. 331–332.


Jeremi Suri, “Henry Kissinger and the Geopolitics of Globalization,” in The Shock of the Global, pp. 180–188.


Westad, Global Cold War.


“Memorandum of Conversation, Secretary Kissinger conversation with Mr. Mohammed Naim.”


Saikal, Modern Afghanistan, pp. 180–186; and Ewans, A Short History, p. 184.


Sargent, “From Internationalism to Globalism.”


Central Intelligence Agency, National Intelligence Daily Cable, CG NIDC 78-101c, 1 May 1978, in CREST.