The Crimes of Interventionism: A Legal Analysis of The Afghan Civil War

Local Afghan police prepare for a mission in Kakeran, Afghanistan | Source: Bryan Denton - The New York Times


The event known as the Afghan Civil War (1979-1992) not only devastated the local populous, but  also implicated the world’s two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union. As such, it is of great importance to understand this unique conflict. In particular, the intervening actions of these foreign powers during this ‘civil’ war were rightfully subject to considerable scrutiny. This piece will examine the most severe violations brought on by US-USSR action during the warring period. It is hopeful that this legal study will contextualize the incredible human suffering linked to interventionist policy and serve as a guide for future policy.


World War Two (WW2) is agreed to be the most formative event in modern history. The consequences of WW2 precipitated in the establishment of the United Nations and the foundations of contemporary international law. The global political climate also underwent a substantial transformation, in the genesis of the bipolar power struggle known as the Cold War. This divide pitted the United States of America (USA) and the Union of Soviet Socialists Republic (USSR) against one another. As the conflict escalated, the adversaries attempted to expand their international influence by recruiting allies. While most countries aligned themselves, others floated in a state of limbo. As a result, these vacillating nations were valuable to both parties. Accordingly, the USA and USSR used imperialistic tactics to influence these countries to their benefit. Afghanistan, a landlocked country in Asia, is a quintessential case study of such interventions. The actions taken by both world powers led to egregious violations of fundamental international, human rights, and humanitarian laws in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan’s status as an unaligned nation was expected given its then-present political instability. By 1973, Daoud Khan had deposed King Zahir Khan and transitioned the Afghan government from a constitutional monarchy to a democratic republic. Simultaneously, the national Communist party, known as the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), grew in popularity in the capital city of Kabul. The new republic’s multitude of economic and social difficulties combined to form a broad sense of disillusionment among Afghans. Tensions reached fever pitch with the assassination of a high-ranking PDPA member was seen as the beginning of a political crackdown. Hafizullah Amin, another ranking member of the PDPA and a Columbia graduate, then organized the Saur Revolution in April of 1978, which involved the deposition of Daoud Khan and his government.1

As the PDPA captured power, tensions between its two factions, the Khalq and the Parcham arose. Nur Mohammad Taraki, a Khalqist, became the president, while the leading Parcham leader, Babrack Karmal, was sent out of the country as ambassador to Czechoslovakia. Taraki capitalized on his support in the military by purging the Parcham. By this period, the United States had ceased relations while the Soviet Union had increased their support of the Afghan government.1 After consultation with the Soviets in Cuba, Taraki was instructed to assassinate Amin since many were questioning his American ties. In the aftermath of a series of failed assassination attempts, Amin miraculously escaped death and instead murdered Taraki. Amin’s following position as prime minister allowed him to retaliate with orders to dispose of Taraki’s supporters.3 Dissatisfied with Amin’s regime, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in the winter of 1979 and replaced Amin with Babrack Karmal.1

Before 1979, the PDPA’s secularist reforms and extreme methods of enforcement irritated traditionalist and fundamentalists in the countryside, and as a result, the proceeding Soviet invasion served as a de facto call to arms. These guerrilla fighters became collectively known as the Mujahedeen and began to rebel in the name of Islam. In response to the invasion and the concurrent removal of the Shah of Iran, the United States began increasing funding to these anti-government rebels.2 Supported by the United States, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia, the Mujahedeen waged a successful war of attrition against the Government of Afghanistan under Dr. Mohammad Najibullah, who was asserted in place of Karmal. By the 1990’s, the state military was weakened so that the Soviet collapse sealed the fate of Najibullah’s government. The fall of the Afghan government gave way to anarchy, in which factions of the Mujahedeen set up regional governments who were in constant war with another. Continuing to utilize foreign arms, the fundamentalist Taliban became the largest and most influential territorial power. During this period, a number of despicable human rights’ violations took place on the Taliban’s behalf.1

Selected Law

Much of the relevant treaties, conventions, and protocols were either signed or ratified by the involved parties before 1979. The USSR, USA, and Government of Afghanistan were all members of the United Nations. As such, the UN Charter and Geneva Conventions inherently bound the parties. During the time, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), the United Nation’s Convention on Biological Weapons (BWC), Geneva Protocol, and the United Nation’s Convention on Torture were at least signed by all relevant parties. Given that more contemporary documents (i.e., Geneva Protocols, ICCPR, ICESC and BWC) signed during this period make binding or expand similar stipulations mentioned in previous documents (i.e. UDHR and Geneva Conventions), this argument will utilize all of the specified reports without temporal distinction.

Direct Violations

The direct actions of the Soviet Union and the United States violated various articles of law. Article 2(4) of the UN Charter prohibits “the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity of political independence of any state: or in any other manner inconsistent with the purposes of the United Nations.” This particular principle, known as non-intervention, is considered international customary law. The USSR’s actions in Afghanistan were the most blatant violation of this article. The 1979 invasion was purposed to replace the Head of State, Hafizullah Amin, and beat back domestic rebels in the Mujahedeen. These goals, however, were not consistent with the any known purpose of the United Nations. Thus, this action infringed upon both the territorial integrity and political independence of the Afghan state and must have then violated the principle of non-intervention. Unfortunately, the behaviour of the United States also did not align with this principle. In a letter addressed to the Secretary-General of the United Nations, the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan states that the “act of United States imperialism” involved sending “deadly arms to the aid to the so-called Mujahedeen of Islam who are in fact nothing but thieves and killers…and fanning the undeclared war.”8 Another letter claimed that the “seven main counter-revolutionary groups [were] being trained in 20 special bases and 50 camps, all inside Pakistan, and are financed by American dollars.”9 Funneling arms and providing training to domestic terrorists, as considered by the government, is a clear threat to the political independence of a state. Furthermore, promoting a war that involves massive civilian casualties and societal regression is in no way aligned with the goals of the United Nations. Thus, the measures taken by the United States must have also been in violation of this principle of non-intervention.

Both methods of intervention also directly violate Article 1 of both the ICCPR and ICESCR, which states that “all peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of this right, they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.” The unnatural empowerment of proxies (i.e., Mujahedeen and PDPA) influenced the political climate and undermined the peaceful democratic will of the Afghan people. In fact, the 1988 UN Rapporteur recommended that the right to self-determination would be revived with the withdrawal of foreign troops and the establishment of a freely elected parliament.10  Communist propaganda was distributed by the Soviets to sway public opinion against the Mujahedeen and recruit soldiers for the Afghan army. On the other hand, the United States and the Mujahedeen used Islamic propaganda to embolden civilians to join their fight against the government.12 Both uses of propaganda to instigate and bolster conflict violated Article 20 of the ICCPR which states “any propaganda for war shall be prohibited by law.”

While occupying Afghan territory, the Soviet Union directly violated the guarantee that “every human being has the inherent right to life” and that “no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life” as mentioned in Article 6 of the ICCPR. The 1988 Human Rights Report confirms that Soviet-Afghan forces jointly laid more than half a million antipersonnel mines during the invasion. The report goes on to say that the most significant threat to the right to life was the presence of these minefields.10 Further, the use of minefields was averse to Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Article 3 reaffirms the commitment to life and liberty, and also to security. The imminent danger that land-mines posed undoubtedly deprived civilians of their right to security. Additionally, the Soviets led many raids in the countryside against villages thought to be supporting the Mujahedeen. For example, Soviet forces razed Tashqurghan in April of 1982 and instantly killed 200 civilians they deemed guilty of aiding the enemy.6 As a result, the land-mines and raids violated the right to life of thousands of innocent civilians arbitrarily killed.

Additionally, the process of supplying arms by both foreign nations violated other documents of customary law in addition to the principle of non-intervention. The Geneva Protocol banned the use of all biological or chemical weapons in addition to the Biological Weapons Convention’s prohibition of the production, transportation, and storage of said weapons. During the conflict, both sides accused the other of using chemical weapons. A United States report claimed that some Afghan aircrafts dropped chemical bombs six months before the Soviet invasion. The report also relays that defected Afghan pilots recalled undergoing Soviet training programs regarding chemical weapons, while the Soviets provided the phosgene diphosgene, saran, and soman grenades that claimed the lives of 3000 individuals.13 Similar accusations were aimed at the United States. The Afghan government claimed that bandits, aligned with the Mujahedeen, utilized American grade chemical weapons during an attack in Ghazni. On another occasion, Afghan soldiers discovered US chemical and anti-tank grenades during a raid.11 Although, it is somewhat difficult to determine the veracity of any claim by either side, it is not unrealistic for both sides to have provided chemical weapons to their proxies given how recently the Biological Weapons Convention had been passed. Assuming these claims are true, the United States and the Soviet Union would both have violated the Biological Weapons Convention by producing and transporting these weapons. Also, the supplying powers would be implicit in catalyzing the use of chemical weapons, which is in violation of the Geneva Protocol.

Proxy Violations

Domestic parties, such as the Afghan government and Mujahedeen, partook in a majority of the violations in the Afghan Civil War. It would be unreasonably speculative to attribute the source of this conflict to the United States or the Soviet Union; however, a few points are clear. First, the conflict would have been shorter had the groups not been able to access foreign resources, whether it be arms and training, or supplies and shelter. The United States propagated a war that would have ended “long ago if they [Mujahedeen] had not been supported by united international forces, money, frantic propaganda and provocation.”12 The Soviet Union’s support of the PDPA government can be similarly interpreted. Second, the particular arms and means provided were extremely lethal and advanced, leading to a general escalation of the entire conflict. Such imperial actions both prolonged and escalated the conflict, resulting in a greater number and depth of violations. By providing support for their proxies, the foreign powers are inherently complicit in all actions perpetrated by said proxies. This reasoning holds the foreign powers accountable for many of the violations that occurred during the Afghan Civil War.

The most well-documented violations of human rights involved the PDPA government, which was commonly reported to have incidents of prisoner torture. The 1988 UN Special Rapporteur claimed that prisoners were subject to electric shocks, long periods of immobilization, and the suspension of weights from testicles.10 Former prisoners recall that the Pol-i-Charkhi became akin to a concentration camp. In addition to routine torture, many prisoners were buried alive by bulldozers while others were burned alive.4 Public torture was also commonly used to terrorize the opposition into submission. One Afghan deserter recalls that officers had assembled a village’s population to watch the execution of a man suspected to be a mullah. Qazi Fatih, a judge, was tied to a tank and dragged to death at high speeds.6 Growing suspicion of these actions resulted in a UN resolution that expressed concern regarding “the continuing allegations of torture and ill-treatment” in Afghanistan. However, the government also alleged that the opposition commonly practiced torture. In retrospect, these allegations aimed at the rebels do seem to have some semblance of truth given the documented practices of the rebel groups when they began governing in 1993.5 The UN Convention on Torture defines torture as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person.” The previously cited acts all constitute torture and are in violation of the Third Geneva Convention, which prohibits “violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture,” and “outrages upon personal dignity, in particular, humiliating and degrading treatment.” Though the Geneva Convention would only apply to prisoners of war, the torture of all other inmates would violate the decrees of the UN Convention on Torture and Article 7 of the ICCPR; both of which more broadly forbid torture compared to the Convention. Both domestic parties were directly at fault for their relative acts of torture, but their respective foreign sponsors are also guilty for the reasons previously explained.

Civilian casualties were another violation derived from the conflict. During the mid-1980s, Afghan-Soviet forces were frustrated by the illusiveness of Mujahedeen and repurposed their efforts towards complicit civilians. Indiscriminate killings and destruction of properties and crops were all practiced to separate civilian populations from Mujahedeen fighters.7 Another anecdote from the 1988 Rapporteur states that during a government raid on a Kunduz village, unarmed victims were disemboweled, female civilians had their breasts torn off by bayonet, and children were kicked to death.10 Similarly, the opposition movement also partook in the arbitrary murder of civilians. The Mujahedeen consistently utilized terroristic tactics, which the 1988 Human Rights report confirms to have killed “thousands of innocent civilians.”10 The opposition often used long-range rockets to shell areas controlled by the government. The same report purports that three separate attacks in September were waged on Kabul, where shelling targeted the airport, business center, and residential area. These incidents combined in murdering more than 60 civilians and wounding much more.10 Repeated bombing on civilians by the rebels prompted letters addressed to the UN, pleading for a halt in supplied arms to the opposition movement by claiming that “rivers [were] red with the blood of our defenseless fathers, mothers, and innocent children as a result of the Mujahedeen’s so-called action to defend Islam.”8 Any event, where helpless individuals were murdered in cold blood, not only violates the right to life (Article 6 of the ICCPR and Article 3 of the UDHR), but also violates the Third Geneva Convention’s stipulation that “the passing of sentences and the carrying out of executions without previous judgment” is prohibited. Furthermore, the targeting or incidental striking of civilians is in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention’s “Protection of Civilian Persons.” Both Geneva Conventions are notably salient given the context of war, though one cannot derogate from Article 6 of the ICCPR. In summary, both the government-sponsored raids and terroristic bombings did violate the mentioned Geneva Conventions and Article 6 of the ICCPR. And as previously discussed, such violations can be indirectly attributed to both imperial powers.


The breadth and severity of the violations in this conflict are impossible to express, let alone comprehend fully. However, the roles played by the United States and the Soviet Union unequivocally led to direct and indirect violations of law. Additionally, foreign involvement heightened and prolonged the Afghan conflict, and thus, rendered the foreign powers complicit in all transgressions that stemmed from the war. The myriad of violations in international, humanitarian and, most importantly, human rights law violated some of the most fundamental axioms of these three domains.

Understanding these grievous transgressions is not a solely historical activity rather, this retrospective analysis provides prospective insight. One can utilize law as a singular perspective to examine the irreparable harm caused by foreign interference. The many laws violated during this period were not purposed to prevent conflict; they were established to protect human dignity even in moments of bloodshed. It is pertinent to note; this conflict did not just violate the rights of a few civilians or soldier, but rather, it is humanity as a whole that was violated. This case study is a stark reminder of the human suffering too often derived from the interventionist policy. Such illustrations should serve to guide future leaders away from conflict, not for the law, but more for the respect of humanity.


1 Barfield, T. War for Afghanistan: A Very Brief History: From “Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History”. Princeton University Press, 2012.

2 Benjamin, J. Democratic process, foreign policy and human rights in South Asia. Gyan, 2010.

3 Sayed, R. The Only Candle: Ten True Stories About Afghanistan. Xlibris Corp, 2011.

4 Courtois, S., and M. Kramer. The black book of communism: Crimes, terror, repression. Harvard University Press, 2004.

5 Ignatieff, M., et al. Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry. Princeton University Press, 2011.

6 Laber, J., and B. R. Rubin. “A nation is dying”: Afghanistan under the Soviets 1979-87. Northwestern University Press, 1988.

7 Kakar, M. H. Afghanistan: The Soviet invasion and the Afghan response, 1979-1982. University of California Press, 1997.

8 United Nations Document: (Job Number: N8619841)

9 United Nations Document: (Job Number: N8005797)

10 United Nations Document: (Job Number: N8826444)

11 United Nations Document: (Job Number: N8021294)

12 United Nations Document (Job Number: N8219043)

13 United Nations Document (Job Number: N8207384)

Cyrus Ayubcha is a third-year undergraduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, where he majoring in Political Science. Soussan Ayubcha M.D. MHSA is a clinical instructor at NYU Langone Department of Medicine, physician volunteer with Physicians for Human Rights, and a senior consultant for Inspire Health.

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