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Mass Murder in Afghanistan: 40 Years of Conflict

Above: Soviet troops withdrawing from Afghanistan in 1986.

This paper was written by Meg Cramer for IWP 649: Mass Murder Prevention. Meg is a first-year student at IWP studying Strategic Intelligence. Her interest lies in Afghanistan, past and present.

Forty years ago, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan launched the country into violence that continues to this very day. The ongoing conflict has claimed millions of victims and refugees by means of terror, brutality, ethnic persecution, and the indiscriminate targeting of civilians.

The last four decades of Afghan history can be sectioned into four chapters: 1) the Soviet-Afghan War, which lasted ten years from the invasion in 1979; 2) the complete collapse into civil war, from 1989 to 1996; 3) the reign of the ruthless Taliban militant group, in power from its seizure of Kabul in 1996 to 2001 when the regime was toppled by the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan; and 4) the post-Taliban climate in which a multitude of insurgent groups, Afghan government officials, and foreign forces compete for influence. In each era, violence was perpetrated on a grand scale. In each, the specific identities of victims and executioners change, but it’s always the same: noncombatants have disproportionately suffered at the hands of belligerent warlords, occupying powers, radical Islamists, and even the U.S. military. Instability in Afghanistan has created an environment where genocide not only occurs, but largely goes unpunished.

Soviet-Afghan War, 1979-1989

On December 24, 1979, in a desperate attempt to stabilize its prop-up government and save its Communist empire, the Red Army invaded Afghanistan. Previous experience with guerrilla war tactics did nothing to stop the Soviets from rolling into Afghanistan with heavy artillery and strategy ill-suited for the terrain and adversary.[1] They were ready to fight a classic theater war. The prevailing Soviet military-industrial complex eclipsed the ability of leaders to approach the war in Afghanistan in an unconventional way.[2] But indeed, the mujahideen was an unconventional enemy.

Many factors contributed to the Soviet failure in Afghanistan. The empire was already limping when it launched its campaign in 1979, and it was not prepared for such a brutal and costly war. The occupation lacked popular support back home in the USSR. The Afghan army was weak, and the mujahideen was supported through American and Pakistani programs supplying weaponry and finances, strengthening already dedicated fighters. The Afghans, hardly modernized, were still a formidable force. Not quite united, but not totally uncoordinated, resistance fighters came together just long enough to see the Soviets expelled.

The mass murder of civilians in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation was inevitable due to the nature of guerrilla war. Mujahideen fighters blended in well, both to the rural Afghan countryside and the tribal people. Before long, the frustrated Soviets hardly bothered to distinguish between civilians and insurgents, resorting to mass killing campaigns. In order to destroy the support base for guerrillas, the Soviets “felt it necessary to suppress defenseless civilians by killing them indiscriminately, by compelling them to flee abroad, and by destroying their crops and means of irrigation, the basis of their livelihood. The dropping of booby traps from the air, the planting of mines, and the use of chemical substances, though not on a wide scale, were also meant to serve the same purpose.”[3]

Retributive murder, as in other instances of war, was commonplace. On one occasion, two hundred noncombatants in the town of Tashqurghan were killed in revenge for the death of three Russian soldiers in April 1982.[4] The Red Army specifically targeted large gatherings, especially mosques. In another instance of violence, the Soviets fired rockets on a wedding ceremony in the village of Ganjabad in 1980. As a result of the attacks, roughly 150 people were killed.[5] These are just two of many such events.

The brutality of the Soviet effort in Afghanistan displaced millions of people, specifically women and children. Neighboring Pakistan and Iran absorbed over 5 million refugees, nearly a quarter of the population.[6] The Red Army disregarded all norms of conduct and unabashedly targeted children by disguising land mines as toys. Despite demining efforts, to this day, children are often maimed or killed by the mines that remain.[7]

The relentless mujahideen persisted until a stalemate finally forced the Soviets out of Afghanistan in 1989. But victory was hardly sweet. The results of the war were catastrophic – over a ten-year span:

Afghanistan lost over 1.3 million people, the bulk of them civilians… The population was scattered in neighboring refugee camps and across the globe… Now Afghanistan had a fundamentalist Islamic orientation and was rife with schism and lawlessness… Few children were properly educated during the war and fewer doctors, engineers, teachers and scientists were produced…  Afghanistan took the position as the [sic] one of the poorest countries on the planet – the country that led the world in infant mortality and death in childbirth. The Mujahideen could claim victory, but it was a hollow victory indeed – one that eventually spawned the Taliban movement and the bloodiest ethnic civil war in Afghanistan’s history.[8]

Civil War Strife, 1989-1996

The multitude of fractured political insurgency groups in Afghanistan during this time – all vehemently anti-Soviet – shared the common goal of eliminating foreign influence and creating an Islamic state rooted in sharia law.[9] United, they formed a formidable opponent to the Soviets, but following the Red Army’s withdrawal in 1989, the mujahedeen quickly and violently turned on one another in an effort to fill the power vacuum while the Afghan government scrambled to create stability through a new system.

An attempt to create an Afghan coalition government in 1992 was unsuccessful, and the country quickly collapsed into a bloody civil war. Notorious warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and his insurgent group Hezb-e Islami Gulbuddin were at the forefront of the violence with constant and indiscriminate shelling in Kabul against their fellow Afghans.[10] The propensity for barbarity can be illustrated in numbers: in 1992, in the month of August alone, more than 1,800 civilians died as a result of Hekmatyar’s bombing campaigns.[11]

The conflict in Kabul reached an unprecedented degree of violence as warlords and insurgents fought for control over the capital and terrorized the civilian population through looting, kidnapping, and rape. Infrastructure, cultural centers, and schools suffered heavy damage as a result of constant rocket fire. Inhabitants were killed or displaced by the thousands, many fleeing for refugee camps in Pakistan where decrepit conditions awaited them.[12] It is estimated that in 1993 alone, over 10,000 people were killed as a result of the civil war.[13] Again, children were targeted: boys as recruits for insurgent factions; girls as victims of sexual violence.[14] In a culture that values honor highly, sexual assault was more than a single episode of violence; the consequences often resulted in isolation, confinement to the home, or early marriage.[15] The reckless destruction of Kabul and increasingly desperate conditions led directly to the rise of the Taliban in 1993.[16] Backed by Pakistan and embraced by Afghans desperate for peace, the Taliban seized Kabul in 1996. But the regime set up and implemented by the group over the following years brought anything but peace. A new chapter of brutality lay ahead.

The Reign of the Taliban, 1996-2001

The emergence of the Taliban can be traced to Pakistani madrassas in which refugee children and Afghan orphans were radicalized.[17] Hardened by years of violence during the Soviet occupation and subsequent civil war, these individuals were invariably devoted to their goals which included the elimination of foreign influence in Afghanistan, establishment of a caliphate, and implementation of sharia law. The militant group, at first welcomed as a semblance of stability, cracked down hard on individual liberties, especially women’s rights. Women and girls were deprived of education and employment opportunities, required to wear burqas and cover themselves completely, and prohibited from traveling without the accompaniment of a male relative.[18]

In addition to the destruction of cultural sites and public executions, the Pashtun Taliban launched a series of deadly attacks on ethnic minorities in Afghanistan. In August of 1998, the Taliban murdered thousands of Hazaras in Mazar-i-Sharif.[19] Noncombatants, including children, were summarily executed in the streets, their bodies left outside for days.

The grim climate in Afghanistan was compounded by limited access to healthcare and a terrible drought in 2000.[20] Years of conflict and the Taliban’s inability to provide basic services had created a society completely reliant on international aid. However, aid agencies and mediating groups were reluctant to get heavily involved. Hopeful refugees returned from Pakistan and Iran only to leave once more with the realization that an Afghanistan ruled by the Taliban would never be home.

Post-Taliban Afghanistan and the War on Terror, 2001-Present

The 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan brought with it the prospect of peace. But as the years dragged on and American and worldwide commitment to the Afghan cause waned and resources were diverted elsewhere, the Taliban began to reemerge. In the decades since the invasion, foreign troop levels have decreased significantly despite growing security concerns. A report issued by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies indicates that currently only 133 Afghan districts are under the control of the Afghan government, while 75 are claimed by the Taliban and 187 remain contested.[21] See the map here.[22]

A deadly combination of incessant U.S. airstrikes, infighting between political and ethnic factions, and Taliban brutality has thwarted hopes for peace. Since 2009 when the UN Assistance Mission to Afghanistan began keeping track of casualties, upwards of 100,000 Afghans have been killed or wounded as a result of the conflict. Another report claims that in 2019, there was a 21% increase in civilian casualties by the Taliban and an 18% rise in casualties blamed on Afghan security forces and their U.S. allies who are increasing airstrikes in the midst of increased violence.[23]

The 2017 Human Rights Report on Afghanistan outlines additional atrocities, including major attacks on civilians by armed insurgent groups and the wide-scale and indiscriminate use of IEDs and suicide attacks.[24] Civilian casualties reached its peak in 2016 with 8,539 dead or wounded.[25] Violence enacted against noncombatants is typically worse in contested areas. Disillusioned by an inept government and vicious insurgents, Afghan civilians have nowhere to turn.[26]

Despite the global effort to eliminate the terrorist threat in Afghanistan and reconstitute a stable government, violence and conflict have not subsided. Instead, there are even more parties inflicting more damage. Even with the advent of a U.S.-Taliban peace agreement and the prospect of intra-Afghan negotiations, the number of civilians facing death or injury every day has not decreased in any significant way.


 The people of Afghanistan are no strangers to conflict. For the last forty years, war and mass murder have plagued the country, creating millions of refugees and resulting in the deaths of thousands, if not millions of civilians. Precise figures are hard to come by, though the ubiquitous testimonies of displacement, torture, rape, intimidation, terror, and tragedy indicate that no Afghan has escaped unscathed.

There are many factors contributing to the disintegration of Afghanistan. Occupying forces, frustrated by stalemates and destitution, have resorted to brutality as a means of landing a decisive blow. Those in power, entrusted with protecting the liberties of the people, have persistently exploited their authority in order to carry out violent and retributive agendas. And finally, warring insurgent factions have unabashedly terrorized their own people as a tool for political advancement and control. This blatant disregard for the value of human life has created a country so torn and so ravaged that peace almost seems out of reach.

Here, good and evil regrettably blend together; the roles of victim and perpetrator have often shifted as one becomes the other over time. This makes it difficult to move forward, as justice is a key part of reconciliation. The impracticality, however, of punishing every Afghan with blood on his hands is laughable. Somehow, some way, there must be a path forward.

Daunting though it may seem, strides can be made toward stability and unity. Among the crowd of voices proposing blueprints for peace are those who call for international assistance and strong U.S. intervention, those who encourage complete “Afghanization,” and those who suggest a settlement in which tribal factions are strengthened, leading to hyper pluralism and thus a benign centralized government.  No matter the route taken, the first step forward is the affirmation of the value of human life and dignity as well as the implementation of checks on the power structures that, for the last forty years, have crippled the country of Afghanistan.

In conclusion, the words of RJ Rummel are relevant here: “The problem is power. The solution is democracy. The course of action is to foster freedom.”[27]


[1] Grau, Lester, The Bear Went Over the Mountain: Soviet Combat Tactics in Afghanistan (Washington, D.C.: National Defense University Press, 1996), ix.

[2] Brian Hawkins, “Soviet Counterinsurgency Operations in Afghanistan” (master’s thesis, United States Marine Corps Command and Staff College, 2010).

[3] Hassan Kakar, Afghanistan: The Soviet Invasion and the Afghan Response, 1979-1982 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995).

[4] Kakar, Afghanistan.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Zulfiqar Bhutta, “Children of War: The Real Casualties of the Afghan Conflict,” BMJ 324, no. 7333. (February 2002),

[7] Ibid.

[8] Lester Grau, “The Soviet-Afghan War: A Superpower Mired in the Mountains,” The Journal of Slavic Military Studies 17, no. 1 (2004): 129-51, accessed October 12, 2020,

[9] “Counterterrorism Guide: Terrorist Groups,” National Counterterrorism Center, accessed November 10, 2020,

[10] Kenneth Katzman and Clayton Thomas, Afghanistan: Post-Taliban Governance, Security, and U.S. Policy, (Congressional Research Service, 2017), 39.

[11] Casey Garret Johnson, “The Political Deal with Hezb-e Islami,” United States Institute of Peace, last modified September 2016, 10,

[12] Kakar, Afghanistan.

[13] The Cost of War: Afghan Experiences of Conflict, 1978-2009, (Oxfam International, 2009), 10,

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., 18.

[16] Ibid., 10.

[17] Bhutta, “Children of War.”

[18] Cost of War, 11.

[19] Ahmed Rashid, “Taliban Killed 4,000 in Ethnic Cleansing Drive,” Electronic Telegraph, no.1203, (September 1998),

[20] Cost of War, 11.

[21] Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Long War Journal, “Mapping Taliban Control in Afghanistan,” Accessed December 7, 2020,

[22] Alia Chughtai and Shereena Qazi, “From the 2001 Fall of the Taliban to 2020 Afghan Peace Talks,” Aljazeera, September 12, 2020,

[23] Kathy Gannon and Rahim Faiez, “UN: 100,000 Civilian Casualties in Afghanistan in 10 Years,”               Associated Press News, February 21, 2020,

[24] Afghanistan 2017 Human Rights Report, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, 2017,

[25] Afghanistan Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict Third Quarter Report: 1 January to 30 September 2020, UN Assistance Mission to Afghanistan, 2020,

[26] The Cost of War, 11.

[27] RJ Rummel, Death by Government (New York: Routledge, 2017), xx.


Afghanistan 2017 Human Rights Report. Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, 2017.

Afghanistan Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict Third Quarter Report: 1 January to 30 September 2020. UN Assistance Mission to Afghanistan, 2020.

Bhutta, Zulfiqa. “Children of War: The Real Casualties of the Afghan Conflict.” BMJ 324, no. 7333. (February 2002): 349-352.

Chughtai, Alia and Shereena Qazi. “From the 2001 Fall of the Taliban to 2020 Afghan Peace Talks.” Aljazeera, September 12, 2020.

Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Long War Journal. “Mapping Taliban Control in Afghanistan.” Accessed December 7, 2020.

Mapping Taliban Control in Afghanistan

Gannon, Kathy and Rahim Faiez. “UN: 100,000 Civilian Casualties in Afghanistan in 10 Years.” Associated Press News, February 21, 2020.

Grau, Lester. The Bear Went Over the Mountain: Soviet Combat Tactics in Afghanistan. Washington, D.C.: National Defense University Press, 1996.

Grau, Lester. “The Soviet-Afghan War: A Superpower Mired in the Mountains.” The Journal of Slavic Military Studies 17, no. 1 (2004): 129-51, Accessed October 12, 2020,

Hawkins, Brian. “Soviet Counterinsurgency Operations in Afghanistan.” (Master’s thesis, United States Marine Corps Command and Staff College, 2010).

Johnson, Casey Garet. “The Political Deal with Hezb-e Islami.” United States Institute of Peace. September 2016.

Kakar, Hassan. Afghanistan: The Soviet Invasion and the Afghan Response, 1979-1982. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

Katzman, Kenneth and Clayton Thomas. Afghanistan: Post-Taliban Governance, Security, and U.S. Policy. Congressional Research Service, 2017.

National Counterterrorism Center. “Counterterrorism Guide: Terrorist Groups.” Accessed November 10, 2020.

Rashid, Ahmed. “Taliban Killed 4,000 in Ethnic Cleansing Drive.” Electronic Telegraph, no. 1203. (September 1998).

Rummel, RJ. Death by Government. New York: Routledge, 2017.

The Cost of War: Afghan Experiences of Conflict, 1978-2009. Oxfam International, 2009.