The Afghan Civil War


A Timeline of the Ongoing Civil War in Afghanistan

The recent history of Afghanistan is a tale of coups, wars, invasion and civil conflict. The current situation involving Osama bin Laden, Afghanistan and the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States highlight the need for further information on this little-known country. This page attempts to illuminate the complex history of the Afghanistan Civil War, which began in 1978 and, as of this writing, involved, over time, the Soviet Union, the United States, Great Britain and many other nations.

NAME OF CONFLICT: Afghan Civil War (1978-Present)





The Taliban and Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaida, other Jihadist Sunni groups


The Afghan government, aided by the United States and Great Britain, NATO, The European Union, and the United Nations



BEGAN: April 27, 1978

ENDED: Continuing


Civil War (1978-Present) with Foreign Intervention (Soviets:1979-1989) (bin Laden's Al-Qaida: 1992?-Present) (U.S./Britain & NATO: 2001-2021)


PREDECESSOR: (Related conflicts that occurred before or led up to the current conflict)

Afghan Coup "The Saur Revolt" and Islamic Rebellion/Civil War (1978-1989)

Soviet Invasion and Occupation (1979-1989)



CONCURRENT: (Related conflicts occurring at the same time)

Iranian Revolution (1979)

Iranian-U.S. Hostage Crisis (1979-1981)

The First Persian Gulf War/Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988)

Tajikistan Civil War (1992-1993)

bin Laden's Terrorist War (1992?-Present)

The War in Afghanistan (Operation Enduring Freedom)

Waziristan War (2004-Present)


SUCCESSOR: (Related conflicts that occur later)



*Note that names in italics are political parties or groups and those in a red font are political or military leaders.

First Phase of the Afghan Civil War (1978-1989)

The civil war currently rending Afghanistan can be divided into four (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) distinct phases. The first phase began with a coup by a Marxist (Communist) political party called the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA). On April 27, 1978, this political party (which had influence within the military), overthrew and executed the country's first president, Muhammad Daoud, who himself had come to power in a coup that toppled Afghanistan's long-time monarchy. This new government, led by PDPA founder Nur Muhammad Taraki, began to implement Communist-style policies on a nation with a deep Islamic religious culture and a long history of resistance to any type of strong centralized governmental control. Resistance to the new policies resulted in armed uprisings and harsh, bloody government repression. From the beginning, the PDPA government received significant amounts of aid from the Communist Soviet Union in the form of military equipment and Soviet advisors. The PDPA party itself was divided into two rival factions which actually fought each other for control of the government while simultaneously battling the Islamic rebels. The "Khalq" faction was more militantly Marxist and included men such as presidents Nur Muhammad Taraki and Hafizullah Amin. The "Parcham" faction included future presidents Babrak Karmal and Dr. Mohammed Najibullah. In English, Parcham means "Banner." Khalq means "People."

Islamic guerrillas in the mountainous countryside harassed the Afghan army to the point where the government of President Hafizullah Amin (who assumed power after he ordered the death of Taraki in October, 1979) turned to the Soviets for increasingly large amounts of aid. With the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan, the Soviets decided to occupy Afghanistan in order to maintain Communist power, but were dissatisfied with Amin as the Afghan leader capable of accomplishing this goal. On the night of December 24, 1979, the Soviets invaded the country with a large army, with Amin as one of the first targets. Soviet paratroopers murdered him and installed another Afghan Communist, Babrak Karmal as their puppet. The Karmal government, with the aid of nearly 110,000 Soviet troops, increased the pressure on the Islamic resistance forces, increasingly relying on airpower and large-scale ground offensives. The Soviet invasion also brought the conflict into the realm of Cold War politics, as the United States, the United Kingdom, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and China, among others, funneled arms and other supplies to the Afghan Mujahadeen (holy warriors) who resisted the Soviets and Karmal.

Among the more potent weapons the U.S. supplied to the Mujahadeen were shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles which helped counterbalance the effectiveness of Soviet combat helicopters. The Soviet invasion, coupled with the revolution in neighboring Iran, also provoked a large response from the Islamic world to resist the Communists. The Islamic Republic of Iran, along with many other Muslim nations and groups, gave aid and sent volunteers to aid the Mujahadeen. Among these Islamic volunteer fighters was a Saudi millionaire named Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden and the other Arab volunteers came to be known as "Afghan Arabs," and they would later play significant roles in Islamic guerrilla wars in Algeria, Egypt, Bosnia, Tajikistan, Chechnya, and in attacks on American and other Western targets.

By 1988, the dragging war and internal changes in Soviet politics prompted Moscow to agree to the 1988 Geneva Accords, which led to the withdrawal of the Soviet army in February of 1989. By this time, nearly five million Afghans had fled to Iran or Pakistan and lived as refugees. The war in Afghanistan was over for the Russians, but not for the Afghans, who continued their civil war.

Second Phase of the Afghan Civil War  (1989-1992)

At this point, the war entered its second phase, in which the rebel groups, who never truly formed a cohesive or united front against the Communists, continued the war against the Marxist government in Kabul. Karmal had been replaced in 1986 by Dr. Mohammed Najibullah, a former head of the Afghan secret police. With continued material aid from Moscow, Najibullah held on against the Mujahadeen until April 15, 1992, when Kabul fell to a rebel offensive. After Kabul's fall, Najibullah lived in a United Nations compound in the capital until the Taliban seized him and executed him on September 27, 1996.

Third Phase of the Afghan Civil War  (1992-1996)

With the fall of Kabul to the Mujahadeen and the end of the Communist PDPA government, the war entered its third phase, as the rebel groups now began to fall out among themselves over who would rule Afghanistan. The third phase of the war had begun. While the different rebel factions were united in their goal of ousting the Soviets and the Communist Kabul regime, they were quite different from one another. Groups represented distinct geographic regions of the country, while others represented ethnic or religious groups.  The four main ethnic groups are the Pashtuns, from the south and west, and the Tajiks and Uzbeks who dominate in the north and east. Also, the Hazari minority accounts for most of the country's Shiite Muslims. Pashtuns, Uzbeks and Tajiks are mostly Sunni Muslims. The Taliban began in the Pashtun area of Kandahar, while the forces of Rabanni and Massoud are primarily Tajik. Dostum is from the Uzbek region around the city of Mazar-i Sharif.

Several rebel groups formed a governing coalition, called the Islamic Council of Mujahadeen and elected elected Rabanni as the Interim President of Afghanistan for a term of one year, beginning in 1992. He held onto the office until the Taliban seized Kabul in 1996. This council excluded the parties of the Islamic religious minority known as the Shiites, as well as the armed group called Hizb-i Islami, which was led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. During the Soviet war, the Hizb-i Islami was one of the factions supported by neighboring Pakistan and also received significant weaponry from the United States. Hekmatyar's guerrilla career began even before the PDPA coup; his rebel group carried out attacks on the regime of President Daoud as well. Hekmatyar did not accept his exclusion from the new government and sporadically bombarded Kabul with artillery for nearly three years. January, 1994 found Hekmatyar forming an alliance with General Abdur Rashid Dostum in an attempt to overthrow President Burhanuddin Rabbani (who led the Jamiat-e Islami-e faction in the Soviet war) and his defense minister, Ahmad Shah Massoud.

Dostum began his career as a "warlord" in command of the ethnic Uzbek Junbish militia in northern Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation. He joined forces with Najibullah in 1985. By 1992, he had moved back to the Mujahadeen. In the fighting that followed, nearly 25,000 civilians died in Kabul. One-third of the city was destroyed. Hekmatyar's forces were forced out of the Kabul area in 1995. While Hekmatyar was attacking from outside the city, other factions also battled each other. Two groups, the Hizb-i Wahdat and another Mujahadeen faction, the Ittihad-i Islami, engaged in urban warfare in Kabul which led to thousands of deaths and disappearances. By 1994-1995, the various armies and militias of the former Mujahadeen fought each other throughout the country and ruled their areas of control as if they were warlords. In effect, Afghanistan had no central government to speak of.

In this realm of chaos, some former Mujahadeen found a leader in Mullah Mohammed Omar. A Mullah is an Islamic religious leader. A former Mujahadeen fighter who returned to his home village after the fall of the PDPA regime, this member of the Pashtun ethnic group led a new armed group called the Taliban. The word Taliban means "student," and many of the original recruits to Omar's movement were Islamic religious students. Other former Mujahadeen leaders of Pashtun background joined with the Taliban as this new group sought to impose law and order on the country. The particular law they sought to impose was an extreme version of Islamic law. Under Taliban-imposed law, women are not allowed to work outside the home or attend school. Men are expected to grow beards and attend religious services regularly. Television is banned, and religious minorities such as the Hindus, are required to wear some sort of identifying clothing. Also, in 2001, the Taliban ordered the destruction of all non-Islamic idols and statues in areas under their control. They also attracted the support of Osama bin Laden and his organization.

In 1994, the Taliban attacked and defeated local warlords and began to gather a reputation for order and military success. Pakistan soon began supporting them, partially as a means of establishing a stable, friendly government in Kabul. The continual fighting between the former Mujahadeen armies caused waves of refugees to flood Pakistan's border regions and interfered with Pakistani trade in the region. In late 1994, the Taliban took control of Kandahar, acquiring a large supply of modern weapons, including fighter aircraft, tanks and helicopters. In January of 1995, the Taliban approached Kabul, putting Hekmatyar's forces in a vise between themselves and Massoud's army in Kabul.

Fourth Phase of the Afghan Civil War (1996-2001)

From that point onward, until they seized Kabul in September, 1996, the Taliban fought against several other militias and warlords, eventually defeating them all. Resistance to Taliban rule was the fourth stage of the ongoing civil war. Massoud and Rabanni fled to the north with their forces to continue their war against the Taliban.

From his loss of Kabul until 1999, Massoud's forces remained within artillery range of the capital city, which he attacked regularly. After his pullout from Kabul, Massoud also began receiving military supplies from both Russia (now non-Communist) and Iran, both of whom feared the growing power of the Taliban. Russia has fought Muslim rebels in its own Chechnya region and on behalf of the government of Tajikistan. Moscow fears the Taliban as a source of aid and support for the rebels it is fighting in Chechnya and Tajikistan. Iran, dominated by Shiite Islamic fundamentalists, is at odds with the Sunni Muslim Taliban, largely over the treatment of the Afghan Shiite minority called the Hazaris.

During the internecine warfare in Kabul over the years, General Dostum retained his power base in the northern five provinces of Afghanistan. In 1997, the Taliban began a major offensive against him. On May 19, 1997, one of Dostum's deputies, Gen. Abdul Malik Pahlawan (better known as "Malik"), formed an alliance with the Taliban and turned over the city of Mazar-i Sharif. At this point in the conflict, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates recognized the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan. Pakistan's role in the Taliban success is controversial, as it is generally believed that several Taliban military victories are directly attributable to armed Pakistani intervention.

After seizing Mazar-i Sharif, the Taliban provoked the hostility of the area's Shiite Hazari minority (who do not meet the Taliban's strict religious standards), and General Malik ended his dalliance with the Taliban. The result was the execution of at least 3,000 captured Taliban soldiers by Malik and the Hazaris. In August, 1998, the Taliban retook Mazar-i Sharif and summarily massacred at least 2,000 Hazaris. Also, several Iranian citizens, including diplomats, were killed, nearly touching off an Iran-Taliban war. As this crisis heightened, Iran massed nearly 250,000 troops on the Iran-Afghan border. Throughout the years of the Taliban's ascendancy, Iran supplied arms and military training to the "United Front/Northern Alliance" forces in Northern Afghanistan who were fighting the Taliban. The Northern Alliance includes the Uzbek forces of General Dostum, the Tajik troops of President Rabbani and the Shiite Hazaris led by Haji Mohammed Mohaqiq.

In 1998, following the terrorist bombings of American embassies in Africa, the United States launched a cruise missile attack on training camps belonging to bin Laden's Al-Qaida organization in Afghanistan.

Through the Autumn of 2001, the Taliban continued to pressure the Northern Alliance, often with the aid of Osama bin Laden and his Arab forces. On September 9, 2001, the Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud was mortally wounded in an assassination attempt carried out by two Arab men posing as journalists. This attack is believed to be the work of bin Laden's organization as a possible prelude to the airline hijackings and terrorism in the United States on September 11. The Northern Alliance responded to Massoud's killing with an aerial attack on Kabul the night of September 11.

Fifth Phase of the Afghan Civil War (2001-2021)

The fifth phase of the civil war opened on October 7, 2001 with the beginning of punishing aerial bombardments, missile attacks and special forces commando missions against the Taliban and bin Laden's forces by the United States and the United Kingdom (the Allies). An informal alliance between the Northern Alliance and the Allies developed, with coordination between Allied air attacks and ground attacks by the Northern Alliance. These attacks led to the fall of Kabul on Nov. 13, 2001, as the Taliban retreated from most of northern Afghanistan. By November 25, 2001, the last Taliban/Al-Qaida stronghold in the north, Konduz, had fallen to the Northern Alliance. American and British special forces, numbering only in the hundreds, are on the ground in Afghanistan to liaison with the Northern Alliance as well as to conduct raids, ambushes and reconnaissance in order to destroy the Taliban and Al-Qaida forces.

As more Allied troops entered the war and the Northern Alliance forces fought their way southwards, the Taliban and al-Qaida retreated toward the mountainous border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan and after the Taliban had been driven from most populated areas of the country, the allied forces basically relaxed, and contented themselves with aiding the new Afghan government get organized. Under the assumption that the Taliban was defeated the Coalition forces relaxed pressure on their foe, who were regrouping in the mountains and across the border in Pakistan. By 2006, the Taliban began making a major comeback, to the point in 2009 where Afghanistan's government is truly threatened, and the U.S. and its allies consider Afghanistan to be the true center on the War on Terror, rather than Iraq.

From 2002 onward, the Taliban focused on survival and on rebuilding its forces. From 2005, the Taliban increased attacks and is using suicide bombers and other tactics from the Iraq War. The Taliban took advantage of America's focus on Iraq to rebuild themselves into a real threat to the Kabul government and the Allied forces.

On February 27, 2007, while on a diplomatic trip to Afghanistan, an apparent assassination attempt was made by Taliban insurgents, who claimed that Vice-President Richard Cheney was a target in the attack. A suicide bomber blew up a checkpoint at Bagram Air Base outside of Kabul, killing 20, including an American soldier. Cheney was unhurt in the attack.

In the spring and summer of 2008, the violence in Afghanistan claimed more coalition (foreign) troops than died in the concurrent Iraq War. The Taliban, enjoying strong bases in Pakistan, enjoyed a resurgence and showed that it could launch large, coordinated, and effective attacks on coalition and Afghan forces. One of the deadliest attacks came on French troops in mid-August, with a force of about 100 Taliban ambushing French forces near Kabul. Ten French troops were killed, and 21 wounded. The same day also saw an attack by a squad of suicide bombers on an American base near the Pakistani border.

The Obama Administration called for significantly increasing the size of the American military presence in Afghanistan, and allies in Europe are expecting President Obama to pressure them to provide more troops as well.

In a significant change in direction, President Obama came to an agreement with the government of new Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to extend the combat mission of U.S. troops well into the year 2016. Despite this agreement, and the claim that the U.S. was done with this war, American forces continued to serve in, and fight in, Afghanistan against Taliban, al-Qaida, and ISIS forces.

This situation, a seemingly unending war, continued under the Trump Administration, though in late February, 2020, in the midst of a Presidential election year, a peace agreement was announced that may bring American forces home from an almost 20-year deployment and almost 5,000 American war dead and almost 20,000 wounded.  After the end of the Trump Administration, President Joe Biden declared that American forces would exit Afghanistan by August 31, 2021, nearly 20 years since the 9/11 attacks that prompted U.S. intervention.

As the U.S. deadline approached, the Taliban went on the offensive, and the supposedly well-trained and well-equipped Afghan army of 300,000 men literally melted away as the Taliban advances. On August 15, the Taliban entered Kabul as U.S. and other foreign forces retreated to the Kabul airport as chaotic evacuations of Westerners and friendly Afghans took place.  

United States Marine at the Kabul Airport, August, 2021

U.S. Marine at the Kabul Airport, August, 2021

While the Taliban's rapid takeover of the nation appeared to be the final step in the long civil conflict dating back to 1978, resistance to Taliban rule began to appear.  Ahmed Massoud, the son of the late Northern Alliance leader, declared that he and his followers were setting up a base in the Panjishir Valley (which is a very difficult area to attack, as the Soviets learned in their war), as his father had in the past, to fight against the Taliban.  If the younger Massoud's forces survive to plague the Taliban as his father's forces did, we may see a Sixth Phase of the Afghan Civil War.


1. The radicalization of Islamic resistance movements world-wide. Especially given the rise of Osama bin Laden's terrorist network and the war he is waging against the United States.

2. The military withdrawal of the Soviets from Afghanistan helped lead to the political crisis which brought down the Communist Party and ended the Soviet Union.

3. General instability throughout the region as the Afghan war drags on. Also, the Taliban is believed to be supporting Islamic Fundamentalist rebels in Tajikistan and other areas of the Former Soviet Union's Central Asian republics.

4.  With the end of America's Afghan War in 2021, the question remains: will the new Taliban government again give aid and support to Jihadist groups like al-Qaida, or will they keep to themselves?



Over the course of the conflict, approximately two million Afghans have died, and many millions more made homeless. 




Yahoo Full Coverage: Afghanistan--Updated news and links on the Afghan War.

Parties to the current civil war

Listing of Afghan Rulers--Includes short biographies of the Communist rulers (1979-1992) and the Mujahadeen/Taliban rulers (1992-Present).

Map of the War in Afghanistan--Good, easy-to-understand map of the Soviet phase of the war.

Map of Afghanistan--From the CIA's World Factbook.

Biography of Afghan Political Figures--from

Gullboddin Hekmatyar

Ahmed Shah Massoud

Afghan Civil War--From Afghanpedia.

AFGHANISTAN: PERSISTENT CRISIS CHALLENGES THE UN SYSTEM, August 1998--By Barnett R. Rubin, of Writenet Country Papers.

Mass Slaughter Of the Taliban's Foreign Jihadists--article from TIME magazine documenting the fall of Mazar-i-Sherif.

Eyewitness to a Sudden and Bloody Liberation--article from TIME magazine documenting the liberation of Kabul from the Taliban.

The five warlords leading the fight to topple the Taliban--article from The Independent, a British media company. Nov. 13, 2001.


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