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Afghanistan: Our members remember

Afghanistan 1978-79: A Fateful Year in Kabul

By Bruce K. Byers

I was direct-transferred to USIS Kabul when my job as ACAO at USIS Vienna was eliminated in a budget cut. Everything I had heard from colleagues who had served in Kabul was positive, and while I had hoped to return to India, I accepted the IO job. Six weeks before my family and I flew to Kabul, there was a coup d’état that ousted Afghan president Mohammad Daud Khan and saw the rise of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan under Mohammad Taraki and Hafizullah Amin with Kremlin backing.

In Kabul I dealt with Afghan radio and TV, the Kabul New Times, and vetted American journalists seeking interviews with Afghan foreign ministry and other officials and requests for interviews with Ambassador Adolph “Spike” Dubs, newly assigned to our embassy after serving as Chargé in Moscow. Dubs was a Soviet expert, spoke Russian, and knew Kremlin politics well. His appointment to Kabul in the wake of the ouster and execution of Daud must have given Kremlin leaders pause.

Richard and Jane Ross welcomed us to Kabul upon arrival and helped us get set up in a large house with a walled-in garden. Richard was CAO. We had first met them on R&R in Sri Lanka several years before. Louise Taylor and PAO Roger Lydon rounded out the USIS team. Louise was in charge of the America Center in the USIS compound, located about three miles from the embassy. Our primary job was outreach to various audiences under trying circumstances. Roger soon departed and Gary Morley arrived as the new PAO.

I made efforts to increase our contact with Afghan TV. We took on a book translation project: Bob Shanks’s The Cool Fire – How to Make It in Television. USIA Washington obtained the rights and my senior information specialist Mehria Mustamandy and her assistant began translating the text. We had a basic printing plant and printed several hundred copies of the book in Dari. We made a formal presentation to the head of foreign relations at Afghan TV. Other copies were distributed to Kabul University and to other media contacts.

Meanwhile, our three children were attending the American International School. Our life in Kabul seemed almost normal, save for the nightly curfew at 9:00 p.m. and the Russian-made helicopter gunships that patrolled the night skies.

Louise Taylor, a formally trained dancer, spearheaded a project to produce Oklahoma! and invite American and other diplomats and their families as well as UN officials and key Afghan contacts to its premiere. Many of us participated in play readings and other activities in the international diplomatic community. We also enjoyed the “club” and swimming pool on the large USAID compound. It helped to relieve some of the tension with which we lived under the Taraki regime.

In January 1979, the Chinese embassy invited the entire American diplomatic community to a grand entertainment and supper to celebrate the official opening of diplomatic ties between Beijing and Washington. It was a gala affair that Ambassador Dubs and all of us really enjoyed.

Early on February 14 – Valentine’s Day – the ambassador was enroute in his armored limo to the embassy when it was stopped by Afghan “police” at an intersection not far from USIS. A uniformed man brandishing a pistol forced the driver to open his door; next, another armed man entered the car and told the driver to proceed to the Kabul Hotel in the center of the city. There, the ambassador was taken at gunpoint to the second floor where he was tied to a chair in room 117. The driver returned to the embassy and alerted security officials. A hostage crisis ensued. This is detailed in Arthur Kent’s new book Murder in Room 117. Kent interviewed many of us who had served in Kabul at the time. He also interviewed Russian diplomats in Moscow and was able to see documents there that broadened his analysis of the abduction and killing of Ambassador Dubs.

From that day, everything went downhill. With the agreement of the Country Team, Louise was able to stage Oklahoma! as a morale booster for the American and international community a month after Dubs’s murder.

My work and that of my colleagues became much more difficult. I was due out on delayed home leave in June, and when the school year ended, we packed our suitcases and departed Kabul. We expected to return by late summer.

As it turned out, my home leave orders were changed to evacuation orders, and I was declared “non-essential” staff. My family and I had difficulties trying to set up house in Virginia. I had to look for a Washington assignment and was given a job in the Office of African Affairs.

We were fortunate to receive our faithful dog via Lufthansa a few months later. We also received our car, almost new, and after nearly six months, our household effects.

Our year in Kabul proved decisive for my career advancement, but going through an evacuation, losing contact with friends and colleagues, and having to start out in a new job were trying experiences.

To this day, I remember the hours of the hostage crisis and efforts by our embassy officers to secure the release of Ambassador Dubs. And I remember the terrible news of his death and the depressing weeks and months that followed.¤

Bruce Byers is a retired Foreign Service Officer; he previously served on the Board of Directors of the Public Diplomacy Association.

Bruce Byers: A Letter Home—Remembering Ambassador Dubs

February 19, 1979

Dear Mom,

This past week has been a momentous one for all of us, and I think it is necessary and useful to share some thoughts about the recent events with you.

Tonight, one week ago, Ingrid and I and most of the Embassy, ICA [International Communication Agency], and AID staff and their spouses were the guests of the Chinese Chargé d’Affaires and his gracious colleagues.  They invited us for a film show and a dinner. The film, dubbed in English, was made in 1974 and portrayed the life of a peasant boy and his family during the civil war in China in the 40’s. It was highly stylized and not unlike the schmaltzy war films we turned out in the 40’s.

After the film we were invited to a magnificent buffet dinner with all kinds of Chinese delicacies. Our Air Attaché, Colonel Cavanaugh, returning to the table for seconds remarked that, “This is the best Chinese restaurant in town.” I might add, it’s the only one.

Adolph “Spike” Dubs

The Chinese Chargé, as host, devoted himself to Ambassador Dubs.  Our Chinese hosts were most gracious, hospitable and friendly. We have had several social engagements with them since the first of the year. Some days before the dinner we had held a special showing of a feature film The Old Man and the Sea.  They loved it.

On Sunday morning, the day after the dinner, I had to attend the weekly Country Team meeting at the Embassy because Roger Lydon, the PAO, was not feeling well. As Ambassador Dubs entered, we stood up, which is customary when the Chief of Mission and personal envoy of the President meets his staff.  He began the meeting by remarking that there is in Africa a species of carnivorous ants called driver ants.  They can swarm out by the millions to devour their prey. He said, he thought we had hit the Chinese buffet table like driver ants.  We all had a good laugh.

He made a few remarks, and then asked each staff member to report.  It was a routine meeting.  It was also his last.

“Spike” Dubs, as his friends called him, enjoyed being informal with us.  He commented at the meeting that he was very sorry to learn of the death of correspondent Joseph Alex Morris in Tehran only a day before. I had brought Joe Morris and Jonathan Randall to a briefing in Ambassador Dubs’s office during their visit here in November. Ingrid and I had also had them over for lunch.

Joe Morris was struck in the chest by a bullet while watching the battle at Doshan Tappei Air Base in southeast Tehran a week ago. Ambassador Dubs appeared deeply moved by his death, and things fell silent at the meeting for a few seconds. Then he picked up the pace and asked our political counselor Bruce Flatin for his report.

Although I work in a building some five minutes by car from the Embassy, I get over to the Embassy almost every day. So it was on last Monday that I stopped by just before lunch to say farewell to Tom Borisch, a Marine guard being transferred to Vienna. As we chatted, Ambassador Dubs came downstairs and greeted us.  He went home for lunch.

Ambassador Dubs spent most of his tour here alone.  His wife Mary Ann has a good job on Capitol Hill and did not want to abandon it.  She came with the Ambassador’s daughter for nearly two months in November-December. Despite his separation from his family, Ambassador Dubs was not alone in Kabul. He made all of us his family, and he won our respect and love through his fine example of leadership, concern for our needs, support of the school, and American community activities.  During football season, he attended all of the games.  He came to the school’s plays and to parent-teacher meetings. He was, in a word, here among us.

He was greatly admired by the diplomatic community in Kabul. Everyone we know respected him as a thorough professional and as a warm and generous human being. The officials of the host government also respected him. He dealt with them clearly and fairly, representing U.S. national interests with resolve and dispatch.

He was an optimist, at heart. He demonstrated his belief in the positive side of people and of human nature, though his patience was tried more than once here. He encouraged us to build bridges where we could with our Afghan hosts. This was not easy; it will be more difficult now.

The Chinese Embassy dinner was on last Saturday evening.  A week has passed, and I am writing you and reflecting.

I think, I mentioned in my last long letter, my realization that living is an abrasive process.  It can wear you down.

Life had not worn down Spike Dubs. He had a long, distinguished career as a diplomat, including two stints in Moscow, the last as Chargé‚ for over a year. He knew how tough our profession can be, and he was the stronger for it.  He gave his strength to us as well.

On Valentine’s Day he gave his life in service to us and to all Americans.

He was abducted in his own car almost directly in front of the American Cultural Center where I work while he was on his way to the Embassy. His abductors were four armed terrorists.  The time was about 8:40 a.m.

For the next four hours I listened to radio messages on our walky-talky at the office. I recorded on tape as many as I could.

Very early on, we cautioned the Afghan police and the government not to take hasty action, not to try to free the Ambassador by force. We explained that our experience with terrorists taught us, time was on the side of the police.

At the hotel our officials attempted to communicate with the Afghan police and with the Soviet police advisers who showed up. The tragic results of those four hours show that our efforts, our warnings and please not to use force, were in vain. They showed also, in my opinion, who we are really dealing with in this country. The power wielders are men wedded to an idea of building a socialist state and dedicated to implanting that idea of how this country’s people should live in a population of diverse languages, ethnic backgrounds, and cultural and religious differences without their consent.

The kidnapping of Ambassador Dubs frightened those power wielders. 

They were in the midst of a visit by the Foreign Minister of Iraq, and Spike Dubs’s kidnapping came at a most inconvenient time. It was also embarrassing.

Four armed men, one even wearing a police uniform, kidnapped the Ambassador of the United States at gun-point in his own car, in broad daylight, in the middle of Kabul, on a busy avenue, across from the American Cultural Center. Most embarrassing. Embarrassing in a city still essentially under martial law, with armed police and soldiers standing at nearly every intersection. Embarrassing because the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, and other members of the Revolutionary Council have repeatedly stressed in public speeches how much the people love and respect their new government and how that government has brought peace to all corners of the country. When the kidnapping happened, neither the Prime Minister (Taraki) nor the Deputy Prime Minister (Amin) were accessible to members of our Embassy staff.

Kabul is a capital full of rumors. Has been ever since we arrived. Many rumors concern stories of armed resistance in the eastern provinces bordering Pakistan. There are stories of heavy clashes between villagers and the Afghan military forces, of Soviet advisers being killed, of villages being bombed to the ground.

Yet in speeches, in the press, on radio and TV the leaders of the new government express with bloated pride that all of their countrymen have embraced their new government, a government of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan.

How embarrassing, then, that during a state visit of the Iraqi Foreign Minister, four armed men so swiftly abduct the American Ambassador and barricade themselves in a hotel room not half a mile from where the visiting Iraqi dignitary is meeting with the leaders of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan.

Nothing has helped to prevent this abduction. Not a nightly curfew at 11 p.m. Not armed guards and police. Not tanks and armoured personnel carriers. Nothing. Ridiculously embarrassing.

Our American Embassy officials, with the concurrence of Acting Secretary of State Warren Christopher, call for caution and no precipitous actions. The Foreign Ministry is advised. Efforts are made to have the dozens of heavily armed police hold back. Our Embassy officials speak quickly to Ambassador Dubs through the hotel room door, trying to ascertain how he is. He replies in a strong but strained voice that he is all right.

Communication with the terrorists is poor because the room has no telephone and there is a long hallway between the room’s door and the area in the room where the terrorists are holding Spike Dubs.

Our Embassy officials are not privy to all of the talks between the Afghan police and the terrorists and between the Russian-speaking Afghan police and the Soviet police advisers in the hotel. What do the terrorists want? When will they release the Ambassador? What action do the police plan? Who is giving the commands? Unanswered questions for my distraught Embassy colleagues.

Suddenly, on very short notice the Afghan police announce that our Embassy officials have ten minutes before they will launch a strike on the room. Frantic messages go back to the Embassy on two-way radios (the hotel phones are no longer working). Deputy Chief of Mission Bruce Amstutz tries desperately to persuade Foreign Ministry officials to halt the police action. Another Embassy official seeks to see the Commandant General of the police and have him call his men back. He does not succeed. Embassy officials at the hotel try vigorously to persuade the police and the Soviet advisers to wait.

No luck. At 12:50 p.m. all hell broke loose upstairs in the hotel. Across the street, sharpshooters pour bullets into the room. After 40 seconds the shooting starts.

The hallway and the room are dense with the bluish fog of cordite smoke from all of the weapons fired. Men enter the hotel room, tripping through a stream of water gushing out of many holes in the room’s radiator. The terrorists appear to be dead.

The Embassy doctor rushes to examine Ambassador Dubs, slumped in a chair against a wall. Another American doctor also examines him.

At 1:05 p.m., Spike Dubs, career diplomat, beloved father of Lindsay Dubs, beloved husband of Mary Ann Dubs, younger brother of Alexander Dubs, and envoy of President Jimmy Carter and of the American people is pronounced dead. His body is removed by American Embassy officers from the hotel.

Whose bullets killed Spike Dubs our Ambassador? What role did the Soviet advisers play in the hotel shootout? What did the terrorists want? Who were they?

In the evening after Ambassador Dubs’s death, Embassy officials are called to the police morgue to view and possibly identify the bodies of four slain men. They can identify three. In the morning newspapers, published by the government, grisly photographs of four half-naked men are printed. The men’s bodies and lifeless faces betray the violence they have experienced. Were they all really killed at the hotel? There are doubts among Americans.

On Thursday, February 15, the first American newsmen arrived — CBS Television News out of Paris. In the evening more came in from New Delhi. They want the story; they want the facts.

I talk with them at the Intercontinental Hotel. I was not at the Kabul Hotel. I have some bare details. We set up a press briefing for Friday morning at 11 a.m. at the Embassy. Some old acquaintances of mine are present – Larry Malkin of TIME Magazine, who had already been to Kabul three times since the April coup d’état; David Housego of the Financial Times, London, whom I knew six years ago in Tehran. Newcomers are also there. Tom Lippman of the Washington Post, in from Cairo; Les Murphy of Reuters; Barry Schlachter of the Associated Press, in from New Delhi; Don Kladstrup of CBS TV News, in from Paris.  (Later Friday, Robert Trumbull of the New York Times and Mark Tully of BBC, arrive in Kabul.)

Shortly after the killing of Ambassador Dubs, the Embassy receives word that the President is sending a special aircraft with his personal representative, Mrs. Dubs, Assistant Secretary of State for Near East and South Asian Affairs Jack Miklos (whom I knew in Tehran), Ambassador Harry Barnes (whom I knew in Washington at FSI), and several relatives and friends of Ambassador Dubs.

On Friday afternoon, we stand on the tarmac in front of the Kabul airport, which we had helped the Afghans to build years earlier. The sky is angry with rolling grey clouds. A light rain falls intermittently, and a stiff wind is blowing.

We watch the beautiful Boeing 707 make a perfect landing. The words “United States of America” stand out in black against the white, windowless fuselage.

The aircraft approaches us slowly, powerfully like an angry eagle whose nest has been violated. The Afghan police and other officials watch in amazement as it pulls right up to us. The roaring engines die down. The forward hatch opens. Men roll a stairway up to it. The passengers come down. The photographer from the Associated Press takes pictures rapidly. My photographer does likewise. The party is received by Embassy officials and is whisked away to homes or hotel quickly and quietly.

At 6:00 p.m., over five hundred people – mostly Americans and others from the diplomatic community – come to the Ambassador’s residence for a memorial service. We stand, except for the official party. Prayers are said. Ambassador Harry Barnes speaks about Spike Dubs’s contribution to his country. We sing O God, our Help in Ages Past.

Several people faint, a Marine guard weeps openly. Reverend Victor Alfsen of the Community Church, and Father Angelo Panigati, a Catholic priest with the Italian Embassy, lead people in the Lord’s Prayer.

The service ends. Mrs. Dubs moves to the main entrance of the residence to greet people. She is remarkably composed and poised as hundreds of people express their condolences.

Saturday morning. 7 a.m. at the airport. Cold, windy. Rain clouds hide the sun. Close to a thousand people including the Soviet Ambassador, who is Dean of the Diplomatic Corps in Kabul, and his wife come to see the party depart. I am there with the CBS TV crew and the AP photographer and his colleague. A half hour passes, but people, including scores of children, mothers with babies and many Afghans – some from the government – remain at ease.

The motorcade arrives. The Embassy ambulance leads it and pulls up to the hydraulic lift that will raise the casket, carrying Ambassador Dubs, to the aircraft’s forward hatch. Six pallbearers, selected from the American diplomats, take the flag-covered casket out of the ambulance, shoulder it, and carry it to the lift. They place it quietly on the platform.

I am reminded of Arlington National Cemetery on a hot August day in 1977.

The lift raises the casket to the hatch. Four other Americans come out of the airplane and lift the casket and take it inside.

The hydraulic lift is driven away. The stairs are rolled in place. The official party goes up into the aircraft.

I quickly help the CBS TV newsman to pass his bag with the videotape of the airport departure to the White House adviser who has promised to give it to CBS during an overnight stop at Torrejon Air Force Base in Spain.  Another member of the party hands me copies of a letter Mrs. Dubs has written in reply to Prime Minister Taraki’s letter of condolence to President Carter.

I read the letter as the four jet engines begin to whine.  It states:

“Dear President Taraki:

Thank you for your expression of sympathy on behalf of the Government of Afghanistan. When my husband took up his duties as American Ambassador to Afghanistan, one of his goals was to represent not only the interests of the United States but also the character of the American people.

One of those characteristics is that reasonable men of goodwill can work together to find solutions to common problems, even in times of crisis. Another is compassion and respect for the value of the individual.

Beyond the personal grief which his loss has brought to me, there is a larger sense in which his death is a tragedy – that he should have died in circumstances so alien to the ideals he sought to project in his work here.

Sincerely, Mary Ann Dubs”

The aircraft taxis out to the runway for take off. Its four engines push it, screaming, down the runway and into the cold Afghan air. The eagle has claimed her own again. She will not return.

The crowd breaks up and leaves.  Ingrid, I and the children come home for breakfast. No school on this day. Cancelled. The Embassy is closed except for the lobby, where hundreds of Americans and people from other countries come to sign the condolence book.

I have a free day, but there is follow-up work at the office. I go in and work a full day.

I assemble six briefing books, putting in them pertinent news reports from U.S. papers and officials statements about Ambassador Dubs’s assassination.

It is over now. Why have I written you this long account? I had to, to get things straight, to make my record of events and to get it out of my system. I ask you to share it with family and friends. They should know how a great American lived and how his life was taken in a dirty, benighted country whose people are good at heart, but who live in fear, ruled by an elitist, dictatorial government of Marxist-communist ideologues and trigger-happy police.

I have written you this account also to show you the unpredictable, deadly serious side of my profession. We are all targets. We Americans are the easiest, most prominent marks for terrorist activities. We continue to be as long as we continue to allow weak-kneed, idealistic liberals to run our foreign policy.

Richard Nixon, for all his faults, recognized a basic truth – that people respect you only when you deal with them from a position of strength. How strong are we? In Iran? In Afghanistan? In Africa? In Asia?

We don’t need to resort to gunboat diplomacy. But as valuable to our long-term interests as SALT treaties may be, we don’t need to let the Russians or their puppets piss on us like they did here this week.

The news media in America with all their mistakes and shortcomings are our salvation. But, we get so much information there that it all runs by in a blur. What is one Ambassador’s death? Here on the evening news for an instant, then gone.

No.  It is more. It has to be. It has to grab each of us and shake us awake, move us to get on the telephone and call our Congressmen and Senators, write and send letters like mine to Congressmen like Senator Frank Church; tell them we are not going to ratify a SALT treaty with the Soviet Union so long as its government continues to pursue its coarse, fear-ridden, and brutal policies behind a façade of supporting the “peace loving and progressive” nations of this world against the “capitalistic, imperialistic, and neo-colonialist” nations.

We, as Americans, owe it to ourselves and to Ambassador Spike Dubs to stand tall and be proud to raise our flag and pledge allegiance to it. Many other nations look up to us and respect our leadership. We must give that leadership the way Ambassador Dubs demonstrated it here and paid for it with his most precious blood. We must be strong not only with military hardware but first of all with moral character and backbone.

I have written you too long a letter. I want to say that all of us are fine. We remember that today would have been Dad’s 62nd birthday. The situation here is quiet, though morale has suffered. We look forward to hearing from you soon and to seeing you this summer. Share this letter and write soon.

                              Love, Bruce


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