[This account, along with hundreds of other true first-person narratives by America’s diplomats, is from the Moments in US Diplomatic History of the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training.https://adst.org/2013/01/the-assassination-of-ambassador-spike-dubs-kabul-1979/
Adolph “Spike” Dubs was a career diplomat who served in Germany, Liberia, and the Soviet Union. In 1978, he was appointed Ambassador to Afghanistan following a coup d’etat which brought the Soviet-aligned Khalq faction to power.
On February 14, 1979, Dubs was kidnapped by armed militants posing as police. The kidnappers demanded the release of the imprisoned leader of their party. Hafizullah Amin’s government refused to negotiate with the militants. Dubs was then assassinated. A successor to Dubs was not named and the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December 1979. The U.S. embassy was finally closed in 1989 as security deteriorated.
Documents released from KGB archives in the 1990s showed that the Afghan government clearly authorized an assault on the kidnappers despite forceful U.S. demands for peaceful negotiations and that the KGB adviser on the scene may have recommended the assault as well as the execution of a kidnapper before U.S. experts could interrogate him. Dubs is buried in Arlington National Cemetery; Camp Dubs, a U.S. base in southwest Kabul, was named in his honor.
Bruce Flatin was the Political Counselor in Kabul at the time of Dubs’ assassination. He was interviewed by ADST’s Charles Stuart Kennedy in 1993. Read about other Foreign Service officers who died in the line of duty and other Moments on Afghanistan. Listen to the podcast here. Learn more through the Washington Post’s article here.
Bruce Flatin: Spike Dubs was murdered on Valentine’s Day, 1979. I was at the embassy as political counselor meeting with Bruce Amstutz, the DCM [Deputy Chief of Mission], shortly before 9:00 a.m. to discuss the staff meeting we’d be holding at 9:00. The ambassador was not yet in. The security officer and the ambassador’s chauffeur burst into the DCM’s office to announce that the ambassador had been “arrested by the Afghan government” and was being held at the Kabul Hotel.
Well, by this time in Kabul one could be paranoid enough not to be surprised that an ambassador would be arrested by the host government. In other places that may strike you as being unusual, but in Afghanistan that was not a concept that was impossible to grasp.
I told Bruce I’d go to the Kabul Hotel and call him from there. When I passed my office I told Jim Taylor, my deputy, where I was going and what had happened. His first reaction was it must have been the human rights report. We’d just delivered it shortly before. It was not a very pleasant report. Once again, it may seem strange, but it was not out of the question that such an unpredictable government would react in that kind of a fashion.
I traveled to the Kabul Hotel with a couple of other people from the embassy. We used the ambassador’s car. I saw letters he had been prepared to post — and noted that he had been reading the New York Times.
When we got there the hotel lobby was swarming with police and troops. We were told that terrorists had seized the ambassador. They had one down in the lobby as a prisoner, and the other ones — they didn’t tell me how many there were — were up in a room with the ambassador on the second floor. (The original report stated that four men had seized the ambassador.)
It struck us as odd that the terrorists would come to a hotel in the center of town to hole up with the ambassador. Soviet embassy people were there as well. I was talking to the Soviet official and the Afghan police and military leadership on the scene. They told me that these people were demanding the release of some anti-regime people in return for Ambassador Dubs, specifically a man named Yunus Khalis.
The important point to note is that we Americans never ever had any direct contact with the people holding the ambassador. Everything we knew, about who was holding him, and what they wanted, was through the Afghan communist leadership and the Soviets. This is an important point. We brought up our embassy doctor, ambulance, nurse, and the ambassador’s blood type, just to be ready in case there were problems with his being injured. We wanted to make certain we could take care of him right away.…
“Talk to your ambassador in German so that they can’t understand”
The DCM was trying to reach Foreign Minister Hafizullah Amin. We sent officers out trying to find him like process servers. He was not available anywhere and couldn’t be reached on the telephone. At the hotel, I kept telling the police that our embassy was trying to reach Hafizullah Amin with a special message from Secretary of State [Cyrus] Vance urging that there be no precipitous action. This was the theme we repeated all morning.
I was assured by the Afghans and the Soviets that they would not endanger the ambassador. I was assured they were going to do their best to negotiate. I said that we would like to get someone up to the second floor to talk to the ambassador so we could reassure him that things were going all right. They did not respond to this initially, but later at a certain point a Soviet officer came up to me. The Soviet I’m referring to was a person whom I knew to be a Soviet security type.
He asked me, “What languages does your ambassador know besides English?”
I replied, “His best language, of course, is Russian.”
He responded, “Besides Russian?” I said, “He knows German rather well.”
He asked, “Do you know German?” When I replied that I did, he went away.
Then a little later, the chief Afghan police official came up to me and he said, “Would you please come upstairs with me?” This was finally the moment to see what the situation was upstairs.
He said, “We’d like to have you talk to your ambassador in German so that the people inside the room will not be able to understand what’s being said.”
I replied, “Fine.”
As we walked down the hallway, I could see a group of troops and police outside this one room. I noted that the suite next to it was open too. I asked, “Do you want me to talk through the wall from this suite on the other side?” The police official replied, “No, it’s best if you talk right through the door into the suite where the ambassador is being held.”
When I looked at this keyhole through which he wanted me to talk, I could imagine myself swallowing a bunch of bullets. I said, “Are you sure the people inside the room have agreed to this procedure?” And he replied, “Yes.”….
And when that was made clear, I knelt by the keyhole, and I said in German, “Good morning, Mr. Ambassador. How is it with you?”
And the ambassador replied in a strong voice, “I am all right.” Then the police instructed, “Now ask him what kind of weapons they have.”
So I asked, “What kind of weapons do they have?”
The ambassador started to answer but unfortunately in his German he used words close to “pistol” and “revolver.” By that time, his captors caught on to the fact that English was not being used, and they ordered, “Stop this conversation! We won’t stand for any tricks. There’ll be no further conversation.”
The ambassador then remained silent. The police tried to get the captors to loosen their controls, but they refused to let any more conversation continue.
Then the police official said to me, “Tell your ambassador that exactly ten minutes from now he’s either to try to go to the bathroom, or he is to fall to the floor.”
I replied, “Just a minute, I want to talk to you elsewhere.” So we went down to a cross hallway where I said, “We’ve spent the whole morning telling you that we don’t want any precipitous action here, and you’re now telling me to help you light a fuse that’s going to go off in exactly ten minutes?” I said, “I want to repeat once again that we’re trying to find Foreign Minister Amin to deliver an urgent request from Secretary Vance that there be no attack on this room.”
He shrugged his shoulders, and muttered, “I have my orders.”
So then I went to the Soviet security officer, and I said, “Once again, I want to tell you that we have said this many times that we don’t want any precipitous action here.” The Soviet then talked to the Afghans and that particular raid appeared to have been called off.
“He was taken out on the stretcher, clearly dead”
But later in the morning, I’d say about an hour and a half later, it was clear they had received an order to hit the room. They got prepared. The Soviets came forward and provided some with some special weaponry. They had police and troops on a building across the street who were responding to hand signals from the Soviets in our building.
At a certain point there was a loud shot and then a gun fight lasted exactly 40 seconds; I checked this with my watch. That’s a long time. The floor just shook with the gunfire coming from the hallway where I was standing and from the bank building across the street into the room.
When the whole thing was over there could not have been one cubic centimeter in that room that didn’t have a bullet pass through it. A gnat flying in that room would have been hit.
Other Americans had in the meantime come up the stairs and were on the opposite side from this cross corridor with me, and they had the stretcher. When the initial burst of firing stopped we were ready to go to the room with the stretcher, and the Afghans told us to wait a minute. Then there were four more loud shots.
Then we were told to come. When we looked in the room, the room had water all over the floor because the gunfire had shot up the radiator. There were some two or three inches of water on the floor. The ambassador was slumped in a chair against the wall, but one-half of his body was wet as though he had been lying on the floor. He was taken out on the stretcher, clearly dead. He had many bullet holes in him.
There were two men in the room; they were brought out and dumped at my feet. One was probably dead, and the other one looked definitely dead; they were taken away. The third man they had held as a prisoner, who appeared to be a confederate of theirs and had been used from time to time to talk to them through the door, was held nearby in the hallway — as alive as you are. They put a brown bag over his head and took him away screaming and kicking.
Then I went downstairs and saw the police official in charge and said, “I just want you to know our Ambassador is dead.” He’s the one who had kept assuring me that if anything happened there would be a very small chance of any problem.
He said, “I’m very sorry.” He did not sound very convincing.
I went back to the embassy then and after about an hour I got a call from the Afghan authorities asking me if I wanted to come to the military hospital to see the dead bodies. So I went there with the security officer and our consular officer. We were brought into a hallway where there were four nude, dead bodies on the concrete floor. I should point out, incidentally, that one of the earlier reports, including that of the ambassador’s driver, was that four people had seized the ambassador….
There were only two “captors” in the room, and both were now definitely dead. The man who was just as alive as you are with a brown bag over his head was now dead too. He had contusions all over his body, and was turning grayish blue. Then there was a fourth person whom I had never seen before in my life lying there.
The police colonel, who was showing us this display, said, “These are the four men shot in the room during the shoot-out.” He and I had been standing together in the hallway, outside the room.
He knew perfectly well what we’d seen. But this was going to be their official story. The ambassador’s body was then brought by our medical crew and ambulance to the American AID [U.S. Agency for International Development] compound, where they brought him into the dispensary.
Afghan troops then entered the AID compound in violation of our diplomatic status. When we complained about it, they said they were in there to “protect” the ambassador. We were very concerned that they would try to seize the body.
The White House, responding to the situation, sent a special plane from Washington. We let the Afghans know that it was on the way to pick up the body. So they didn’t press us any further inside the compound.
The body was brought back here to Washington for autopsy at Walter Reed. There were many bullets in the body, but the ones that caused death were .22 caliber bullets in the brain, about four of them.
The official Afghan incident report to us, in the form of a diplomatic note, had listed weapons found in the room, and none of them were .22 caliber. And as you know, police and troops don’t use .22 caliber, but certain types of official security agency assassins do use .22 caliber as a favorite weapon….
We insisted on seeing these weapons taken from the room, and they promised us we could. We went after this issue time and time again. It must have been ten or eleven different times we insisted upon this in notes and personal conversations. Bruce Amstutz became our chargé, and I became acting DCM [Deputy Chief of Mission].
Whenever we saw Foreign Minister Amin or any other appropriate official, this subject would be raised and we would receive slippery answers. On one occasion Amin told us, “We have all kinds of weapons we pick up here throughout the city for various crimes all the time.” We were apparently to get the impression that weapons were being thrown in some coal bins somewhere, and who could tell which weapons were which anymore.
In June of 1979, we sent a note to the Afghan Foreign Ministry telling them the results of the autopsy at Walter Reed and, in essence, telling them they were liars and challenging them to give us a straight account as to what really happened in view of the fact that their original note was incorrect. It had conveyed false information. Well, we never got an answer to that note. That was the end of that subject from their viewpoint.
“It always puzzled us as to why they would do it”
We also discussed this with the Soviets, who drew the obvious conclusion that we were saying the Afghans had murdered the ambassador. Therefore, you couldn’t help but reach the conclusion that his death certainly seemed to involve the responsibility of the Afghan government, and probably the Soviets. But it always puzzled us as to why they would do it.
Some people said it was because Spike Dubs was a Soviet expert, and the Soviets wanted him out of the way before they went into the next phase of their Afghan adventure. But that made no sense, because we have many Foreign Service experts on the USSR who could have been assigned there. He was not the only Soviet expert we had….
Others said it was because they wanted to terminate our relationship with Afghanistan. And indeed that did happen. It did terminate the AID relationship, but that wouldn’t have made any sense either, because if I were the Soviets I wouldn’t give a damn if Americans were shoving money down that rat hole. I didn’t see any communist purpose served by getting us out of our AID programs there.
Whatever the reason, he was dead. It was a hardball game there. This occurred, as I said, on Valentine’s Day, 1979. Our bilateral relationship went steeply downhill from that point onward.
The Mujahadeen reaction started right after the revolution and got worse and worse for the regime. We reported that huge amounts of military materiel were being brought into the country. Far more tanks were brought into Afghan tank parks than there were tank crews in the Afghan army. At the same time the Afghan government army was melting away, as we described in our messages, “like an ice floe in a tropical sea.” Entire units were deserting to the Mujahadeen. Therefore, the Russians had to face this manpower leak. Something had to be done to give the regime replacement manpower.
We were evaluating what the Soviets were going to do along these lines. There were people who said, “Maybe they’ll bring in Cubans.” We said, “No, that wouldn’t make any sense.”
Soviets then started to beef up their strength in the country with Soviet forces. They actually took over military installations, such as the big airbase at Bagram, north of Kabul. It was put under direct Soviet military control.
Then things really got rough on the political scene. In September, Amin killed Taraki in a botched attempt on the part of the latter to eliminate Amin. It appears that Taraki was more favored by the Russians, and the Russians had hoped that Amin could be eliminated. Something went wrong in this bloody encounter. The Soviet ambassador was physically present at the palace when this happened. Amin was the one who survived, and Taraki was the one who died.
Therefore, the Soviets now had a dangerous man who was clearly alerted to their hostility although he was a convinced Communist. Things became very tense toward the end of 1979. At Christmas time Soviet special forces came into Kabul, where they killed Amin themselves. Other Soviet units joined Soviet forces already in the country and launched a direct assault against the Mujahadeen.