Skip to main content

by Bruce Byers

A retired Foreign Service Officer who was in Kabul at the time recalls the kidnapping and murder of the U.S. ambassador in 1979 and notes that in the subsequent three decades Afghanistan has remained beset by violence and mired in poverty. He calls for a new approach to helping the Afghan people that recognizes their conservatism and resistance to foreign-imposed change.  – Ed.

February 14, 2009, Valentine’s Day, marks the thirtieth anniversary of the kidnapping and murder of U.S. Ambassador Adolph “Spike” Dubs at the Kabul Hotel in the center of the Afghan capital. It was the worst day in my Foreign Service career. I knew Ambassador Dubs well and served as his press and information officer at Embassy Kabul.

Early in the morning while en route to the embassy, the ambassador’s bullet-resistant, chauffer-driven Cadillac was stopped by a man dressed in a Kabul policeman’s coat and hat at an intersection near the U.S. Information Service Cultural Center. The driver apparently cracked the window far enough for the man to shove a gun in his face and demand that he open the door. He complied, and the man crawled in and pointed the gun at the ambassador and ordered the driver to take them to the Kabul Hotel. The ambassador was taken to a room on the second floor where other men waited. The driver returned to the embassy to report what happened. A siege in the hotel took place and ended shortly after noon when Afghan Interior Ministry officials ordered specially armed police on the roof of a building across the street and in the hallway to the room to open fire. Miraculously the men holding the ambassador bound in a chair were wounded but survived the fusillade. Ambassador Dubs was pronounced dead at the scene by the Embassy physician.

Ambassador Dubs; Arlington National Cemetery headstone

The months after this brazen kidnapping and the precipitous government reaction were a time of great vulnerability for the American and international communities in Afghanistan as the stability of the Marxist regime of Nur Muhammed Taraki and his Khalq faction grew increasingly shaky. Taraki’s assassination in September 1979 and the subsequent Soviet invasion in December proved that it was indeed destined for destruction.

In the 30 years since that dreadful Valentine’s day, the Afghan people have been beaten and displaced repeatedly, first by Soviet military forces occupying their country, and then by vicious and bloody fights among competing factions for power inside their country. Now resurgent Taliban forces and their allies in Pakistan and elsewhere are challenging the elected government of President Hamid Karzai; they seek to reimpose their totalitarian version of Islamic law on all Afghans.

Opportunity for Change
President Obama’s new administration has an opportunity to change the way the United States and its allies are helping the Afghan people. While the United States has devoted the majority of its military and development resources to Iraq, Afghanistan remains a crucial fulcrum for U.S. foreign policy in South and West Asia. A closer look at the last thirty years in U.S.-Afghan relations is a good starting point for reassessing where we are going with the relationship.

In his book Afghanistan: the First Five Years of Soviet Occupation, J. Bruce Amstutz, the Deputy Chief of Mission under Ambassador Dubs and then the Chargé d’Affaires of the U.S. mission following his killing, wrote about the history of Afghan political factions in the twentieth century and the events that led to the Soviet invasion in December 1979. He pointed out that there had never been a strong central government capable of governing the geographically and ethnically diverse regions of the country. Kabul had been the country’s traditional political center, but its power and authority grew weaker in proportion to the distance from the capital city. Regional capitals such as Herat, Mazar-e-Sharif, and Kandahar maintained their local autonomy for all practical purposes. They still do today.

In 1989 the U.S. blind-sided itself and effectively undermined its foreign policy towards Afghanistan with Washington’s decision to remove all of its diplomats from Kabul after the Soviet withdrawal. This has proved to be very costly. In a statement at the reopening of the U.S. embassy in Kabul on December 17, 2001, Ambassador James Dobbins said:

For that decade, and in the aftermath of the Soviet withdrawal, Afghanistan was largely ignored, not only by the United States, but also by much of the international community. Afghan factions and Afghanistan’s neighbors pursued their own narrow agendas without reference to the broader interests of the Afghan people or of the effects on regional and global stability.

The Afghan people paid a great price for this decade of neglect and abuse. On September 11, the United States and the rest of the international community also paid a great price. The United States returns to Afghanistan today at the head of a great international coalition, a coalition committed to rooting out terrorism and those who support it. But the United States also comes ready to join with the rest of the international community in assisting with the reconstruction of Afghanistan.

By withdrawing its diplomats the U.S. lost the capability to influence positively the post-Soviet political climate in Afghanistan and inadvertently helped to foster a political vacuum that sucked in ruthless factions. These factions proceeded to further destabilize the country and divide the people along ethnic and geographic fault lines. Finally, the Taliban succeeded in taking Kabul and imposing their draconian dictatorship. This was order of the worst kind.

When the Cold War ended in 1991 and the world looked like a brighter, more positive place with new international opportunities, a sense of hubris spread across Washington, boosted by the acclamation that the only remaining “super power” had won the day and the long war. The United States and the world had turned a new corner. However, in the absence of a U.S. diplomatic presence, thousands of foreign Mujahideen, among them Osama bin Laden, remained in Afghanistan and expanded their operations and influence. They profited from large quantities of military weapons and other hardware that the United States had supplied them during their fight against the Soviets.

Base for Terrorism
Kabul became a base of operations for international terrorism, and thousands of would-be fighters flocked to training camps to enlist in the war against Israel, the United States, and other Western democracies. It was from Afghanistan that the orders went out that led to the worst attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor. During the period between 1989 and 2001 the State Department and U.S. intelligence agencies followed developments in Afghanistan and knew of al Qaeda training camps in the country. After the first attack on the World Trade Center in New York in 1993, President Clinton ordered some of these camps to be bombed. They were duly hit, but the threat of future attacks by al Qaeda was not destroyed. If anything its resolve was strengthened.

Today, a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan appears to be gaining ground lost in the months after the U.S./NATO invasion of 2001. The opium trade is as robust as ever and provides a steady income for Taliban leaders and strengthens their ability to challenge Kabul. Taliban and other anti-government factions continue to engage Western military forces in asymetrical warfare. Taliban leaders exploit weaknesses in the Afghan government, especially corruption that enervates development efforts. At the same time they expand their strategy of intimidation by murdering local officials, teachers, and other educated citizens who seek to improve conditions and expand education and development in cooperation with Kabul and the U.S.-led coalition forces.

Since the United States and NATO partners have been involved in helping Afghans rebuild their country, many of the provincial reconstruction teams around the country have achieved substantial progress. Yet, cultural and political hurdles hinder further development. Former National Public Radio correspondent Sarah Chayes has written about her experiences since 2001 as an independent American woman trying to help Afghans in local enterprises and reconstruction projects in the Kandahar area. In her book The Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan after the Fall of the Taliban, Chayes describes many of the obstacles that local citizens experience in trying to deal with government officials. She has encountered many problems with local officials in her various projects in Kandahar. She reports that most of the people with whom she works and lives view good governance as much more important than new schools, roads, and clinics. In short, Chayes and many Afghans see the present political climate in the country as riven with corruption. Taliban resurgence is a direct response to corruption and foreign military operations.

Instability Persists
Since 2001 and the reopening of the U.S. embassy, U.S.-led efforts in Afghanistan have expanded, but the overall situation remains unstable and fragile in many parts of the country. Western Afghanistan is being pulled towards Iran while Eastern Afghanistan sits under the shadow of Pakistan and cross-border insurgency. More resources and better strategies are needed to improve the lives of the Afghan people and strengthen our diplomatic efforts for greater stability in the region. Thirty years have passed and we do not seem to be much closer to a stable government and a prosperous country.

My experience in the Foreign Service – in Kabul and earlier in Tehran – has confirmed for me what Samuel P. Huntington wrote in several of his books, most notably The Clash of Civilizations. Cultural values count. Huntington argued that when people and governments come under increasing stress, they tend to revert to simpler forms of governance and cooperation that worked in the past. Existential priorities become the driving force in policy development, especially among people who have long been oppressed and beaten down by armed groups from within and outside of their country. This does not mean that they have given up on freedom and better government. Many have great hopes that the United States will liberate them from political oppression and economic destitution. We can see such expressions of hope among the people of Zimbabwe, Burma, and at least a dozen other countries.

In his book Political Order in Changing Societies, Huntington argued that change brings with it the opportunity for new political development but also the likelihood for political decay. In a country like Afghanistan people’s expectations are centered more on local and traditional issues. Expectations often outpace the ability of a fledgling national government to meet serious challenges. Where there is widespread social unrest those who control political power seek to strengthen their own positions in the existing political order. All of this works against modernization and its proponents.

In Afghanistan as in other societies in South and Central Asia, ancient customs, rituals, hierarchies, and clan relationships continue to exert major influences on how political power is used. Understanding the multilayered and regionally diverse cultural values and religious practices in Afghan society is a key to effective diplomacy. U.S. military commanders, embassy officers, and members of provincial reconstruction teams already know well their importance. Additionally, there is an ancient division between city and country – between Kabul and the rest of Afghanistan – that influences how politics are played. It is crucial to our foreign policy goals to recognize that Afghan society is still very conservative and has not readily accepted rapid change from foreign quarters. Absent this we will continue to pour money into the country and miss much of what Afghans are trying to tell us.

Challenge to Authority
One message about change and governance is clear: Factions of the Taliban want to reassert their version of traditional cultural and religious values and to reclaim control of the government. This challenge to central government authority raises the question of how Kabul wants to manage change and win the allegiance of a majority of the people. There seems to be ambiguity here. Pronouncements from Kabul often clash with the experiences of the citizenry with local government officials. The traditional tension between Kabul and the provinces, especially over the distribution of limited resources, continues to offer the Taliban opportunities for exploitation. In the end, there are ideological differences that have to be resolved regardless of what infrastructure projects are planned and implemented.

Most of us who have served in Afghanistan brought with us our education and experiences steeped in Judeo-Christian, Protestant, and capitalist economic values. Many of us assumed that the problems Afghans faced were tractable along the lines of our own values and experiences. In our society we place a high value on getting the job done and on rooting out corruption whenever it occurs. Yet, as Huntington reminds us, our efforts to modernize non-Western political, social, and economic structures often face challenges from much older, deeply-rooted, and successful traditions that help people make sense of their lives in ways foreign to us. The people of Afghanistan have had to develop many different coping strategies and an enduring resilience during the devastation of their country over the last 30 years. They are as capable as other people of recognizing corruption in their society, but different cultural traditions, power relationships, and laws will determine how they deal with it.

Thirty years ago Afghan Marxists, many with Russian, European, and American university educations, tried to build a new society and replace centuries of Afghan traditions and customs with foreign ideological values. They even had Soviet political support and military backing. They failed. They and their Soviet mentors were working under assumptions of an outworn paradigm and did not accept the force of traditional Afghan values rooted in family, bazaar, and mosque. What are the lessons that we can learn from this decade-long Soviet-Afghan experience? What can we learn from Afghans’ rugged individualism, indomitable spirit, and uncompromising ability to bear suffering and survive?

Historically, Afghan leaders who identified too closely with foreign powers have not fared well. Foreigners who have occupied Kabul and other parts of Afghanistan have ultimately been forced to quit the country. The United States and its coalition partners are well into a decade of political, economic, and social development in collaboration with the government in Kabul and with regional government authorities. Progress is being made, but as Huntington pointed out, political growth is also subject to decay. Ultimately, many different communities of Afghans will have to agree upon how changes take place in their local areas if the national government is to have any chance of surviving to strengthen good governance. The past 30 years have shown us what happens when a top-down political strategy is employed from Kabul.

Expanding Education
In our efforts to create greater understanding among Afghans towards us and our work in their country the expansion of educational opportunities at all levels and especially for women and girls is essential. More open education will help the current and future generations make better sense of changes in their society. Fostering more local business opportunities for men and women alike will spread ideas that generate confidence and prosperity in a more open society. In doing this we can assist Afghans in managing beneficial changes among themselves. We are helping them by offering support in many ways, but more resources and people are necessary. Whatever we do, Afghans must make the countless decisions that will help them shape a different society and build a more acceptable and responsive government.

In his 1987 autobiography, Man of the House, former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neil quoted his own father when he said that all politics is local. After losing an election for a seat on the Cambridge City Council early in his political career, he admitted that he had not paid enough attention to the people in his own neighborhood. He had taken them for granted. Tip O’Neil’s experience is worth keeping in mind as we continue to help Afghans manage change in countless villages and towns. The new administration of President Obama will have ample opportunity to test O’Neil’s maxim as it implements policy initiatives in Afghanistan.

The views expressed here are entirely the author’s own and do not reflect any official U.S. government policy. No publication or reproduction in any media without the author’s permission.


Bruce Byers
Bruce Byers

Bruce Byers is a retired Foreign Service Officer who served as press and information officer at the U.S. embassy in Kabul, 1978-79. He is the author of “Assassination of an Ambassador: Afghanistan, 1979,” in Inside a U.S. Embassy: How the Foreign Service Works for America, published by the American Foreign Service Association, Washington, D.C., 2003.


Comments are closed.