by Bruce K. Byers
Thirty-seven years ago in Kabul, Afghanistan U.S. Ambassador Adolph “Spike” Dubs, a career diplomat and U.S. Navy war veteran, was abducted on his way to the embassy in Kabul and taken to a cavernous old hotel in the center of the city. There he was taken by his abductors to a second floor room and bound to a chair while his embassy driver was sent back to the embassy to alert officials of the abduction.
I was the embassy press and information officer in Kabul at the time and had worked often with Ambassador Dubs, introducing him to visiting American and third-country journalists interested in gaining his views on the Marxist Afghan regime under Nur Mohammed Tariki and the progress of the Saur Revolution.
In a letter to my mother that I wrote a few days after Ambassador Dubs’s brutal murder in the hotel, I related the events of that Valentine’s Day and a few of the early consequences. The edited text of my letter follows.
February 19, 1979
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 staff and their spouses were the guests of the Chinese Chargé d’Affaires and his gracious colleagues [on the occasion of the opening of formal diplomatic relations between the U.S. and China in January 1979]. They invited us for a film show and a dinner.
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 [Chicago Tribune reporter] Joe Morris and [Washington Post reporter] Jonathan Randall to a briefing in Ambassador Dubs’s office during their visit here in November.
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.
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 pleas 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 stops.
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, who 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 (who I knew in Tehran), Ambassador Harry Barnes (who 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 to 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 which 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.
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.
Mary Ann Dubs”
The aircraft taxies 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.
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 facade 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. 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.