Editor’s Note: Arthur Kent began his Emmy-Award-winning journalism career in 1973. He has reported for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, NBC, BBC News, CNN, TBS, and PBS. Kent’s documentary, “Afghanistan: Captives of the Warlords,” was broadcast by PBS in June, 2001, three months prior to the September 11 attacks. He is producing a podcast series, “Who Murdered Spike Dubs?” at skyreporter.com. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own; view more opinion at CNN.
Too often, we hear of another American death in Afghanistan. But little if any attention is given to the American who gave his life there just prior to the 1979 invasion by Soviet forces, which began the four-decade-long cycle of warfare still continuing today.
It happened 40 years ago, on Valentine’s Day 1979. The US ambassador to Afghanistan, Adolph “Spike” Dubs, was kidnapped and killed in circumstances still clouded in mystery. It remains one of the most troubling cold cases of the Cold War, as detailed by multiple eyewitness accounts and an investigation by the State Department into his death.
Largely lost in the resulting controversy was the nature of the man himself. Spike Dubs was one of the State Department’s best, a man deeply admired by his colleagues.
“He was such a connector, almost everyone felt like he was their friend,” says his daughter Lindsay Dubs McLaughlin, who was 25 when her father died. Now a grandmother living north of Washington, she says her father had an enlightened view of international affairs.
“He felt that if we can connect with people on all kinds of levels, with what we can do economically, what we can do culturally, then that will go a long way towards laying the groundwork for relations that are in everyone’s best interests. So that was his approach, rather than, you know, setting up walls and building barriers.”
Dubs’ former staffers speak fondly of the leader who was violently taken from them.
“People revered him,” says Doug Wankel, a veteran former DEA officer. “He was down to earth, easier to access, easier to feel that he could be one of you.”
Mike Malinowski was US Consul in Kabul 40 years ago. “On a personal level, he was a really easy-going guy. He’d call up and say, hey Mike, this is Spike – ‘Oh yes, Mr. Ambassador!’”
Dubs earned his stripes in the darkest hours of the Cold War. He was in Moscow during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, translating messages between President Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, according to his daughter. Just seven at the time, Lindsay recalls her father coming down from the embassy’s top floor, to where she and her mother huddled with other American families. He reassured her.
“He could tell from the language and the way things were worded that Khrushchev was going to retreat from his position and things were going to calm down.”
In the 1970s, Dubs was back in Moscow as chargé d’affaires, senior enough to come under constant surveillance by the KGB. By the time President Jimmy Carter posted him to Kabul, Dubs was well known to the Soviet leadership.
So when he was pulled from his car and held by armed kidnappers at the Hotel Kabul on February 14, 1979, the Soviets found the fate of a capable opponent in their hands. That’s because Afghan Communists, backed by the Soviets, had seized power in a coup one year earlier. The Afghan regime turned to its Russian patrons for help in responding to Spike’s kidnapping.
Malinowski and Wankel were among the US officials who rushed to the hotel. “When we got there it was massive confusion,” Malinowski says. Afghan troops and police arrived, “and it was very scary that these people were going to start firing off in all directions.”
“Very soon some plainclothes Russian guys showed up,” Doug Wankel recalls. “In my mind, I knew they were KGB, just by the way they comported themselves.” The Soviets, for their part, acknowledged a Russian presence on the scene but said Afghan forces were in command, according to the State Department’s report on its investigation into Dubs’s death.
“We kept trying to get influence with the Soviets,” says Malinowski, “saying for example that in our experience in these type of situations, it’s very good to bring in professional negotiators and psychologists to try to effect a peaceful relief. But it was clear the Soviets didn’t want to get any advice from us.”
Four hours passed as US officials strived to make contact with the Afghan Communist leadership but were unable to do so, much less make contact with the kidnappers. Bruce Flatin, the embassy’s political counselor, was allowed to call out to Dubs through the door of room 117. In German, which both men spoke, Spike was able to say he was all right. But after two brief exchanges, his captors broke off the discussion.
Then, just before 1 p.m. Kabul time, 3:30 a.m. in Washington, one of the Russians signalled the troops into action, according to Malinowski. Three Afghan soldiers with AK-47s approached the room, according to Wankel.
“They kicked in the door and went in,” says Wankel, “and then shooting immediately started.” It was a thunderous barrage, with three assault rifles firing on full automatic within the room, while five more riflemen positioned across the street poured streams of fire at the outer wall and window, by Malinowski’s account.
“It began as soon as the Soviet officer waved his white handkerchief,” says Malinowski. “The Soviets were totally in operational command of the units there at the hotel.”
When the firing ceased, Wankel and Malinowski, together with their embassy doctor and other staffers, rushed toward the room with a stretcher. Then four more shots sounded, pistol rounds, Malinowski says. The stretcher team paused, then entered.
“The gunsmoke was so acrid … you really couldn’t see,” says Wankel. Malinowski recalls his eyes burning. “We stepped on two dead Afghans, I imagine they were dead, I literally stepped on them as we were going into the room. And then we looked and the ambassador was in a chair and slumped over. And the doctor was quickly onto him and I believe at that time, said, ‘Well, I believe the ambassador is dead.’”
Physical evidence at the scene vanished. A third gang member captured alive was produced by the Afghan police hours later as a corpse. That was one of four bodies shown to the Americans, which included the two dead men found in room 117 with Dubs, and a fourth man they had never seen before, according to the State Department report.
An autopsy at Walter Reed in Washington found Dubs died of “at least 10 wounds inflicted by small caliber weapons,” as summarized by the report. None of the guns were produced for US investigators, and it is still not known who fired the “phantom” pistol rounds, or even who the kidnappers were.
The State Department slammed the Soviet and Afghan authorities, calling the Kabul government’s account “incomplete, misleading, and inaccurate,” with “no mention of the Soviets involved in the incident.” The US report concluded: “sufficient evidence has been obtained to establish serious misrepresentation or suppression of the truth by the government.”
The crime damaged American prestige at a critical point in the Cold War. Walter Cronkite commented “the murder of an ambassador in Afghanistan” contributed to “a feeling that America is a kind of helpless giant, kicked around and insulted at will.”
Ten months later, Soviet forces invaded Afghanistan, triggering four decades of war. The aftermath of Spike Dubs’ death belied everything he stood for – particularly the United States’ prolonged and costly role in the bloody debacle.
“He had started making some inroads,” Lindsay says. “And it feels that all of that work he had started came to naught. I think he would be very saddened.”