As a young foreign correspondent, I undertook my first reporting assignment to Kabul in October 1979, seven months after the killing of Adolph ‘Spike’ Dubs, America’s ambassador to Afghanistan, and two months prior to the Soviet invasion of this mountainous and desert country. In my conversations with several of the few U.S. diplomats who remained in the Afghan capital at the time, all recalled their former ambassador with reverence. Most staff had been evacuated because of the spreading civil war, so there was only a small contingent of foreign service personnel, intelligence operatives and marines to man the sprawling U.S. embassy.
“He was highly knowledgeable with a close affinity to Afghanistan,” one of the diplomats told me as we stood outside the empty American Center in Kabul discussing the deteriorating political situation. “He knew the country well.” As with so many American foreign service or USAID representatives based in the region, Dubs had a particular passion for Afghanistan, often spending his weekends or holidays travelling the country. “He did a lot for the community and was very much liked,” the diplomat added.
Not unlike the British Council, Germany’s Goethe Institute and other western cultural centres in Afghanistan, the American Center once played a vital role in Afghan intellectual life. Its library used to be packed with both students and townsfolk who came to read American newspapers and magazines, but also to learn English or attend lectures by visiting scholars and scientists. Dubs had been a keen supporter of such initiatives. He considered it crucial for Afghans to better understand what America stood for, notably democracy, but also freedom of the press as illustrated by the prominent display of major U.S. dailies ranging from the New York Times to the Christian Science Monitor as well as magazines such as the Atlantic Monthly and Scientific American.
As the country’s ruling pro-Soviet People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) tightened its repression of political dissidents or citizens suspected of cultivating ties with westerners, few Afghans dared being seen at this once busy downtown establishment. As the diplomat and I chatted, occasional Soviet-built jeeps or trucks crammed with Kalashnikov-totting militiamen, members of the hardline Khalqi (Masses) communist party faction, roared past. Only days earlier, Kabul’s new strongman, Hafizullah Amin, had murdered his predecessor, Mohammed Taraki. Amin’s henchmen had allegedly suffocated the ex-president in his bed. The city was on edge with constant patrols so one had to be careful.
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In the autumn of 1979, Afghanistan did not exactly figure on the front-burner of world events even with the spread of popular revolt against the PDPA regime, prompting growing concern in Moscow, its main backer. Nor had I sensed that there had been anything foul with Dubs’ death apart from the fact that he had died in what appeared to be an unfortunate kidnapping gone awry. While his death had been duly reported by the press, it was more along the lines of American diplomat killed: victim of Afghanistan’s spreading civil war.
For years afterwards, the Dubs killing would occasionally re-surface in discussions about events leading up to the Soviet invasion. But nothing dramatic. There was never any mention of the fact that the original report into his death had yet to be made public. In fact, it is still lying unseen four decades later in the vaults of the U.S. State Department. The public was never officially informed.
And this despite a second report in 1999 by Chuck Boles, the concerned former security officer for the U.S. embassy, who had been present at the Hotel Kabul when Dubs was killed. Boles urged the State Department to re-examine the case which should never have been allowed to go cold. There was sufficient evidence, he believed, showing that the Afghan government with the active support of several KGB officers had murdered the American ambassador. “He was kidnapped by the Afghan government and executed with a Soviet weapon supplied by the KGB,” he maintained. The State Department never responded.
Nevertheless, certain revelations regarding this extraordinary cold case began to emerge through recorded histories published by the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training. Then came various documents declassified by the State Department, including cable exchanges at the time. Combined with the added benefit of 21st century forensics plus an FBI analysis, the story of what had really happened began to seep out.
This was enough to inspire Canadian journalist and documentary film-maker Arthur Kent to conduct his own investigation coupled with new evidence. The result is Murder in Room 117, a riveting book that reads like a thriller and which brings much of this incredible story to light. Based on original source material drawn from repeated rounds of interviews with participants and witnesses recorded from 2017 to the end of 2020, Kent has produced a remarkably detailed account of how, and why, Dubs was deliberately murdered with help from the Soviets. (See below how to order the book at skyreporter.com)
While certain detractors, including one of the former KGB agents involved, maintain that this is a ludicrous allegation, Kent clearly knows his stuff. One can also sense that he is still chomping at the bit for all the remaining evidence to be published. As Kent argues, “the release of the remainder of the Dubs files appears to be decidedly in the public interest.”
Of particular relevance are the insights provided by various former members of U.S. embassy staff in the Afghan capital who had immediately gone to the Hotel Kabul when they heard that Dubs had been kidnapped. They were also present for the government assault to ‘free’ the ambassador. Once the firing had subsided, they immediately entered room 117, where Dubs had been held. To their dismay, they found the ambassador slumped over in a chair, dead. He had been shot five times in the head at close range, with three rounds to his left temple and two to the right.
Had the initial State Department investigation ever been made public, particularly regarding claims of KGB involvement in the killing, during the remaining years of the Cold War, one could only imagine the explosive accusations and denials that would have ensued. Instead, whether for political expedience in certain Washington quarters or for fear of having insufficient evidence, the report was buried.
The Russians, of course, have a different story, even maintaining that one of the American diplomats had planted the gun in order to blame the Soviets. Kent followed up by tracking down Lt. Col. Sergei Gavrilovich Bakhturin, the former KGB officer who commanded the armed assault on the hotel room. At 89, he was still alive in Moscow. While Bakhturin refused to meet with a western journalist, he agreed to talk with a young Russian investigative reporter working with Kent. In a scene as if out of a John Le Carré novel, the old spy had his own version to offer and it did not include assuming responsibility for Dubs’ murder. Instead, he maintained that had Soviet special forces run the operation, the American ambassador would have been rescued.
The evidence for the contrary that Kent offers, however, appears solid. And he has a reputation as a serious journalist to back it up. No newcomer to Afghanistan, Kent was one of a small group of international reporters, mainly freelancers, who began covering the Soviet-Afghan war during the 1980s and has continued with his scrutiny of this ongoing war, particularly Pakistan’s role, until the present day. Working for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, The London Observer and other news organizations, Kent has covered events ranging from the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests to the Romanian revolution. However, it was during the 1991 Gulf War that he achieved in the United States a nationwide reputation as the ‘Scud Stud’ for his frontline coverage wearing his trademark leather jacket for NBC News.
A ‘cold case’ reveals
Without giving away too much of the plot, what Kent has produced is a compelling blow-by-blow account with a storyline worthy of a Third Man or Bourne Identity style Hollywood feature. Not only does Kent reveal how Dubs was cold-bloodedly assassinated by an Afghan gunman using a pistol provided by the KGB during the supposed ‘rescue’ attempt, but he highlights the political context in Kabul toward the end of the 1970s when both the Soviet Union and the United States were avidly vying with each other for influence. He also sets the scene of what it was like as the international community, including most American diplomats and aid workers, began to leave with the war creeping closer and closer to Kabul. It was the Dubs killing, however, which prompted the downward spiral.
As Kent recounts, Dubs was a much-liked and highly accessible man who not only made every effort to understand Afghanistan but also to improve relations with the United States. For the Soviets, however, the presence of one of America’s top diplomats in Kabul was proving awkward. It was clear that even within the PDPA, there was interest in the Americans amongst some Afghans who felt that their country would benefit from playing one Superpower off against the other.
As far as Moscow was concerned, this represented a threat to its own strategic designs in the region. Dubs had to go. His murder also contributed to the Kremlin’s decision to intervene militarily in Afghanistan in an effort to shore up the foundering PDPA regime against rising guerrilla attacks. The kidnapping of the American ambassador was part of an operation designed to create an incident that would allow him to be removed from the scene. Who better to blame than the mujahidin, or holy warriors, as Afghan rebels were known?
The book vividly recounts what happened on Valentine’s Day, 14 February 1979 during that excruciating kidnapping-turned-disaster ordeal. As Kent writes, the kidnappers never made any actual demands, which was curious. They also came across as inept and hardly capable of masterminding such an operation from the moment they hijacked the ambassador’s car that morning to the precipitous final assault by Afghan security forces. Without seeking to negotiate, the KGB officer-in-charge of the operation appeared to want to move as quickly as possible.
Throughout the short but tragic siege, the American diplomats present could do little more than watch helplessly. They were never allowed to confer or coordinate a proper rescue operation with the Afghan authorities, who claimed to have everything in hand. Nevertheless, they sought to closely monitor what was happening. While all this was taking place, they noticed that one of the leading Russian KGB operatives known to them, Sergei Gavrilovich Bakhturin, came across as overseeing the operation from the sidelines. Bakhturin even told the Americans to hold back and that he was “in charge.” They also observed him as the one to give the order for the attack.
With Afghan police and soldiers taking up positions both in the hotel and in a building across the street giving a direct view of Room 117, the Americans could only wait. The moment the firing ended, the diplomats immediately ran for the room with a stretcher, but then heard what sounded like five small calibre shots. On entering, they saw an Afghan, probably a KHAD (secret police) agent or a Soviet asset, whom they had previously observed being handed a pistol with instructions by the KGB. They never saw him again.
A fast-moving cover-up
On finding the U.S. ambassador dead in the blood and bullet-shattered room, the diplomats removed the body, albeit still trying to resuscitate Dubs, on a stretcher to the ambulance that would take him to the embassy. Several of the Americans then returned to the room to begin collecting evidence. One also returned the next day to shoot photographs of everything they saw. They had to work fast as it was clear that the Afghans, but also the KGB, did not want them to hang around. As Kent maintains, “the cover-up had begun.” Barely treating the room as a crime scene, the Afghan police had already removed all the bullet casings.
When U.S. officials were finally permitted by the Afghan regime to return to the hotel, the room had been completely cleaned up, the damage repaired. In the days and weeks that followed, the Kabul authorities thwarted U.S. efforts to obtain more information. They also pressured if not deliberately threatened Afghans working with the Americans, including the ambassador’s driver, to refrain from revealing details. Such menaces, however, did not prevent the Afghans from talking about what they had witnessed.
According to the PDPA Kabul authorities, Dubs was killed either in the crossfire or by the four ‘bandits’. All four conveniently turned up dead in the city morgue. Two had been killed at the scene; the third, who was not even there during the assault but had been apprehended and beaten earlier, also had been shot. A fourth body simply appeared. All four were displayed for photographs by the official state media. As Kent reveals, they were most likely fall guys who had nothing to do with the mujahidin but had been hired to orchestrate a kidnapping. Their mafia-style elimination ensured that they would never speak.
Murder in Room 117 is an exceptional and timely work of journalistic investigation. While not conclusive, it supports the justification for a thorough re-examination of the Dubs case. Now that the Americans are preparing to leave Afghanistan militarily, this is a book well-worth reading for additional background regarding U.S. involvement in Afghanistan.
The Spike Dubs murder may have helped ignite the Soviet invasion. It is also interesting to note that despite Washington’s claim of only being involved in a 20-year war since the US-led intervention in October 2001, its military engagement actually goes back to 1979. In July of that year, nearly six months after the Dubs killing, the Central Intelligence Agency began supplying the mujahidin with weapons, eventually developing into large-scale support for the resistance including Stinger missiles to shoot down Soviet MIGs and helicopters. Such clandestine backing helped force the Kremlin to re-consider its options in Afghanistan and eventually withdraw – on Valentine’s Day, 14 February 1989 – precisely one decade after the assassination of Spike Dubs.
To obtain advance copies of Arthur Kent’s Murder In Room 117, go to the skyreporter.com LINK and save by buying direct, prior to the book’s placement on other major platforms and in bookstores.
Global Insights Magazine editor (www.global-geneva.com), Edward Girardet is a Swiss-American foreign correspondent and author with over 40 years experience covering wars, humanitarian crises, and development worldwide. He first began reporting Afghanistan three months prior to the December 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.He has written and edited over half a dozen books, including the Crosslines Essential Field Guides to Afghanistan and Killing the Cranes: A Reporter’s Journey through Three Decades of War in Afghanistan considered a ‘classic’ by the New York Review of Books. He is currently based in France near the Geneva border.