This was my most dangerous assignment in the Foreign Service, taking place as it did in the middle of a vicious civil war between the pro-Communist Najibullah regime (supported by over 100,000 Soviet troops) and the Mujahedin freedom fighters. At the time, the Embassy consisted of 10 American staff (drawn down from over 150 following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan), and 150 Afghan staff. As Acting Deputy Chief of Mission, I was in charge of keeping the Mission going, despite the hostility of the regime, and continuous Mujahedin attacks on Kabul. Due to wartime conditions and staffing constraints, I also functioned during this period as Political Counselor, Economic Counselor, Administrative Counselor, General Services Officer, and Consul General. However, my chief responsibility was monitoring and reporting on Soviet military activities in Afghanistan. I provided reporting verifying that the Soviets were honoring their agreement to withdraw from Afghanistan, and contributed unique reporting on new weapons deployments to Kabul (including the first sighting by a Western diplomat of Scud missiles in Afghanistan). In the performance of my duties I came close to losing my life on several occasions (once when an ammunition dump exploded at Kabul airport, once when the Soviets thoughtfully laid an unmarked minefield in the center of town, and twice while observing Soviet airport operations during Mujahedin rocket attacks). In January 1989, newly appointed Secretary of State James Baker ordered the suspension of our operations in Kabul before the Soviet army withdrew, correctly judging that conditions for U.S. diplomats would become even more dangerous after the Soviet army’s departure on February 15. I planned and implemented the evacuation and closure of post as the Soviet withdrawal concluded, and returned to Washington with Chargé Glassman to brief Secretary Baker. Awards: Superior Honor Award for military reporting under conditions of extreme danger and hardship.
Afghanistan emerged as a nation in the 18th century, when it was at the center of an empire ruled by Ahmad Shah Durrani. For most of its history since then, however, it has been more akin to an Islamic cauldron, where half-nations have met in permanent collision. Separated from their brethren across the border, disunited tribes of Uzbeks and Tajiks in the north, Pushtuns in the south and Iranians in the west have constantly vied for dominance in Afghanistan. Rivals of every sort have spent centuries struggling with each other over an eerie landscape of mountains and deserts that, while spectacularly beautiful, is also barren and dangerous. Traditionally, Afghanistan has been a land of clans, where the central government has been weak and corrupt, and every mountain top has had its own petty despot. This state of affairs has put its stamp on the personality of every Afghan. Because of this, Afghanistan’s politics has been very much like its national game, “Buzkashi”. In both, Afghans are quick to change sides when the opportunity presents itself, thus maintaining a chaotic balance of power. It is a hard place for an outsider to understand.
Landlocked, impoverished and backward, Afghanistan has always been at the crossroads of empire, and one of the few things to unite Afghans has been the struggle against imperial occupiers. In the nineteenth century, the region was a key prize in “The Great Game” between Russia and the British Empire, as both powers vied for influence in Central Asia. The British briefly occupied Afghanistan in the 1840s, but came a cropper in the First Afghan War when their entire army was wiped out in a popular Islamic uprising. The war ended after the British put together another army (the “Army of Retribution”), burned the center of Kabul, hanged various notables -- and then sensibly left. Afghanistan was conquered again by the British in 1878, during the Second Afghan War, and assumed the status of a protectorate. In 1919, following the Third Afghan War, the country achieved full independence as a constitutional monarchy, playing the role of a buffer state between the Soviet Union and British India.
From 1933 until 1973, Afghanistan was ruled by Mohammed Zahir Shah, and for most of this period, the country receded almost completely from the stage of world politics. For Foreign Service Officers of the time, Kabul was known as a “sleeper post,” a place that was off the beaten track, where nothing much happened and life was good. For most of the Cold War, Afghanistan was neutral, and used its strategic position to play off the Soviets against the Americans to maximize assistance, “lighting Soviet cigarettes with American matches,” as one Afghan leader put it.
Under Zahir Shah, Afghanistan was more a collection of city states than a nation, and rule from the center was corrupt and feeble. This suited most Afghans, but on July 17, 1973, the King’s brother-in-law, Mohammed Daoud led a bloodless military coup that overturned the two-century-old Afghan kingdom, and exiled Zahir Shah to Italy. Daoud was a Pushtun nationalist, and although local Communists had helped him gain power, he became increasingly hostile toward them. Unfortunately for Daoud, his efforts to repress his erstwhile allies were singularly unsuccessful.
On April 27, 1978, Daoud was killed in a Communist-led coup, and Nur Mohammed Taraki took over as the leader of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan. Many suspected that the coup had actually been sponsored by the Soviets, although more recent evidence suggests that Moscow was also surprised by the events unfolding in Kabul. After a short period, the Taraki regime’s demonstrated incompetence and cruelty, as well as its ill-advised efforts to secularize the country, led to a vicious civil war, with the Islamic majority rising up against the ruling Communist regime.
In this conflict, foreigners were often caught in the middle. On February 14, 1979 (Valentine's Day), the American Ambassador, Adolph "Spike" Dubs was kidnapped by Islamic radicals, and then killed at the Hotel Kabul in the course of a bungled rescue operation. The U.S. withdrew much of its staff, and for the next few years, the Mission was headed by a Chargé d'Affaires. An uprising in Herat the following month, in which three Soviet officials were also massacred, was eventually put down with the loss of over 5,000 lives. The security situation in the country continued to decline as the Islamic revolt gained strength.
On September 14, 1979, rivalries among the Afghan Communists led to a coup against Taraki. He was overthrown, and eventually murdered, by his ruthless lieutenant, Hafizullah Amin, who Soviet KGB Chairman Yuriy Andropov erroneously suspected of working with the Americans. The Soviet Union, fearing that its position in Afghanistan would soon be lost, sent in the Army on December 27, 1979. Amin was killed in a KGB and Spetsnaz assault on the Tajbeg Presidential Palace and a limited contingent of over 100,000 troops invaded and occupied the country, ostensibly to thwart American and Pakistani intervention and to save the country from Islamic rebels (the Mujahedin). The Soviets installed Babrak Karmal as a puppet President, but he proved to be incompetent.
In 1986, with the war growing in intensity and outside military assistance to the Mujahedin increasing, the Soviets replaced Karmal with Mohammad Najibullah, the head of the much-feared KhAD (Afghan KGB) in a futile attempt to stabilize the situation. The growing morass in Afghanistan, and Mikhail Gorbachev's desire to improve relations with the West inevitably led the Soviets to reassess their position. After protracted negotiations with the Western powers, Soviet forces began to withdraw in May, 1988. The Soviet military pullout was completed on February 15, 1989. More than 15,000 Soviet soldiers and over one million Afghans were killed during the nine-year war. Millions were made homeless, and over five million lived for years as refugees in Pakistan and Iran. My tour of duty took place in the last year of the Soviet occupation.
First Day in Kabul.
I flew into Kabul from New Delhi on a hot July day in 1988. Our aircraft, an Indian Airlines 737, flew well above 20,000 feet until we were directly over Kabul International Airport, and then corkscrewed downward, carefully keeping as close to the airport grounds as possible. I later found out that the Mujahedin sometimes crept into the hills on the northern approaches to Kabul, hoping to shoot down arriving or departing aircraft with American-supplied Stingers (effective up to 12,500 feet). Fortunately, there were none about on that day. As I got off the plane and walked across the tarmac to the open baggage area, Mi-24 Hind helicopters flew past in a low formation, heading for suspected Mujahedin positions in the hills to the Southeast. Amid the noise, and the blasts of hot air, I once again questioned why I had ever been talked into volunteering for the Kabul assignment. Just before coming out to Kabul, I had reread Patrick Macrory's "Signal Catastrophe," a gripping account of the disastrous British retreat from Kabul in 1842, in which incompetence, treachery and ill fortune led to the annihilation of the British Army. The book underscored for me what a dangerous and unpredictable place Afghanistan could be for outsiders, and I wondered how I would fare here. It was clear that I was going to earn every bit of my danger pay, and then some.
I was met by Ed McWilliams, whom I would replace as Acting DCM. Ed was well respected by rank-and-file FSOs as a dedicated and brave officer. He went out of his way to volunteer for dangerous posts and had a reputation for doing first-class political reporting. He had developed a network of sources in Kabul, was on the road frequently despite the dangers inherent in the job, and had markedly improved the quality and quantity of information coming out of Embassy Kabul. It was also clear that he was not looking forward to leaving. He had grown attached to the Mujahedin cause, and had gotten into many verbal scrapes with Embassy Islamabad over policy and reporting with regard to Afghanistan. Ed was slated to be “Special Envoy” to the Afghan resistance leaders based in Pakistan, and many at Embassy Islamabad seemed wary of the idea, primarily because Ed would have a separate reporting channel that would not be subject to censorship or clearance by the Embassy. The upshot was that Ed was not anxious to leave, and there were quite a few in Islamabad who were not anxious to receive him. Perhaps as a result, Ed was able to overlap with me for about a month, showing me the ropes at Embassy Kabul. This proved to be invaluable, and the things I learned from Ed may even have saved my life on a couple of occasions.
As it turned out, Ed might have been better off staying in Kabul. When Bob Oakley succeeded Arnie Raphel as our Ambassador in Islamabad, he and Ed were at loggerheads most of the time. Ed thought the Mujahedin were far less effective than other agencies believed, and that the U.S. was being snookered by its Pakistani allies. One of his most damaging charges was that the Pakistanis were using U.S. aid money to build up Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a rabidly anti-American Mujahedin leader, to be the successor to Najibullah (at the time, Hekmatyar was also being supported financially by Osama bin Ladin). But Oakley, as well as his DCM Beth Jones and Station Chief Milt Bearden subscribed to the party line, maintaining that everything was under control and that the Mujahedin would displace Najibullah quickly once the Soviets had left. Ed's serious disagreements with the Embassy Islamabad front office hurt all the more so because he turned out to be right -- the principal Mujahedin groups supported by Pakistan were largely anti-American, and, as the disastrous battle for Jalalabad proved in early 1989, they were too corrupt, untrained and unready to take on the Najibullah government in a conventional battle. Ed had a particularly bad personality clash with Milt Bearden, the primary architect of our Mujahedin policy, who took to calling Ed “That Evil Little Person.” Things got so bad that Ed was subjected to a series of security investigations designed to discredit him as a leaker of classified information, an alcoholic and a homosexual. None of these investigations came to anything, but efforts continued to have Ed removed. A few months after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, Ed was finally sent back to Washington, and my old friend Peter Tomsen took his place. Peter came to the same conclusions as Ed did about the Afghanistan situation, but was much more circumspect, so he managed to hang on to his job.
Ed’s own career rebounded with a tour as DCM in Managua. Then, in 1992, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, he headed the teams that opened up Embassies Bishkek and Dushanbe. Ed and I met up again when he and the rest of the Embassy staff were temporarily withdrawn, much against his will, from Tajikistan during the civil war there in late 1992. After leaving Dushanbe in 1994, Ed was put up for Ambassador to Turkmenistan, but the appointment was blocked by Beth Jones, who by that time was working as Secretary Warren Christopher’s Executive Assistant. Ed did a tour in Jakarta, and a couple of tours back in Washington before retiring in 2001. His very revealing recollections are in the frontline diplomacy collection.
Ed settled me in at the DCM's residence, which was an old walled house near the Blue Mosque, and I dropped off my five suitcases there. They contained the only personal items I would have for my tour of duty, as sea freight and air freight were no longer being shipped in. He then took me to the Embassy to meet my new boss, Chargé Jon Glassman. I had met Jon a couple of times back in Washington, and we had liked each other, even though we were as different as could be. Jon was a bit of an ideologue and he had volunteered for Kabul because he believed in the mission of liberating Afghanistan from the Soviets. His radio call-sign, in fact, was "Liberator." People back in Washington, as well as in Islamabad and Delhi, tended to view him as a right-wing cowboy. His reporting was more ideological than factual in tone, and he was prone to strike dramatic poses, such as the time he went out to Lake Kharga attired in a bulletproof vest and armed with a silver-plated revolver. Still, he was to prove a firm friend. He and Ed also had personalities that were very different, but they both respected and liked each other, and they were a good team. Jon's Oral History interview is most informative.
My first look at the Embassy filled me with a sense of foreboding. In those days, before terrorist attacks against Americans were a widespread phenomenon, most embassies I had seen looked like relatively normal office buildings, perhaps set back a little from the street, and with the obligatory Marine Guard detachment, but still and all a pretty normal place in which to work. Kabul was my first "Fortress Embassy." It was located on a dusty plain just south of the airport, next to where the ill-fated British cantonment used to be in the 1840s. The Chancery building itself was set back from the street about fifty yards, and surrounded by a tall tan-colored cement wall, which was topped with razor wire. The entire perimeter outside the walls was patrolled by Afghan government forces, and by our own local guard force of about 150, whose loyalties, I was soon to find out, were extremely suspect.
Embassy Kabul was prepared, as best it could be, for the possibility of a terrorist attack, but in truth, there was no terrorist threat directed specifically against the Embassy -- unless one chose to count the heavily-armed members of the Baluchi Liberation Front, who were headquartered next door. It was judged that our precautions might come in handy, however, if the Soviets withdrew and we decided to stay. Under such circumstances, a direct attack on the Embassy by government forces, or renegade elements of a government in chaos, was a distinct possibility, and we would need to buy time while waiting for a rescue operation. Fortunately, matters never got to that point, although they certainly did for our allies, the Pakistanis, who stayed on after the Soviets departed.
While we were not a deliberate target of military action while I was in Kabul, we did, on occasion, find ourselves to be inadvertent victims of collateral damage in the ongoing conflict. Periodically, Il-76 jet cargo planes coming in for a landing would fly directly over the Embassy, dropping flares all the way to protect against shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles, which the Mujahedin by then had in abundance. The flares often fell into the compound, and started fires that the Marines would have to put out. In addition, Mujahedin mortar attacks against the airport would periodically overshoot, landing in our compound instead. Just before I arrived, one mortar round landed within 25 yards of the Embassy Chancery, wiping out a small stand of trees and pelting our building with shrapnel. It was not for nothing that the Embassy's radio call sign was "Alamo."
The Chancery building was also hardened against attack. American staff, with the exception of the Chargé and myself, were forbidden to leave the compound unaccompanied, and only then with special permission. While working in the Chancery, Embassy personnel were told to use caution when observing from the roof. The thought was that personnel who lingered too long made an ideal target for snipers. Every now and again, I would shoot videotape from the roof, but kept well-concealed. The person placed most at risk by his roof activities was one of our communicators, Al Kaya, who periodically had to realign the communications dish. Al was a volunteer, like the rest of us, and he accepted the risk without complaint.
The Chancery consisted of three floors and a basement. Part of the basement housed the cafeteria, but the rest was a hardened garage area where we kept armored International Harvester all-terrain vehicles -- presumably our last resort if evacuation by Blackhawk helicopter proved impossible. The RSO, Dave Akerman, kept a small stash of light weapons for our use in defending the Embassy, and each Embassy officer had full body armor and a Kevlar helmet in his office, just in case they were needed. Our Afghan local employees were quartered in administrative buildings outside the main walls. This was also where we kept most of our vehicles, in order to minimize the possibility of a car bomb attack on the Chancery.
Our Marines were a special breed. People say this all the time about Marines, I know, but these guys earned the distinction. In the first place, there were only four of them, assigned to guard a post in hostile territory that would normally be manned by a full detachment of eight to ten Marines. The Marine contingent had fallen so low because, as Marines completed their tours and departed, new ones were not allowed to come in by the Najibullah regime. With only four Marines on duty, there could be no days off for anyone. The Marines had to man Post One 24 hours a day, and in addition to their normal duties, they also had to do the weekly courier run to New Delhi. Normally, Marines serving in a danger/hardship post like Kabul would be there for only six months, and then get their pick of onward assignments. Our Marines volunteered to stay on, some for years at a time, because they knew that if they left the post might be forced to shut down. They served without complaint, and in fact we often remarked on how much the Marines seemed to be enjoying their assignment. There were certainly enough booms and bangs to keep the average combat soldier interested. Relations between the Marines and the rest of the Embassy staff were closer than I have seen at any other post. They were all volunteers, as we were, and they felt they were doing something important for their country. When they left, with the rest of us, most felt a sense of regret, and then promptly volunteered for other severe hardship assignments.
My Main Tasks.
It took Ed over a week to brief me on all the tasks I would be expected to perform as Acting DCM. In addition to the normal DCM duties, with which I was familiar, I would be taking on a number of other responsibilities. Essentially, the core of my job was to gather as much political and military information as possible, in order to report on the course of the war, and, most significantly, to verify that the Soviets were honoring their agreement to complete the withdrawal of their forces by February 15, 1989. Increasingly, all the reporting functions of the Political, Economic and Defense Attaché sections were combined in me, as all members of the Political and Economic sections were withdrawn over the course of the year (DAO had been withdrawn long ago). In addition, our lone Secretary, Pat Brania, was withdrawn in August. This created serious problems for Jon and me, and an additional clerical workload that we could ill afford. Because of increasing staff shortages, we both reached the point where we had no days off, and little time to ourselves. I estimate that by October my average workweek came in at around 120 hours. Curiously, however, the immediate effect was not exhausting, but exhilarating. I have no doubt that had I stayed in Kabul for much longer I would have been ground down, but the first six months were too full of excitement to think about being tired.
Fortunately, one area where our workload was actually smaller than that of most other posts was in completing required reports. Over the past few decades the number of periodic reports required by the State Department and Congress had mushroomed to the point that it consumed a significant portion of an Embassy’s workload, and degraded an Embassy’s ability to perform its core functions (Over the years, this problem has become even worse, and despite official recognition of the burden of excessive paperwork, little has been done to correct the problem). In Kabul’s case, we were exempted from most reporting requirements, except for the annual Terrorism and Human Rights reports. I was glad to do these reports, but even gladder not to have to do any of the other superfluous paperwork, which wasted our time and was read by almost no one. One attraction of severe danger posts, or remote and short-staffed posts, was the prospect of relief from bureaucratic drudgery, and it provided a strong incentive, for me at least, to seek such postings.
In addition to my main responsibilities, since the Administrative Counselor, GSO, and Consul General had all been withdrawn long ago, I was expected to perform their duties as well. Fortunately, with regard to the first two functions, I had lots of help. Despite incredible hardships, including persecution and jailing, about 40 of Embassy Kabul's Foreign Service Nationals stubbornly remained loyal, and refused to stop working for us. Paul Matthews, an Indian Christian, was the head Foreign Service national, and he was able to run most administrative and general services matters without my intervention. All financial affairs were run directly out of New Delhi. We were fortunate also to have a full suite of communicators to help us with our work, some coming in from Delhi on TDY, including Frank Swain, and others permanently assigned, like Al Kaya, John Shollenbarger and Harold "Smitty" Smith. In the end, there were only nine Americans left at post when the final evacuation order came in January, 1989.
Running the Route.
Ed spent much of his remaining time in Kabul showing me his daily routine. On normal days, we would get up at 0500 and "run the route." This meant starting up our light-armored Volkswagen Jetta and, as day broke, driving around the outskirts of Kabul, taking the main road around the Northern edge of the airport, scouting Soviet military positions there for signs of movement, and then checking the airport itself and various regions of Kabul proper. Quite frequently, we would also drive out the road to Lake Kharga, the gateway to Paghman province, and on other days take the road to Jalalabad as far as we could go. We would also usually drive up to the top of Bibi Marou, a low hill to the Northwest of the Embassy that gave an unrestricted view of the northern half of Kabul. We would also periodically go south to Darulaman, the Headquarters of General Boris Gromov and the Soviet 40th Army, but we rarely got very far in that direction, as the Soviet military were as thick as fleas. This was about as far as we could legally go, since the rest of Afghanistan was closed to American and most other diplomats for military reasons. If we were caught in a restricted area, we could be arrested and expelled. Nevertheless, operational reasons often required that we break the rules. Ed was never caught, and neither was I. Another thing that was rarely done was photography. The Afghans and Soviets would tolerate us looking at them through binoculars, but taking pictures, particularly around military installations could have very serious consequences. So, I watched, I took notes, and I remembered, but only rarely and under the most favorable of circumstances, took photos.
"Reliable" Afghan Sources.
In addition to checking for physical evidence of military activity, Ed also introduced me to his numerous Afghan sources. Most of these were private citizens, everyone from merchants on Chicken Street to members of the intelligentsia, whom Ed had developed carefully and quietly over a period of years. My own experience with them was that their information was usually of extremely poor quality, and could not be trusted. I also suspected that at least a couple of the sources were working for KhAD (Khademat-e Atelat-e Dawlati), the local version of the KGB. I played along, nonetheless, and allowed them to pass on their war stories, even though it usually wound up contributing nothing to my own reporting.
One source of regular information that Ed had developed and passed on to me happened to be one of our own Afghan employees. Following Ed’s tradecraft, I would meet him in the Marine House, where, one-on-one, he would impart various gems of military information that had come his way. I never trusted him, and suspected that he was actually working for the Najibullah regime, but I listened as he spun his stories, and never volunteered anything myself. Very little of what he said could be verified through independent sources and almost none of what he reported actually made it into my weekly cables to Islamabad, but I played along. My reasoning was that if he was indeed a plant, as was likely, then the Najibullah regime would think that I was spinning my wheels, when actually I was using him as a means of diverting them from my other information gathering activities which were much more reliable. After the American contingent was evacuated from Kabul, I often wondered what had happened to my “trusted” informant. I found out by chance when the Mujahedin took Kabul in 1992. A picture appeared in the wire services of the Mujahedin summarily executing one of Najibullah’s spies. The victim looked very much like our Afghan informant.
Other Afghans volunteered their services to me, hoping for payment in the usual valueless “bricks” of Afghan currency, but I rarely found any that could be trusted. I met one particularly interesting fellow at a diplomatic reception. He at first claimed to be with the Afghan MVD, and then later changed his story, admitting that he was KhAD. I would meet him occasionally at Lake Kharga and in other spots, and he would pass on his information to me when he could. The fact that my surveillance dropped off almost exactly before he appeared was, for me at least, a dead giveaway that he was not on the up and up. Nonetheless, I played along in this case as well.
My meetings with my KhAD source were beneficial in one respect: it was one way of putting the goons to sleep, distracting them from my more worthwhile activities, which largely consisted of believing the evidence of my eyes, and the few Afghans I encountered who had a real incentive to produce good information. A few of my sources claimed to have connections with the Mujahedin, and often were able to provide me with very interesting reports, including videos of Mujahedin units operating deep in the mountains. Such contacts were hit and miss, however. Getting good information from Afghan sources was never easy.
I was the only person empowered to do Consular work at post. Every Wednesday, I would put on my Consular hat and sit in the Consular office on the first floor, considering the applications of Afghan citizens for visas to the United States. Usually, only about 50 or 60 brave souls would enter the Embassy grounds to apply. In all cases, I did not actually issue them a visa, but gave them an official letter of introduction to the U.S. Consulate General in Islamabad, where they would apply for their visa all over again. In some cases, if the applicant was of particular interest, I would call him or her in for an interview. This was the real purpose of the Consular Section at that time: to elicit political or military information of value from applicants. Ed showed me the technique and it worked quite well. Some of the most reliable information the Embassy received came from eager visa applicants. As time went on, and the reality of Soviet withdrawal became more apparent, the numbers of applicants began to mushroom, until one day in November we processed close to 400 persons. After that, we asked for and received permission from the Department to close down the Consular operation -- it was reaching the point of diminishing returns.
Another source of information on the course of the war came from the twice-weekly meetings we held with our diplomatic counterparts. I found that the Pakistanis and the British to be the best of the group. Frequently they were able to supply good information that Ed and I had not come across. The Pakistanis had one of the largest missions in Kabul, which was an anomaly, since they were openly backing the Mujahedin and hostile to the Najibullah regime. The assumption was that their mission was largely staffed by members of the ISID (Inter-Services Information Directorate, the Pakistani version of the CIA), but one could never know for sure. Be that as it may, their most talented officer was the Pakistani DCM, Faqir Talat Mahmood, who had a wide array of sources and frequently came up with quite useful reports. The British Embassy, although very small, had several talented officers, including Charge d'Affaires I.W. Meckley and my counterpart, Clovis Meath-Baker, who were occasionally able to contribute valuable information.
As for the rest of the diplomatic corps, their reporting was far less reliable. The French DCM, Raymond Petit, was from a Vietnamese family, and although he worked hard at obtaining information, was clearly out of his depth. He would often brag about "my KhAD source," who would provide him with "intelligence" which on closer inspection would usually turn out to be bogus. The Germans largely stuck to their compound, which, as the German Chargé d'Affaires Dr. Gerd Massman would periodically note with pride, "has the best bunker in Kabul." The Japanese, as usual, depended on us for political and military reporting. Their Embassy, although large and elegant by Kabul standards, was simply there to pursue commercial opportunities, which Chargé Keiki Hirada did with some success. The Chinese, who also attended our bi-weekly get-togethers, were extremely cagey about what they knew, but undoubtedly felt that they had to contribute something, as we were all, theoretically at least, allies in the Afghan conflict. The Italians were also supposed to be part of our group, but had left Kabul under rather unusual circumstances. The story goes that a few months before I arrived, the Italian Chargé Enrico Calamai had left Kabul on vacation, and then simply refused to return. He felt that it was just too dangerous to go back. Smart fellow.
As a group, the allied diplomats tended to have a bit of a herd mentality, and to believe anything that the Americans and Pakistanis told them. This was borne out one day by the "wager" proposed by the British during one of my first meetings. Under the rules set out by our British colleague, we were all supposed to write down the month we thought the Najibullah regime would collapse, assuming that all Soviet troops would be out by February 15, 1989. When the guesses were revealed, they were almost all in the March-April range. I surprised everyone by guessing July, since I was already beginning to conclude that the Mujahedin weren't as formidable as advertised. The last one to reveal his guess was Wang Hiucai, the enigmatic Chinese DCM. His guess was the most surprising of all: "never." This willingness on the part of the Chinese to buck conventional wisdom gave me a new respect for my Chinese colleague.
Very few of our diplomatic colleagues outside the Allies and the Soviets were active. The exceptions to this rule were the Indians, the Iraqis, and the Iranians. The Indians, under their very able Ambassador, I.P. Khosla, were the direct rivals of the Pakistanis for influence in Kabul, and they kept a large Embassy going near the site of the U.S. Embassy. We were friendly with them, but did not share information, as they were tacit supporters of the Najibullah regime. As for the Iranians, we avoided them and they avoided us. Both sides seemed to think that an attack from the other was just a matter of time. The Iranians manned a large Embassy in the center of town, but people rarely saw them out and about. The Iranians were much more active in the West, around their traditional sphere of influence in Herat.
The Iraqis were an altogether different matter. Like the Iranians, with whom they had just fought an eight-year war, they kept a large establishment in Kabul, but what they did there was anyone's guess. Shortly after the end of the Iran-Iraq war on August 20, 1988, members of the diplomatic corps received invitations to a reception on the grounds of the Iraqi Embassy. Half expecting it to be a National Day reception, Jon and I went. It turned out that instead it was a celebration of "Victory over Iran." The dimensions of the Iraqi "victory" were somewhat dubious, as in the latter stages of the war the Iraqis were just hanging on by their fingernails. The "victory celebration" was clearly an attempt to co-opt the diplomatic corps into the Iraqi propaganda war, and a very crude one at that. Jon and I, only half in jest, spent much of our time glancing furtively over the Iraqi Embassy walls to determine if the Iranians might be coming to get us. We excused ourselves as quickly as decorum permitted, and left the Iraqis to their celebrating.
Contacts with Afghan Officials.
We were prohibited from maintaining normal contacts with Afghan officials, as we were in the curious position of being an Embassy in a country whose government the United States did not recognize. Despite this, the Najibullah regime tolerated us, because it hoped eventually to draw us into a relationship that went beyond the obligatory protocolary aspects. Our standing guidance, however, was to meet only with the Chief of Protocol, Dr. Mohammed Sharif Karimzada, a rather polite man in a hopeless position, and to talk about nothing that could be construed as substantive. Periodically, when we showed up for our meetings with Protocol, Karimzada would be temporarily "out," and we would be asked to meet with his assistants, who it turned out were not in the Protocol Department, and would insist on talking about political issues. We would at that point hurriedly excuse ourselves and drive back to the Embassy. Shortly before my arrival, one of our officers, who maintained unauthorized official contacts, was summarily withdrawn -- a good object lesson for the rest of us. Of course, we did maintain some authorized under the table contacts with Afghan officials, but these contacts yielded almost no useful information. As time went on, the Afghan authorities became increasingly intolerant of our activities, and stopped issuing visas to our personnel. I was the last person granted a visa, in exchange, I believe, for a visa given to an incoming member of the miniscule Afghan Embassy that still operated in Washington. One of my colleagues, Craig Karp, was denied a visa, and wound up in Peshawar instead with fellow Dari language classmates Casey and Sandy Shem.
In some countries, you could rely on the local media for news of value. Even in the Soviet Union, before the coming of glasnost, Kremlinologists could occasionally pry a nugget of interesting information out of the pages of the local rags. We were not so lucky in Kabul. Without exception, the news media were of low quality and totally controlled by the Najibullah regime. My standard rule of thumb was, when reading regime reports of battles with the Mujahedin, to multiply all reported government losses by 100, and divide reported Mujahedin losses by 10. This generally yielded a figure that was somewhere in the ballpark. The Mujahedin were just as bad, and often fooled outside analysts, both about the frequency of their combat activities and the degree of their success. Overestimating the military prowess of the Mujahedin was a constant failing of Washington analysts, but it had an interesting blowback effect, in that the Soviets started believing the reports as well, presumably operating on the assumption that the vaunted American intelligence apparatus must have been on to something.
|A 100-Afghan Note|
Ed also showed me another sight in downtown Kabul: the British cemetery. Originally founded to bury British soldiers who had fallen in battle in Afghanistan, it was also later used to bury westerners who died in a less heroic manner. During the 1960's and 70's, in particular, Kabul became a haven for Western drug addicts, who found the opium and heroin purer and cheaper there than anywhere else. Not a few of them died in Kabul, usually due to an overdose, and were buried in the cemetery. Their graves were not very well kept.
Kabul is in a seismically active zone, and while I was there we had two significant earthquakes, whose epicenters were in the north of the city. In Kabul, they both registered at around 5.5 on the Richter scale, and were rather unsettling events. It is very odd, sitting at one's desk, and feeling the floor slowly begin to undulate, as if you and your desk had suddenly been transported to the open sea. On both occasions, I successfully resisted the impulse to jump out the window. I was later told that the Embassy could withstand quakes in the 6.5-7.0 range, but would probably collapse if a super quake ever hit.
The Weekly Routine.
After awhile, my weekly schedule began to assume a certain routine. Every morning after dawn, I would be up at 0500 to run the route, and afternoons and evenings, I would drive to the sound of the guns (or more usually, explosions) to see if I could make sense of what was happening. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, allied Embassies would meet to swap information. On Wednesdays, I would spend most of my time doing Consular work.
Sundays were even more demanding. Every Sunday evening, after all my regular reporting tasks were done, I would settle into my office to write the weekly cable to Embassy Islamabad reporting on political and military events in Afghanistan. It was usually a ten or twelve section message, and I would often be writing until two or three in the morning. The cable was classified as Confidential, but then would be immediately declassified and distributed to the Western Press Corps in Islamabad with the caveat that any information taken from it should be identified as coming from "Western Diplomatic Sources." As time went on, I would see reports from my cables popping up verbatim in wire service and newspaper accounts. Because of this, I was more careful about reporting than I had ever been before. Credibility is a curious thing: you can get 99 stories right and one wrong, and that's the one everyone will remember. I did make a few reporting errors during my time in Kabul, but they were never serious ones, thank God, just errors of detail.
If I finished the cable early, I would go to the AID Compound for a very late dinner, which usually consisted of a pepperoni pizza and a couple of cokes. If not, Al Kaya would drop down from communications and fix me up with some homemade sushi. After that, I would retire to the Duty Officer's bed at the Embassy, and sleep until 0500 or so, after which I would start the whole weekly routine all over again. Mondays were somewhat easier, however, since by tradition everyone knocked off work early to go to the British Pub, which was still maintained with some flair at the British Embassy Compound.
End of Part One.