The Saga of the British Embassy Compound.
In keeping with their status as the former imperial masters of Afghanistan, the British Embassy compound was by far the largest and most stylish of the Embassies in Kabul. Situated in Kart-e Parwan at the top of a hill in one of the few heavily-wooded areas of Kabul, the British compound consisted of a small but modern Chancery, an elegant residence, and a number of outbuildings where the local staff were quartered. The residence, in particular, was quite beautiful, an unusual sight in war-torn Kabul, and contained a number of antiques and valuable artifacts of the Colonial era.
A few days after I arrived in Kabul, Ed McWilliams and I went to a pool party, which was apparently a regular weekend function at the British Embassy compound. As I surveyed the dozens of men and women frolicking about in the warm water, I thought to myself that my tour in Kabul might not be so bad after all. The community was even large enough to have a gossip-mill, the chief topic of which was an affair between one of the British wives and an American communicator. One only had to note the stricken look on the husband’s face to realize that in this case, the gossip was true. Unfortunately, this decadent colonial atmosphere, with all of its traditional entertainments, was short-lived. Within a couple of months, nearly all of the women and most of the men at the pool party had been withdrawn to safer climes. As for the rest of us, we didn’t know it at the time, but our turn for evacuation would come only a few months after that. At the end, the British compound was a ghost town.
For all that, however, the British Embassy was regarded with envy by the rest of us, and this was particularly true for the Pakistanis -- for it seemed they thought the Embassy should be theirs. Following independence and partition, India and Pakistan had been bequeathed their shares of the British Imperial heritage, including a substantial number of government buildings. In theory, at least, the Pakistanis were supposed to get the British Embassy in Kabul. But the British confounded them by refusing to move out, consigning the Pakistanis to a rather squalid building in Shar-e Nau.
After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, there was a real prospect that all Western and Allied Missions would leave or be asked to leave by the authorities. The joke was that the Pakistanis would somehow contrive to be last, just waiting for the British to finally pick up and leave Afghanistan, after which they would quietly move into the Embassy. The British riposte, not meant entirely in jest, was "You'll have to get through our Gurkhas first," a reference to the dedicated Nepali guard force, which had reportedly sworn an oath not to leave the Embassy even if the British did.
The British did indeed leave Kabul in the wake of the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, but the Pakistanis stayed on. After their old Embassy in Shar-e Nau was sacked by an Afghan mob in 1994, they finally moved into the British Embassy in Kart-e Parwan, only to see it burned down in 1995, when a mob of Afghan protestors attacked it following the fall of Herat to the Taliban. The Pakistanis then moved to the Wazir Akbar Khan area, where the Americans and British now are, only to have their Embassy sacked for a third time. As for the former British Embassy, once the most elegant building in Kabul, it reportedly lies in ruins.
Surveillance: Amateur Hour in Kabul.
During my first weeks on the job, I learned a lot from Ed, and one of the primary lessons was that the best way to find out what was happening in the war was to always be on the move, alert for military convoys, Mujahedin attacks, or simply driving from meeting to meeting to get information from contacts. There was one problem with this approach, however: we were almost always followed by KhAD agents. Despite this, Ed was able to do his job, and so was I. In fact, Kabul was one of the few places I have been where I was confident that, whenever I wanted, I could lose my surveillance. Afghan surveillance techniques were not the most professional. Most of the time, we would be followed by a single vehicle, usually a white Zhiguli with two KhAD agents inside, and there were a number of ways to get rid of them. The simplest was to speed up. Since the Zhigulis were incapable of traveling much faster than 80, I found that if I pushed my Jetta to 110 or so, they would soon fall behind and lose me.
Another technique for evading surveillance was a variation on the old shell game. Every now and again, we would note that only one or two KhAD vehicles were loitering outside the gates to follow our cars. Usually, we could identify which vehicle was assigned to which one of us, so we would all get in the wrong cars, drive out simultaneously, and proceed in opposite directions. By the time the KhAD surveillance discovered they were following the wrong person, he was long gone. Unfortunately, this tactic could no longer be used by December, since by then all the substantive officers except Jon and I had been withdrawn. There were many other less obvious techniques for evading surveillance, but for what I hope are understandable reasons, I will not go into them here.
Every now and again, my attempts to evade surveillance would get me into trouble, and the motor pool often had quite a bit of repair work to do on the car. On one occasion, I was racing through a dust storm kicked up by a convoy of tankers, only to come out of the dust cloud and run into the back of a bus stopped in the middle of the road. I managed to stop in time so that no one was hurt, but the trailer hitch on the back of the bus did considerable damage to the hood of my car. Later, on the way back to the Embassy, an Afghan policeman stopped me when he saw the condition of my vehicle, but payment of a hefty "fine" on the spot overcame his objections to my further travel. On another occasion, as winter set in and the snows came, I was traveling the Northern Road at a high rate of speed when I hit a slick patch and slid off the road and down the embankment, coming to rest in about an inch of snow twenty feet below the roadbed. The Jetta proved its mettle on that day, as I shifted into low gear and crawled up the steep embankment to the road with little trouble. On another occasion, I was traveling in Kart-e Parwan and took a turn a little too fast, sliding into a wall. I was back on the road again and had disappeared before my surveillance was able to catch up.
Thinking back on all the crazy chances I took, my traffic scrapes being the least of them, I often wonder how I made it through without being seriously hurt. Kabul was essentially a lawless town. No one obeyed the speed limit, no one stopped for red lights, and driving in Kabul was fairly close to organized chaos. I would stop for the authorities, since people had often been shot at when they did not, but that was about the only rule of the road to which everyone adhered. It was a strange time, and one that I hope will not be repeated in my own life. But it was necessary behavior, for the time and the place.
Kabul was usually under curfew from midnight to dawn, and it was extremely unwise to go out on the roads in the early morning hours, since you really could get shot. Even during non-curfew hours, there were occasional dangers, as after dark key intersections would be guarded by teenage soldiers with loaded AK-47s. They were poorly trained, and anything could happen. Ed had apparently had a gun put to his head once when he didn't stop fast enough. Whenever one of these guards turned on you and yelled "Drezhd!" (Halt!), you did so, no questions asked. I would encounter these guards on my way home from the Chancery every now and again. Each time it was a harrowing experience. It is rather unsettling to have a loaded AK-47 pointed at you, especially when the person behind the gun is an untrained teenager.
During my six months in Kabul, I was involved in five incidents that were potentially lethal. Some were not so serious, but in other cases I was lucky to get away unhurt.
Firefight at the Blue Mosque.
The DCM's residence was located near the Blue Mosque, the principal place of worship in Kabul. This was convenient in one way, since many official functions, especially funerals of prominent officials were held there, and while we were not invited, we could certainly watch. The location was less convenient in other ways, however. Early in the morning, Soviet tank columns would use the road running by the Mosque on their way out of town. The noise was sometimes deafening. Also, five times a day, and quite often in the middle of the night, the mullahs would chant the call to prayer from the Mosque's minarets, disturbing my hard-won sleep. On other occasions, the disturbances were a bit more alarming, as the Mosque was a frequent focus of Mujahedin activity. One night in September, a prolonged firefight broke out in the middle of the night. I remember thinking to myself, "Oh, not again," when suddenly I heard bullets slapping against the walls of my residence. I spent the rest of the night on the floor underneath my bed. I had been told that armor piercing rounds could go right through thick mud walls, and the only refuge from them was below ground. I got as low as I could, and eventually fell asleep, despite all the racket. I was tired, after all.
Periodically, I would go out to the airport to do a little plane-spotting. There were access roads around the airport that, while in residential areas, afforded good vantage points to observe loading and unloading operations. After a day in which a particularly large number of IL-76's had landed, I decided to go out to the airport to see just what it was they were unloading. I was expecting to see ammunition, or perhaps light armored vehicles. Instead, what I saw was palette after palette of potatoes, of all things. I was a little disappointed at this rather unspectacular discovery, when, all of a sudden, several Afghan children I had made friends with ran up and started yelling that I had to get away from there right away. Then they disappeared, running through the narrow lanes. I had learned never to treat any warning lightly, no matter what the source, and so I ran to my Volkswagen Jetta, gunned the engine, and accelerated down the road as fast as I could. A few seconds later, a concentrated missile attack began on the airport, no doubt targeting the planes full of potatoes. In the rear view mirror, I saw the position I had just occupied disappear in a cloud of dust as Mujahedin rockets rained down. I had had a very narrow escape, and owed my life to some Afghan kids whose names I didn't even know. I went back a few days later to find my observation spot obliterated, as well as a lot of the tarmac inside the airport. Of the potato planes, there was no sign.
A Nasty Surprise for Outgoing Passengers.
Despite the fact that the airport was a frequent target for Mujahedin rocket attacks, it was a place that I visited often, since so much information on Soviet military activities could be obtained there. The Mujahedin would sneak into the hills to the north of the airport, and set up rockets on timers. Sometimes they went off during the day, sometimes not, sometimes on target, more often not. The airport was about a square mile in size, and the Mujahedin were shooting rockets from as close as five miles away, but they still missed quite frequently. One day in late August, I was at the international arrivals area when a big rocket attack began. The missiles were uncharacteristically coming in from the south this time. As I looked up into the sky, I could see the trails of a few of the rockets as they were coming right down on my position. I ran for my car and sped off as explosions went off somewhere deeper inside the airport grounds. Later that evening, I learned that the terminal area where I had been was hit. About 25 people were killed, most of them passengers.
Goodbye Bibi Marou.
Bibi Marou was the name given to a low hill in the center of Kabul, just to the northwest of the U.S. Embassy. In happier times, it had been a favored resort of foreigners, having a clubhouse and a swimming pool from which one could get a panoramic view of northern Kabul. I would drive up Bibi Marou once or twice a week because it offered me a convenient way to observe the northern half of the city. Apparently, the Mujahedin thought so too, for they started using Bibi Marou as a site from which to launch their timed rocket attacks on the airport. The Soviets found out about this, and occupied the hill one night without notifying anyone. That very morning, of course, I decided to drive up the hill to see what I could see. I got about halfway up when, suddenly, out of the bushes sprang a Soviet soldier in full field gear frantically waving at me to stop my car. I did, and asked what the problem was. It was then that he pointed to a sign, half-hidden by bushes. The sign said "мины" (mines) with a small skull and crossbones hastily painted in. I thanked the soldier for warning me and hurried back down the hill. Apparently, the Soviets had mined the road that morning, and I had just barely avoided driving across a newly-laid minefield. That was my last visit to Bibi Marou.
Fireworks at the Airport.
Kabul International Airport was the primary base in northern Kabul for the Soviets, just as Darulaman was in the south. As such, it was a prime target for Mujahedin rocket attacks. The Mujahedin were not particularly interested in targeting the passenger area, but inevitably hit many civilian targets when they took aim at the more inviting military targets in the center of the airport: military encampments, jet fuel storage areas, airplane hangers, and, directly in the center, a well-shielded ammunition depot. On the afternoon of September 1, I was alerted that a new rocket attack had taken place at the airport. I sped out to the International Terminal to see whether there had been any significant damage, and at first was not particularly impressed by what I saw. Gazing out at the tarmac from behind the cyclone fence separating the passenger assembly area from the parked aircraft, I could see little of consequence. Then, in the very center of the airfield, I noticed a small wisp of black smoke curling skywards. Slowly, the wisp grew larger, until it turned into a thick black column of smoke that hovered ominously over the airfield.
All of a sudden, I looked around. All of the airport officials, who had also been standing and looking at the growing column of smoke, were running away as fast as they could. Never one to doubt people who are voting with their feet, I ran as well, got in my Volkswagen Jetta, and accelerated rapidly down the airport access road. I had gotten about a half a mile away from the airport when all of a sudden I felt a strange pressure in my ears. Then the back of my vehicle was lifted up by a blast of air, which was followed by the sound of a thunderous explosion. As I looked in my rear view mirror, it was clear that the ammunition depot had just gone up.
I began radioing the Embassy: "Alamo, this is Orion (my call sign). The ammo dump at the airport has just blown up." I started driving around the western edge of the airport to try and get closer to the explosions, which were beginning to increase in intensity again, reporting what I was seeing all the way. After about five minutes of this, Jon Glassman got on the radio, and said, "Orion, this is Liberator. Come on home." I did so, and while my co-workers stood up on the roof admiring the incredible fireworks show, I typed out a quick cable to the Department with the details of the story. The explosions went on for more than an hour before gradually subsiding. Later, I went back to the spot where I had been standing, watching the growing column of smoke. Everything had been flattened.
General Zia and Arnie Raphel Killed.
Shortly after my arrival in Kabul, a tragic event occurred that was instructive, among other things, about the loyalties of our Afghan employees. On August 17, 1988, a C-130 Hercules carrying Pakistani leader General Zia and the U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan, Arnie Raphel, crashed, probably due to sabotage. Immediately after the news was broadcast on Kabul TV, Afghan soldiers and militia began celebrating in the streets, firing their weapons randomly into the air. At the Embassy, our employees were generally either circumspect or unhappy about the turn of events, all except for our local guard force, who were also celebrating. It was at that point that I began to draw conclusions about the reliability of the guard force, and to make sure any evacuation plans we drew up took this fact into consideration.
The AID Compound.
For many years before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, USAID ran a colossal development effort based in Kabul. Because of this, it had its own compound, which was in fact much bigger than the actual Chancery. USIA also had a compound somewhere in Kabul, but I never visited it. The AID compound had its own warehouse, where it was reported that about ten years' supply of Stella Artois beer had been left behind by departing AID personnel, among other things. The compound also had its own club and restaurant, which turned into a gathering place for what remained of the western diplomatic community. Once a week, our Afghan staff would give a "Mongolian Beef Night," which was attended by dozens of people, and involved an outdoor buffet/cookout featuring slabs of beef being grilled on open-air steel plates. It was actually pretty good, and a nice break from our grinding work routine. The AID compound also had a movie theater, which the Embassy used on occasion. On one movie night, we invited the entire diplomatic community to see the Asian premiere of "Rambo III," which, as movie aficionados will remember, is the one in which Sylvester Stallone single-handedly demolishes the Soviet Army in Afghanistan. It was one of the stupidest movies I have ever seen, particularly for anyone familiar with the actual terrain and equipment employed by Soviet forces in Afghanistan. None of the so-called "unfriendly Embassies" attended, but plenty of people from western Embassies did come and took the movie in the appropriate spirit. The people most enjoying themselves were the Chinese, who chuckled every time some unfortunate Russian got blown up by Rambo. I'm not sure what happened to the AID compound after we departed. It was not part of our post-evacuation security scheme, so it was probably looted almost immediately, Stella Artois and all.
Adventures with Charlie Wilson and Dana Rohrabacher.
Congressmen rarely came to Kabul. In fact, during the entire period of the Soviet occupation, I know of only one member of Congress who ever visited: Senator Gordon Humphrey, who stopped by in 1987. It was not a big mystery as to why Kabul had so few Congressional visitors. There were, of course, plenty of facts to be found, but shopping opportunities were definitely limited. Perhaps just as importantly, since we were only technically at peace with the Najibullah regime, the opportunities for high-level political discussions were also distinctly lacking. Finally, Najibullah and his ilk had already given up hope that a charm offensive might be effective, and the regime was denying new visas to almost all Americans, Congressmen included.
The pronounced absence of Congressmen and Codels was one of the few advantages that a posting in Kabul had over other, less dangerous places, but that is not to say that we were not continuously thinking about our elected representatives, whether they were present or not. In fact, one of our recurring nightmares at Embassy Kabul was that one of our crazier Congressmen might get captured or killed during an unauthorized expedition into Afghanistan. Congressman Charlie Wilson (D-TX), who proudly mounted an expended Stinger canister over his Capitol Hill office door, was a prime candidate for this kind of trouble. On one occasion, apparently with the help of General Zia, he had reportedly dressed up in a Mujahedin outfit, crossed the border with a strong escort, and joined in an attack on a Soviet position, all while riding a white horse -- or at least so we were told.
Wilson's "raid" did not occur on my watch, but one other Congressman's adventures did. Shortly after winning election to Congress, former Reagan staffer Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) set out in late November, 1988 with a group of Mujahedin, trekking as far as Jalalabad, and then returning after five days in the mountains. We of course found out about the whole thing only after the fact. Fortunately, nothing happened to Rohrabacher on the trip, but if it had, there would have been little we could have done. That’s a Codel, Kabul-style.
The Lake Kharga Golf and Country Club.
Every couple of days, I would drive out to the Lake Kharga area, to the West of Kabul, to see what I could see. Lake Kharga was held back by a dam between two tall hills, and in the shadow of the dam was a "golf course." I use this description advisedly, since after a decade of conflict, there was little left of the original nine-hole course. The fairways were rough and rocky, and were virtually indistinguishable from the rest of the countryside. The "greens" were actually level patches of brownish sand with a hole placed somewhere in the middle. The rules of golf were very loosely applied, to say the least, and new ones were added, such as the club rule that the ever-present Soviet tanks were always allowed to "play through." In earlier years, British and American diplomats would play the course, or try to, on weekends, but this tradition began to lapse as diplomatic numbers dwindled. Still, members had a club tie whose insignia was a crossed golf club and AK-47. One of my great regrets was that I never acquired one of those ties.
There was a clubhouse of sorts, a ruined masonry structure on the north side of the dam, pockmarked with shell holes, and a garden area where you could walk and get a good look at the surrounding countryside. This was the actual purpose of my visits to Kharga, for as Ed showed me in the first couple of weeks, the place was fairly bristling with Soviet military equipment. There were usually several dozen artillery pieces and armored vehicles positioned along the far shore of the lake, and perched on a hill on the south side of the dam was a small observation post, where one could usually see the Soviet flag flying. Down along the golf course, about a battalion of troops were camped out, along with their armored vehicles. Kharga was heavily guarded because it was the gateway to Paghman province, and was an easy route into Kabul for the Mujahedin. Ed and I would sit on one of the park benches at the "club" and casually look out over the scene with our binoculars, counting the dozens of pieces of military equipment, including D-30 field guns, 2S4 self-propelled artillery, BTR-60's, 70's and 80's, BMP-1's and 2's, T-54's, 55's and the occasional T-62 tank. The numbers would often change if there was a battle going on somewhere, and of course, toward the end of the Soviet withdrawal, the big equipment all began disappearing.
In contrast to other areas nearer Kabul, the Soviet soldiers at Kharga were not nearly as friendly. Kharga was a site of frequent Mujahedin attacks and the soldiers were a little jumpy. The Afghan troops were generally a rather fierce-looking bunch as well, and I usually steered clear of them. On a couple of occasions, however, I did give an Afghan soldier a lift back into town, when no one was watching and the soldier appeared to be a regular recruit, as opposed to Gard-e Khas or one of Najibullah's other special units. The soldiers would babble quite freely about what was happening out at Kharga until, towards the end of the ride, I would take pity on them and let slip who I was (they always assumed that I was a Russian). Then I would let them off at a secluded spot and never contact them again. It reminded me a little bit of my American Gypsy Cab days in Leningrad.
As a matter of policy, we were forbidden from meeting with Soviet diplomats and other officials in Kabul, without special dispensation from the Department. As the withdrawal of Soviet troops seemed to be proceeding with few obstacles, the Department briefly relaxed this policy, and allowed Jon and I to visit Soviet Ambassador Nikolay Grigoryevich Yegorychev at his Embassy in September 1988 (Yegorychev had already paid a condolence call at the U.S. Embassy following the death of our Ambassador to Pakistan, Arnie Raphel).
I had never been to the Soviet Embassy before, but it was definitely worth the wait. On approaching the front gate, I came to realize that if I had thought our own Embassy was set up like a fortress, it was nothing compared to the elaborate precautions taken by the Soviets. Just getting our vehicle near the Soviet Embassy required that we pass through several checkpoints, delta barriers and hairpin turns, many of which were just barely possible to negotiate at very low speed. We were greeted at the main gate by an ebullient Yegorychev, who immediately took us to see his "Stinger" exhibit, which turned out to be a rather strange-looking missile mounted vertically in the interior courtyard of the Embassy. I told Yegorychev that it didn't look like a Stinger to me, but he insisted that it was. I hurriedly memorized the serial number on the side of the "Stinger," and once we had returned to our Embassy, reported it to the Department. The weapon turned out to be a Sidewinder air-to-air missile that had been expended during the Vietnam War. How it got to the Soviet Embassy courtyard in Kabul, some fifteen years later, is still a mystery.
Yegorychev talked with us in the Embassy's official meeting room, and fed and watered us rather better than we had come to expect from Soviet diplomats. His litany of complaints was familiar: the Mujahedin were continuing to attack, even though there had been an understanding not to impede the Soviet withdrawal; the U.S. was still supplying the Mujahedin; Pakistani troops were continuously crossing the Afghan border and aiding the Mujahedin, etc. We responded that we would report his concerns, but noted that they would all become irrelevant once the Soviets had truly withdrawn. Yegorychev asked what I did at the Embassy. I told him that I did pretty much everything, but that my chief duty was to report on the Soviet withdrawal. "So you're a spy," he chortled. Pointing at both him and me, I replied, "We all are," at which he burst into laughter. With that, our one meeting at the Soviet Embassy ended on a cordial note.
Yegorychev was recalled to Moscow shortly thereafter and replaced by Yuliy Vorontsov. In contrast to Yegorychev, who had once been a real political power in the Brezhnev era, but had fallen on hard times since, Vorontsov was one of the Soviet MFA's big guns. He was brought in partly to assure Najibullah by his presence that the Soviets were not about to abandon him. But he was also brought in because Yegorychev the conservative and Shevardnadze the democrat had developed a strong dislike for each other. From day one, Vorontsov behaved very much like the Soviet Proconsul he was. For example, the day he arrived, Najibullah's elite troops lined the entire route from the airport to the Soviet Embassy to ensure that nothing untoward happened to their very important guest. Surrounded by his security cocoon, and strictly obeying Moscow's instructions, meetings with American diplomats quickly became a thing of the past. I never saw Vorontsov during my last few months in Kabul.
Vorontsov may have eluded us, but, strangely enough, Jon and I were able to meet with Yegorychev one more time, after we had all left Kabul. This occurred in 1990, during my follow-on tour in Moscow. Yegorychev was retired by then, but still politically active in the conservative opposition to Gorbachev. Sitting in his nomenklatura apartment near the TASS building, and surrounded by forty years of memorabilia and Soviet kitsch, Yegorychev railed against the policies of the Gorbachev regime, and spoke very highly of his former Afghan war colleague General Valentin Varennikov. He warned that the conservatives in the Soviet Union would not long endure Gorbachev's so-called reforms. He was correct, but not in the way that he imagined. After that final meeting, I never saw Yegorychev again. If I had been thinking, I would have checked in with him periodically to see how he and his conservative friends were doing. But the activities of such "men of the past" were of little concern to me then, as I was busy trying to understand and explain Soviet foreign policy, my area of responsibility at the Embassy. I would have been well-advised to listen more closely to Yegorychev's complaints.
Yegorychev Biographical Note.
Born in 1920, Nikolay Yegorychev was a longtime party member and a veteran of the Great Fatherland War. A conservative hardliner, at one time he had been a major player in Soviet politics. As head of the Moscow Party Committee, he conspired with Leonid Brezhnev, Aleksandr Shelepin and others to overthrow Nikita Khrushchev in October 1964. In turn, just three years later, Yegorychev lost his own position in a power struggle. There are many theories about Yegorychev’s sudden fall. Some say that he was demoted after he criticized the quality of Soviet air defense systems in the wake of the June 1967 Six Day War. Brezhnev, who until 1964 had been responsible for air defense, was reportedly offended and pushed Yegorychev out. Others say that in fact the air defense critique was just the opening move in a power play by Yegorychev and his patron, former KGB head Aleksandr Shelepin, against Brezhnev and his Politburo supporters (Yegorychev denied this in an interview to Kommersant Vlast). What is known is that Yegorychev was definitely part of the hardline Shelepin faction along with former KGB head Vladimir Semichastniy and it was clear that the hardliners had significant policy differences with Brezhnev over the Arab-Israeli conflict. Yegorychev actively lobbied for greater Soviet support of Egypt, and reportedly even gave unauthorized assurances to Egypt just prior to the outbreak of the Six Day War. Whatever the real story, the Shelepin faction was eliminated from the Politburo, and Yegorychev was exiled to Denmark, where he served as Soviet Ambassador from 1970 until 1984. After Brezhnev died, Yegorychev returned to the Soviet Union for a brief stint as Deputy Minister of Agricultural Machine-Building. In 1988 he was sent out as Ambassador to Afghanistan with a mandate to carry out the agreed withdrawal of Soviet forces. He established an excellent relationship with Najibullah, but he was not the heavyweight needed to reassure the Afghans that the Soviets would continue to support them after withdrawal. Perhaps even more importantly, he and Foreign Minister Shevardnadze did not get along. He was recalled in October 1988, and pensioned off. He continued to live quietly in Moscow until he passed away in 2005. For Yegorychev's take on his Kabul Ambassadorship, see his interview in Kommersant Vlast (November 25, 2002) entitled "Afghanistan Cost us 15 Billion Dollars a Year."
The Friendly Soviet Army.
We were under standing orders not to engage in official contacts with the Soviets in Kabul, since they were "the enemy," but of necessity we interacted quite frequently with ordinary Soviet soldiers, who guarded most of the key points around Kabul that we wanted to observe. In fact, I talked with Soviet soldiers at least once a day, since every morning I took the Northern Road around Kabul airport, checking for troop movements and other evidence of military withdrawals from the Kabul area. The road was lined with Soviet Army checkpoints, at which we would have to stop. I developed a pretty good relationship with some of the soldiers manning the checkpoints, and often they would just wave me through, even after they found out that I was an American diplomat, and not a Russian from Central Asia, as they had at first assumed. Every now and again, they would warn me that there was a "white car" trying to follow me (my unfortunate KhAD surveillance). I would thank them for the heads up and speed on. As I got to know them better, many also proved to be good sources of information, particularly on which units had withdrawn and to where. I of course had to be careful to make the conversations appear to be routine banter, and then only when no officers were around. As I got more comfortable talking with Soviet soldiers, I came to realize that there was little coordination between them and the Afghans, and that the average Soviet soldier was clearly more comfortable talking to an American than one of his alleged allies. I reciprocated this feeling: when push came to shove, I knew it was the Soviets, not the Afghans, who were the real guarantors of our safety in Kabul. I had little doubt that once the Soviets left, our security situation at the Embassy would deteriorate dramatically, and in many ways, I was not looking forward to the time when we would be alone with our undisciplined Afghan hosts.
In 2006, I met a Russian press officer at OSCE, Mikhail Yevstafiyev, who had served in Afghanistan while I was there. Misha told me that he had attended numerous briefings given by General Valentin Varennikov, the Soviet Defense Ministry's representative in Kabul. Varennikov reportedly had mentioned my name several times as an American who was "active" in Kabul. I never met Varennikov, or 40th Army Commander Boris Gromov, until many years after we had all left Afghanistan. Varennikov I saw at the Stalingrad 60th Anniversary celebrations, which were held February 2003 in Volgograd. Gromov I met under a large magnolia tree on the White House South Lawn, just before the 1992 Yeltsin visit. They betrayed no memory of me.
Reporters who journeyed out to Kabul in those days were few and far between, but those who did were quite remarkable, and many had interesting stories to tell. Most of them looked me up, since I was one of the few diplomats who got out enough to know what was going on in Kabul and the surrounding countryside.
One of my first acquaintances was Jana Schneider, a war photographer, who had been to many of the world's hot spots seeking combat photos. Jana sought me out for advice on where the most dangerous areas were in Kabul. I told her, thinking I was steering her away from them, but instead that was precisely where she wanted to go. As I got to know her better, I found that Jana had an almost irresistible impulse to find danger, and she put herself in hazardous situations that I would never have considered, even in my most reckless moments. At the time, I never understood why a person like Jana would insist on taking such foolish risks. It was clear that years ago, she had been quite beautiful. But the stresses of her occupation had taken their toll, and, while still quite attractive, her face bore a rough, damaged appearance. I never found out Jana's full story until much later, for she left Kabul after only a few days, in search of adventure elsewhere. She subsequently turned up in Moscow when I was stationed there in 1991, and over lunch described to me some of the hair-raising escapades she had had in the meantime. Then she left Moscow and I never saw her again.
Years later, in 2004, U.S. News and World Report did a feature story on her that answered many of my questions about her life. It was entitled, "A Fall from Grace: a Former Broadway Actress Turned War Photographer -- and a Life Unhinged." Jana had been born in 1951, and started out life as a typical Wisconsin girl. She was quite beautiful in her youth, and at one point placed second in the Miss Teen Wisconsin contest. Then she then ran off to New York to seek her fortune on the stage. She received a Tony nomination in 1985 for her role in the "Mystery of Edwin Drood," but her career hit the skids after she was consistently passed over in favor of younger actresses. Her life took an abrupt turn in 1988 when she decided to become a war photographer and began traipsing all over the world in search of combat photos. Her friends began noticing psychological changes in her as well, which some saw as instability. In 1992, she came briefly to prominence after she was seriously wounded in Bosnia when a Serb tank fired on her position (her colleague, a Slovenian, was killed). After recovering from her wounds, Jana tried to resume her career, but her years of risk-taking had exacted a heavy psychological toll. She became increasingly paranoid, traveling aimlessly from place to place, and wound up a homeless person on the streets of New York. In 2002, she was picked up by the police and placed in Bellevue Hospital, where she was diagnosed as mentally ill. Later, she was transferred to Rockland, a long term psychiatric facility, where she is today. It was a sad ending for a beautiful and talented woman. She was perhaps an aspiring Martha Gellhorn, but she never found her Hemingway. Instead, she found madness. She deserved better.
Lyse was of a different and more stable breed than Jana. A veteran BBC reporter, Lyse and a colleague visited me in Kabul early in my tour. I gave them a briefing on the current situation, and the next morning took them along when I ran the route around Kabul International Airport. They thought it was great fun. Lyse was very committed to her craft, but she knew when to take risks and when not, and clearly was going places. In later years, she popped up on BBC TV as one of their news readers, but periodically I would note that she would return to her old stomping grounds, the Middle East and South Asia, to do some real reporting.
Eileen also came to Kabul a couple of times while I served there. I first met Eileen in the fall of 1988, when I had lunch with her amid the faded glory of the Hotel Intercontinental in Kabul. Eileen was working for CNN in Moscow at the time, and was a very lively and intelligent reporter. She had apparently ridden into Kabul on a Soviet BTR, and was not averse to being adventurous, although in contrast to Jana, she refused to take foolish risks. I briefed Eileen on the general situation, and kept in touch with her thereafter, when she worked for ABC in London, and later as CNN's White House correspondent. By then she was married and had three kids, but she was every bit as outgoing and vivacious as before. She was a person destined for success, and it came to her quickly.
Hiroko was a Japanese TV reporter who, unlike most of her international colleagues, worked out of Kabul. She stayed at the Kabul Hotel, and I would have lunch with her periodically to talk about the course of the war. I can remember getting a case of the willies every time I went to her room, however, as I had to pass the room where Spike Dubs had been shot and killed during the failed attempt by the KGB to free him from his kidnappers on Valentine's Day, 1979. I didn't see a lot of Hiroko, because she was continuously traveling with government forces, filming a somewhat pro-regime documentary titled "Afghan Spring." She left Kabul shortly before we evacuated, and has continued her career as a documentary reporter. I haven't seen her since Kabul.
The United Nations.
Towards the end of the Soviet occupation, the United Nations had a rather large presence in Kabul, the primary component of which was UNGOMAP (the United Nations Good Offices Mission in Afghanistan and Pakistan). I became fairly well acquainted with one of the Swedish observers attached to the Mission, Bo Pellnas. Bo was a colonel in the Swedish military, and was a very level-headed sort. I had formed a preconception of Swedes from Vietnam times as being socialist, anti-American, and sure of their superiority. Bo was none of these things, and proved to be a good source of common-sense advice on how best to understand the situation in Kabul. When I left Kabul in January, Bo and I toasted each other, thinking we would never see each other again. As it happened, though, we did meet by chance one more time. It was in Stockholm in August 1990, when I was attending talks on Afghanistan between the Americans and the Soviets. I was walking around Stockholm, which I found to be a spectacularly beautiful city. That evening, the delegation went to "The Abduction of Figaro," a spoof opera done by a PDQ Bach company. While standing in line for the play, who should I see strolling by but Bo Pellnas! We greeted each other like the long-lost friends that we were, and spent the rest of the evening reminiscing about our time in Afghanistan, which Bo had left shortly after I did to resume his career in Sweden. It was an improbable encounter, thousands of miles away from where we first met, but it is the kind of thing that seems to be happening to me with more frequency as I grow older. It seems these days that I can go anywhere in the world and almost surely have a friend somewhere nearby. It is a comforting feeling.
UNICEF also had offices in Kabul and I got to know many of the Afghan staff there. They were generally more educated and open to westerners, and talking with them, I was able to get a line on just how secure or shaky the Najibullah regime might be. Of course, my conversations gave the intentional appearance of being casual or social, but occasionally the things would get dead serious. Many of my contacts respected my opinion, since I was knowledgeable about the local situation and relatively non-ideological, for an American. They would often ask me whether they should go or stay. My advice was "Get out while you can." Many took that advice, but just as many stayed on when Western Embassies evacuated.
My most attractive contact at UNICEF was Shayma Daneshjo, the daughter of Mohammed Daneshjo, the fourth ranking official in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Shayma was single, liberated, and beautiful, and she enjoyed my company. We spent many pleasant afternoons together: I endured the terrible coffee she prepared, and she put up with my incessant questions. I heard that after we evacuated Kabul, Shayma's father became the Afghan Ambassador to Botswana, taking his family with him to Africa. Years later, I stumbled across a picture of Shayma. According to the caption, dated 2004, she was still working for UNICEF and was married to the Afghan representative to the United Nations.
High UN officials also visited Afghanistan periodically to monitor how the Soviet withdrawal was going. Benon Sevan, the Secretary General's Representative on the Afghan Conflict, was one of those officials, and I got the opportunity to meet with him and brief him on the situation during one of his periodic visits in the fall of 1988. During the briefing, I was struck by Sevan's manner. He didn't seem like normal official seeking a briefing. There was in fact something a little sleazy about him. It was as if he was sizing you up as a potential prospect, rather than looking for facts. In sum, after our first and only meeting, I walked away with an instinctive mistrust of the man. Of course, his fawning attitude towards Najibullah may have had something to do with my attitude toward him, but there was more. Quite simply, Benon Sevan did not strike me as honest. Many years later, of course, Sevan lost his UN job in the wake of the Iraq Oil for Food scandal. He had taken hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of oil vouchers in bribes from Saddam Hussein. One wonders whether Sevan might have been on the take well before that.
“Chance” Meetings at the UN Club with Vladimir Shutov.
The UN representation also provided a convenient place for putative enemies to meet on neutral turf. One of the favorite spots for such meetings was the UN Club, where diplomats could order a drink and a decent meal without too much trouble, and rub shoulders with other members of the diplomatic community. I met Soviet Embassy First Secretary Vladimir Shutov on one such occasion, and after that, we would bump into each other "by chance" every Friday at 6:00 pm at the UN Club bar to exchange casual conversation. Shutov, who had served in Kabul for almost a decade, was most likely KGB or GRU (a regular diplomat would have been too afraid for his career to meet with the American DCM), but the military information he imparted was nonetheless intriguing, if for no other reason than as a gauge of what the Soviets wanted us to know. Sometimes the information checked out, sometimes it didn't, but the encounters were always entertaining. I tried to be as straight as I could with Shutov, and he respected that. I'm not sure what happened to Shutov after we left Kabul. I never saw him again.
End of Part Two.