It was a typically icy February morning here in the Afghan capital that day, when what appeared to be a routine traffic stop suddenly became a kidnap-murder that sent shock waves around the world.
The snow was packed deep on the peaks of the Hindu Kush all around, and the morning traffic, as always, was snarled around the downtown intersection between the U.S. Cultural Center and the headquarters of the Soviet-style Afghan secret police.
To all appearances, the three uniformed men who approached the black Chevrolet, stopped in a no-parking zone outside the cultural center, were Kabul traffic policemen. But within seconds, it became clear that there was nothing routine about the encounter.
As the driver rolled down his window, the three men burst into the car, jammed a pistol into the back of his head and ordered him to drive to the government-owned Kabul Hotel, 2 miles away. There, they dragged out the car's passenger, a 58-year-old American wearing a dark business suit. Joined by a fourth accomplice, the kidnapers pushed the American through the hotel doors, across the lobby and into a small telephone room. There, they placed the first of many calls to the Afghan Foreign Ministry.
"We've got the ambassador," one of the kidnapers said calmly into the telephone, as the others fired shots in the air to clear the lobby.
Their hostage was, indeed, Adolph (Spike) Dubs, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan.
Precisely what happened in the next three hours is unknown. But by the time it was over, dozens of Afghan commandos--under the orders of Foreign Minister Hafizullah Amin and with the apparent counsel of the Soviet KGB--had stormed the hotel in a guns-blazing "rescue attempt," leaving Dubs dead in Room 117 of the cavernous hotel. And by the end of the day, all four kidnapers, whom the government identified only as terrorists, had met the same fate.
It happened more than 13 years ago, just after noon Feb. 14, 1979--an event that would set in motion a rapid series of coups and countercoups, diplomatic intrigues and Cold War posturing that ultimately would push this strategic Central Asian nation firmly into Soviet hands, pave the way for the Soviet invasion less than a year later and help spark a continuing civil war that has left more than a million dead.
Today, in the wreckage of that mass bloodletting, much of the uncertainty surrounding the kidnaping and murder of Adolph Dubs, a respected Soviet expert whose mission was to draw Afghanistan away from its growing brotherhood with Moscow, remains as deep as ever.
But now, as the once pro-Soviet regime of Afghan President Najibullah teeters on the brink of disintegration, a new window has opened on the case that remains one of the State Department's greatest unsolved mysteries:
Who killed Spike Dubs?
For the first time since his murder, the Afghan regime has offered to officially reopen the case.
In a recent interview with The Times, President Najibullah offered to appoint a high-level commission with full judicial powers to oversee a new inquiry into Dubs' murder, and to give U.S. investigators free access to all government documents and witnesses and the power to coordinate the investigation.
"When an official appeal is made to us by the U.S. State Department, I will immediately assign a committee, and, following that, the government of the United States can send one or two persons to coordinate the committee, to look into the issue officially," Najibullah told The Times.
Najibullah, an authoritarian, self-styled Communist-turned-democrat who took over the Afghan secret police about a year after Dubs was killed, said he personally ordered a search for documents related to the murder more than a decade ago. But, he said, even with his current presidential authority he has been unable to find such critical evidence as tape recordings of conversations between Dubs' kidnapers and the Afghan government negotiators who failed to rescue him.
"I do not have so much hope, but we will begin the work," he said. "My personal view is that there has been no document at all since the very beginning. If there had been any, they were destroyed or eliminated. We have a proverb: The thieves who move on the snow or dirt, they move a board behind them to cover their footprints.
"But of course, when we look, something will be found. . . . At least we will achieve something."
Most analysts of the case consider Dubs' murderers to be part of a wide, government-backed conspiracy to kill him, and among the many suspects are some of Najibullah's own officials. Asked if he will order members of his own government to appear before the commission, Najibullah answered: "Yes, we will ask them. Why not?
"Of course, for the people of the United States of America, it is important to know why this brutal act was made against him. We are now ready to cooperate in this respect."
The timing of Najibullah's new-found openness is hardly coincidental. U.S. aid to Afghanistan was cut off by President Jimmy Carter in August, 1979, partly because of the unanswered questions surrounding Dubs' slaying. Abandoned by his Soviet benefactors last year before their own government collapsed, Najibullah's beleaguered regime is desperately seeking to restore relations with Washington.
Thirteen years of war have left the rugged Afghan countryside a pitted and cratered moonscape, and billions of dollars in aid are needed to help rebuild the tens of thousands of Afghan villages that were flattened in bombing raids by the Soviet and Afghan air forces.
A first step toward restoring American aid would be the reopening of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. Najibullah has beseeched every American correspondent visiting Kabul in recent months to "tell your government, it is time to come back to Kabul, to help the Afghan people."
The president's advisers confirmed that his offer to aggressively investigate the Dubs affair is part of his diplomatic offensive to shift Afghanistan's alliances from East to West.
But in a series of interviews with top Afghan officials and critics of Najibullah, it began to appear that any hard evidence that could link Dubs' murder to the regime and even to the Soviet KGB may well be buried under the years of repression and destruction that have left the capital a city of overflowing prisons and pervasive fear.
Even the most senior Afghan officials, men who were as near the central power then as now, lowered their voices sharply and frequently feigned ignorance when asked about the Dubs case.
There is, however, a commonly held belief among them that echoes what the State Department has long suspected: The Soviet-controlled regime was almost certainly in on the conspiracy to kill Dubs or, at the very least, covered up a crime that served its prime goal of driving Kabul into the Soviet grip.
"I think, maybe, some government authorities also took part in this. But I don't know. Please, let us study it together," whispered Suleiman Layeq, a member of Najibullah's inner circle who helped found Afghanistan's communist party and served as a Cabinet minister at the time Dubs was killed.
Layeq, who was equally close to the KGB during those years, added quietly during the interview that he doubted that the Soviets were directly involved in a conspiracy to kill Dubs. Rather, he blamed then-Foreign Minister Amin, who seized power with full Soviet backing in a lightning coup seven months after Dubs was killed.
"It was the circle of the friends of Hafizullah Amin," said Layeq, who was a member of a rival faction opposed to Amin's ruling leftists and who was jailed a month after the shootout at the Kabul Hotel. Amin was later slain during the Soviet invasion and coup that installed Babrak Karmal as president.
Layeq described Amin as "strong, secret and full of hatred," and added that Amin's main goal in life was to purge Afghanistan of all U.S. influence.
Former President Karmal took the accusation a step further.
In a rare interview with The Times--believed to be Karmal's first with an American journalist--the man who came to power with the Soviet invasion of his nation asserted that both Amin and the president Amin served at the time were little more than agents of Moscow.
"My dear friend, the whole government of (Nur Mohammed) Taraki and Amin was in the hands of the Soviet Union," Karmal said during the recent interview in the Kabul apartment where he lives under house arrest.
"Our ruling power at the time was in the embassy of the Soviet Union in Kabul."
A ranking Afghan secret police agent who was seated in the lobby of the Kabul Hotel when Dubs was dragged in had this observation: "Absolutely, the security forces killed him. They opened fire from the roof of the bank across the street, and another team entered the hotel, stormed it, and killed the kidnapers and Dubs.
"It's simple. Amin lied."
And Farid Mazdak, who is Najibullah's deputy in the ruling Homeland Party, said he is now convinced that Amin, with the connivance of several other officials--among them men who remain in power in Kabul--covered up a deeper conspiracy behind the ambassador's murder.
"As far as I have been told by very reliable sources, the kidnapers demanded the release of some prisoners," Mazdak said. "And it is said that Amin, upon receiving a list of these prisoners, shot them dead that night in order to eliminate the issue, and then said in a declaration that they could not have been exchanged for Dubs because they could not be located."
When asked who killed Dubs, Mazdak replied: "It's difficult to say, because none of the kidnapers remained alive. And it is said the only one surviving was killed by injection at the Ministry of State Security. If that surviving kidnaper would have lived, many things would be known.
"In fact, I am equally convinced that Ambassador Dubs could have been rescued, if that is what Amin had wanted. . . . But what is known now is that it was Amin who actually invited the Soviet troops to come to Afghanistan. We now know that 18 telegrams were sent by Amin and Taraki to Moscow asking for Soviet troops."
The government-controlled Kabul Times noted after the murder that Dubs "was assassinated regretfully by a number of terrorists and enemies of Afghanistan in Kabul on Feb. 14" and, in an editorial, called the killing "a savage and inhumane act." It also published close-up photographs of Dubs' alleged assassins, each with a single bullet hole that appeared to belie the government explanation that they were killed in a hail of gunfire.
But significantly, three-fourths of the newspaper's front page that day was devoted to coverage of a meeting between the "Great Leader" President Taraki and the visiting Iraqi foreign minister, and most of the remaining space reported on a session between Amin and a visiting TV crew from Cuba.
The first full official Afghan account came nearly a week after the murder when Amin held a news conference with a dozen or so largely belligerent and frustrated Western journalists, who had been allowed to visit Afghanistan in the wake of the killing.
As history was to show, Amin told more than half a dozen lies that day. He denied, for example, that rival ruling party leaders--among them Najibullah and Karmal--had been forced into exile in Eastern Europe with Soviet assistance, a fact now confirmed not only by those two leaders but by the Russians themselves. Amin told the reporters that there were no Soviet advisers on the scene at the Kabul Hotel during the hours before and during the "rescue attempt," but it was later disclosed that a U.S. Embassy representative who was in the hotel lobby during the drama spoke to the KGB's Kabul station chief there and saw several Soviet advisers among the commando assault force.
During that 1979 press conference, Amin confirmed that the commando force was led by his most trusted lieutenant, Sayed Daoud Taroon, considered by U.S. intelligence agencies "a brutal psychopathic killer" so loyal to Amin that he was later killed when he stepped in front of a bullet meant for Amin the day before Amin overthrew and executed Taraki in September, 1979.
In perhaps the most enduring insult to emerge from the Dubs affair, Amin ended the press conference by blaming Dubs himself.
The ambassador, Amin said, never should have stopped in a no-parking zone in the first place.