Moments in U.S. Diplomatic History

The Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan — December 1979

Mortar_attack_on_Shigal_Tarna_garrison,_Kunar_Province,_87It was to last nearly a decade and would plant the seeds for the rise of the Taliban and Islamic terrorism and the subsequent invasion by the U.S. more than 20 years later.  On December 24, 1979, the Soviet Union sent thousands of troops into Afghanistan and immediately assumed complete military and political control of Kabul and large portions of the country. It was the only time the Soviet Union invaded a country outside the Eastern Bloc.(It also nearly fit the 12-year pattern of major Soviet invasions — Hungary 1956 and Czechoslovakia 1968.)

The invasion could be viewed as the culmination of growing Soviet domination going back to 1973 when Mohammed Daoud, the former Afghan Prime Minister, launched a successful coup against King Zahir. Although Daoud was more nationalist than socialist, his coup was dependent on pro-Soviet military and political factions. Since 1955 Moscow had provided military training and materiel to Afghanistan; by 1973, a third of its active troops had trained on Soviet soil.  Then in April 1978, soldiers aligned with Noor Taraki’s “Khalq” faction executed Daoud and his family. Taraki became the Prime Minister, and Babrak Karmal (from Daoud’s party) became Deputy Prime Minister. The Carter administration  ultimately recognized the new government and soon named Adolph “Spike” Dubs its Ambassador to Afghanistan, who pursued good relations with the regime in the hopes that U.S. support would keep Soviet influence at bay.

In the summer of 1979, Hafizullah Amin, a longtime ally of Taraki who became Deputy Prime Minister following the April Revolution, received word that Karmal was leading a plot to overthrow the Taraki regime. Amin took the opportunity to consolidate his own power. It became increasingly obvious to the Soviets that Taraki could not prevent a hostile Islamic government from taking control. By mid-1979 Moscow was searching to replace Taraki and Amin, and dispatched combat troops to Bagram Air Base outside of Kabul. This move prompted the Carter administration to begin supplying non-lethal aid Islamic insurgents.

Forces loyal to Amin then executed Taraki in October—a move that infuriated Moscow. By the winter of 1979, the Afghan Army was unable to provide basic security to the government against the onslaught of Islamic fighters approaching Kabul. The Soviets then invaded. Soviet troops killed Amin and installed Babrak Karmal as the Soviet’s puppet head of government. The Carter administration enacted economic sanctions and trade embargoes against the Soviet Union, called for a boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, and increased its aid to the Afghan insurgents. Ten years passed before Moscow finally withdrew, leaving behind a shattered country in which the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban seized control, later providing Osama bin Laden with a training base from which to launch terrorist operations worldwide. The U.S. embassy would ultimately close in 1989 before re-opening in late 2001.

George Griffin was assigned to Kabul shortly after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan began and served there for 18 months. He discusses the frantic efforts to draw down the embassy from over 1200 people to just 12, the painstaking task of destroying mounds of classified material, and the sad story of one Soviet soldier who wanted to defect. Griffin was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in April 2002. You can also read about the assassination of Ambassador Spike Dubs in February 1979.


“Afghanistan was becoming a source of trouble in the Soviet Central Asian republics”

Mohammed-Daoud-KhanGRIFFIN: [Afghanistan] looked pretty quiet at the beginning. In 1975, when I started in INR [Bureau of Intelligence and Research], Afghanistan was the site of our largest USAID [U.S. Agency for International Development] mission in the world. It was busy with major projects:  building dams, highways and so forth. It was also working on crop substitution programs, trying to wean Afghan farmers from opium poppies. Many of our programs were designed as competition against the Soviet Union, which was building dams and highways elsewhere in the country, closer to the Himalayas and the Pamir Range. We went east-west and they went north-south, for military reasons, more than anything else.

Things were relatively quiet until the assassination of President Daoud (at left) in 1978. He had overthrown his cousin King Zahir in 1973 and abolished the monarchy, saying that the regime had become corrupt and that the country needed democratic government. He was replaced by a Communist regime, which probably was helped by the Soviet Union behind the scenes….

Our perspective on everything was colored by what the Soviets were up to. For their part, the Soviets seemed to think we were trying to make allies of Islamic militants opposed to Communism. That scared them because it was the main reason they went into Central Asia in the first place. They feared that what they had seen in the 1920s was coming back – that a rise of Islam would threaten the Soviet federation and the political structures they had built over the years. So I think they saw us coming along with a new sort of threat, and that’s probably why they moved into Afghanistan. Moreover they saw the Shah crumbling and hoped they could pick up the pieces there. They had tried it once before and failed, and perhaps thought this time it might work.

Afghanistan was becoming a source of trouble in the Soviet Central Asian republics, especially in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. They were not only the same ethnic peoples, but also families had been divided by the Soviet incursions in the 1920s. The Soviets feared that, saw an opportunity to put a puppet on the throne in Kabul, and did so. That triggered all sorts of other reactions, but it was still fairly quiet when I took that trip in November of 1978….

Among other things, I wanted to check with [Ambassador to Afghanistan] Spike Dubs to make sure he really wanted me to be his DCM [Deputy Chief of Mission]. He did.…Then, in February 1979, he was assassinated. The situation in Afghanistan was beginning to look very ugly. I assumed that my assignment to Kabul would be broken, but Personnel and the NEA Bureau said I must go, and the sooner the better.

“As I landed, Soviet MiGs were bombing near the airport where people were shooting at Soviet troops”

SovietInvasionAfghanistanMapGRIFFIN: Before going to Kabul, I came to FSI to study Dari, which is supposed to be a 12-month course. After three or four months of it, NEA [Bureau for Near East Asian Affairs] told me that the situation was wearing down Embassy personnel. They needed to transfer people, and wanted me to go at once. I managed to convince them to let me stay through Christmas so I could be with my family.

The day after Christmas, as I watched the packers drive away with all our household goods, I got a call from the Department saying…“The Soviets invaded Afghanistan the day before yesterday. You may not be going after all.” I was shocked, but told him I wanted to proceed because I would be needed more than ever in Kabul.…Messages were flying back and forth to Chargé Bruce Amstutz in Kabul….

The President ordered the evacuation of the entire mission staff and broke relations with the Government of Afghanistan. At first they didn’t seem to know what to do, but soon it was decided to keep a very small staff there. Not under a third-country protecting-power, but as a mission with no official status….The President decided to keep the Embassy open with a staff of 12 people.

I flew to Kabul …the 8th of January. As I landed, Soviet MiGs were strafing and bombing near the airport and buzzing the city where people were shooting at Soviet troops. This terrified Amstutz, who had come to the airport to meet me. We raced to the Embassy, which is on the main road from the airport.

In my first meeting, I concluded that cutting the staff to 12 people wasn’t going to work. There was a contingent of some 15 Marines at the time, and Washington said we had to keep 6 of them. That left 6 Americans to staff the operational part of the Embassy. So we argued with the Department, and finally got them to agree to a staff of 18….So my arrival was rather exciting. But soon I had a bit of a row with Amstutz.

He was Spike Dubs’ DCM…He was getting worn out. Ambassador Dubs’ assassination had hit him hard, as it had several others who were being transferred out but he stayed on as Chargé. I think that was why the Department wanted me to get there as soon as I could, because Bruce was so tired.

The day after I arrived, Bruce and I discussed staffing, and had some immediate disagreements. As we went down the list of who should stay and who should go, I said the RSO [Regional Security Officer] should go….Bruce disagreed, and apparently asked Washington to send me back to New Delhi while the staffing was sorted out, saying there were too many people in the place….[After several weeks] the Department sent me an immediate telegram saying, “Get to Kabul at once.” So, I jumped on another plane and went on permanent transfer to Kabul. Amstutz and I consulted for a couple of days, then he departed and I was left holding the bag. Three or four months later the Department sent out a more senior officer. So Hawthorne “Hawk” Mills arrived as Chargé, bumping me down to Acting DCM for the next year and a half.

Well, there was monumental confusion. We were trying to do everything at once. We literally evacuated 1200 people from that mission in six weeks. Before all the old American staff disappeared, I tried to meet as many of their contacts as possible, to keep abreast with what was going on. We dismissed much of the local staff, but tried to keep the best, especially those who had good contacts.

burning classifiedCleaning out the chancery was another fun chore. It was abandoned in such a rush that I kept finding classified documents in every section. They were supposed to have been destroyed before I arrived. It was amazing where I found secret documents, but we finally got it cleaned up.

I made the chief FSN [Foreign Service National, now known as Locally Employed Staff] in the Econ/Commercial office weep when I told him to burn his card files on companies and people doing business with America. We also destroyed all visa applications, which upset the FSNs in the Consular Section. I finally convinced them that if the Soviets or their local allies got into the building and found those files, all those people would be dead. We did manage to ship out some files, and made photocopies of others before burning them, though getting our pouches through was more and more difficult.

We soon ran out of burn barrel igniters, and our shredders broke down repeatedly. We learned the hard way what our colleagues in Tehran and Islamabad already knew – that document destruction is a tedious and dangerously slow process.

“One evening, I was shot at”

In the beginning we had a two-man military attaché shop because that was considered by some in Washington to be our primary mission – to see what armaments and forces the Soviets were bringing into the county. They often tested the limits, so the Soviets soon told us we were all restricted. They said we could not go outside Kabul, though we managed to get a few exceptions.

We were also allowed to go to a couple of other places, such as the King’s country retreat at Paghman, but that was about it. If we tried to go elsewhere, an APC – armored patrol car – would appear with its guns trained on us.

British embassy Kabul -- by Lesley Scoular The British Embassy (at right, photo by British diplomat Lesley Scoular) was outside of town, so that was another road we could use. It was a palatial, movie-set site – almost unbelievable. Something out of the days of the Raj. But a fine place to go when we were invited.

One evening, coming back from there, I was shot at. The nightly curfew had been relaxed a bit, and I guess a Soviet soldier at the checkpoint thought I was coming at him too fast. He fired off a round, which nicked the top of the car. I stopped and yelled at him that I was a diplomat, then slammed the door and kept going. I had to open the door to be heard, because the armored windows were sealed. That lit up the interior of the car, which satisfied the soldiers.

We dealt fairly regularly with the Soviet Embassy. We had business of sorts with the Afghan Government, but mostly did it through our FSNs. We refused to talk to them on substance, but if something had to be done, for example on a consular matter, or to get visas for new arrivals, I would go to the ministry and get it done. We closed the Consular Section, as there were no visa applicants and dealings with Americans could be handled on an ad hoc basis.

Q: A big question today still is, why the hell did the Soviets do it?

GRIFFIN: I think they were concerned that militant Islam was rising up in Central Asia and they saw an opportunity to block it. Another theory was that things were falling apart in Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, and the Soviets saw that as a chance to get what they had wanted since Peter the Great – namely a warm-water, year-round port of their own. Ideally, that could have been one of the existing ports in Iran or Pakistan, but that would mean taking on potential enemies who would react, including the U.S.

I suspect that they didn’t think we would react to their adventure in Afghanistan, which they described as “responding to the pleas of the duly elected government in Kabul.” They claimed that came from Hafizullah Amin, who had seized power from the Soviet puppet Nur Muhammad Taraki. But Moscow clearly didn’t like Amin, who was not good at following orders. So, they invaded, killed Amin, brought Babrak Karmal, the exiled Parcham leader, back from Czechoslovakia, and helped him become Prime Minister.

As for the warm-water port theory, there’s the bone-dry desert along the Makran Coast, between the Straits of Hormuz and Karachi. There is nothing there except a few fishing villages, so it’s a rather ideal place for an oil pipeline, if you were so inclined. But in reality, I don’t know what was on their minds. We probably haven’t seen enough literature coming out of Russia yet to tell us the real story.

I do think that [the Soviets] were seriously concerned about the steadily deteriorating, unsettled situation to the south of them, especially the rumblings in the Central Asian republics. They may have seen this as another opportunity to expand the Soviet empire a bit.

soviet kabulAmazing numbers of people would come talk to us. For example, I met Abdul Kadir, who was assassinated the other day on the streets of Kabul. He was from Jalalabad. We were both invited by an Afghan to lunch one day, presumably to meet each other. He didn’t like the Soviets or their puppets in Kabul, and talked about what was going on in Jalalabad. I had no way to check his story directly or immediately, but over time what he told me turned out to be true.

We tried to confirm every report we sent in, though we forwarded some without corroboration when they fit a pattern or came from a source we had found to be reliable at all times…

We destroyed our originals as soon as they were successfully transmitted and kept incoming classified messages no longer than 24 hours. That meant we had nothing to refer to, so if the Department or another post sent a message saying “reference Number 1234,” we would have to send one back saying we had no idea what they were talking about, and to ask them to give us the context.

If I got one confirmation of a story, I would report it. I didn’t wait for three or four. The process was also helped by, shall we say, national intelligence assets.

Most of Kabul was like part of a Red Army camp

All our NATO allies except Turkey had recalled their ambassadors and reduced their representation to a chargé. But my recollection is that they did deal with the Karmal regime. The only other embassy in a situation similar to ours was the Pakistani, which was an embassy in name only. They were surrounded as much as we were by Afghan secret police and the KGB. The Chargé told me he couldn’t go anywhere except home and office. They could hardly get food. They did meet the PIA [Pakistan Airways] plane that flew in and went back to Peshawar once a week. That’s how they got some household items, but they had real trouble with pouches.

We were more successful with that. I think the Soviets decided that, while the main reason we were there was to spy on them, in the broader scheme of their relations with the United States, the Kremlin knew we must be tolerated. But the Pakistanis were seen as supporters of the Pashtuns, who were leading the campaign to drive the Soviets out, and were not accorded much tolerance.

Most embassies – certainly all the Western ones and the Japanese – had chargés d’affaires. All the Soviet Bloc and the Indians had ambassadors. The Saudis and the Iranians had chargés. That was because none but the Bloc countries and India officially recognized the Karmal government. But few were as standoffish as we were. Most had regular consular ties, and some had commercial ties.

The most glaring exception was the Turk, who stayed after the Soviet invasion. He was a very senior, career officer who hadn’t been offered another job by Ankara. He refused to leave and convinced his government, over the vehement objections of ours that he could be of more use to both governments if he stayed in Kabul. I got to know him well because I was born in Turkey, and made sure he knew it early on. He and his wife were very nice to me. He even offered me a Turkish diplomatic passport, in case I wanted to “go into the countryside.” Silly, because he couldn’t do that either.

Bmp-1-DMSC9112086_JPGThe Soviets kept bringing in more military equipment, which we often watched from the roof of the chancery. Our embassy was next door to the main television station, and the Soviets didn’t like us to be up there, but we went anyway. They often buzzed us with helicopters and other aircraft, to reinforce the message.

From the Intercontinental Hotel over on a hill to the north, we could better see a huge Red Army camp under construction. One road along its perimeter was not prohibited to us, so we sometimes went there to check out the latest arrivals. They included self-propelled artillery, tanks, APCs, BMPs [Russian for “infantry fighting vehicle,” at left], rocket launchers, you name it.

Most of Kabul was like part of a Red Army camp, which got bigger and bigger. The Soviets took over many buildings, established their own hospitals, and had multiple headquarters here and there. It was a real military occupation. In terms of numbers of troops, that occupation was probably bigger than ours today, and we have put in more troops lately.

In addition to trying to track all that, we wanted to know if any part of the resistance was being successful…Sometimes the Soviets themselves would ask us, “Why are they resisting? We came here like brothers, but they keep making problems.”

To get a flavor of what was going on, all we had to do was stand outside at night and listen, especially at the Intercontinental Hotel and other high vantage points in the city. From there, we could see the airport and, just beyond, the Shamali Plain. Almost every night we would see flares and helicopter gunships buzzing around, firing tracer bullets. There was rarely a day or night that there wasn’t some sort of military activity in or near Kabul itself, much of it visible to us first-hand. We got believable reports about what was going on in the rest of the countryside, especially around Bagram and Shindan Air Force bases.

“It seemed that they had bitten off more than they could chew”

While we were trying to track any successes of the resistance, we could see that the government in Kabul itself was failing. It was made up of a miserable group of people who couldn’t cope with the situation, and often didn’t get along very well with the Soviets. They certainly weren’t getting along with each other.

afghan ethnic mapsTribal and ethnic divisions, which have always been a huge factor in Afghan history, kept getting in the way. I suspect they will continue to do so. We began to see that the Soviets were not settling in well or getting a good grip on things. It seemed that they had bitten off more than they could chew.

I was debriefed when I returned to Washington at the end of my tour, and I said quite firmly that the Soviets could be driven out. I got fairly specific about how it could be done – essentially a covert operation at the outset, if we didn’t have the guts to take on the Soviets with our military in that setting. I can’t claim credit for starting it all, but I think what I said in my debriefing was a big factor in the eventual enterprise.

I wasn’t there to do anything about it, but I didn’t think much of the way it was handled by the CIA. It was certainly my contention and impression that the Soviets were hanging on by their fingernails. I said they could and should be shoved out of Afghanistan, and that ordinary Afghans could make life so miserable for them that it would happen. This was met with a fair amount of disbelief but, in the end, my basic idea was adopted.

Officially we didn’t deal with the Afghans at all, but for example when we went to a function at the Soviet Embassy, Afghan ministers, sometimes including the Prime Minister, would be there. The Soviets often guided Western diplomats to one room and “friends” to another, so we didn’t always mingle. But once in a while we did. Most of the time we only shook hands and said “Hello,” but some of them wanted to talk to Americans. One or two gave us some of our best information, whether by design or mistake was hard to tell.

The Admin Officer and I, sometimes together, sometimes separately, went to ministries on paperwork business – but never to engage in substantive conversation. If we ran into problems, or the Afghan bureaucracy would not deliver, we would go to the Soviet Embassy and demand action. They of course would say each time that they didn’t run the country, as it was not theirs. We would reply that they had influence where we didn’t. It usually worked.

“A Soviet soldier on guard outside the Embassy seemed to be asking for political asylum”

An incident that became a crunch point in that process came one day when I arrived for work to find one of my officers in a high state of agitation. I was Chargé at the time. He told me that a Soviet soldier on guard outside the Embassy had marched in with his weapon, handed it over to the Marine Guard, and seemed to be asking for political asylum.

We pulled out the consular “walk-in” handbook, which had a few helpful phrases translated into Russian, but the man seemed illiterate. None of us could talk directly to him because we had no Russian speakers on the staff. I called the Ops Center immediately and asked for guidance. I was told to sit tight, and not do anything until they got back to me.

I urged them to hurry, because the Soviets were bound to find out. Sure enough, by the time I hung up the phone, we were surrounded by a large contingent of Soviet military power. As the hours and then days wore on, the noose got tighter and tighter.

Soviet troops Afghanistan; Ilya AbishevThe soldier turned out to be a 21-year-old infantryman who was miserable in the Army, and especially unhappy with his bosses, one of whom had slapped him. He later told us he wanted out of that god-awful Army where the officers got everything, and the enlisted men got nothing. He told us a lot about life in the Red Army. We kept him for a week, under increasingly tight pressure. We were surrounded by tanks and sharpshooters perched on our perimeter walls….(Photo: Ilya Abishev)

We feared that the Soviets would try to pop him off, so we hid him as best we could. We didn’t want him in the sensitive part of the Embassy, so we kept the blinds drawn and moved him around the ground floor at odd hours. He was near my size, so I gave him some cast-off trousers, a shirt and a couple of sweaters to wear…

He turned out to be an ethnic German from western Siberia. I brought the German Chargé over, hoping he could talk to him, but all the boy could remember was a couple of nursery rhymes in German, so that didn’t work. Finally, Embassy Moscow sent us one of their political officers to translate. I guess we became a worldwide laughingstock in the press. Here we were, in the middle of a Red Army installation, and nobody spoke Russian.

Hawk Mills was out of the country on R&R and came back about five days later. The Soviet Ambassador had been pestering my secretary, getting more and more insistent, but I had orders not to talk to him. When he returned, Hawk did talk to him, and took in his demand to see the soldier under Geneva Convention rules on consular matters. Finally, the Department agreed to allow him to see the soldier, on the condition that our officer from Moscow do the translating, that Chargé Mills be present, and that the soldier agree to speak to the Ambassador.

So the Moscow Embassy officer… and I had a long go-round with the soldier for a couple of days. He kept refusing to listen to our explanations. He insisted that he would not return to his unit, and that we had to get him out of Afghanistan…At one point, I asked him if he really thought we could sneak him out. That slowed him up a little, but then he asked, “What about the CIA?” I told him it doesn’t work like that; it won’t happen.

At last he realized he was stuck, and said that if we would guarantee that he could stay if he didn’t like what he heard, and it was his only real hope, he would talk to the Ambassador and see what he had to say. We told him we would not force him to leave the Embassy.

The Soviet Ambassador couldn’t have been more charming, and really did a snow job. He called the soldier “Sasha,” saying his mother missed him desperately. He promised “Sasha” everything – back to his mother and family, God, apple pie – you name it. He would have a fabulous home to spend the rest of his days in, and would never have to serve in the military again – on and on. The kid fell for it, and went off in the car with the Ambassador in my clothes. I had slipped him phone numbers of Embassy Moscow, including Ober’s.

We never heard from him again. God knows what happened to him.



4 responses to “The Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan — December 1979”

  1. Michael Hoggan says:

    Interesting and very sad. I wonder if his parents, or possibly grandparents, were “Ukrainian Germans” whom Stalin shipped off to Siberia.

  2. Mittymo says:

    Damn! The Soviets tried to quell the beginnings of Islamic Jihad. But we did everything in our power to derail their efforts. That may’ve been one of the few times in history our interests were aligned with the Soviets’. Our Cold War short-sightedness caused dim-witted strategerists to challenge the Soviets on every level & oppose them on every front, even though they were doing the heavy lifting again radical Islamic militants.

    After the Islamic militants defeated the powerful Soviet Union, it gave them confidence & faith they could defeat other powerful nations like the U.S., & provided battle-trained persons like bin Laden to lead the way.

    Our misguided actions against the Soviets in Afghanistan led straight to 9-11. We should make a movie about the Soviets’ experience in Afghanistan & its aftermath, and name it “Trading Places.” Members of the Politburo must have been rolling around on the ground with side-splitting laughter after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan.

  3. Chris says:

    Sadly, I had the same impression.

  4. JoeDyck says:

    If you go back a bit further, the Afghans tossed out the British. Tough bunch! I think it is a good idea to read a little about the history of a country before invading it.

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