Trans-Pacific View

A Murdered Ambassador, a Closed Embassy: The Tragic History of US Diplomacy in Afghanistan

Recent Features

Trans-Pacific View | Diplomacy | South Asia

A Murdered Ambassador, a Closed Embassy: The Tragic History of US Diplomacy in Afghanistan

As the U.S. debates the fate of its embassy in Kabul, it’s worth remembering the broader context of Afghanistan-U.S. diplomatic relations – including the murder of Ambassador Dubs in 1979.

A Murdered Ambassador, a Closed Embassy: The Tragic History of US Diplomacy in Afghanistan

A Memorial Day celebration at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan on May 30, 2011.

Credit: S.K. Vemmer/U.S. Department of State

February 14 marks the 45th anniversary of the assassination of U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Adolph Dubs, who was taken at gunpoint off the streets of Kabul on that date in 1979. Today, it’s worth remembering that event as debate continues about whether the U.S. should return in some form to its embassy in Kabul, which has been shuttered since August 2021. The closure of the U.S. embassy and the 1979 murder of the U.S. ambassador together underscore the complexities shaping Afghanistan-U.S. relations over their 103-year history.

Diplomatic engagements between Afghanistan and the United States began with the official recognition of Afghanistan by U.S. President Warren G. Harding in 1921. Diplomatic relations were formalized in 1935, when U.S. Ambassador William H. Hornibrook presented his credentials to the Afghan government. At the time, U.S. diplomacy with Afghanistan was carried out from the U.S. embassy in Tehran.

During World War II, Afghanistan maintained its neutrality, refraining from aligning with any of the warring factions. The American Legation in Kabul was established in 1942 and upgraded to embassy status in 1948. The first U.S. embassy in Kabul was located in a rented house in Wazir Akbar Khan district, not far from the new building. 

During the 1950s and 1960s, Afghanistan received substantial assistance primarily from the Soviet Union, while support from the United States was comparatively less. Consequently, the geopolitical scales tilted in favor of the Soviets, granting them greater sway over Afghan politics and affairs. 

In November 1963, King Mohammed Zahir Shah visited the United States, meeting with President John F. Kennedy to enhance mutual relations and seek support for Afghanistan’s modernization efforts, including infrastructure development, education, healthcare, and defense strengthening. His request was largely ignored.

Years later, following the end of the Afghan monarchy and the bloody pro-Soviet coup that terminated the first Afghan Republic in 1978, Afghanistan’s strategic location as a buffer state between the Soviet Union and South Asia heightened its significance to the United States and the Western bloc in the Cold War era. In the same year, the Soviet Union solidified its support by signing a “friendship treaty,” committing to provide economic and military assistance to bolster the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. 

This was also the year that Adolph Dubs, also known as Spike Dubs, assumed the role of ambassador to Afghanistan. Dubs was well-equipped for his diplomatic mission with prior experience in Soviet Russia, having served in Moscow.

On Valentine’s Day in 1979, militants disguised as police officers abducted Dubs from his car and took him to the Kabul Hotel, an Afghan government property nestled within sight of the U.S. embassy. Despite U.S. appeals for peaceful negotiations, the then-Afghan government reportedly authorized a violent assault on the captors, resulting in Dubs’ death during a rescue attempt. 

The claims surrounding the kidnapping and killing remain contentious and polarizing within Afghan political circles. According to the U.S. State Department, to this day “[t]he exact identity and motive of these kidnappers remain a mystery.” However, Bruce Flatin, the political counselor in Kabul, conveyed suspicions to Washington that the Afghan government, and potentially the Soviets, were involved in Dubs’ assassination. 

The tragedy dealt a significant blow to Afghanistan-U.S. diplomatic relations, symbolizing the volatile nature of Afghan politics and the fragility of the half-hearted U.S. diplomatic presence in the country. For years, Kabul residents viewed the Kabul Hotel as a symbol of the political turmoil that followed the killing of the U.S. ambassador, perceiving it as a cursed locale. 

In a matter of months, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, thrusting the country into a full-fledged war. Millions of Afghans lost their lives, limbs, and homes in the conflict. The closure of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul on January 30, 1989, due to concerns about the new regime’s ability to maintain security and ensure the safety of diplomats, particularly after the final withdrawal of Soviet forces from the country, left a void in bilateral relations, cutting off Afghanistan from the United States.

As a result of these factors, the U.S. government refrained from appointing a replacement for Dubs for several decades. The U.S. had a charge d’affaires, but no ambassador to Afghanistan from Dubs’ murder in 1979 until 1989, when the embassy closed.

Efforts to re-establish diplomatic ties between the U.S. and Afghanistan began only after the September 11 attacks and the subsequent U.S.-led invasion of the country. On December 17, 2001, the U.S. Liaison Office in Kabul was inaugurated, and a week later, the U.S. officially acknowledged the Interim Authority in Afghanistan, empowering it to represent the country in international affairs.

The U.S. embassy in Kabul stood as a strategic sentinel within the once formidable bastion of the Green Zone, nestled deep in the beating heart of the Afghan capital. From Kabul to Baghdad, the U.S. embassy in Afghanistan held sway as a significant U.S. diplomatic presence in the region.

Although officials rarely divulged details about its dimensions, insights gleaned from talking points from the U.S. embassy in Kabul, obtained by NPR in 2019, shed light on the embassy’s magnitude, suggesting that it was the largest diplomatic mission globally. The once sprawling U.S. embassy complex was inaugurated in 2006, and an investment of nearly $800 million was allocated for its expansion as recently as 2016.

However, the events of August 2021 saw a stark reversal of this trajectory as the U.S. diplomatic mission departed Kabul in a chaotic airlift, drawing comparisons to the fall of Saigon, Vietnam. The swift Taliban takeover of Kabul in August 2021 marked the end of over two decades of partnership between Kabul and Washington. 

Today, the status of the U.S. embassy remains uncertain, echoing the ambiguity surrounding Washington’s stance on Afghanistan’s evolving political climate. The U.S. government severed direct diplomatic engagement with the Taliban in Kabul following their takeover of Afghanistan and has refrained from officially recognizing the government or engaging in discussions over critical issues. 

Officially, the U.S. embassy in Kabul has “suspended operations” – rather than closed – since August 31, 2001.The suspension of operations at the U.S. embassy in Kabul prompted the establishment of a diplomatic entity tasked with representing U.S. interests in Afghanistan: the Afghanistan Affairs Unit, currently headquartered in Doha.

Recently, the State Department, in a strategy document titled “Integrated Country Strategy Afghanistan,” approved in October 2023, hinted at the cautious exploration of resuming consular access to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan without formal recognition of the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate. “Even as – and for as long as – the United States does not recognize the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan, we must build functional relationships that advance our objectives and further our understanding of the Taliban’s readiness and ability to fulfill their commitments to us,” the document said. 

There are various models already in place for this. China, for example, has an official ambassador in Kabul but has not formally recognized the Taliban government. India has a lower-key presence, with its embassy in Kabul staffed by a “technical team” rather than an ambassador.

The “Integrated Country Strategy Afghanistan” implied a potential change in U.S. policy toward minimal interaction with the isolated Islamist regime, and sparked some optimism among Afghans looking forward to a more robust and direct U.S. engagement in Afghan affairs. However, a State Department spokesperson told Voice of America that there are no “near-term plans to return any diplomatic functions to Kabul.”

The Taliban’s Foreign Ministry declined to comment on the U.S. political stance. They also did not provide information about the status of the U.S. embassy, its maintenance, and current security arrangements. 

Lisa Curtis, director of the Indo-Pacific Security Program at the Center for New American Security, argues against reopening the U.S. embassy in Kabul until the Taliban permit girls’ education and lift restrictions on women’s freedom to work and political participation. She said that she remains hopeful that the United Nations’ appointment of an envoy for Afghanistan could strengthen the international community’s focus on pushing the Taliban on human rights, especially for women and girls.

The designation of a United Nations special envoy for Afghanistan is positioned to become the focal point for the upcoming meeting of special representatives for Afghanistan, set for February 18-19 in Doha, Qatar.

Curtis expressed disappointment that Washington has not taken a greater leadership role when it comes to human rights and women’s issues in Afghanistan as millions of Afghan girls are barred from attending school, and women’s freedoms are restricted, the country is subjected to stringent political embargoes, its government lacks recognition, and poverty looms. 

The abandonment of the U.S. diplomatic mission had profound consequences beyond diplomatic and security concerns, significantly impacting the young generation of Afghans. The embassy provided educational resources, scholarships, and employment to thousands. Through such initiatives, the U.S. government empowered talented young Afghans, including girls and women, to contribute to rebuilding their war-ravaged country and explore avenues for personal and intellectual growth. With the closure of the U.S. embassy, all that is gone, but the image of America lingers in the minds of Afghans, stranded in a country isolated from the world’s embrace.

In 1979, Afghanistan faced the Soviet invasion when U.S. attention waned. Today, concerns about China’s growing interest in Afghanistan are rising among regional observers. Moving forward, condition-based U.S. involvement is crucial to support Afghanistan’s role as a buffer against emerging influences and to advance strategic objectives. Through active engagement, promoting reconciliation, and fostering stability, the U.S. can better enhance regional security, counter extremism, and safeguard its interests in the region.