INTERVIEW WITH CHARLES DUNBAR - AUGUST 1997
INTERVIEWER: From a sort of global and regional sense, why was Afghanistan important to US interests during the 80s and 1970s.
CHARLES DUNBAR: Well I think it marked a turning point obviously in our relationship with the Soviet Union and it was just something that it was considered should not be allowed to stand, overt aggression of that kind, as opposed to various other less complicated embrolios tend to be responded to vigorously and that we did in Afghanistan and we did it again in the Gulf War, when somebody else has just walked into somebody's country. So I think it was a great turning point, people say a great awakening for President Carter in the sense that the Soviets were not what he thought that they were going to be. There were of course other concerns, the age-old concern about the Russian and then Soviet drive to warm water ports in the, in the Indian Ocean. And that, was of course talked about and thought about, but it was the naked aggression against another country, the occupation, the military occupation of another country that I think put Afghanistan up on the front burner where it remained for the better part of a decade.
INTERVIEWER: But how before the invasion, I mean how was Afghanistan viewed really from the US point of view?
CHARLES DUNBAR: Well it was viewed very much we sort of viewed it the same way as the Soviets seemed to view it, that it was a country that could remain neutral between the superpowers and the Soviets always said that this showed that even a country on their border could maintain a different political and economic and social system than they did. And we were quite prepared to go along with that as well, we you know it was a pretty much middle of the road third world neutral country, and I think in the early days of the cold war, in the years of the cold war there was a sense of competition, from which the Afghans profited very handsomely in terms of American aid, being balanced or trying to balance Soviet aid, although Soviet aid was always about double what we gave. But after that it was just a neutral rather unimportant country which seemed destined to remain in that state for some time.
INTERVIEWER: Well what did the US feel about soviet influence in Afghanistan in those early years?
CHARLES DUNBAR: Before the invasion? They knew that it was extensive, there was a sense that the Soviets had strong influence north of the Hindu Kush mountains and a less strong influence in the south, and our aid projects were in the south; theirs were in the north, knew that the soviets were the dominant force in dealing with the armed forces and we more or less accepted that. I served there in the 1960s and I know that that was very much the view that this was a country where Soviet influence was likely to be strong and that we were able to live with that without difficulty.
INTERVIEWER: I mean how did you read Soviet involvement in events such as the April revolution in 78 and the rise of Amin?
CHARLES DUNBAR: Well there was a sense I think that the Soviets had a hand in it, but from what I was able to determine at the time, no sense of how great a hand. I think probably looking back on it, and just recalling my own thoughts before by the time I started working actively in Afghanistan again in 1981 that the Soviets probably didn't have a lot to do with the actual coup d'etat, but then they found themselves confronted with a regime that was communist and I think had a reflexive sense of a need to support it. So I think as best I can recall our sense was that the Soviets did not engineer the glorious soured revolution as it was referred to, but that they clearly were prepared to support it a good deal once it happened.
INTERVIEWER: I just wondered, how you felt, how the US felt about the relationship, the members within the PDPA had with Soviet Agents, that sort of thing.
CHARLES DUNBAR: You mean, now, this is now after the?
INTERVIEWER: No it's pre
CHARLES DUNBAR: Pre, assumed that there were intelligence relationships and didn't have much view of it beyond that. We wanted, everybody made a great effort to understand who was who in the PDPA and how they related to the Soviets and how, and of course there was the more so-called Maoist group, the "Sholay Javeyed" or internal, eternal flame movement and we sought to understand those but again as part of the sense that Afghanistan was likely to remain neutral, not a great deal of concern about it. We indeed the State department diplomats knew those members of the communist party of the PDPA, that would come around to social functions and so forth and you know they were from regular contacts at the embassy. "Bakhra Karman and Anahito" were two that come to mind right away, the "Haud" factions stayed behind the scenes.
INTERVIEWER: What was the earliest the US started any kind of communication with the resistance forces in Afghanistan and how were they helped.
CHARLES DUNBAR: I don't know well what the answer to that is. I know sort of what the history of it was, that there was an overture made to the Pakistanis of our interests in helping the resistance and it was during the Carter administration, and it was of course rejected with the late Zia Al Haqs famous peanuts comment. And then when the new administration came in, the offer of assistance was accepted. It's very important to bear in mind this point that cannot be too strongly stressed, the Pakistanis were the ones who had the primary contacts with the resistance. We were dealing with the Pakistanis, it was never until later on in the game and we'll come to that, it was never easy for us to contact the resistance in Kabul it was impossible of course. In Pakistan we dealt with them through the Pakistanis, but did recognize that they were, that they had in their early months and their first year fighting the PDPA, that they had clearly created this situation in which the government in Kabul was likely to fall, and my sense is that we saw them as an increasingly valid force and one that should be supported.
INTERVIEWER: How significant was the death of ambassador Dubbs do you think to US Afghan relations.
CHARLES DUNBAR: Well it was terrible to US Afghan relations it was, the relations had been bad before they then became glacial, because of that it was something that we held the Afghanis responsible for, and that we held the Soviets responsible for because there were advisors who were actively involved in the effort to save ambassador Dubbs. I don't think that there was any belief that the, that this was some kind of a sinister act on the part of the Soviets or of the Kabul authorities, but we thought it was a botched, stupid rescue attempt that should never have been undertaken and my sense was we felt that negotiation was the route to follow and then it simply wasn't followed. But it case a pall over an already very minimal relationship between ourselves and the Kabul authorities.
INTERVIEWER: Well do you think that events in Iran with the fall of the Shah altered the sort of strategic importance of Afghanistan in the eyes of the US?
CHARLES DUNBAR: I would say not very much except looking at the great game concept, the fact that here were the Soviets driving towards warm water ports. I don't think we ever had a sense that we could develop an interest in Afghanistan similar to the one that we had had in Iran. The loss of Iran of course was a catastrophe for US interests in the region, catastrophe maybe too strong a word, it was a major setback. This was a region that was of vital importance to ourselves and the rest of the western world, that we had had an ally, that we had staked a lot on, and that ally disappeared and was replaced by a very hostile regime. That was the problem. But I don't think there was a sense if that's what you mean that because Iran has gone to no longer being our friend, we should therefore try in someway to make Afghanistan a substitute, it simply wouldn't have worked. Geography alone, is important in that Afghanistan was removed from the Gulf, whereas Iran sat on the whole north shore of it. So I don't have asense that Afghanistan as a strategicallysignificant piece of real estate, suddenly took on a great new importance after the fall of the Shah.
INTERVIEWER: But it changed your relationship with Pakistan, made Pakistan more important with regard to loss of listening bases, intelligence listening bases
CHARLES DUNBAR: That I don't know very much about, I don't know how much we were listening from Pakistan or I know really very little about that. Sure it made Pakistan more important, I think there is no question about it, particularly after the Soviets came into Afghanistan, because then it was Pakistan standing between them and the Indian Ocean and that for strategic figures was important, but yes Pakistan, already important to us, became more important after the fall of the Shah and then of course after the invasion.
INTERVIEWER: I mean in your opinion at that time, I mean what do you believe the motives were behind the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan?
CHARLES DUNBAR: I think it's overwhelmingly the fact that they could not stand to see a communist regime that had been installed in power, albeit by a coup d'etat, that they could not stand to see it fail. I'm sure that their strategic thinkers, also had the sense that it was good to get down closer to the Indian Ocean, to be able to project soviet power further south, but I think that what really triggered it, was just the notion that this regime was going to be ousted, and I've always felt that very strongly and made the parallel that if something like that happened in Mexico, half the United States would react. Now of course Afghanistan is not as important anywhere nearly to the Soviet Union as Mexico is to the United States, but if you had a friendly regime that was being undermined by a resistance movement the United States would be likely to react viscerally and in a calculated way as well. And I think that's probably what happened in the Soviet Union, it would, it is still not clear exactly what caused them to do what they did, but I've seen nothing in what I've been able to read that changes my view of why they did it.
INTERVIEWER: I mean what sort of differing views were there in the Reagan administration about US policy in Afghanistan and the possible drawbacks of backing fundamentalist, quite hard line fundamentalist groups like the Mujaheddin.
CHARLES DUNBAR: Well on the latter part, on the last part of your question, I don't think that anybody was very concerned about that at the beginning. The idea simply was to back a resistance to the Soviet Union, and I think there was a view that this was what we should be doing and I think there were perhaps differing views on how likely it was to succeed, I think a lot of people, myself included at the outset, felt that it was unlikely that the resistance would be able to prevail, but that in my own view, in my own case that thinking changed quickly as the resistance did show itself able to stand up and give a good account of itself militarily. But initially, I, the question of backing fundamentalists, didn't come up very much if at all. It was backing somebody that was prepared to and perhaps capable of getting the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan.
INTERVIEWER: Doesn't it seem rather odd looking back now that the US was backing fairly hard liners or Islamic sort of anti-Americans like "Hekmatie"?
CHARLES DUNBAR: Well that became increasingly apparent as the years went on toward the end of my time dealing with it there was beginning to be a lot of question of why are we doing this? Particularly from the very strong congressional supporters of the resistance, and there were more moderate elements of the resistance that dealt easily with the United States Hekmatie of course did not, and neither did Rasoul Sayev or the well Rasoul Sayev, the other ones did. Those two never wanted to have much to do with the, with the United States, there was concern about that, and the sense was again, our sense in the State department, was this is and certainly it was the view of the CIA I'll stress this point again, the Pakistanis are running this thing. This is the way they're playing it. We can do one of two things, we can play along, or we can quit, and quitting would have been very difficult to do, and something that nobody wanted to do anywhere in the government, but there was this constant sense oh we should be doing things differently. And I'm sure that on this whole issue of weapons distribution, which I was not involved in, there was pressure on the American side to say, "look, Masoud" for example "the Tajic is a valid resistance fighter he should be given more." and eventually he was. But as the second half of the decade became further advanced there were louder and louder voices saying Hekmatie is not our idea of a social democrat.
INTERVIEWER: I mean how significant were these sort of Senate pressure groups in changing US policy towards Afghanistan, or even hardening US policy towards Afghanistan.
CHARLES DUNBAR: Well I wanna say one thing speaking of the Senate in the House of Representatives particularly initially, well one point, one introductory point, the support for the Afghan resistance was across the political spectrum in both houses, and remained generally in that way throughout the whole time I was dealing with it and beyond. It ran from kind of Stephen Solars to Gordon Humphrey and I'm speaking here of a middle of the road democrat who was active in his support and in Gordon Humphrey the conservative senator from New Hampshire who was also very active. The conservatives tended to have it more in hand. Bill Bradley of New Jersey, Senator Bill Bradley was another one who was very active in support of the resistance, so it was a good thing. there was this complete agreement that this was what we should be doing. the congressional people took a lot of initiatives that were useful, some of them in very close coordination with the state department in general and with me in particular, because my interest was in trying to develop the resistance to help the resistance develop into a valid national liberation movement. And Senator Gordon Humphrey was instrumental in getting money set aside so that there could be a, an aid program a cross border aid program, not military but economic and social and even when you could do it political aid to the resistance. So the support was very strong. Of course as the war began to wind down, then the pressure to be sure that the resistance was not "sold out" became very intense from Capitol Hill.