25. Editorial Note

By the summer of 1978, U.S. officials began to assess the viability of various Afghan opponents of the Taraki government and whether or not the United States should assist their attempts to overthrow the current regime. The issue arose as a result of telegram 5047 from Kabul, June 22, in which J. Bruce Amstutz, Chargé d’Affaires ad interim after the departure of Ambassador Eliot until the arrival at post of Ambassador Adolph Dubs, sought guidance in responding to a “highly sensitive matter.” Amstutz reported, “I have been approached by a major anti-Communist group, led by no less than the number 2 in the Afghan military, to seek our advice on how best to proceed against the present pro-Soviet, pro-Communist government. This group is considering a military counter-coup and believes they can secure power in a matter of six hours—if it were not for the Soviet presence. They fear the Soviets will intervene à la Czechoslovakia unless the U.S. (and perhaps Iran and Pakistan as well) are willing to stand up to the Soviets.” Amstutz went on to discuss in detail his meeting with Dr. Mir Ali Akbar, Chief of Jamhuriat Hospital, who claimed to speak for the Chief of Staff of the Afghan military, an Afghan military officer, and a senior retired officer, who together directed an unnamed anti-Communist organization with significant popular support as well as military manpower and clandestine “penetration” of the ruling Khalq Party. (Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, Office File, Country Chron File, Box 1, Afghanistan: 1978)

Amstutz surmised that Akbar, in taking the dangerous step of approaching the U.S. Embassy, was primarily seeking advice on how to proceed with a coup clandestinely, so as not to trigger a massive and rapid Soviet response. The group for which Akbar spoke, in Amstutz’s estimation, was genuine and “not a Taraki-regime frame-up” and “represents the only significant non-Communist opposition and alternative to the Taraki regime.” On the question of the extent to which the United States should advise and encourage this group, Amstutz offered an historical lesson: in the early 1960s, Washington rejected Prime Minister Daoud’s request that the United States become Afghanistan’s major arms supplier; subsequently, Daoud turned to the Soviets. “I am con[Page 58]vinced,” Amstutz wrote, “that had we not spurned him, the Taraki regime would not be in power today nor would Afghanistan have fallen within the Soviet sphere of influence.” Amstutz counseled a middle ground “of providing encouragement and advice to this organization without getting involved in another Korea.” (Ibid.) The telegram was attached to a covering memorandum from Peter Tarnoff, Executive Secretary of the Department of State, to Zbigniew Brzezinski, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, dated June 22. The memorandum informed Brzezinski: “We are consulting with CIA on this message with a view to formulating recommendations on how the approach should be handled.” President Carter initialed “C” in the upper left-hand corner of the memorandum. (Ibid.)

The following day, Amstutz received a response in telegram 160507 to Kabul, instructing him that the issue was being actively considered and that Amstutz “should take no initiative to contact the anti-Communist group.” (Department of State, Bureau of Intelligence and Research, Intelligence Liaison Files, TIN 980643000018, Box 14, Kabul, 1965–79) On June 28, Deputy Director of Central Intelligence Frank Carlucci sent a memorandum to Deputy Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs David Aaron, spelling out the CIA position on aiding the anti-Taraki group, which was “that no official encouragement should be given the coup plotters.” But, Carlucci wrote, “we do recommend that contact be maintained for intelligence collection purposes, and that the CIA be given responsibility for this.” Carlucci reasoned that this middle course could help the United States “influence events” and, while acknowledging that the “Soviets will react very vigorously to any counter coup; it behooves us to have as much advance knowledge as possible in order to better manage U.S.-Soviet relations in the wake of such an event.” (National Security Council, Carter Administration Intelligence Files, Box I–047, Afghanistan: 8 May 1978–7 Dec 1978)

The possible value of maintaining contact with the coup plotters implicitly acknowledged the poor state of intelligence collection in Afghanistan at the time. In a May 25 memorandum to Brzezinski, National Security Council Staff member Thomas Thornton summarized an attached CIA report entitled “Collection Coverage of Post-Coup Afghanistan,” stating, “it simply points out that things are pretty tough in Afghanistan collection-wise.” (Ibid.)

Two weeks later, the CIA produced two detailed evaluations on the state of Afghan opposition groups, both dated July 14, which Thornton attached as Tab A and Tab B to a memorandum to Aaron and Brzezinski, also dated July 14. The memorandum at Tab A referenced Amstutz’s latest assessment that Taraki retained control both of Kabul and the Afghan countryside, but that violence posed a threat to the current government, and the influx of Soviet advisers to Afghanistan (totaling [Page 59] approximately 2,000, including the 1,600 advisers stationed there before the coup) was eroding support within the Afghan military for the Taraki government. The evaluation also summarized reports from numerous sources regarding a tribal insurgency in southeast Afghanistan, and from the CIA Station Chief in Islamabad who had been informed by Pakistani military intelligence that approximately 2,000 Afghan tribesmen had crossed into Pakistan in late June as a result of the fighting. The evaluation counted a total of six occasions in which Afghans approached U.S. officials claiming to represent groups opposed to the Taraki government, including one made up of Afghans and Saudis known as the Afghan Liberation Front. The memorandum concluded that while intelligence collection in Afghanistan was improving, the United States might not have advance notice should a counter-coup develop over the next several weeks, nor could U.S. intelligence ascertain Soviet intentions vis-à-vis threats to the Taraki regime. Thornton noted that the analysis attached at Tab B “goes over some of the same ground in more detail,” and concluded, “I guess the question of giving a helping hand is out of the question and am doubtful that we should in any event; the result would likely be an invitation for massive Soviet involvement.” Brzezinski drew a line in the margin next to that sentence and wrote “yes.” (Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, Office File, Country Chron File, Box 1, Afghanistan: 1978) Only the cover page of Tab B was attached to Thornton’s memorandum. The full text of the evaluation at Tab B was found in the Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, Country File, Box 1, Afghanistan: 1/77–3/79.

On July 27, Director of Central Intelligence Stansfield Turner sent a memorandum to Brzezinski reviewing the decision made by the Department of State, the National Security Council, and the CIA that the United States would remain in contact with Afghan counter-coup operatives, but would not assist their efforts [text not declassified]. The plan hinged on the “quick elimination” of Taraki, Amin, Qader, Watanjar, and Sakhi—which would effectively decapitate the leadership of the ruling Afghan Government. Having taken advantage of the confusion caused by the death of Khalq leaders, the report noted, “the counter-coup plotters believe they have nothing to fear from the presence of Soviet advisors and can overcome pro-regime forces within 24–48 hours but are concerned that the USSR will intervene on behalf of the Taraki regime.” (National Security Council, Carter Administration Intelligence Files, Box I–047, Afghanistan: 8 May 1978–7 Dec 1978)

On July 30, the Embassy in Afghanistan, now headed by Ambassador Dubs, added its analysis to this discussion in telegram 6128 from Kabul. In the telegram, the Embassy emphasized that, although the reliability and identity of the Afghan opposition groups remained an [Page 60] ongoing question, “we cannot exclude the possibility that a coup will be attempted in the immediate months, if not weeks, ahead if the opposition groups believe themselves to be adequately prepared or should their existence become known to the regime and extinction become a threat.” Dubs also believed that concerns of the opposition groups regarding possible Soviet intervention were valid: “the Soviets would come to the assistance of the present regime should there be a call for help, should they perceive that the countercoup is ‘reactionary,’ and should time permit effective intervention.” From a military infrastructure perspective, Dubs noted that the Soviets were well prepared to take such action should they deem it necessary. He further agreed with the consensus in Washington that the United States should not encourage the counter-coup plotters, which “would raise unwarranted expectations among the coup leaders about our ability to influence events decisively in and area where our options and leverage are, unfortunately, minimal.” Still, Dubs concluded, a policy of non-interference need not prevent the United States from independently deterring the Soviets from intervention, or condemning intervention should it occur. (Department of State, Bureau of Intelligence and Research, Intelligence Liaison Files, TIN 980643000018, Box 14, Kabul, 1965–79) Dubs noted, in telegram 6159 from Kabul, July 30, that while there were many potential threats to the Taraki regime, from both leftist and rightist groups, a “paucity of hard information” hampered accurate assessments about the real viability of the Afghan Government. “Only the wildest rumors can be disregarded completely,” Dubs commented. “Matters are clearly simmering and could quickly boil over at any time.” (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D780312–0956)

The viability of internal threats to the DRA was downplayed by the CIA later that year, when again rumors of an impending coup proliferated in Kabul. On December 5, an intelligence information cable representing the views of the CIA’s “senior officer on the scene,” reported: “we doubt if there is a workable coup plan in existence,” and that the “loose talk” of a coup around Kabul was not a secret to the Afghan Government, which was taking proactive measures by arresting dissidents and promoting loyalists. Noting that opposition to the DRA was no more organized than it was in May, and that the Soviet Union remained committed to supporting the revolution that ushered in Taraki’s rule, the December 5 cable concluded that “the longer this government stays in power the stronger it becomes. It is sinking in its roots.” (Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, Country File, Box 1, Afghanistan: 1/77–3/79)