The serious question which emerges from Moscow's seizure of Afghanistan is how to shore up and protect those countries lying to the south of Afghanistan. President Carter stated the problem accurately enough in his Jan. 4 address on the subject. He said:
"A Soviet-occupied Afghanistan threatens both Iran and Pakistan and is a steppingstone to their possible control over much of the world's oil supplies."
Well, if Iran and Pakistan are threatened the obvious solution would seem to be to help them improve their defenses. But at the present moment that is not an easy thing to do, particularly for Washington.
Washington's present relations with Pakistan are bad and, with Iran, worse.
They are bad with Pakistan partly because Pakistan is governed at present by an unpopular military dictatorship. To give it support risks repeating the mistake made in Iran. Having just learned a sad lesson about backing an unpopular dictatorship in Iran, Washington is bound to be hesitant about getting too close to the one in Pakistan which might someday soon be toppled by public dissatisfaction or another military coup.
Also, Pakistan wants nuclear weapons to balance off those believed to be in India's arsenal. President Carter disapproves and had been trying to dissuade Pakistan by cutting off arms shipments.
But if this makes it difficult for Washington to cooperate with Pakistan in setting up a regional defense system in the Middle East, the problem with Iran is worse. Indeed, President Carter is continuing to pursue a policy which can only make it still worse. He is imposing US sanctions against Iran. He is also trying to round up the agreement of other industrial countries for such sanctions.
So Mr. Carter has a long way to go toward the day when the countries to the south of Afghanistan might form some new kind of a mutual defense organization backed by both the United States and China. That would be the best way to protect against a southward move by the Soviets from their newest province of empire towards the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf.
But the first step down the road towards such a defense system would be difficult and could be painful for Mr. Carter in Washington. He has got to find a way to back off and out of his present policy of seeking sanctions against Iran. He can't even begin to support a regional defense of the Middle East while he pushes on with the sanctions policy. But to abandon it would risk political attack from his rivals for the presidency. Movement toward a security system in the Middle East is, therefore, bogged down in domestic US politics.
Fortunately, there is no need to move quickly. Moscow has not completed the consolidation of its conquest of Afghanistan. The process could drag on for weeks, months, and perhaps even years. The length of the process depends in part on how eager the Afghans themselves are to keep up the fight. It depends also on the Chinese and the Pakistanis.
Is Pakistan willing to allow its territory to be used for training and supplying dissident Afghans? China has promised to support Pakistan against any "foreign aggression." But a promise of that kind has to be spelled out in detail before it takes on real meaning.
There is no contractual reason why the United States should not provide weapons to the dissident Afghans. Moscow supplied weapons to the Vietnamese all during the US involvement in Vietnam; the sending of US weapons to the Afghans would be following the Soviet example. But Soviet weapons to the Vietnamese were delivered to a functioning and recognized government in control of much territory. At present there is no organized Afghan resistance movement, no government in exile, no agreement among the countries most concerned about whether and when they might want to put into operation a regular program of supporting a resistance movement in Afghanistan.
In fact, not much can be started or organized or put into operation unless or until Washington finds a way to get back into good relations with Iran. That comes first. Once that is achieved, if it is, then it would be possible to think about some form of joint plan by Iran and Pakistan to be supported from Peking and Washington. Not much is likely to happen suddenly.