Washington — The United States, feeling itself threatened by Soviet moves in Southwest Asia, looks for chinks in the Soviet Union's armor. A natural thought occurs: What about all the citizens of Muslim origin living in Soviet Central Asia and the Caucasus -- the USSR's own "Middle East," just above Iran and Afghanistan?
Shouldn't the US be telling them what is happening to their Muslim brethren in Afghanistan, where Soviet invaders seek to crush Muslim guerrillas?
The answer to that question is that it is already being done. Nearly half of million listeners, Muslims or of Muslim origin, living across Asia, many of them under Russian rule, now can hear the US speak out strongly, in their own languages, against Soviet aggression.
But there is a second, more ominous question: Could more than 50 million people of Muslim origin in the USSR, or some of them, begin to resist Soviet power -- as once did Tatars, Chechen-Inguish, and others during World War II? Later they were punished by dictator Joseph Stalin Stalin and his successors by permanent uprooting and deportation from their homes. (It has become fashionable in some Washington circles to speak of these people as the Soviet Achilles' heel.) But the answer to this question from US government experts is "no" on two counts:
1. It would be unrealistic to expect significant, or at least armed, unrest.
2. Even if an open revolt should develop, it would be irresponsible for the US to encourage it. In 1956, Radio Free Europe's Central Intelligence Agency-sponsored encouragements to Hungarian freedom fighters to battle Soviet troops in Budapest brought the Hungarians, who had hoped vainly for US intervention, only defeat and bitterness.
Since the invasion of Afghanistan, the US has taken steps to increase the number and sharpen the tone of its Voice of America (VOA) programs of news and commentary to the Muslim areas of South Asia, on both sides of the Soviet frontier.
However, violently polemical attacks on the Iranian regime of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, still holding US hostages in Tehran, or on the colonial-type political and cultural "Russification" of the non-Russian Muslims in the USSR are avoided.
"There is no doubt," says a high-ranking policymaker in the US International Communications Agency, "that we are getting into a more confrontational situation in our broadcasts. But the VAO will stop short of trying to stir up unrest inside the Soviet Union."
He added, however, that "We are going to tell the Soviet people, Muslims and others, the full Afghan story -- with all means to them in terms of their dead and wounded soldiers, and the cost in economic terms and in their damaged prestige in the Islamic world."
Some US analysts think Soviet fears about a possible "destabilization" of their own Muslims through the influence of militant Islam in Iran and in Afghanistan was a main motive for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. It was necessary to crush the Muslim guerrillas in Afghanistan, the theory goes, in order to prevent the spread of Islamic fundamentalism, or nationalism, northward into the Soviet Union.
But other analysts are skeptical. They think there may eventually be a threat to the Soviet from Islamic nationalism among the peoples of Muslim origin but that it will be some time in developing. Given the high birthrate among these peoples, they may comprise by the end of this century onequarter of the Soviet population. Then, according to some experts, many of them may become more assertive in their relations with the Russians.
But even then it might be unrealistic, indeed dangerous, to regard them as ripe for revolt. To start with, their living standard far surpasses that of the Muslims in neighboring countries. And on the Soviet side of the border religion plays a less important, or at least a less overt, part in peoples' lives.
The fact that the Soviets sets many soldiers of Muslim origin into Afghanistan seems to reveal a certain confidence.
Daniel Pipes, historian and Central Asian specialist at the University of Chicago, detects considerable vulnerability on the part of the Soviets, however. In 1978 he argued that a "cautious discussion of Russian rule in Central Asia can cause the Soviet Union great embarrassment . . . and possibly can contribute to the dismantling of its empire."
In a telephone interview, Professor Pipes said US policymakers should forget "ideological" anticommunism and concentrate on "naked Soviet imperialism -- a direct threat, not only to Europe or Muslims, but to the whole world. The emerging Muslim peoples can see it and feel it, and we should help them to do so."
Far more militant in this regard in Saudi Arabia, where the ruling royal family is the wealthiest ally of the US in the Muslim world. In a new "Journal of the Institute of Muslim Minority affairs," puslished by King Adbelazziz University in Jiddah with the approval of the Saudi Information Minister, a Central Asian Muslim refugee named Bymirza Hayit urges creation of an independdent "Turkistan," an ethnic Muslim state of Turkic-speaking people carved out of territory now ruled by China and Russia.
"We, the Turkistani people," wrote Mr. Hayit before the Afghan invasion, "pray to Allah Almighty that he inspire those nations that stand for justice in the world today to take up the cause of the people of Turkistan . . . for the freedom of their homeland."
By March 1 the VAO hopes to expand its Persian-language broadcasts (understood, like Turkish, by many Soviet Muslims as well as people in Afghanistan, Turkey, and Iran) from the present two hours daily to six hours.
Turkish is to be stretched from one-half hour to six hours. Uzbek, spoken in the USSR and Afghanistan, will be doubled from one hour to two. Programs in Urdu and Bengali, used widely on the Indian subcontinent, will increase from 1 to 1 1/2 hours.
Radio Liberty, a private, nonprofit corporation funded by Congress, also broadcasts to Muslims and other peoples in the Soviet Union. Its broadcasts in several languages of the southern USSR -- including Kirghiz, Armenian, Azeri, Georgian, Tatar- Bashkir, Kazak, Tadzhik, and Turkmen (none of which are used by the VAO at present) give local people news of their own country that they cannot get from the official Soviet media.