Carter's hard job: rallying the West on Afghanistan

President Carter has an alliance repair job on his hands before he can get on much further with his plans for keeping the Soviets out of the oil fields of the Gulf.

The Western allies and Japan were all quick to condemn the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and to call for the withdrawal of the Soviet troops. But when it comes to breaking off or drastically reducing trade with the Soviet Union, boycotting the Olympic Games, and taking other punitive actions -- they are having second thoughts. They are certainly not ready for much "concerted" action.

This is why there was a major non-event over the past week. Had Mr. Carter had his way, the foreign ministers of Britain, France, West Germany, and Italy would have met together in Bonn with US Secretary of State Cyrus Vance on Feb. 21 and 22. It would have been a special Western summit.

It did not happen. Instead, Mr. Vance flew off to Bonn with side stops scheduled for Rome, Paris, and London. His main task was not what to do against the Soviets, but how to rebuild the appearance of a common front among the allies.

They, the others, are deeply dissatisfied over the way Mr. Carter has handled the Afghanistan affair. The White House may think that it satisfied the needs of allies to be consulted, but they do not. From their point of view Mr. Carter went roaring ahead without first discovering whether they even agreed with his diagnosis of what the Soviets did and why they did it.

As a matter of fact they do not agree with the diagnosis. The Soviet troops in Afghanistan may be a little closer than those same troops were before to the oil of the Gulf. But the allies find it hard to believe that Moscow intends to use those troops to reach for the Strait of Hormuz from Afghanistan's Hindu Kush. Even the friendliest of allied diplomats doubt that the Soviet motive in the whole operation is to get into a position to strangle the oil supply to the West.

As the west European allies see the matter, Moscow was in danger of having its local "clients" in Afghanistan overwhelmed by a rising rebellion. Had Moscow not sent in its own troops, its prestige might well have been seriously damaged. And now the question as posed by the allies is not whether the Kremlin might decide to go ahead and invade Iran or Pakistan, but whether it has enough troops in Afghanistan to solve that problem.

Whereas Mr. Carter has treated the affair as a Soviet act of aggression aimed at vital Western interests, the European allies tend to see it as a defensive move, which may not have been strong enough even to achieve its defensive purpose. The practical question asked by the European allies is whether 21 million Afghans can be pacified and controlled by a mere 100,000 Soviet troops.

Besides this difference in diagnosis, there also is doubt among the allies as to the soundness of Mr. Carter's proposed remedies to his presumed problem. The first Carter move was to offer arms and to promise aid to Pakistan, without first consulting quietly with the Pakistani government about what it would like and could use. Also, it was a bit late in the game before Washington took up the problem of the sensitivity in India to any idea of more guns going to Pakistan.

Then, the Europeans say, Washington began talking about building up a system of US air and sea bases or facilities in the Indian Ocean without first tackling its political relations with the countries that would be on the firing line if real trouble did break out in the area. An effective alliance that would undoubtedly win Moscow's respect would be one of Pakistan, Iran, and Iraq. But Washington does not even have an operating embassy in Iraq or Iran, and its relations with Pakistan are still cool.

Iran used to have the biggest and most efficient army of these three. But it was disorganized and demoralized by the revolution, and not much can be done about getting it back into useful shape unless or until Washington can rebuild a friendly and cooperative relationship with the new revolutionary regime there.

Iraq has the biggest and best-equipped armed force among the Islamic countries to the west of Iran. And Iraq voted to condemn the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. But the Iraqis disapprove of US policy toward the Arab-Israeli problem. It is doubtful that Washington can get into useful discussions with Iraq until or unless Israel ends its military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and allows the Arabs there to run their own affairs.

In the view of the major West European allies, the defense of the Gulf area must begin with a conclusion once and for all to the issue between Israel and its Arab neighbors, which means freedom for the West Bank and Gaza Arabs, and above all an absolute end to the imposed settlement of Israelis on Arab lands. If and when that can be achieved, the road will be open for further movement toward an arrangement whereby by Islamic countries in the path of a conceivable Soviet advance southward might be willing to accept some US support and cooperation.

But from a West European point of view there isn't much point in collective planning among the NATO allies at this stage of events. There is no grouping among the Islamic countries yet that could be supported by NATO members. Washington and Iran have still to complete the process expected to lead to the release of the US hostages -- although that matter does seem to be well on the way toward a resolution.

So, the Europeans ask, why ask us to give up our present relatively comfortable "detente" with Moscow when punitive action might only serve to stimulate Moscow toward more unpleasantness before protective measures have been worked out?

In other words, the NATO allies think Mr. Carter has been trying to go too far, too fast, and without giving his allies sufficient chance to think about what they should, could, and might be able to do to help.

The plain fact is that Mr. Carter has been treating the NATO alliance as his predecessors tended to treat it back in the heyday of US power, when Washington did possess decisive military power and no one else, either friendly or unfriendly, had much choice. But times have changed. The world is more complex.

The allies have interests that Mr. Carter's proposals against Moscow would damage. They want better and earlier consultation. And by consultation they mean something better than being informed a day in advance of a proposal to boycott the Olympic Games.

So the main story on the stage of world affairs this past week was of the conference that did not happen in Bonn. Mr. Vance has had, instead, to do the kind of spade work that the allies think should have been done before Mr. Carter launched his new "doctrine" and that had best be done before he launches any more.

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