Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search


Preventing future Afghanistans

By Barry M. BlechmanBarry M. Blechman is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. / May 2, 1980



While not challenging the Soviets overtly in Afghanistan, the Carter administration has taken measures to demonstrate that intervention carries a high price-tag. The President is to be commended for his persistent efforts to bring about an effective boycott of the Moscow Olympics, as he should be praised for pursuing economic sanctions.

Skip to next paragraph

These actions are means of deterring future Soviet decisions to repeat their Afghanistan adventure elsewhere. By demonstrating the high price of past activities, the US seeks to convince Soviet leaders to forgo future temptations. This message will be reinforced to the degree that the US and its allies act decisively to enhance their military capabilities; sanctions supported by a credible threat of counterintervention would be doubly effective.

There is another side to all this, however: actions to prevent rather than to deter future Afghanistans. Besides persuading the Soviets to think twice the next time a situation like Afghanistan develops, the US could also take steps to reduce the likelihood that such situations in fact do occur.

For example, in most cases of Soviet military intervention where Soviet equipment and/or Cuban personnel have been involved, the Russians have had to make use of the airspace and, sometimes, airfields and ports of third nations. Even such ostensibly anti-communist countries as the Shah's Iran on occasion granted overflight rights to Soviet military aricraft on their way to trouble spots in Africa or the Middle East. The 40,000 Cuban troops now in Africa still require a variety of logistical facilities and transit right in third world nations.

The US could pursue a long-range strategy to ensure that the next time the USSR or Cuba considers an intervention, transit rights are denied. This requires pointed and confidential discussions with a variety of governments in the third world. Now is the time to begin such a campaign, given the worldwide outrage which the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan has evoked.

Actions also could be taken to reduce instabilities in the third world. The successful British Mediation in Zimbabwe is a prime illustration of what potentially can be accomplished. Mediation, most often by nations other than the United States or by regional organizations, might also be successful in other conflicts, such as that in El Salvador. Other incipient Afghanistans may be prevented by concerted political and economic actions in support of domestic forces with a promise of stability.

Nowhere is this more important than in Turkey. Few nations are as deserving of the adjective "vital" as is Turkey, yet the Congress seems to have gone out of its way to alienate the Turks from the West. While worsening appreciably over the past year, the situation in Turkey is still salvageable. And this is one initiative for which the European allies and Japan have no excuse not to be willing to take decisive actions. The West should be unstinting; indeed lavish in its efforts to rebuild the Turkish military and, more important, to revitalize the Turkish economy.

Finally, there is Cuba, often the leading edge of Soviet military involvement in the third world. Less than six months ago Fidel Castro looked forward to three years of prestige and influence as the leader of the nonaligned movement. Now, thanks in part to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Cuba is too busy fighting off efforts to condemn the Soviets in the movement's coordinating committee to exercise leadership for any positive purpose. In addition, Castro lost his bid for a seat on the UN Security Council, and faces economic disaster at home, continuing military problems in Angola and Ethiopia, and now even ridicule as tens to perhaps hundreds of thousands of Cubans act determinedly to leave their new paradise.

As a result, the time may be right to quietly explore the possibility of resuming the progress toward normalization of US-Cuban relations which was begun in the early 1970s. The United States should be firm in its demands: an end to Cuban military involvement and subversive activity abroad, and an end to allm Soviet military activity, of any type, in Cuba itself. These would be hard for Castro to swallow, but the US has much to offer, including lifting the US economic blockade, the know-how and technology to help Cuba solve its chronic agricultural problems, and -- politically -- a sharp lessening in Cuba's embarrassing dependence on the Soviet Union. This is not a deal that could ever be formalized -- a nod, a wink, and a whispered word in the backseat of a limousine is all that should be expected -- but it could work to both nations' advantage.

Given the preoccupation of the White House with Iran and elections, the continuing technical orientation of the Pentagon, and the current transition in the State Department, it is difficult for the US Government to pursue new initiatives in international politics. But this is the time: The Soviets are pressed militarily in Afghanistan and crippled politically because of their involvement. Memories of the invasion are fresh throughout the world. The US should make clear the price of Afghanistans to Soviet leaders; but, at the same time, it should act just as decisively to deny them future opportunities.