London — How does the Polish situation this December resemble the situation immediately preceding the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan last december? Interviews with highly placed military strategists and political observers here suggest several parallels and a number of contrasts.
The possible parallels:
1. Western intelligence sources followed the activity along the Afghanistan border, as they have around Poland, for several months before the Christmas invasion. "We said to ourselves, 'They are poised and ready,' somewhere in the last two weeks to 10 days before the invasion," says one strategist. Once the preparations were complete, there was little delay.
But Poland-watchers stress they have yet to see a Soviet willigness to invade. And they note other occasions -- particularly the so-called "Kissinger alert" during the Mideast war in October 1973 -- when Soviet military preparations did not lead to an invasion.
2. The evidence of the pre-Afghanistan preparations, as is the case now, came largely from observing the status of reservists, the movements of generals, and the canceling of leave. "There were not a lot of troops moving around before Afghanistan, either," says Gregory Treverton of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. He adds that the initial invading force was largely made up of southwest Asian troops based in the area.
But there are several contrasts:
* The Polish preparations have behind them what one strategist calls "an intimidation effect" aimed at Polish public opinion. That effect was not a factor in Afghanistan, he says, since the Afghans are not generally newspaper readers.
* The preparations around Poland have happened much faster than those around Afghanistan -- which may have lead to President Carter's use of the word "unprecedented" in his description of the buildup. But the Soviet divisions being readied are those facing West -- which, because of their location, have sophisticated contingency plans for bringing them rapidly to full alert.
* There are a number of political tricks left in the Kremlin's hand, as there seem not to have been before Afghanistan. Although one strategist sees the period between President Brezhnev's return from India and Ronald Reagan's Jan. 20 inauguration as the most favorable time to intervene in terms of international reactions, he says the Russians will prefer to exhaust the political options first.
* The Russians can plan ahead in Poland much better than in Afghanistan. They have excellent maps and extensive knowledge of the area, and the Polish terrain is just the kind for which their tanks were designed -- unlike the untracked peaks and gorges of Afghanistan.
* This crisis, which observers here agree is the worst facing the Soviet system since the end of the civil war in Russia in 1921, has no clear termination. A change in the attitude of the government in Kabul could have caused the military threat to evaporate. In fact, the timing and nature of Soviet intervention in Afghanistan suggest that the Russians expected to fly in quickly, secure the capital, remove the leaders, install their own, and bow out again fairly soon. In Poland, however, they know they are up against a grass-roots labor movement -- which one strategist describes as "tinder eternally."