Soviet empire builders reach to control vital Hindu Kush

The man the Russians have just installed as president of Afghanistan, Babrak Karmal, was already being called by Afghan nationalists in the mid-1970s a potential puppet in the mold of Shah Shuja.

Shah Shuja is the Benedict Arnold of 19th-century Afghan history. The British (from India) installed him as a puppet ruler in Kabul in 1839, after an exile of 30 years. There he reigned for three years under British protection, denied the support and loyalty of his people because of his puppet status.

In the early months of 1842, the British were forced to withdraw, with only one man of a fighting force of 4,500 that began the retreat from Kabul making it as far as Jalalabad on the road to the Khyber Pass. Shah Shuja, who stayed behind in the great fortress of Bala Hisar, above Kabul, was murdered.

In some ways the forces that pulled the British into Afghanistan 140 years ago are the same as those that have sucked the Russians into the country now. It is the centuries-old urge to control -- or to deny to others the control of -- the Hindu Kush.

The Hindu Kush, and its westward extension, is the great natural barrier between central and southern Asia. It is the watershed between the Oxus and Indus valleys. Its challenging and sinister snowcapped peaks are the physical backbone of Afghanistan, a land whose whole heartland is the forbidding mountainous massif. Hindu Kush means "Hindu killer" -- a name earned by the number of slaves, brought from India by Central Asian marauders, who perished in the snows of the great divide.

Killer of Hindus or not, the Hindu Kush has attracted -- and usually defeated -- empire builders of the past, from Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan to the Russian czars and Queen Victoria. Now, at the turn of the decade, the present-day Russian empire builders have made a bid to establish Russian control over the entire Hindu Kush for the first time in history. The challenge to the West is that today there is no Western counterweight such as the British provided from India in the 19th century.

The Soviet priorities as they move militarily to establish control of Afghanistan are interesting. Obviously Kabul and the surrounding area take precedence, together with the Soviet-built highway to the big air base at Begram , which crosses northward across the Hindu Kush (actually through a tunnel in the Salang Pass) to the Soviet frontier, where it connects with Dushanbe, capital of Soviet Tadzhikistan.

Almost simultanuously, the Soviets have thrust toward the two extremities of the Hindu Kush.

Clashes with Afghans were reported as Soviet troops moved to take control of the Badakhshan area in the northeast, where Afghan Tadzhiks have been in revolt against the central government for many months. From the Soviet point of view, the area is doubly sensitive. First, it cannot risk dissidence among Afghan Tadzhiks -- the country's second biggest ethnic group after the Pushtun -- spreading across the border to Soviet Tadzhikistan. Second, Badakhshan is the area of dissidence within Afghanistan closest to China, a country that would presumably be interested in encouraging Afghan revolt against the Russians.

Of roughly equal priority has been the Soviet seizure of Herat, at the western end of the Hindu Kush divide. Throughout history, Herat has been a bastion controlling strategic routes westward and southward to and from Afghanistan. With the Soviets now in Herat, they are astride a junction of paved roads that lead westward to Mashhad and Iran and southward to Kandahar, Quetta, and Pakistan -- with the whole of the Indian subcontinent beyond.

There are three areas of longstanding revolt next likely to get Soviet attention. One of these, the Hazarajat -- inhabited by the Shia Hazaras and deep inside Afghanistan -- may prove relatively easy to subdue in the first instance because it is isolated from sources of potential outside support.

The two others, Nuristan and the Pushtun homeland, are differently situated. They are adjacent to the border of Pakistan.

The Nuristanis, a self-contained people belatedly converted to Islam last century, number only in the tens of thousands. But the Pushtun number in the millions, constituting perhaps 60 percent of Afghanistan's total population of some 15 million.

With the Soviets in Herat, their position is strengthened for any military move into Iran, in that they are now on Iran's eastern as well as its northern border. History suggests that given the "right" circumstances a Soviet military move into Iran is more likely than a Soviet military move into Pakistan. But Soviet involvement in a war against Pushtun guerrillas inside Afghanistan could still lead to grave international complications on the Afghan-Pakistani border.

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