Why has the Soviet Union, after 60 years of living more or less peacefully next door to a nonaligned Afghanistan, suddenly seen fit to invade this inoffensive neighbor, for the first time to project its own armed forces in large numbers outside the Warsaw Pact area in peacetime?
An answer, common among hawkish Westerners, is that the Soviets are coupling the ancient Russian drive toward "warm-water ports" with a prospective need for Middle Eastern oil, and that their next targets will be Pakistan, Iran, and the Persian Gulf. These sources allege that US "betrayal" of the Shah and subsequent "weakness" in responding to seizure of our hostages have encouraged the Soviet leaders to believe they can get away with this barefaced aggression.
Anything is possible in a world governed by power politics, but it is most unlikely that the Soviete are sufficiently naive to think they could invade Pakistan and Iran profitably and with impunity or by political pressure on those countries to cause them to capitulate to Soviet political demands.
A more plausible explanation of the Soviet invasion is that, alarmed by the rise of Muslim militancy in Iran and elsewhere and fearful of its effect on their own large and growing Muslis population in Asia, they decided to establish a sattelite buffer zone, similar to those they maintain in Eastern Europe and Mongolia.
A third explanation is that the Kremlin, without any clear-cut long-range plan, slipped into deeper and deeper involvement in Afghanistan, as the US did in Vietnam. Eventually the prestige of one of several Politburo members became to critically committed to permit a pull- back. In the clandestine power struggle for Brezhnev's succession now going on, no one wanted to be charged with "losing" Afghanitan, as Egypt for example had been "lost."
Whatever the correct explanation, the action was an extremely foolish one which its originators will live to regret. As both British and Russians discovered in the 19th century, Afghanistan, with its rugged terrain and equally rugged population, in inhospitable to invaders. While helicopter gunships and napalm provide the latter with new capabilities, it is entirely possible the Soviets will find modern weaponry no more decisive in Afghanistan than the Americans did in Vietnam.
Moreover, the Kremlin is likely to discover that, by this action, it has mobilized against it much of the Muslim world, just at a time when that world is becoming more militant and powerful. Already declining Soviet influence in the Middle East will decline further. Even the rulers of South Yemen may begin to wonder whether, if they continue their present associations, they may not suffer the safe of President Amin.
Finally, most of the tattered vestiges of detente with the United States and the West are likely, for a time at least, to disappear. This whole episode is one of the tragic consequences of the long delay in concluding SALT II and of failure to ratify it promptly. Had it been in effect and negotiation of SALT III underway, it is extremely unlikely the Soviets would have undertaken their Afghan adventure. As it was, they probably calculated that (a) the Senate was likely to kill or shelve SALT in any case and (b), even if ratified, the carefully calibrated "equivalence" it had been intended to set up was already being unbalanced by projected increases in the US defense budget and by the NATO decision to deploy in Europe intermediate-range missiles (which are "strategic" in Soviet eyes).
Despite the fact the Kremlin has almost certainly let itself in for far more trouble than Afghanistan will be worth, the Carter administration is correct in mobilizing a prompt and vigorous Western response. If the Soviets get away with such overt aggression without more than verbal protest, they might presume, very dangerously, they could get away with it elsewhere.
Direct military action by the West would not be practical or useful, but military aid to Pakistan and to Afghan "freedom fighters" would be entirely appropriate. Condemnation of this gross violation of the UN Charter by a majority of Security Council members will be politically significant, despite a Soviet veto. Trade with the Soviets in commodities and technology they badly need should be discouraged.
On the other hand, we should not let ourselves be carried away by Cold War hysteria. Our object should not be to "punish" the Soviet Union but to demonstrate, particularly at this critical moment in the Kremlin power struggle, that behavior of this kind does not pay. Whatever happes to SALT II this year, the SALT process remains a vital interest of the United States, as of the Sovet Union, and should be resumed as soon as possible. Lines of communication must not be broken.
Finally, how does the Soviet attack on Afghanistan affect the US predicament in Iran? By reminding Iranians of a threat far closer and more serious than any from the United States, it may produce a favorable solution far more rapidly than any pressure the US could mount against Iran.
Indeed, external pressure, such as UN sanctions, would not only be ineffective but would serve the purposes of Khomeini and the "students" by supporting their claim to be leading a national crusade against Western "imperialism." The quickest way to get our hostages out would be to turn off the spotlights and the cameras, wind down the daily media event so flattering to Iranian vanity, and let Soviet tanks in Afghanistan serve our purposes.