Why did Moscow send its soldiers into Afghanistan, massively, on Dec. 27? There are plenty of theories. One is that the Russians did it as a step towards control of Gulf oil. Another is that they did it to break out of a ring of encirclement being forged around them by Washington and Peking.Neither theory fits all the known circumstances. Historians of the future will have trouble deciding where the true explanation lies. Yet we should try to figure it out correctly, because it bears on the prudent response now being sought among the Western allies.
In grouping for the answer I have been going back over the preceding months. It strikes me that there was something of a beginning point for all this back at the end of 1977. AT that time Washington and Hanoi had been in negotiation over matters left over from the Vietnam war. These talks covered release of prisoners of war, return of bodies of those missing in action, and possible US economic aid to Vietnam. Hanoi was also in diplomatic exchanges with China. It seemed possible then that the new Vietnam emerging from the old wars might break out of a close association with the Soviet Union and become an independent member of the world community.
But during the first six months of 1978 Hanoi took a different road. Its relations with the US deterioriated. It began to mass troops along its frontier with Cambodia. Its ancient desire to dominate the whole of Southeast Asia seemed to grow at the expense of relations with Washington and Peking. Did Moscow encourage this, or decide to go along? We on the outside cannot know. But we do know that by June of 1978 Hanoi had become an exclusive client of the Soviet Union, relations with Washington had generated into nothing, and its troops entered Cambodia massively.
The Chinese kept up diplomatic contact with Hanoi until September of that year. But beginning in September Peking broke off further negotiations with Hanoi and began massing its own troops along the northern frontier of Vietnam. At the same time China moved forward with its talks with Washington about full and formal mutual recognition.
Did Washington "play the China card" or did Peking "play the American card"?
By December of 1978 Chinese troops were mased in considerable strength all around the northern border of Vietnam. And on Dec. 15 President CArter announced in Washington the conclusion of negotiations for the exchange of full and formal diplomatic relations. He set Jan. 1 as the date for formalities, including derecognition of Taiwan.
Following formal, mutual recognition, China's deputy leader Deng Xiaoping visited Washington on Jan. 28, toured the US, and talked publicly and often about the possible necessity of having to do something about the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia. He left the US on Feb. 5. On Feb. 9 the State Department said it "would be seriously concerned over a Chinese attack on Vietnam." That attack was launched eight days later, on Feb. 17.
Looking back over those events it seems obvious that China "played the American card" to cover its own impendig invasion of Vietnam. That invasion was a blow at Soviet pride and prestige. Vietnam was a blow at Soviet pride and prestige. Vietnam and had threatended reprisals should the attack occur. It did. In other words Moscow's credibility as a great power ws thrown into question. It had failed to protect a client.
Throughout 1979 Vietnam continued to attempt to consolidate its grip on Cambodia, but the effort is still unfinished. China has continued to thwart the purpose of Moscow's client. And 1979 also saw the tide of battle in Afghanistan turn against the Soviet puppet regime there. Had victory come to insurgents, also being supplied with arms by China, Moscow would have suffered a second humiliatin largely at Chinese hands, but backed at least indirectly by Washington.
The Soviet Union is supposed to be a super-power.Superpowers like to think they can protect their clients. Could Moscow afford to have its credibility as a superpower tarnished by a failure of Vietnam to consolidate its grip on Cambodia and also by failure of its puppets in Afghanistan?
In Washington the assumption tends to be that Soviet troops in Afghanistan are aiming at the oil of the Gulf. But the threat to that oil existed before the move into Afghanistan, and would continue to exist from other places (Ethiopia, South Yemen, etc.) even if the Soviet troops in Afghanistan went home.
Moscow started all this in the sense that it supplied the weapons for the Vietnam invation of Cambodia. China was bound to respond by attempting to sustain the Cambodians and the Afghan rebels.
In other words, 1980 is the third year of a massive power struggle between China and the Soviet Union in which Moscow is trying to get effective control of southern Asia from the South China Sea to the Arabian Sea. China is fighting back by supporting Cambodians and Afghan rebels. And the United States is increasingly tending to side with China against Moscow.