The appearance of things in Afghanistan is interestingly different today from what is was when it all started two months ago. Then, over the Christmas-New Year's week when Soviet troops surged through clad in the full panoply of modern war, it seemed a logical assumption that Moscow would have the country under tight control in short order. In Washington , perhaps more than in other capitals, there was deepest anxiety about where the Soviet troops would go next. Was Moscow aiming at the oil of the Persian Gulf?
Well, today, two months later, it seems reasonably clear that the Soviets are not going anywhere beyong Afghanistan soon, or ever. Their troops are pinned down in the valleys in occasionally heavy fighting.
Military failure to consolidate and pacify has been matched by political failure. Babrak Karmal, the trained Afghan communist administrator they brought in from Prague to run the government for them, has been unable to set up an effective regime.
It seems a fair conclusion from the known facts that Afghanistan is not easily going to be converted into an acquiescent satellite or even into a pacified possession.
As for those Soviet troops using Afghanistan as a launching pad for going further south, what military commander would want to depend on a supply line running through 20 million disgruntled Afghan tribesmen?
It seems doubtful that the commitment of those 100,000 or so Soviet troops to Afghanistan and neighboring Soviet territory has altered the general situation in Southwest Asia and the Middle East to Moscow's advantage. Moscow had the capacity to drive for the Gulf and the Indian Ocean before this adventure, by going straight down through Iran. It has that capacity today, except that those 100,000 soldiers are pinned down now in or near Afghanistan and hence not available for other ventures.
Another way of putting the matter is that a substantial chunk of the armed forces of the Soviet Union has been immobilized in Afghanistan just as much larger chunk of US armed forces was immobilized for nearly seven years in Vietnam. If the Soviets reinforce in Afghanistan, their predicament there will come that much closer to resembling the US predicament in Vietnam.
The above might be part of the explanation, perhaps even the major part of the less happy (for the United States) fact that there seems to be some delay in arranging the release of the hostages in Iran. When those Soviet troops first moved into neighboring Afhganistan and were reported approaching the borders of Iran, the people in Tehran and Qom showed an active interest in resolving their differences with Washington. But then those Soviet soldiers became visibly occupied in Afghanistan, and the danger of a move on into Iran receded.
So the new leadership in Iran could afford to take its time arriving at the most favorable bargain it could strike with Washington through the mediation of the United Nations.
That in turn makes it a fortunate thing that Americans could find some compensation in the splendid victory of their hockey team on the ice at Lake Placid for the real or imagined frustrations in the far side of the world.
The hostages still languished. The Afghans were fighting their own battles without benefit of much visible US aid. Allies were increasingly uninterested in signing up behind President Carter for a campaign to punish Moscow for having invaded Afghanistan, since Moscow was doing a fair job of punishing itself.
But at least a team of young American college kids took the ice at Lake Placid, took on an older and more experienced Soviet team, and won. Their country exploded in an outburst of star-spangled joy. And President Carter cashed in by having them to lunch at the White House.
There is still a big question mark over Afghanistan, but it is not the one that hung there two months ago. Then, the question was where might they go next. Now the question is whether they will try to find some face-saving way out, or follow the US example and reinforce their failure.
How much more would it take to grind the Afghans into submission? Back in 1965 President Lyndon Johnson asked the same question of his generals about Vietnam. They said they could do it with a half million men, backed by about half of the US Navy and half of the Strategic Air Command, not to mention most of the fighter command of the Air Force.
In Moscow they probably remember as well as does anyone in Washington what all those little brown men in black pajamas did to Lyndon Johnson's assumptions in the jungles of Vietnam. More than of half of the population of Vietnam was at least nominally on the side of the US forces during the war.
In Afghanistan most of the Afghan Army is believed to have taken to the hills or turned against the invaders.
There is no basis for thinking that any substantial part of the Afghan population is ready to accept either direct Soviet rule or the rule of a puppet regime set up by the Soviets. The population in Afghanistan is about half what the total population was in Vietnam at the time of the US intervention there. But 20 million Afghans might be able to make life as uncomfortable for 100,000 Soviet soldiers as a similar number of Vietnamese did for half a million US soldiers.
It is extremely difficult for a superpower to accept inability to master a much smaller country. The US used up two presidents in the attempt to pacify Vietnam.
If the men in the Kremlin read history wisely, they will profit from that US experience and get out of Afghanistan before the price goes higher. But we may be reasonably confident that whichever way they play the next round in Afghanistan, they will not soon be heading for the Gulf.