The Russian invasion of AFghanistan is in trouble -- increasing trouble. So much trouble that the Soviet leaders are confronted with two courses of action neither of which seems welcome.
One thing is clear and that is that any imminent danger of Soviet forces using Afghanistan as a springboard to get control of the Gulf is postponed indefinitely because of the price Moscow is paying in Afghanistan.
The purpose of this column is to look at the evidence of the Krenlin's invasion troubles, set out the options it now faces, and examine the ingredients of a solution which could prove acceptable to both the US and Russia.
The attempted Soviet conquest of its Afghan neighbor with massive and modern might is not working. Moscow's expeditionary force has been unable to quell the fierce Afghan resistance. The resistance from the Islamic rebels and from the civilian populatin has been formidable, and the ends is not in sight.
That is just the military cost to the Soviets. There is also a diplomatic, economic, and political cost. The invasion triggered a military buildup in the U.S. It has elicited condemnation from the overwhelming majority of the United Nations and most third-world countries, which normally do not raise their voices against the Russians. It is causing the US to deny the Soviets grain and high technology.
Both the price and the difficulty of the invasion are far exceeding any advance calculations the Kremlin could have expected.
This is why the Soviet leadership faces two hard choices -- either to increase, perhaps double, the invasion force and do whatever is needed to crush all opposition within Afghanistan, or to seek a neutralization of Afghanistan negotiated with its neighbors, Pakistan and India, plus the United States and Western Europe.
For Russia to expand vastly its invasion forces would unite the world against it more than ever, unite the Afghan people more implacably against it, and still its success would not be assured.
Under these circumstances there is good reason why President Brezhnev is signaling the West that he is open to finding a way to guarantee a neutral Afghanistan as the basis for withdrawing the troops. There are other signs which point in this direction.
Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin brought up the neutrality issue in a recent meeting with Secretary Vance. President Carter wants Vice-President Mondale and Vance to discuss it with Soviet officials when they will probably be in Belgrade in the near future.
Perhaps most revealing is the proposal which the Kremlin unfolded in the official news agency, Tass, for an international conference to guarantee the flow of oil supplies through the Gulf.
By the mid-1980s it is estimated that Russia will be a net importer of oil, and obviously it aims to get a fair share from the Middle East. It can try to do so by military means or by peaceful means. Since the invasion is not succeeding, it may be ready to try peaceful negotiation.
It seemed as though the Kremlin was committed to the military route, but this now must appear to Moscow as increasingly unattractive.
The Soviets will likely maneuver to get the best of both worlds -- the apparance of Afghan neutrality and the substance of occupation through a pro-Soviet Marxist regime, the third in a row they have installed in Kabul during the past two years.
Brezhnev says Soviet troops will be withdrawn after neutrality has been guaranteed. Carter proposes that Soviet troops withdraw at the moment neutrality is accepted by the participating powers.
There are three essential ingredients which, I would think, must be imbedded in any successful neutralization of Afghanistan:
* A precise undertaking by the Soviet as to the time and circumstances of withdrawal.
* Equally precise assurances from the US and Afghanistan's neighbors and others against any interference in Afghan internal affairs.
* And, most important of all, the replacement of the present Soviet puppet government of babrak Karmal, which has proved it cannot govern the country, by a new government genuinely acceptable to the Afghan people and tolerable to the Soviet Union.
This would be true detente at work.