Helping the Afghan rebels -- carefully

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan has produced a prolonged debate over the form and level of an appropriate American response. One thing is clear, however: Assistance to he Afghan rebels is in the best interest of the United States and is very likely happening already.

But linking aid to Afghan rebels with massive military assistance to Pakistan is another question. General Zia rejected our offer of $400 million in economic and military aid as "peanuts," but advocates of this policy insist that offering the necessary amount will prevent that embarrassment from happening again. Increased aid to Pakistan, they say, would demonstrate American resolve, discourage further Soviet intervention, and ultimately improve our standing elsewhere in the region by showing support for traditional Islamic forces.

But increased aid to Pakistan is a risky foreign policy adventure that is both unnecessary and unlikely to have the results its advocates predict.

It has become apparent in the last ten months that the Soviets appreciate the difficulties of exteding their attacks beyond the border into Pakistan. They not only lack the control and access to key military facilities but would need a substantially larger force to meet the well-equipped Pakistani Army and the larger, hostile population.

More importantly, the situation in Poland makes a major military invasion of Pakistan strategically unfeasible. Soviet military planners are not fools. They are unlikely to intervene in Pakistan beyond minor border harassment -- and increased military aid is unlikely to alter the situation either way.

There are other reasons US should not extend more aid to Pakistan.

The government of Pakistan has been chronically unstable since partition from India in 1948. It has been beset by ineffective civilian governments based on a democratically weak and fragmented multiparty structure, alternating with unpopular authoritarian military regimes. The current government falls into the latter category. Its efforts to restore traditional Islamic law and the fact that 60 percent of its budget is devoted to military spending have not increased its domestic support.

Similarly, the government's apparent decision to continue development of nuclear weapons has not met with approval from the international community.

The danger of Pakistan attaining nuclear capability in light of its current military bent and its antagonistic relations with India, which also has an active nuclear program, is clear.We would be shortsighted to ignore this possibility in developing our aid policy.

We should not go beyond supplying the aid necessary to strengthen the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Any increase risks arming Pakistan for a future conflict with India, not with the Soviets. It also risks a preemptive hostile response by India.

Finally, we should be extremely skeptical of proposals simplistically intended to restore US credibility in the Islamic world.

The Iraq-Iran war is an important lesson in the superficial nature of Islamic unity. We are seeing two core Islamic states locked in a classic battle over territory, not religious supremacy. And we have seen yet another split in the Arab world over whom to support. the issues of territory and economics have all superseded notions of Islamic unity.

Realistically, it is hard to believe that our support for the Afghan rebels alone will make much of a difference to Iran or Iraq, Syria or Saudi Arabia.

Helping the Afghan insurgents makes sense for the other reasons I have suggested. But even here we cannot ignore the implications of taking such action so openly as to provoke a reaction. Public support risks widening the existing division between the Afghan insurgent groups and increasing Soviet pressure on Pakistan. It also almost certainly guarantees that the Soviets will seek to further ligitimize their invasion by arguing that they are protecting an ally from American interference.

Carefully defined assistance to the Afghans is neccessary and appropriate and should be carried out without fanfare to avoid forcing the Soviets into a reaction. But supporters should not try to make more of it than is really there; nor should they try to expand assistance to solve other, substantially different, problems.

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