Afghanistan: the Soviet price one year later

Since its troops and tanks moved into nonaligned, Muslim Afghanistan a year ago, triggering headlines and alarm around the world, the Kremlin has paid a definite, and cumulative, diplomatic and economic price.

The question being asked here is how great the Soviets perceive that price to be -- and how great it has, in fact, been.

Western, Asian, and Muslim diplomats here, as well as Soviet public and private comment, all agree that the Soviets are in Afghanistan to stay for the indefinite future.

Moscow considers Afghanistan too strategic to be allowed to veer away now from a pro-Moscow course, and the Kremlin is unhampered by the major difficulties Washington faced in Vietnam: a restive public opinion, the war replayed each night on living-room television screens, and the need to transport men and supplies halfway around the world.

And the Soviet view is that the price so far has not been great. Some Western diplomats here reluctantly agree, though the price will rise dramatically if Moscow decides to invade Poland while its troops remain in Afghanistan.

Other diplomats emphatically disagree. They insist the Soviet reputation has taken a beating in the West, in the Islamic world, in Asia, at the United Nations. That beating grows worse with every new rumor of a Soviet invasion of Poland.

The Soviet view, as supported by some Westerners here: The SALT II treaty was doomed in the Senate anyway last December. The spirit of the Vienna summit between President Carter and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev in June 1979 had long since evaporated with the flap over the Soviet brigade in Cuba and on other issues.

US relations with China were warming steadily. When the Soviets sent in their "limited contingent" of troops (as the 85,000-man Soviet force is invariably described here), US and Western reaction had little effect. The grain boycott simply meant Moscow purchased more grain from Argentina and other countries that refused to support the White House. It cost more, but the USSR could afford it since Soviet oil sales abroad have been booming and earning high hard-currency prices.

As for the Olympic boycott, the fact the games were held, and were successful , was a victory for Moscow. Overall effects on high technology and trade were minimal, in the Soviet view, as Soviet trade with West Germany, Italy, France, and other European countries has risen steadily. West European allies simply haven't listened to US entreaties to slow trade with Moscow.

Besides, the Soviets say, Western memories are short. "Who in the West really cares about a remote place like Afghanistan anyway?" Soviets ask in private. "To link Afghanistan with strategic arms control is absurd -- and dangerous."

As for the Islamic world, Syria and Libya are still friends. Not all Islamic countries "understood" the Afghan move "correctly," but the Soviet Union remains the "natural ally" of Islam, which has little in common with colonialist, imperialist Americans.

So runs the Soviet public view. The Kremlin is busy building what look like permanent winter quarters for its 85,000 troops in the main Afghan cities. Soviet casualties (somewhere around 15,000 men killed and wounded) are relatively low for a huge country.

Moscow will stay in, claiming it was invited in by the previous government of Hafizullah Amin, and that the April 1978 violence that installed the pro-Moscow regime of Nur Muhammad Taraki was a turning point in history, rather than another domestic Afghan coup.

The Soviets say they are defeating the rebels and protecting Afghanistan against a threat from the US, China, Egypt, and Pakistan -- a threat they cannot permit, officials say privately, since Afghanistan is strategically vital and must never again turn from the Soviet path.

A variety of other Western, Asian, and Muslim sources here, however, say the Soviets are wrong.

The sources agree the Soviets will stay in Afghanistan, and can even triple their troop levels if they want to, but they stress that the real price Moscow is paying is very high indeed.

They argue this way: You have to look at the whole, cumulative picture. The Soviet image in the West and among Muslims has drastically altered from that of a friend of the less-developed world to that of an expansionist, ruthless, aggressive power. In January the UN General Assembly voted for a quick withdrawal by 104 votes to 18, with 18 abstentions. Among nonaligned countries, the vote was 52 to seven.

Nine months later, the General Assembly vote was 111 to 22, with 12 abstentions. Only South Yemen and Syria among Islamic countries supported the USSR. "The cumulative costs in Afghanistan have probably caused at least some of the Soviet caution in Poland," says one Western analyst. "Afghanistan has given both [Polish United Workers' Party (communist) leader Stanislaw] Kania and [Solidarity trade union leader Lech] Walesa more chance to maneuver than they otherwise might have had."

Says an Islamic diplomat: "The whole Soviet appeal to the Islamic, nondeveloped world is blunted. The Soviets are as great a threat to us as the Americans.

"Look at the Islamic Conference in Tashkent in September, organized by the Russians. Pakistan, one of the original organizers, stayed away completely. So did Malaysia, Indonesia, Bangladesh, and even India.

"Before Afghanistan the communist Tudeh Party in Tehran had some standing as one of the forces which had opposed the Shah. After Afghanistan the Ayatollah [ Khomeini] turned against it more strongly.

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