Is the USSR turning Afghanistan into another Soviet "republic?" The Soviet Union has effectively annexed Afghanistan's northeastern panhandle , sealing off Afghanistan's only direct border link with China and dropping the Soviet borders down to rest on Pakistan's northernmost frontier.
The narrow 185-mile-long Wakhan corridor, created 86 years ago as a buffer between Czarist Russia and Britain's Indian Empire, is totally sealed off from Afghanistan and under direct administration of the Soviet Union, according to a number of diplomatic sources.
"It's piece of the Soviet Union," says a Western analyst. Pakistan's President Muhammad zia ul-Haq also says publicly that the Wakhan finger, which separated his country from the USSR, "is now under the Soviet Union. So we have the Soviet Union as our neighbor."
The sealing-off and direct Soviet administration of the thinly populated Wakhan corridor is the most extreme example of the Sovietization of Afghanistan, which has been proceeding at a rapid clip ever since more than 80,000 Soviet troops invaded and occupied the harsh, landlocked country more than a year ago.
Soviet officers are planning and directing the military campaign against the Afghan nationalist insurgents, who continue to deny them control of all but major towns and roads, and Soviet troops do much of the fighting. The Afghan Army, shrunk by desertions and defections to the rebels, has had political indoctrination added to its training curriculum.
The ministries of the Soviet-backed Babrak Karmal government are liberally sprinkled with Soviet and Eastern-bloc advisers who, according to numerous reports, do most of the work and virtually all the important decisionmaking.
Although the Soviet Union traditionally has been Afghanistan's largest trading partner, a virtual blizzard of economic, trade, and technical assistance agreements is tying Afghanistan's economy tightly to that of the USSR and its Eastern European allies.
Afghan judges, lawyers, teachers, medical workers, scientists, and even truck drivers are being sent to the Soviet Union to absorb --and presumably bring back -- Soviet systems, methods, and skills.
"They're in the process of incorporating an Afghan Soviet Socialist republic, " a Western political observer says.
But armed resistance from the Afghan mujahideen, or holy warriors has been slowing the drive. Their opposition to foreign domination of any sort includes the assassination of Soviet advisers and Afghan government officials.
Also, as would-be conquerors have discovered through the centuries, Afghan tribal traditions and customs far outweigh any foreign notions of how to run the basic elements of society -- including the family, education, property, leadership, and justice.
But the Soviets have found no such opposition in the Wakhan corridor -- perhaps the only spot in Afghanistan where they can legitimately claim to be in total control.
The Wakhan's main inhabitants, the Kirghiz tribespeople, fled through the mountain passes to northern Pakistan after the 1978 coup installed Afghanistan's first communist government. The small minority tribal group remaining in the mountainous corridor has reportedly put up no resistance to the Russian presence , and the Kirghiz are still in Pakistan hoping to get permission to settle as a community in Alaska.
In an interview with an Indian journalist, Pakistan President Zia estimated that about 5,000 Soviet troops occupy the Wakhan. "We have also heard there are some ground-to-air missiles as well as heavy artillery in the area," he told the Times of India.
Reports of the Soviet move into Wakhan began emanating from Pakistan last year, but diplomatic sources said they had received reliable confirmation only recently. According to one report, the Soviets have busied themselves building underground bunkers and permanent barracks, improving an east-west road leading to China, and widening a north-south road to a pass along the Pakistan border.
The forbidding mountain corridor is being administered directly by military authorities in the Soviet Union rather than the Soviet military command in Afghanistan, according to diplomatic sources.
Analysts doubt that the rugged Wakhan area could be effectively used as a Soviet launching point for an invasion of Pakistan or strikes on Afghanistan's insurgency-riddled northeastern province of badakhshan.
But the uncontested Soviet presence right on its borders has certainly heightened Pakistan's sense of vulnerability and unease.