Uniformed Soviet troops now have military control of Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. Also, a hand-picked Soviet agent heads a new regime there. But it is doubtful that this move will bring to Moscow a long-term gain. The chances are, to the contrary, that this will drag the Soviets deeper into the "no win" situation. There are interesting similarities to the situation Lyndon Johnson plunged the United States into in Vietnam in March, 1965.
There are two important things to note about this affair.
(1) It is the first time since World War II that uniformed Soviet troops in substantial formations have gone into combat in any country outside the Warsaw Pact area.
(2) This unprecedented and overt intrusion of Soviet troops is in a Muslim country in the Middle East, a part of the world which has been sliding into an increasing sense of friction with the United States.
These two features combine to transform the context of the US relationship with the countries of the Middle East. Suddenly, overnight, it is the Soviet Union which has in fact intervened with military force in a Middle East country. A widespread fear that the US might do this has been overlaid by the fact that the Soviets have done it.
The immediate consequence is to bring Iran and the US onto the same side at the Security Council of the UN. Both are disturbed by the Soviet action. Both have protested against it.
This does not mean that the US and Iran will at once be able to sit back and talk quietly and sensibly about their double problems of the hostages and the Shah. But it does change the context. Until the Soviets pounced on Kabul the US and Iran were slipping deeper into a condition of threat and counterthreat. Now, if either is willing and able to offer the slightest twig off an olive tree , the other would find it easier to respond. At least, they could talk about the new and mutual danger of further Soviet penetration into the Middle East.
Had the Soviets avoided this direct intrusion into Afghanistan there was a real danger that President Carter might be pushed by public impatience into military measures against Iran. This could have led to the Iranians asking Soviet help against US pressures.
Now that situation is reversed. The Soviets have intruded. If Iran and Pakistan, the immediately adjoining Muslim countries, decide to help the Afghan rebels against the new Soviet puppet regime in Kabul, they would probably look toward Washington for support. Both must now be thinking that it would be prudent to get into easier relations with Washington. The day might come when both would want to appeal to Washington for help against Moscow.
The damage to Moscow's position does not end with the above. The Afghan venture has shocked Western European countries as well. West Germany's statement of protest is the strongest it has issued against any Soviet deed since the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Bonn said officially that the Soviet venture creates "an exceptionally serious situation" which it must now discuss "with its allies and friends."
India, which has long been a de facto client of Moscow and almost an ally, is troubled. China, of course, would be delighted to help anyone in the path of Soviet advance.
Since World War II Moscow has been quick to use its own troops to protect its military forefield in Europe. This forefield has been structured into the Warsaw Pact alliance. Under the terms of that pact Moscow has used its own troops in East Berlin in 1953, in Hungary in 1956, and in Czechoslovakia in 1968 . Soviet troops in uniformed formations have also been in combat along the Chinese frontier in Asia. But that was a frontier affair involving disputed territory. There was no actual Soviet penetration into territory mutually agreed to be Chinese.
Otherwise Moscow has used proxy forces, or "volunteers," for empire building in foreign places. Overt use of Soviet troops is an indication that Moscow thinks its essential interests are at stake. That was certainly the case when Soviet tanks suppressed risings in East Germany, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia.
Was there any comparable Soviet stake in Afghanistan?
Moscow made its first move there in April of 1978. It supported a coup d'etat which put a Marxist and pro-Moscow regime in power. But that regime never seemed to get control of the country, or even of the government itself. There was a second coup d'etat in September of this year which seemed to make matters worse. More tribesmen took to the hills in revolt. The regime in Kabul controlled a diminishing proportion of the countryside.
The US went into Vietnam with "advisers" and "volunteers" in 1963 during the presidency of John F. Kennedy. Two years later, in March of 1965, Lyndon Johnson turned the US intervention into an overt condition, with US troops in uniform and full formations in combat. Once started on one of these foreign ventures it is difficult to turn back. Moscow is nearly two years into this one , and has just raised the stakes. This offers US diplomacy an excellent chance to improve its relations with all of the Muslim countries of the Middle East. That includes an opportunity to break out of the impasse with Iran over the hostages and the Shah.
This should clear the way toward release of the hostages.