If the Soviet Union intends to exploit its occupation of Afghanistan, the most inviting and vulnerable target is the Baluchi-inhabited area of Pakistan. This is a much more likely immediate target than the oil fields of Iran. And it could bring Russian influence, if not actual presence, all the way down to the Arabian Sea.
The Soviet troops reportedly deployed in Afghanistan close to the Iranian border may well be there simply to secure the Herat- Kandahar highway around the western flank of the Hindu Kush. But they could equally well be used to exert pressure on the Baluchistan province of Pakistan.
Any such Soviet action probably would be made in the name of Afghan nationalism or irredentism -- of gathering into a greater Afghanistan both the Baluchi and Pushtun peoples who live astride the Afghan-Pakistani border.This would be an attractive cosmetic for a further expansion of Soviet influence.
Within a few days of being installed in power by the Soviets in Kabul, Babrak Karmal, the new President of Afghanistan, was quoted in a Tass dispatch carried by Pravda as saying:
"Since the peace-loving Afghan people reject the policy of expansionism, war, and interference in internal affairs, the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan advocates the principle of the fraternal Pushtun and Baluchi people to express their will: These peoples must decide themselves about their future destiny."
The message in these words was not exactly new. Rejection of the frontier with Pakistan, originally the frontier with British India, has been a constant thread of Afghan nationalism. And the Afghan communists have long tried to enhance their own credentials by having as a key plank in their platform a claim to territory up to the Indus River.
The present British-imposed frontier, unacceptable to Afghans of whatever political hue, splits the Pushtun people in two and the Baluchi people into three (among Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran). In the recent past, Afghans have concentrated more on the Pushtun problem than on the Baluchi problem -- with an active campaign in the late 1950s and early '60s for a separate Pushtun homeland or "Pushtunistan."
It has been less usual for Afghans to speak of the two problems in the same breath -- as Mr. Karmal did at the end of December. His phrasing might therefore be a warning, intentional or not, of an upgrading of the Baluchi problem.
Indeed, giving priority to the Baluchis over the Pushtun would make sense for several reasons:
1. The Baluchis are already more disaffected against central authority in Pakistan than are the Pushtuns.
2. Territorially, the Baluchi-inhabited area of Pakistan is nearly five times as big as the Pushtun-inhabited part (although much less densely populated).
3. Acquisition of the Baluchi-inhabited area of Pakistan would give Afghanistan an outlet to the sea at the port of Gwadar -- and the Russians a point from which to threaten the Strait of Hormuz, the West's vital oil bottleneck.
Afghanistan's easiest outlet to the sea today is through another Pakistani port, the well-developed former capital, Karachi. Both railroads and hard-surface roads connect Karachi with points just short of the two main passes into Afghanistan from the south, the Khyber and at Chaman. All-weather roads link up from these points with the main ring- highway inside Afghanistan around the great central fastness of the Hindu Kush.
But Afghans have long felt a grievance that their landlocked country was at the mercy of Pakistan for access to the Indian Ocean. From 1961 till 1963, the border was closed and commercial traffic across it brought to a standstill during a period of particularly tense relations between the two countries.
The now-ousted Shah of Iran was a principal agent in repairing that breach, with a face-saving formula for a much closer overall relationship between his country and the other two. The deal was sweetened for Afghanistan with the expectation of easier Afghan access to the Iranian port of Chah Bahar, like Gwadar on the Indian Ocean side of the Strait of Hormuz.
But that expectation depended on the Shah's plans for the massive development of Chah Bahar going through -- and the revolution in Iran has brought an end to that.
It would be hard to come up with a valid Afghan claim to Karachi, which is in Sind province and very much identified with Pakistan as such. Gwadar (although needing development as a port) is a different kettle of fish, especially given the potential for disaffection in Baluchistan.
Baluchi separatism in Pakistan already has a leftist or Marxist tinge. This is less because of intellectual or ideological reasoning than because eventual Soviet patronage seemed the likeliest course for the achievement of nationalist aspirations. Most Pakistani governments have tended to have a right-wing, anti-Soviet complexion and, until recently, they were in alliance with the United States through the now-defunct CENTO and SEATO.
If the Baluchi pot is stirred inside Pakistan, it will be difficult to avoid its spilling over into Iran's Baluchi-inhabited provinces as well. Already there have been intermittent Baluchi outbursts against Iran's Persian- dominated central authorities symbolized by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
At the moment, Soviet interests would seem best served by letting the Ayatollah's anti-Americanism run its course rather than reviving centuries-old Persian hostility to the Russians by fomenting rebellion among the Baluchis.
But Soviets seem to be in an ebullient mood, apparently convinced that the overall balance in the area is shifting in their favor. Fears about reawakening Persian hostility may not deter the men in the Kremlin, especially if they feel the need to move before the US manages to halt or reverse its own downward slide in the region.