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Why the bear took that tiger by the tail

In all the furor over the Soviet seizure of Afghanistan, surprisingly little thought has been given to the most likely reason that the Kremlin made this dangerous move.

The reason, I think, lay in its miscalculation of American behavior toward Iran.

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America was embroiled with the Iranians, and Iran hovered on the brink of chaos. The men of the Politburo probably could not imagine that the United States would restrain its response to Iranian defiance and play it cool.Hadn't the CIA helped restore the Shah to his throne when unrest tore Iran a quarter century earlier? By hardline Soviet reasoning, what more plausible assumption than that US forces would sweep into Iran the moment some incident brought a showdown?

If American forces moved into Iran, the result could be the establishment of US bases on the Soviet border, with a hostile China stretching along most of the remaining Soviet frontier in Asia, and only a turbulent Afghanistan in between. To understand the Kremlin's obsession with this prospect, one need not look far into Soviet history, one need only recall Washington's own anxieties over a foreign presence in nearby Cuba.

The simplistic view was that the Russians simply grabbed some handy real estate while the world was looking the other way. The trouble with this easy theory was that Afghanistan's intrinsic value scarcely justified the costs.

A more elaborate explanation was that the Kremlin feared that its own Muslim population in Central Asia might be infected by the spread of Islamic unrest. But the Soviet Central Asian frontiers have been tightly sealed for more than half a century. It did not require a full-scale invasion of Afghanistan to close them.

The instability of Afghanistan itself provided another explanation. Here islamic fervor and the example of Iran could indeed have made difficulties for the Russian's puppets. The Soviet Union dominated Afghanistan long before Soviet troops moved in. Since 1978 the successive Kabul governments had the Kremlin's seal of approval and were propped up with soviet advisers and military support. The Kremlin must have been unhappy over their failure to suppress guerrilla resistance. But to install still another puppet in Kabul and to put down the guerrilla resistance hardly called for 80,000 Soviet troops.

Still another explanation was that the Soviet leaders, like the czars before them, dreamed of warm-water ports and domination of the Indian subcontinent. Although the men in the Kremlin sometimes behave like 19th-century empire builders, they are more aware of modern realities than this explanation implies.They don't read Rudyard Kipling these days.

A more credible version of the same reasoning was that the Russians wanted to seize the oil of the Persian Gulf or at least cut off Western access to it. Afghanistan provided a springboard from which to strike at the Gulf's oil.

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Even this explanation did not suffice. Brazen as the Kremlin can be, and no matter how much it had already written off detente or miscalculated possible Western reactions, the Soviet rulers nevertheless must have realized that an outright grab of Iranian oil or the Straits of Hormuz would plunge them into a world war.I doubt they were prepared to take risks of that magnitude.

Why, then?

The answer comes back to the Soviet obsession with a foreign power's presence along its borders. In soviet reckoning, the Russian troops poised in Afghanistan ensured that any American move in Iran would trigger these troops to take over Iran's north, adjoining the USSR -- a region that the Russians sought to swallow twice before , in 1920 and 1946 -- and would bring about a partition of Iran a la Korea or Germany. It was a gamble based on the presumption that America would act.

The American's didn't move into Iran, however, and the Russians were left holding the Afghan tiger by the tail.

A previous gamble like this one -- Khrushchev's attempt to place missiles in Cuba -- hastened the downfall of a Soviet leader.

Even if Brezhnev were to recognize his misreading of American intentions and were inclined to relinquish Afghanistan -- which is questionable, now that his spokesmen have lied themselves into a corner and his military occupy tht strategic country -- he cannot back down. The UN condemnation and President Carter's strong stand would make a Soviet withdrawal appear an embarrassing retreat. If there is anything no Politburo can abide, it is to yield under publicly exerted pressure, as Khrushchev did.

The Russians are stuck with the consequences of their invasion. Maybe all of us are.


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