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Afghanistan as quagmire

An important change on the world scene over recent days is increasing evidence that Moscow is losing ground in Afghanistan. Reports filtering out by recent travelers through the more remote regions and from diplomats in Kabul build up an impression that the tribesmen are stronger, better armed, more active, and in control of more of the country today than at any time since the Soviets intervened in late 1979.

On the other side of the great power divide, the major new fact is that US President Ronald Reagan, back at the White House from two weeks in a hospital after taking a bullet, was continuing his education in world affairs.

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His secretaries of state and defense, Alexander Haig and Caspar Weinberger, briefed him on their recent trips to the Middle East and to Europe. He learned from them that the West Europeans want SALT II talks renewed if they agree to the stationing of new nuclear weapons in their midst. He learned also that the Arabs regard Israel as a greater danger than the Soviet Union and are not ready now to push ahead with Washington anti-Soviet policies unless or until Mr. Reagan will do something to advance the cause of liberation for the Arabs of the Arab territories occupied by Israeli armed forces ever since the 1967 war.

As for Moscow, it seems to feel that it has successfully checked the decline of its influence in Poland without having yet had to use its own military force to that end. This is something of a gain, or at least the staunching of a loss, since Soviet troops shooting at Poles would certainly blunt Moscow's current campaign to allay fears and gain friends in Western Europe.

But there is nothing final about the Polish situation. Most Polish experts think this is just a lull until the next surge of Polish nationalism breaks out, at which time the Kremlin may well think it no longer has any choice but to send in the tanks.

Apparently it has had to send more tanks into Afghanistan. Reports, mostly out of New Delhi by diplomats in touch with sources in Kabul, seem to agree that the Soviets have within recent days increased by 20,000 the number of their own troops in Afghanistan. The new units are largely needed, it is believed, to garrison the capital city of Kabul itself. Afghan units that had previously been garrisoning the capital have apparently been sent away, meaning that the Soviets in Kabul now have complete control of that city and are safe from possible insurrections by Afghan units. Those units have also been losing from defections and from the handing of weapons over to the rebel tribesmen.

This is happening at the beginning of a new fighting season that apparently is going to be livelier than was the 1980 season, largely because the tribesmen seem to have been heavily rearmed during the winter. Large areas of the country , particularly along the Pakistan border, are said to be free of any Soviet forces and also free of any Afghan forces fighting for the Soviets.

If the reports are accurate and if the above is the correct interpretation to be drawn from them, then it would follow that the Soviets may have to reinforce further their present strength in Afghanistan. They started out with 80,000 men. It seemed at the time to be enough for the task. At least, they were able to gain quick control of the major cities and highways.

But there has been a steady drain of men from the regular Afghan Army. They simply drift away into the hills, join up with the rebel tribesmen, and take their weapons with them to the anti-Soviet side. Some observers who have been following the situation closely think that the Soviets will have to reinforce with much more than the fresh 20,000 men if they are to begin to get effective control of the situation in Afghanistan.

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President Lyndon Johnson sent 500,000 Americans to Vietnam. It was supposed to be enough to handle the situation there. Are the Soviets running into a similar situation in Afghanistan, where they must reinforce and reinforce again and still end up sitting on top of a hostile nation capable of continuing a guerrilla resistance indefinitely?

The probability seems to be that the Soviet venture into Afghanistan has become costly. It has already tied down at least 10 Soviet divisions -- probably nearly double that number if one counts those that must be held in reserve for rotation and for possible emergencies.

If one adds the 46 divisions tied down on the Chinese frontier and the 15 or more that must be on a standby basis for possible use in Poland, the total comes to some 80 divisions now committed to specific tasks, hence unavailable for use in other theaters or situations. Another way of saying this is that Moscow's troubles with China, Poland, and Afghanistan have immobilized roughly half the total strength of the Soviet Army.

This reverses the situation that existed when the United States was tied down in Vietnam. At that time the Soviet armed forces were free of fixed commitments. Their troubles began when President Nixon started pulling US troops back from Vietnam and opened diplomatic relations with China. The Soviet buildup along the Chinese frontier kept pace with the US withdrawal from Vietnam and the diplomatic reopening of US relations with China.

The Soviet position deteriorated further when the Poles made their big bid for freedom from their incompetent Stalin-type government. Spring brings with it evidence of the fur ther problem of managing the unpacified Afghans.

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