The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was not a trivial event, and it has serious implications, even if one does not agree with President Carter’s belief that they “could pose the most serious threat to peace since the Second World War.” From the viewpoint of power politics and of the superpower rivalry, the Soviet move is qualitatively different from previous Soviet actions. In the past thirty-five years the Soviet Union has used force outside its own borders only in order to maintain the empire carved out by the Red Army in Eastern Europe—an empire whose legitimacy was never endorsed by the United States, but which we have accepted de facto, and failed to challenge even when we had overwhelming nuclear superiority.
In the rest of the world, and particularly in the “gray areas” of the Third World where the Soviets and the West have been competing for influence, the Soviets have never before used their own troops in combat: force has been the tool of their proxies, such as North Korea in 1950, or the Cubans in recent years. It is true that Afghanistan, as we were recently reminded here, had long been the object of Tsarist Russia’s attention and attempts at control. But if the Soviets should feel entitled to occupy every region which old Russia had tried to dominate, Finland could easily be next, and surely this is not a precedent we ought to accept without reacting.
Moreover, the strategic position of Afghanistan, and the timing of the invasion, do raise serious problems for the US. From Afghanistan, the Soviets are in a much improved position against America’s only remaining ally in that part of the world, Pakistan—a state which is also China’s only friend there; and they are more able either to intimidate a shaky and unstable Iran, or to support an eventual pro-Soviet regime there. The Soviets do not need Mr. Carter’s warning to know that any attempt on their part to cut off navigation in the straits of Hormuz would be an act of war. But in a war, their new position makes cutting off the West’s and Japan’s oil supplies easier. No American government can behave as if these perils did not exist.
From the viewpoint of world order, the Soviet move is just as ominous. There can be no moderate or livable world without a firm principle against aggression. Such a principle is often hard to apply in cases where borders are uncertain or border violations by both sides have been occurring for a long time. This was not the case in Afghanistan. The rebels who were fighting the pro-Soviet regimes may have received outside help (which served as the pretext for Soviet intervention); but it was clear that their success was caused primarily by the Amin government’s repressiveness and by the earlier Taraki regime’s mistakes. It is hard for the society of states—many of which are weak indeed—to accept …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.