ISLAMABAD -- Pakistani strategists are watching warily as the United States and the Soviet Union maneuver for dominance in the vast and sensitive region that stretches west from their frontier.
In a mid-20th century version of what the British called "The Great Game," the Pakistanis see themselves as a small but influential part of a broader struggle to re-establish "equilibrium" in the region that begins with Afghanistan and stretches across Iran to the Persian Gulf.
It is a long-term confrontation that has brought more than 100,000 Soviet troops into Afghanistan, has made Pakistan the staging area for a guerrilla war and has placed it on the edge of a revolutionary Iran that dislikes both superpowers, but may ultimately need a relationship with one of them.
The Pakistanis worry about who will end up playing the role of the balancing power in the region, and whether Pakistan can avoid the turmoil that has engulfed so many neighboring countries. And these factors, in turn, shape Islamabad's arguments for strategic cooperation with Washington -- and its insistence that America must tolerate its nuclear program.
For the British and Russian colonizers of a century and a half ago, Afghanistan was the main battleground -- a landlocked, mountainous, unhospitable area that held the key to the land routes to the riches of India and the warm waters of the Indian Ocean.
Their intrigues stretched from Tibet to Iran, but Kabul was, in the words of one Pakistani, the "fulcrum." In the histories and even the romantic literature of the times, the confrontation became known as The Great Game.
The political landscape changed after the British withdrawal from east of Suez in the 1960s, American passivity after Vietnam, and, especially, the fall of the shah of Iran in 1979. In the Pakistani view, the players had changed and the stakes were larger, but the game remained the same.
The shah's demise "tore apart the Islamic world and it still hasn't played itself out," said a key Pakis-tani strategist. "The Gulf today is the cockpit of possible wider confrontation," he continued. "Where will a new equilibrium be established, if anywhere? It won't be Pakistan, but Pakistan may be part of it. Our problem is how to establish a mini-equilibrium in Afghanistan. This is what we are trying to do."
The overthrow of the shah in 1979 changed all the calculations about regional stability. "This emboldened the Soviets to enter Afghanistan. The hostage crisis made the Soviets think the Americans might move in their forces and they wanted to be in place," the strategist said.
For Pakistan, it meant both crisis and opportunity, a chance to rebuild an international standing shattered by the hanging of former prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and the cessation of U.S. aid over nuclear-proliferation issues.
Looking back over seven years of cooperation with the United States on Afghanistan, the strategist argued: "We understand the U.S. position is for a strong and stable Pakistan. This would be a stabilizing factor in a region which is otherwise in flames: in Afghanistan, in Iran where there is a revolution that is not yet finished, in Lebanon, and now, especially in the Gulf. Pakistan is shoring up this whole structure. Should Pakistan become engulfed, it would be very unfavorable to the Unied States and the west because there would no pivot, no place to hold interests intact."
"There is a convergence of interests," the Pakistani argument goes, one that so far has carried through seven years of guerrilla war in Afghanistan and a growing U.S.-Pakistani military relationship.
The Pakistani strategists who place so much emphasis on their country's western borders and its interests in the Gulf region tend to gloss over its troubles to the east with neighbor and foe India. It is Islamabad's drive to position itself as an actual or potential nuclear power to match its view of India's status that is causing Congress to question the fundamentals of the U.S.-Pakistani relationship.
Even in the Gulf, there is a difference of perspective when events are viewed from Washington and Islamabad. Often what Washington views as a proper and necessary policy, Islamabad sees as tilting the balance in the game toward Moscow.
"We are beginning to see a pro-Soviet Syria leaning toward a pro-Soviet Iraq, not to mention an increased Soviet presence in the Gulf with overtures to Kuwait, Oman and the Saudis," said the Pakistani strategist. "In Iran, there is a feeling of a certain isolation, a curious feeling that the United States is joining with the Soviets to punish the side that has done the least damage to shipping."
A well-placed Pakistani official picked up this same theme, giving it a slightly different twist by arguing that the current confrontation in the Gulf could force Iran into Moscow's hands despite deep mistrust in Tehran for the Soviets.
"We are concerned about the whole strategic situation in the region, not only in the Gulf but also in Afghanistan," the Pakistani official said. "There is a mood of frustration (in the Gulf) leading to a view that any alternative would be better than the status quo of seven years of warfare," the official said.
In the Pakistani view, the Great Game is best played subtly, by trying to win over the Iranians or by keeping them neutral. The use of force, Pakistanis argue, could have the opposite effect. "There is inherent in the situation a use of force and where would it turn," the official asked, noting a number of recent contacts between Soviet and Iranian officials. "As Churchill said, if necessary he would go to the devil for help."
Richard Weintraub is the New Delhi correspondent of The Washington Post.