The April 1978 coup d'etat in Afghanistan that brought the pro-Soviet Marxist party, Khalq, to power has provided the Soviet Union with several opportunities. If the regime of Hafizullah Amin consolidates its position, with Soviet backing, the Soviets could challange Western interests in the area by supporting a variety of political groups or even by mounting large-scale military operations against Iran and Pakistan, especially in Baluchistan. Such threats have already been made to Pakistan. e

While the Khalq regime provides the Soviet Union with opportunities, it also involves serious potential risks that the United States has not tried to take advantage of. For reasons that include the regime's ideological predisposition and its link with the Soviet Union, religious reformists, social democrats, tribal autonomists and Afghan nationalists have initiated a civil war. At present, the outcome of the conflict in Afghanistan is in doubt.

By supporting sympathitic groups within the Afghan opposition, the United States could affect the outcome of the civil war. Given the popular nature of the opposition and the conduciveness of the terrain to guerrilla warfare, the quantity and quality of aid required is likely to be minimal. Most of it could even be provided indirectly through U.S. allies in the area.

The United States stands potentially to gain by a change in Kabul. The defeat of the pro-Soviet regime might deal a severe blow to Soviet alliance relationships and would decrease Soviet capability to pressure Iran and Pakistan. A group friendlier to the United States might agree to allow American ground stations on its soil for monitoring Soviet activities, especially in relation to SALT verification. At a minimum, denial to the Soviets of Afghanistan as a friendly area would be highly valuable. Even if the civil war continues, increased Soviet involvement will be quite costly and will reduce Soviet capabilities elsewhere.

A number of analysts have opposed any U.S. support for the Afghan opposition movement, arguing that even without any U.S. support, the Soviets might suffer a defeat in Afghanistan similar to what the United States experienced in Vietnam. But one of the major reasons for the American defeat was the large-scale support the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong received from the Soviet Union and China. The Afghan opposition has no comparable support from the United States. Without major external constraints, Moscow is likely to retain considerable power to affect the outcome of the Afghan civil war.

Another position recently taken by some decision-makers and analysts in response to Afghanistan's alignment with the Soviets recalls the geopolitical school that holds that it is only natural for countries close to a superpower to accommodate it. Some have advised Washington not to assist the opposition because, even if it came to power, it would follow a "Soviet-tilted neutralism," and the Soviets might retaliate in Pakistan or Iran. The dubious premise of this argument is that, if allowed to "keep" Afghanistan, the Soviets will be satisfied.

U.S. acquiescence in each Soviet gain could encourage further expansionism or even an eventual large-scale conflict between the superpowers. The foreign policy a future Afghan government follows is likely to be affected by present U.S. policies.

As a result of developments in Vietnam, South Korea and Taiwan, many political groups do not regard alliances with the United States as credible. The Soviet Union, on the other hand, is perceived as a power that delivers on its promises. Afghanistan provides an opportunity where a Soviet defeat could inflict a severe blow to Soviet alliance credibility. By supporting sympathetic groups within the Afghan opposition, the United States would be on the side of a popular movement against an oppressive regime. It would influence the ideological direction of opposition groups, encouraging moderate and politically liberal tendencies. And it could raise the cost of Soviet expansionism, all at little cost.