More than two years after the Soviet campaign to make a satellite out of Afghanistan became clear even to detentists in the State Department, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance at long last has agreed -- tentatively -- to shore up U.S. ties to other key states lying in Moscow's bloody path.
Objective No. 1: terminate the self-defeating ban on economic and military aid invoked against Pakistan as punishment for that traditional American ally's refusal to forswear nuclear weapons.
Objective No. 2: feed light weapons to the tough, resilient Afghan Moslem guerrillas in their continuing struggle against dominion from Moscow, getting the weapons in through the porous Afghan-Pakistani border.
But the debate churns between Cyrus Vance's fearful detentists at State and less dovish officials in the Defense Department, in the CIA and on the National Security Council staff. As late as Dec. 20, when the handwriting of Moscow's imminent military takeover of Kabul was writ large on the wall, high officials at State were telling White House national security operatives: "Don't worry. It's not all that important."
In the real world, there would be only one outcome of the debate over such a switch of policy: switch immediately. That means finding a way to equip the Palistani air force with something better than the venerable F86, the 1947 plane that still is its backbone; release the $45 million in economic aid frozen last April in a dispute over nuclear weapons; reestablish Pakistan, now all but naked to Soviet Bullying, as a strong ally; remove the tether from the Central Intelligence Agency.
But Jimmy Carter's foreign policy has been strangely immune to dictates of the real world. In his Oct. 16 annula report to a House Foreign Affairs sub-committee on the state of U.S.-Soviet relations, Marshall Shulman, Vance's Soviet adviser, said that "the single most significant development in U.S.-Soviet relations during the past year" was the new strategic arms limitation agreement.
As for ever-widening Soviet control over the government of Afghanistan, Shulman said the Soviet Union "evidently feels committed to defending what it terms the afghan revolution. . . . We are consulting widely with other countries in the region and have found they share our concern about this situation."
Some officials dispute Shulman's priorities. They think that the "most significant" development of 1979 was not SALT II but the Soviet worldwide offensive far beyond its own communist empire of Eastern Europe. The outright Soviet invasion of Afghanistan followed Shulman's testimony by two months, but authoritative sources in the Carter administration insist that previous Soviet moves there anticipated it.
"When you find an armed, masked man with a large bag and a glass cutter at your back door at midnight, you should make the obvious assumptions," one such officials told us.
Refusal to make obvious assumptions has marked many steps along the State Department's path in the Afghan tragedy since shortly before Moscow arranged the Marxist takeover in Kabul in April 1978. As we reported a few months later, one of the shrewdest foreign diplomats here warned the administration that its apparent acceptance of Moscow's seizure of the government "can have serious consequences" for Palistan and Iran.
Yet Pakistan's nuclear sins -- though mild compared with Israel's, which has paid no price at all in reduced aid -- were used to bar all economic and military aid, despite waiver provisos in the law.
What has now forced Vance and his top policy advisers to change their tune is this Soviet message to the Western world: after 150 years of Afghanistan's playing the role of buffer state between czarist (now communist) Russia and the West, Moscow has become confident enough to use its own military power to take it over.
Detentists in the Carter administration, led by the president himself and most of the policy-making seventh floor of the State Department, put the value of SALT II avove Soviet power plays in Angola, Ethiopia, South Yemen and the early stages of Afghanistan. If there is to be belated change now, it will first be seen in Pakistan -- the next soft target in Moscow's inexorable bid for world domination.