Cynics may mock the view articulated in a New York Times editorial last Friday and widespread in the administration that the Russians, like the Americans in Vietnam, entered a "quagmire" when they sent troops into Afghistan. But this column has acquired, courtesy of that marvelously cooperative Soviet diplomat, Ambassador Anatoliy Dobrynin, secret documents that prove the "quagmire" theory.
These confidential papers -- The Kremlin Papers, as history may well call them -- show that the Afghanistan decision was made covertly b a self-appointed elite -- Russia's Best and Brightest. Despite a show of assurance, agonizing doubts permeated the debate that took place behind closed doors in the fastnesses of the Kremlin.
Defense Minister Dmitri Ustinov opened the argument. Conscious of the need to see matters from the viewpoint of the Pentagon as well as the Red Army, he had doffed his uniform and medals. He not only wore civilian dress; he also parted his hair down the middle.
He pointed out that it would be easier to send the forces into Afghanistan than to take them out. Russia, he said, might be stuck in Afghanistan with the same kind of occupation that had proved so harmful to its strategic purposes in Poland and Czechoslovakia and East Germany.
Moreover, he continued, the Soviet show of force in Afghanistan would probably hearten revolutonaries in Iran. Their efforts would evoke some kind of response in Pakistan to the east and Iraq to the west and the Arab states of the Persian Gulf to the south. Eventually all those countries might turn to Russia, and Moscow would be obliged to show support, maybe even to the point of sending troops. "In short, gentlemen," the defense minister said, pronouncing the fatal word itself, "in Afghanistan, we may be stepping into a quagmire."
Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko spoke next. He too understood the need to view the problem from the other side. So he had exchanged his dour expression for a benign smile and put on a pair of granny glasses.
The foreign minister asserted that the days of the Cold War were over. What counted now not relations between the United States and Russia. Much more important was standing with the underdeveloped countries of the Third World. But the Americans had recently been compaigning very actively in the Third World. They had even put before the United Nations Security Council a resolution asking for sanctions against Iran. The sanctions would next to useless when it came to prying loose hostages from the embassy. But as a device for lining up Third World support, the appeal to the United Nations was diabolically brilliant.
President Carter himself had been active on the telephone in the effort to win votes. It seemed likely the Americans might get the support of Bangladesh and Jamaica and even Gabon. "So just remember, gentlemen," Gromyko concluded, looking over his glasses and smiling, "if we go into Afghanistan, we may be throwing away a vote from Gabon."
At that point the chief party ideologist entered the discussion. For the occasion he had taken the first name of his American opposite number. "Call me Hamilton Suslov," he told his colleagues.
Sending troops into Afghanistan, he pointed out, was not merely a matter of foreign policy. Grave domestic questions were also at stake. It was well known that the KGB leaked like a sieve. The secret intelligence operators would undoubtedly lead investigate reporters from Pravda and Izvestia to the most trival improprieties committed by Soviet troops in Afghanistan.
Before you knew it, the stories would be appearing, blown way out of proportion of course, on the television news. Actresses, intellectuals and students would parade through Red Square in protest. The Supreme Soviet would grow stickly about budget matters. Indeed, the Brezhnev adminstration might lose the hearts and minds of the Soviet people.
At the point President Brezhnev himself spoke up. He thanked his colleague for their candid expressions of opinion. But he felt they had discussed the problems too much in narrow terms of self-intrest. What mattered was not strategy but morality. He himself had been mulling over a famous phrase from the old religion -- do unto others, etc.
The main reciprocal business between Moscow and Washington was the new arms control treaty -- SALT II. The Soviet Union had embraced the accord and was ready to put it into effect at any time. The Americans, on the other hand, were hanging back, postponing ratification in the Senate and using controversy as an excuse for building new missiles and raising defense expenditures. "We are practicing restraint," he said, "but we find to mutual restraint." And so saying, he sent the troops once more into the quagmire.