295. Telegram From the Embassy in the Soviet Union to the Department of State1

11437. Subject: Post-Afghanistan Sanctions: Some Thoughts on Strategy. Refs: State 181587, B. Kabul 2103.2

1. (C-entire text)

2. This cable was largely approved in draft by Ambassador Watson before his departure.

3. Summary. Ref A provides a good basis for a fresh look at both Soviet and our own tactics and strategy regarding Afghanistan. We agree that the Soviets are trying to gain our acceptance of the fait accompli by dangling the prospect of improved relations. Paradoxically, if we admit publicly or to our friends in private the probability that the Soviets are not going to withdraw from Afghanistan, we run a serious risk of encouraging the erosion of the punitive measures we and our allies have adopted, and thus acceptance of the fait accompli the Soviets are urging. For this reason our best tactic is to continue to express firm determination to continue the sanctions and belief that continued pressure can lead to a political solution and withdrawal. In order to keep our allies aboard, we should take appropriate initiatives to hold out rewards to the Soviets for movement, respond appropriately to Soviet gestures, and argue convincingly to keep the measures in place, until there is sufficient movement to warrant relaxing them—even if this means a protracted wait. Specifically, we should try to keep all meaningful sanctions in place but pursue possibilities in arms control matters and possibly consult with the Soviets on CSCE, as well as take a positive position on efforts to develop a political solution in Afghanistan. This package of incentives for the Soviets would provide a good platform from which to persuade our allies to stand firm on trade and other ostracizing measures. End summary.

4. Ref A arrived at a time when we were giving thought to the question of whether, when and under what circumstances it may be[Page 865]come appropriate—or necessary—to relax some of the sanctions which the U.S. and our allies imposed on the Soviet Union in the wake of the Afghan invasion.

5. Already there are indications of difficulties for the sanctions policy:

—efforts are underway in the U.S. to rescind the grain sales embargo;

—some of our allies are displaying nervousness over the impact of detente and are inclining toward normal political contacts;

—one of our most significant sanctions—the Olympic boycott—will in any case soon have run its course;

—sustaining trade restraints is becoming more difficult: if the French break ranks, others will quickly follow suit, making our own trade sanctions almost meaningless while leaving us isolated;

—though we have no clear-cut indications as yet, we can envisage a situation in which prominent American scientists and cultural figures begin to argue for exchanges, and move to circumvent them.

6. One factor contributing to the erosion of support for sanctions is a growing sense of resignation, a realization that international pressures may not succeed in dislodging the Soviets from Afghanistan. We expect increasingly to hear the line now being articulated privately by Dobrynin (as reported in ref A) that we are faced with a fait accompli in Afghanistan, that we may as well adjust to it and move ahead on other matters of greater importance to the world. There is probably a parallel here with the Vietnamese invasion of Kampuchea,3 where Gromyko and his colleagues soon after the event simply stood down all complaints and asserted that what has happened was irreversible.

7. At this juncture, the Embassy draws these conclusions:

—In the absence of Soviet concessions, now is not the time to begin to rescind the measures we have imposed; this would reduce or eliminate any incentive the Soviets might have for following up their initial withdrawal announcement with some more meaningful steps toward a political settlement.

—While standing firm, however, we should not commit ourselves to continuing the full array of current sanctions until the last Soviet soldier is out of Afghanistan; that probably won’t happen for a long time, if at all, and to set that as the criterion for any relaxation whatsoever would tie our hands and risk our becoming isolated.

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—Instead, we should begin trying to formulate a strategy that maximizes our influence on Soviet behavior, attainment of our own security objectives, and maintenance of allied unity.

8. Our strategy should be based on our objectives of deterrence, punishment and minimizing the regional and global consequences of the Soviet action by achieving the fullest possible Soviet withdrawal and the greatest possible autonomy for Afghanistan. It must also take account of the reality that truly effective deterrence is possible only in circumstances where Western military power can be brought effectively to bear.

9. In concrete terms, this means:

A. Using all possible means to urge solidarity and patience on our allies and friends in maintaining trade and other sanctions. We can argue that any future deterrent effect of our sanctions depends heavily on their duration. We can argue that total withdrawal is still a possibility if we remain firm, and that the way to get withdrawal is to allow even slight relaxation of sanctions only in exchange for movement toward total withdrawal. We can underline the importance to Moscow of acceptance by the rest of the world as an equal in all fields—including cultural as well as political and economic relations—and the usefulness therefore of raising Afghanistan as an obstacle to contacts of all kinds.

B. An important element of a strategy to maintain solidarity is to continue expressing our readiness to explore a political settlement (while trying to develop a clearer idea of what that might entail). We are struck by Embassy Kabul’s idea (ref B) for proposing the sort of peacekeeping scheme which would be needed to assure stability, even if we know there is little or no chance the Soviets would accept any such scheme. Not letting the propaganda initiative slip away is essential. Soviet rejection of a plan would help keep the pressure on. And the Soviets might be constrained to make counter-offers which could provide the starting point for compromises eventually leading to a reduction in direct Soviet involvement in Afghanistan sufficient to meet our purposes for restoring a broad dialogue with the Soviets.

C. In order to succeed in keeping our allies and friends on a course of firm opposition to the occupation but flexibility in negotiating withdrawal, the U.S. must be careful not to appear to be prematurely relaxing its own sanctions:

—The grain embargo is crucial not only in terms of showing our allies that we will stand firm even if it hurts us, but also in terms of showing strong national will toward the Soviet Union. The embargo has had a significant though not crippling effect on the Soviet effort to use consumption as a tool to achieve [garble] economic efficiency [garble]. Its real force, however, is in its potential effect in the future if a [Page 867] very poor Soviet harvest should coincide with a tightening of international markets. Although such a nightmare for Moscow is now only a possibility, the consequences would be so disastrous that it undoubtedly affects Soviet calculations even though Soviet leaders cover up any such concerns.

U.S. limitations on high technology exports and the freeze on large projects are also significant, both symbolically and in terms of uncertainties in the planning process. They will be more difficult to maintain in the face of inevitable sliding away by other industrialized countries, but it seems possible that the U.S. can continue to have a dampening effect if we adhere strictly to our own policy and are not stampeded by isolated examples of West European or Japanese backsliding.

—The U.S. freeze on high visibility cultural, educational and scientific exchanges will, if it continues, cause these staples of the relationship to wither away. That is a pity, because these opportunities for establishing long-term direct contacts with individuals and institutions in the Soviet Union have useful potential for eroding the isolation and singlemindedness of this society. But they are not essential to the U.S. in any immediate sense and are symbolically important to the Soviets. Therefore we should resolutely resist any temptation to relax our restrictions on the high visibility exchanges prematurely. In the Embassy’s view, a return to normalcy in high visibility exchanges should not be one of the first steps toward a normal relationship with the USSR, but should be held back until the Afghanistan situation has changed to U.S. satisfaction.

D. A final and important element of U.S. strategy is the delinking of certain key issues and negotiations from Afghanistan as we are doing in the case of the test ban negotiations, MBFR, the Committee on Disarmament, and LRTNF. CSCE should be considered as another acceptable area for preliminary talks with the Soviets; CSCE itself is valuable as an ongoing forum to demonstrate the ideological dividing line between democracy and totalitarianism, but in order for it to be effective we have to keep in close harmony with the West European democracies. We should therefore show the way, by consulting with the Soviets and telling them that we will sound off at Madrid nonpolemically but firmly on aggression in Afghanistan as well as human rights.

10. In sum, the U.S. should be in the forefront of efforts to demonstrate to the world how to cope with Soviet aggression when circumstances prevent a direct military response: by principled and longlasting sanctions, readiness to show flexibility in negotiating an end to the aggression, and clearmindedness in defining key issues to be dealt with separately. How to carry this out in practice is not so easy to specify, but the way may become clearer in the process. We should not [Page 868] let progress on arms control issues distract attention from the issues raised by Afghanistan. But we must recognize that if we simply stand fast and insist on no movement on any front until the Soviets leave Afghanistan, we will eventually be standing pretty much alone and without having significantly affected Soviet behavior.

11. Department pass to other posts as appropriate.

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, Country File, Box 2, Afghanistan: 5/80–1/81. Confidential; Exdis. Sent for information to Kabul and USNATO. Printed from a copy that indicates the original was received in the White House Situation Room.
  2. Telegrams 181587 to multiple posts, July 10, and 2103 from Kabul, July 12, are in the National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D800331–0758 and D800334–0182. Telegram 181587 outlined the Soviets’ desire to improve U.S.-Soviet relations, assuming that the United States accepts the situation in Afghanistan as a fait accompli. Telegram 2103 addressed the possibility of a Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan.
  3. Large-scale fighting began in late December 1978.