101. Memorandum From Paul B. Henze of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Brzezinski)1


  • The Asian “Soft Underbelly” and your Visit to Peking

I would expect the Chinese to be much more upset about the recent turn of events in Afghanistan2 than about anything that has happened in the Horn in the past year. The Chinese will be concerned not so much because of Afghanistan itself, though it is important to them, but because of the implications of a pro-Soviet government there for Pakistan, which the Chinese have always (perhaps somewhat unrealistically) seen as a counterweight to India. The problem goes deeper, however, and it will be interesting to see whether our views and the Chinese view are very far apart.

Hugh Seton-Watson in his splendid new book, Nations and States, characterizes the area from India/Pakistan through Iraq as one of the most inherently instable parts of today’s world. He points out that all the states of this region are potentially brittle and none fully meets his definition of nation. Pakistan’s future is problematical, perhaps deeply affected by what happens in India itself. Afghanistan’s major peoples all overlap with those of its neighbors. Iran, for all its wealth and ambition, is loosely consolidated as a nation-state with large minorities who must still be expected to have centrifugal tendencies if central control weakens. Iraq has never solved its Kurdish problem. The Russians have been keenly interested in this area since the 19th century and now, with its oil wealth and the absence of a major outside counterforce, it offers them almost irresistible temptations, possibly as a diversion from the growing nationalism of their mushrooming Central Asian Muslim populations. The more successfully Iran modernizes, the more vulnerable it becomes to Soviet subversion. No one who is not deliberately [Page 371] myopic could see expansion of Soviet influence in Afghanistan, whether it has resulted from design or accident, as anything other than a large potential gain for the Soviets.

There is a real case in this part of the world—especially as between Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan—for some political restructuring. But to expect this to occur peacefully and without external major power involvement may be as unrealistic as in the Horn of Africa. Short of this, there is a natural case for Iran and Pakistan to draw closer together in face of a Soviet-supported leftist government in Kabul and to look to us for help. The Chinese will be very interested in knowing how we view all this and what we plan to do to bolster Iranian and Pakistani confidence. We have an instrument at hand: CENTO. It doesn’t amount to much. It has not been popular or fashionable recently; we have come close to letting it go the way of SEATO. It may be handier than we think as a device for putting some tone into the soft underbelly of Asia. But in the end it will depend upon unilateral and consistent U.S. initiative to get anything meaningful started. The Chinese would be impressed by evidence of resolution on our part in this area.

  1. Source: Carter Library, Brzezinski Donated Material, Geographic File, Box 9, China, (People’s Republic of), Brzezinski’s Trip, 11/19/77–5/14/78. Confidential. Sent for information. Copies were sent to Samuel Huntington, William Quandt/Gary Sick, and Thomas Thornton of the NSC Staff. Henze sent this memorandum and papers on the Horn of Africa and Soviet Minorities (attached but not printed) to Oksenberg under a May 11 covering memorandum, which stated that they were “for Zbig’s use in planning his discussions in Peking.” (Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Far East, Oksenberg Subject File, Box 28, Brzezinski 5/78 Trip to China: 5/10–12/78)
  2. On April 27, the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) overthrew the Government of the Republic of Afghanistan. On May 1, the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan was declared, and Nur Mohammad Taraki became Prime Minister.