WASHINGTON — Washington.---"HOW LONG do you think it will be before one of the Stinger missiles we gave the mujahedeen in Afghanistan will be going up the tailpipe of an American commercial airliner?'' asked the man across the table from me at dinner the other night.
''Not long,'' was my guess.
''Not long,'' he said. The man knows more about these things than I do. James Schlesinger has been both secretary of defense and director of Central Intelligence.
Afghanistan was the last real battle of the Cold War. The invasion and long defeat of the Red Army there probably speeded up the unraveling of the Soviet Union and communism itself -- as the American entry and defeat in Vietnam probably extended the twilight struggle for a decade or longer.
The mujahedeen in Afghanistan were our chosen friends because they had the same goal we did, defeating the Soviets. But from beginning to end, the friends we chose there had more in common with the Ayatollah Khomeini than with any Americans. These were men who went to war to preserve the old ways; what enraged them most were Soviet attempts to educate women.
By the end, we were giving them some of the most sophisticated weaponry we had, particularly the Stingers. Those shoulder-fired, ground-to-air missiles proved to be the best of breed, capable of knocking down just about anything that flies. And all those launchers and rockets are out there somewhere, waiting to be used again -- probably against us.
Making ''friends'' of the enemies of our enemy is probably the most dangerous reflex the United States picked up during the years of confronting communism or anything that looked remotely like it anywhere around the world. We had some bad people around our house for all that time, and we got so used to it that we did it as a matter of routine -- whether or not communism was involved.
Saddam Hussein is an example. He became one of our friends -- ''friends'' being defined here as the people we give guns and such -- because Iraq was the enemy of our enemy, Iran. Now some of the weapons we gave Iraq are turned on us. And we are in the astounding position of making friends with Saddam Hussein's enemy, Hafez el Assad, the ruler of Syria and a true rival for recognition as the worst man in the world.
Embracing the enemies of our enemies went from strategy to policy to habit. We seemed unaware of the dangers -- still are, numb to the consequences of our global and regional promiscuity. In Afghanistan, we picked Gulbuddin Hekmatyer as our special friend, sending him whatever he needed to continue the good works he began at the University of Kabul, where he became known by organizing Moslem fundamentalists to throw acid in the faces of women who did not wear the veil.
Across the border in Pakistan, we picked Gen. Zia ul-Haq, looking the other way as he used some of our aid to push the development of Pakistani nuclear weapons, which could only have four targets in the future -- India, China, Israel or the United States.
Why did we do that? I asked an American diplomat in Islamabad once why we were backing Mr. Hekmatyer. He seemed surprised by such a silly question. ''Because he kills Russians best,'' he said with a touch of impatience. True, I suppose, but he would be just as quick to kill the two of us if he had the chance. He already has the reason: We educate women.
Alliances are obviously essential to a global power. The United States does have interests almost everywhere. But we go too far. Protecting and protesting our innocence, trying not to be cynical, we become even more cynical and far more hypocritical than necessary. We had to call the contras in Nicaragua ''freedom fighters'' and ''founding fathers'' to blot out what everyone in the world knew: The contra core was made up of leftover enforcers for our friendly thug there, a West Point graduate named Anastasio Somoza. Now we are ready to present the emir of Kuwait as Thomas Jefferson in robes.
We talk of a new world order, but we sure aren't used to it yet. It is obviously going to be hard for us to come to grips with a world where we have to begin making new friends based on who they are and what they do rather than by whom and what they are against. We can't stay in the habit of cohabiting with the enemies of our enemies -- unless we are bound and determined to go out there and find new enemies.