Arms control will be the subject of subjects when Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev meets President Reagan in Washington next week. Led by Gorbachev himself, however, the Kremlin is deliberately encouraging hope that the summit meeting will also open the way for the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan.
A spokesman for the Soviet Foreign Ministry recently suggested that the Soviet forces could withdraw in 7 to 12 months if the United States would first stop supporting the rebels. The respected West German newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung reports that Gorbachev hopes to announce a withdrawal before the end of the year.
There is no longer much doubt that the Soviets are indeed looking for a facesaving formula for withdrawal. But they are unwilling to leave the impression of being driven out, as the Americans were from Vietnam.
From all indications, they still want to leave on their own terms--with assurance that the Afghan government, while perhaps including non-Communist elements, will continue to be ruled by forces that are fundamentally loyal to Moscow.
Since the guerrillas won't settle for a peace that leaves traitors in charge, it's a little hard to believe that a Soviet military withdrawal is just around the corner.
The war in Afghanistan, which began with a Soviet invasion in 1979 that was aimed at crushing resistance to a Soviet-imposed Communist government, has proved to be a frustrating and expensive adventure.
The Soviet force of about 115,000 troops has had to carry the brunt of the fighting against the moujahedeen guerrillas because the Soviet-controlled Afghan army has proved unreliable and ineffective.
The Muslim rebels, based in Pakistan, have suffered severe losses. A third of the total Afghan population has been driven into exile. In fact, one out of every two refugees on the planet is an Afghan.
However, the guerrillas receive aid from the United States, China, Iran and conservative Arab states. Aid channeled to the resistance forces through our own Central Intelligence Agency amounts to several times the American support that is received by the Contras in Nicaragua. U.S.-supplied Stinger missiles have proved especially effective against Soviet helicopter gunships and ground-attack jet fighters.
Most outside experts agree nonetheless that the guerrillas can never drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan if the Soviets are sufficiently determined to stay. But it turns out that the Soviets, despite their seeming military superiority, can't defeat the rag-tag bands of guerrillas, either.
Twelve thousand or more Soviet troops have died in the fighting. And, after eight years of war, the occupation forces still do not control most of the countryside and are under challenge even in the cities. Just this past weekend, a day before communist leader Najib unveiled a new constitution in Kabul, the guerrillas lobbed rockets into the capital from nearby mountains.
The war is believed to be increasingly unpopular among the Soviet people. Of greater immediate importance, the Kremlin is paying a heavy cost in its relations with the Third World at a time when the Soviets are trying to project a more congenial image. The passage of a resolution demanding a Soviet withdrawal has become an annual event at the U.N. General Assembly; the most recent such declaration passed by a record 123 votes.
Actually, peace talks under U.N. auspices have been going on for five years, but they have been taken more seriously since Gorbachev took over. The Soviet leader has called Afghanistan a "bleeding wound." For two years the Soviets have been floating hints that they would accept a coalition government in Kabul as part of an internationally guaranteed settlement.
There is ample evidence that the Kremlin, by its own lights, is serious. The Soviets no longer refer to Afghanistan as part of the socialist community, which means that the Brezhnev doctrine of irreversible revolution may no longer apply.
The puppet Afghan government, for its part, no longer calls itself communist. The new constitution presented to the General Assembly that convened in Kabul this week declares that the "sacred religion of Islam is the religion of Afghanistan."
All this is part of a peace offensive, promoted by Moscow, that is aimed at producing a government of "national reconciliation" that would include both the communists and representatives of the guerrillas.
The problem is that the new constitution, although supposedly allowing pluralism, would in fact concentrate power in the hands of the Communists. Najib, for example, would be the president and commander in chief of the armed forces. Only inconsequential cabinet posts would be open to the opposition.
Moscow is encouraging the impression that the biggest obstacle to a political settlement is the question of how rapidly the Soviet forces withdraw. And the Soviet Union has progressively retreated from a departure schedule of two or three years down to as little as seven months.