WASHINGTON — Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev told President Reagan during the Washington summit that as soon as Soviet troops begin to withdraw from Afghanistan, they will stop fighting except in self-defense, a pledge that seems to bring Moscow's eight-year occupation a step closer to an end, a senior State Department official said Monday.
"I would regard it as positive (because) it was something that, as far as I'm aware, they had never said before," said Under Secretary of State Michael H. Armacost, the U.S. official most closely involved with Afghan negotiations. "Only a withdrawal of that kind would have any appeal."
Speaking at a press conference in advance of the eighth anniversary of the Dec. 27, 1979, Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Armacost said the United States "couldn't stand by and simply observe a withdrawal during which the Soviets attempted to use their residual power to go after the resistance," known as the moujahedeen.
Soviet officials have said that a Soviet withdrawal must be accompanied by an end to U.S. support for the resistance forces.
Armacost said the United States will continue to give arms and other support to the moujahedeen until all of the details have been negotiated for the orderly--and speedy--removal of Soviet forces.
The United States wants to know just what Gorbachev means by "self-defense," he said, because "there's a very high level of military activity generally in Afghan society and, therefore, if one is looking for an excuse (to resume fighting), then there's always an incident to which one can refer."
Gorbachev has said repeatedly, including during the summit, that he wants to bring home the Soviet forces. But he has refused to meet U.S. demands for a specific date for the conclusion of the Soviet withdrawal. Najibullah, leader of the Afghan government, whom the United States regards as a Moscow puppet, has said the Soviet forces could be pulled out within 12 months, a pace Washington considers much too slow.
"Moscow has stated repeatedly that a firm political decision to withdraw has been made," Armacost said. "The key to a solution in Afghanistan, however, is not the profession of intentions, but a firm commitment to a short withdrawal timetable."
Adding new U.S. demands, Armacost said Washington wants to know the order in which Soviet forces will be removed and the rules of engagement surrounding the retreat as well as the timing of the withdrawal.
He said the United States "wants these details precisely in order to have some confidence that the Soviets would carry out what they say they will carry out."
Armacost said there was a "dramatic improvement" in the moujahedeen's military capacity this year.
"Better cooperation among the resistance groups on the battlefield and improved air defenses have led to moujahedeen successes against Soviet and (Afghan) regime ground forces and have blunted Soviet air power," he said. Although Armacost did not make the connection, the improvement in insurgent air defense was believed to be largely due to U.S.-supplied Stinger anti-aircraft missiles.
He also dismissed charges that much of the U.S. aid had been lost to corruption either in Afghanistan or in transit through Pakistan.