Unsuccessful in his efforts three weeks ago to win from Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev a firm and specific commitment to withdraw Soviet troops from Afghanistan, President Reagan called Sunday on the Kremlin to translate into action its stated intention to pull out.
"The Afghan people will not be conquered," Reagan declared.
With U.S.-Soviet relations showing marked improvement, particularly in the arms control arena, as the Reagan Administration enters its final year in office, the U.S. effort to pressure the Soviets to end their eight-year military support of the Kabul regime remains a major point of unresolved difference.
Gorbachev has declared his intention to eventually remove the estimated 115,000 Soviet troops that the Reagan Administration asserts are propping up the Marxist government of Afghan President Najibullah, but the Soviet leader refused during the Washington summit conference Dec. 7-10 to set a specific, detailed timetable for their departure.
Indeed, the Soviets are reported to have just undertaken an unusual winter offensive, sending 10,000 Soviet and Afghan troops into combat in an apparent effort to break a siege of the garrison town of Khost that has been isolated by the U.S.-supplied Afghan resistance guerrillas.
The offensive is seen by officials in Washington as the largest undertaken by the Afghan army and the Soviet forces since battles two years ago in the Panjshir Valley.
Reagan, recalling his unsuccessful effort to win from Gorbachev a specific commitment on a troop withdrawal that would set starting and termination dates for the pullout, declared:
"I call once again on the Soviet Union to translate its declared intentions into reality by promptly and irrevocably withdrawing all Soviet forces from Afghanistan. Let 1988 be the year of action, the year that will see the Soviet Union end once and for all its brutal occupation of Afghanistan."
Over the last two years, the Soviets have expressed a willingness to remove their troops, but negotiations in Geneva have borne no fruit in the effort to put together a timetable. However, differences have been narrowed over the amount of time the withdrawal would take.
At the same time, dissatisfaction among Soviet citizens with the war has become more apparent with the increasing degree of openness, known as glasnost , in Soviet society. The differences between the superpowers over this sensitive issue are in contrast with the steady improvement in relations that has been highlighted by the signing Dec. 8 of a treaty to eliminate U.S. and Soviet land-based medium-range nuclear missiles.
But with efforts now under way to reach an agreement limiting long-range nuclear weapons, there is no expectation among U.S. officials that the stubborn questions about Afghanistan will derail the overall trend in U.S.-Soviet ties, and a White House official said Sunday that the Administration does not doubt the Soviet desire to end its direct role in the conflict.
"The handwriting is on the wall," he said.
It was the Soviet entry into Afghanistan in 1979 that doomed Senate ratification of the strategic arms limitation treaty signed earlier that year by President Jimmy Carter and Soviet leader Leonid I. Brezhnev. Shortly after the Soviet move, Carter cut off grain sales to the Soviet Union and pulled the United States out of the Summer Olympics, held in Moscow in 1980.
Reagan's written statement was issued on Sunday, the eighth anniversary of the Soviets' initial military move into the mountainous Central Asian nation on its southern border. The statement was made available to reporters as the President and Mrs. Reagan flew west to Los Angeles to begin an annual weeklong New Year's holiday here and in Palm Springs.
In Los Angeles, the President is expected to spend most of his time in a suite at the Century Plaza Hotel. He has no public events on his schedule, but he is expected to take part in the opening of the Bob Hope Cultural Center in Palm Springs next Saturday.
In its tone, the President's statement was much the same as criticism he has made of the Soviet military action in previous years, but Sunday's occurred at a time of renewed diplomatic attention being paid to the warfare at the highest levels of the U.S. and Soviet governments.
And the Soviets have over the past year shown a new frankness in acknowledging some of the difficulties of fighting the Islamic tribesman skilled in mountain warfare and now learning with some success to use portable Stinger anti-aircraft missiles being supplied by the United States.
Reagan, in his statement, pointed out that after eight years of battle, in which they "attempted ruthlessly and systematically to destroy the ability of the Afghan people to resist," the Soviets "have not been able to subdue the proud people of Afghanistan."
Five million Afghans have fled their country, one million have been killed and crops, factories, homes, schools and mosques have been destroyed, Reagan said, "but the Afghan people will not be conquered."