The Soviets, it appears, are preparing to leave Afghanistan after eight years of bloody war. Such a conclusion would scarcely have been considered possible a year ago, when seasoned Soviet-watchers routinely dismissed Moscow's assertions that it had decided in principle to get out. But the prospect of an imminent withdrawal agreement was raised once again when Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze announced last week that Moscow was dropping its insistence on leaving behind a coalition government dominated by the Afghan communists.
Shevardnadze also revealed something considerably more disturbing--that Washington has agreed to "guarantee" the withdrawal accord by ending its military support for the Afghan freedom fighters, or moujahedeen, 60 days after the signing of an agreement. This U.S. concession, hinted at by Undersecretary of State Michael Armacost in Pakistan, was later denied by Secretary of State George P. Shultz.
In the complicated end game that, it is to be hoped, will end a decade-long tragedy for the Afghan people, the United States still has the capability of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
How did the Soviets arrive at such an impasse, where they are poised to leave Afghanistan under more humiliating conditions than the United States left Vietnam, without even the fig leaf of viable government by which they could claim the "Afghanization" of the war?
First and foremost has been a severe deterioration of the military situation. The United States and other sympathetic nations now funnel more than half a billion dollars worth of military equipment to the moujahedeen every year, including Stinger anti-aircraft missiles. The Afghan freedom fighters themselves, far from being coopted or demoralized, have evolved into a well-organized and disciplined force whose sacrifices should make us consider what it means to truly value freedom.
It now looks as if the Soviets must significantly reinforce the "limited contingent of Soviet forces" (numbering about 110,000 men since 1980) merely to stay in place. The prospect of winning the war, which by some estimates has already claimed about 25,000 Soviet lives, is no longer a serious possibility. It seems that American observers have underestimated the effect of the war on Soviet society and its political leadership. The Soviet press now regularly reports the war's gruesome human cost, while the veterans of Afghanistan-- Afghantsy --have become a distinct and troubled social class.
The second factor propelling the Soviets out is the almost total collapse of their Afghan communist allies, the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan.
The party, lacking legitimacy and riven with factional conflicts even before the takeover in 1978, was further demoralized when the Soviets replaced their former puppet, Babrak Karmal, with the party's secret police chief, Najibullah. The latter's appeals since last January to form a government of national reconciliation have gone unanswered, and the prospect of cobbling together some kind of coalition is all but dead.
Those who think that the publicly stated Soviet commitment to withdraw is merely propaganda should consider the effects of this reiterated pledge on Moscow's Afghan allies. To a man, they know that they would be marked for death in the event of a Soviet withdrawal, and they must be carefully considering the alternative of cutting a deal with the moujahedeen, as Najibullah's own brother has done. The more the Soviets insist that they are leaving, the more demoralized the cadres in the People's Democratic Party become and the more the Soviet pledge becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Enter the United States. The temptation to ease the Soviets out through a last-minute accommodation must be powerful to U.S. policy-makers. There is, however, a big difference between offering Moscow a meaningless face-saving gesture and conceding an end to U.S. arms supplies at the start of a Soviet withdrawal. The Soviets have no good alternatives in Afghanistan other than the one that we might offer them--that they can pay for an unambiguous cutoff of U.S. aid with an ambiguous withdrawal that would allow them breathing space to deal with the moujahedeen.
We should recognize that our hand is sufficiently strong that we need not concede anything to secure a Soviet withdrawal. And we should remember that when we asked the Soviets for comparable assistance in getting out of Vietnam, their response was to turn up the arms tap to Hanoi. Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev surely learned a useful lesson when he witnessed for himself in Washington last month the solid bipartisan support that aid to the Afghan freedom fighters receives in Congress, the White House and the press. It would be ironic indeed if eight years of such support is squandered at the last minute by diplomats anxious to cut a deal.