By the time he receives President Reagan in Moscow later this year, General Secretary Mikhail S. Gorbachev hopes to have cut the Gordian knot of Soviet embroilment in Afghanistan.
While Soviet public optimism on this score is in part designed to pressure the United States, significant shifts in Moscow's negotiating stance augur well for early agreement.
Earlier this month the Soviets dropped their long-standing insistence on fixing the composition of the interim Afghan government before agreeing to a timetable for troop withdrawal. Gorbachev has now simply de-coupled the internal political settlement question from what he sees as the more important issue of a U.S. guarantee of a neutral, nonaligned Afghanistan.
How can we explain this Soviet decision? Most Western observers have long maintained that the Soviets depart from territory they occupy only when extreme military and international pressure give them no alternative.
Yet this is not the case in Afghanistan. The military confrontation is stalemated but the Soviets could sustain their strategy of entrenchment for the foreseeable future, U.S.-supplied Stinger missiles notwithstanding. As far as international pressure is concerned, the worst is over and the current thaw in East-West relations has made the United States somewhat more responsive on the Afghan issue. This plus refugee and border pressures has helped moderate Pakistani intransigence.
Rather than seeking to account for recent changes in Soviet policy in terms of overwhelming direct pressure, we should see this shift as the product of a careful assessment of costs and benefits by a leadership less committed than its predecessors to doctrinaire ideological expansionism and more sensitive to the flaws of building security on the basis of militaryforce. Viewed from Gorbachev's pragmatic cost-benefit perspective, the Soviet Union's Afghan policy shows serious and deepening deficits in the domestic balance, in Afghanistan itself and in the international arena.
At home, growing public dissatisfaction with the war is beginning to add political costs to the material burden (about 1%-2% of the defense budget) long imposed by a stalemated conflict. With an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 dead, another 20,000 wounded and half a million veterans, Soviet society is beginning to display some of the phenomena familiar to any American who experienced the Vietnam period. Glasnost has made it possible for the public and veterans to air their criticism. Izvestia published a poll showing that a majority of the population want all troops withdrawn.
The situation on the ground in Afghanistan points in the same direction. Gorbachev knows that it would take a much larger commitment of forces to extend control beyond the one-fifth of the territory that the Soviets and their Afghan allies presently hold. Attempts to "Afghanize" the war effort have foundered in ways reminiscent of Vietnam--on the poor morale, organization and persistent divisions within the Afghan armed forces and the faction-ridden government.
Such divisions have also plagued Soviet attempts to construct a stable political regime.
While all this must figure importantly in Gorbachev's thinking, it is the international dimension that has probably been critical in the decision to pull out. A changing international environment has transformed what were originally the reasons for intervention into arguments for withdrawal. There are fewer grounds now for Soviet fears of an unstable Afghanistan falling prey to Iranian revolutionary zeal, Chinese influence and American imperialism. Iranian energies are being largely dissipated elsewhere, China is no longerthe enemy it once was and larger arms-control issues now cushion relations with Washington. In these circumstances continued Soviet presence in Afghanistan weakens rather than strengthens Soviet security as understood in the broader political sense favored by Gorbachev.
This perhaps makes a Soviet withdrawal without political strings sound too much a foregone conclusion. The Kremlin still has hurdles to clear before it will withdraw its forces. And there are serious problems to contemplate in the longer term.
Soviet officials have stressed that they do not want to leave Kabul in the way the United States left Saigon. Even if the Soviets manage to leave in a dignified fashion, they still have to face the high probability of a hostile Afghan regime coming to power in their wake. At present, Soviet leaders seem to cherish rather forlorn hopes of maintaining reasonable economic and diplomatic relations with a broadly based regime whose neutralized status is guaranteed by the United States.
Should the United States oblige by providing such guarantees? Some would argue that precisely because the Soviet Union so strongly wishes to pull out of Afghanistan, this cannot be in the West's interests: better to keep Afghanistan as a pressure point. Such views seem misguided. The West should facilitate an agreement that enables the Soviet Union to withdraw its forces while ensuring firm safeguards for Afghan political self-determination. Quite apart from its obvious humanitarian benefits, such an agreement would help to reinforce the more flexible, cost-benefit approach to foreign policy that Gorbachev espouses. Surely a Soviet leadership wishing to strengthen security by political rather than military means is to be encouraged.