MOSCOW — Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev on Monday set May 15 as a tentative date to start withdrawing the estimated 115,000 Soviet troops in Afghanistan. He said they could all be out by March, 1989.
Gorbachev said in a statement issued by the official Soviet news agency Tass that the timetable is based on an assumption that accords to end the 8-year-old civil war in Afghanistan will be signed by March 15.
He expressed the hope that an end to the war might lead to settlement of other "bleeding wounds"--in the Middle East, Central America, Cambodia, the Persian Gulf and southern Africa.
In Washington, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said: "It sounds like a positive step, and we hope it is, but we need to see the fine print. We've got to know what it means."
State Department spokesman Charles Redman concurred. "We welcome Gorbachev's apparent willingness to address this question," he said. "Naturally, we want to see further details on Gorbachev's offer and consult with the Pakistanis."
On-again, off-again peace talks, under U.N. auspices, have been taking place in Geneva for years between Afghanistan and Pakistan, where many Afghans have taken refuge and where much of the effort to supply the Afghan rebels is organized.
The Gorbachev statement appeared to satisfy major U.S. concerns about a peace settlement. For one thing, he said that the redeployment of "our boys" would see the withdrawal of considerable numbers in the first few months.
U.S. officials have advocated the removal of a large part of the Soviet forces in the early stages of a general withdrawal in order to show that the process is irreversible.
They have also expressed concern that Moscow might wish to establish a thinly disguised puppet regime in Kabul by having the Afghan president, Najibullah, retain control of such important elements as the Ministry of Defense and the secret police.
But Gorbachev said Monday that the withdrawal will not be conditioned on the formation of an Afghan government satisfactory to Moscow.
"This is a purely internal Afghan issue," he said. "It can only be resolved by the Afghans themselves, although they belong to different and even opposing camps. . . . It is none of our business."
Gorbachev also said that the Soviet Union will be happy if Afghanistan becomes neutral and nonaligned.
He added that Najibullah has agreed to the timetable and that "all of this creates the necessary conditions for signing the settlement agreement in the very near future."
A Soviet withdrawal could begin even earlier than May 15, he said--if the agreements are signed before the middle of March.
If all goes according to plan, the first Red Army units should be out of Afghanistan when President Reagan arrives in Moscow for summit talks with Gorbachev, now expected to take place in May or early June.
Months of Signals
Gorbachev's seven-page statement, issued on behalf of the Soviet leadership, came after months of signals that Moscow was ready to pull its troops out of an increasingly unpopular war in which there was no sign that the Soviet-backed government could win a military victory.
Najibullah, a former head of the Afghan secret police, replaced the previous leader, Babrak Karmal, who had been brought from exile in Moscow and installed in office as Soviet troops poured into the country in December, 1979.
Under the accords the Kremlin wants, the United States and other countries would be prohibited from supplying arms to the rebel forces, and millions of Afghan refugees would return to their country from neighboring Pakistan.
The Soviet Union and the United States would act as guarantors against outside interference in Afghanistan's affairs, and a procedure would be established for verifying the troop withdrawal and the cutoff of military assistance.
Gorbachev said the fighting in Afghanistan has disrupted normal relations in the region, but he did not say that it had been a political mistake for the Soviet Union to send in its troops.
'Doing Their Duty'
"Our boys, our soldiers in Afghanistan . . . have been doing their duty honestly, performing acts of self-denial and heroism," he said. "The memory of those who have died a hero's death in Afghanistan is sacred to us."
He made no reference to the number of Soviet soldiers who have been killed in the fighting, or to the number of troops now in Afghanistan.
Western estimates of Soviet casualties in Afghanistan vary widely, from 10,000 to 50,000, but most agree on troop strength, roughly 115,000.
Gorbachev carefully spelled out the Soviet view of what he called "one of the bitterest and most painful" of regional conflicts.
"Seeking to facilitate a speedy and successful conclusion of the Geneva talks between Afghanistan and Pakistan," he said, "the governments of the Soviet Union and the Republic of Afghanistan have agreed to set a specific date for beginning the withdrawal of Soviet troops--May 15, 1988--and to complete their withdrawal within 10 months.
Accords Must Be Signed