By announcing a timetable for the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan, General Secretary Mikhail S. Gorbachev has put his own credibility on the line.
Lower-ranking Soviet officials, including Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze, had been hinting in recent months that 1988 might bring an end to the eight-year war that Gorbachev once described as a "bleeding wound." But when the time came to accede to demands from the United States for a fixed timetable, the Soviet leader chose to take the spotlight himself: He publicly committed his government to start the pullout on May 15, assuming that a United Nations negotiator can work out the final terms of the settlement by the middle of March, as expected.
Gorbachev made nearly every concession ever pushed by the United States and by Pakistan, Afghanistan's neighbor and the host to the moujahedeen resistance fighters as well as to 3 million Afghan war refugees. He agreed that, in the American vernacular, the withdrawal would be "front-loaded," that the greater proportion of combat troops would be pulled out early in the process. And he made it clear that the withdrawal is not tied in any way to the perpetuation of the current Communist regime in Afghanistan or even to a coalition of Afghan Communists and moujahedeen fighters--a notion promoted by the pro-Soviet Afghan leader, Najibullah, and rejected by the resistance.
All that may be overdue--the Soviets should have acknowledged their mistake far sooner and spared the lives of thousands of Afghanis--and yet it is remarkable to hear any Soviet official publicly confess error. After all, for years Gorbachev's predecessors denied that Soviet troops had invaded Afghanistan: The fiction was that they were invited by a friendly government in Kabul.
The Soviets' eagerness to put Afghanistan behind them is understandable. The moujahedeen might have looked initially like pushovers but, armed with more than $1 billion in U.S. weapons, they have fought one of the world's most formidable armies to a standstill. The war has been a drain on resources that Gorbachev needs to rebuild the Soviet economy. And, although public opinion usually doesn't count much inside the Kremlin, the war also has become a thoroughly unpopular cause, sparking draft resistance and outcries from Soviet veterans.
Worst of all, from Gorbachev's point of view, the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan embodied the brute force and expansionism of his predecessors' foreign policy. By pursuing arms-control treaties with the United States, by putting out feelers to China, Gorbachev is trying to depict himself as a new-style Soviet leader, a man of peace. That is hardly credible with 115,000 troops in Afghanistan.
So now let us see whether Gorbachev is the man of peace he aspires to be. That will depend not only on whether he follows through with the commitment that he has made but also on whether the United States plays its part.
Washington has promised that once a peace settlement is reached it will follow a policy of "non-interference" in Afghanistan's affairs. The expectation is that the United States will wean the moujahedeen from American arms as soon as the Soviet troop withdrawal gets under way. The United States must also persuade Pakistan and the resistance to accept the Soviet offer. Pakistan, out of concern that it may get stuck sheltering Afghan refugees, is insisting that all sides agree in advance on the composition of the new Afghan government--perhaps a real obstacle, given the factionalism within the moujahedeen. Gorbachev, eager to cut his losses, says that the shape of the new government is "purely an internal Afghan issue."
That leaves it far from clear who will rule post-war Afghanistan or whether Afghanis will achieve the self-determination that they have so long sought. But there is cause to hope that troubled Afghanistan may truly be headed for peace.