NEW DELHI — Mikhail S. Gorbachev's announcement that the Soviet Union will pull its troops out of Afghanistan was born out of the realism that since the war cannot be won, it had better be abandoned. The same realism may also be telling the Soviet leader to seek an Afghanistan settlement in cooperation with his adversaries, Pakistan and the United States.
The Soviet decision to leave Afghanistan is certain to have major global and regional consequences. It was the Soviet intervention in 1979 that brought the United States to the South Asian region, from which it had withdrawn after the India-Pakistan border clashes of 1965. The renewal of U.S.-Pakistan security links in 1981 and the consequent souring of relations between India and the United States were the result of the Soviet armed thrust along the Khyber. Now the retreat of Soviet power will greatly affect the balance between India and Pakistan and their relations with their two principal supporters, the Soviet Union and the United States.
The final settlement of Afghanistan rests on the crucial point of who will rule Kabul once the Soviets leave. Two major issues in the proposed settlement--cessation of all external-arms supplies and the return of refugees--have nearly been resolved by the U.N. mediator, Diego Cordovez, during three weeks of shuttling between Kabul and Islamabad last month.
At the coming round of talks between Pakistan and Afghanistan in Geneva, scheduled to begin March 2, both these neighbors and their superpower allies will bargain about who is to have what share of power in Kabul. Leave to the Afghans themselves the task of forming a provisional government, Gorbachev said in his Feb. 8 statement. He has also delinked the issue of Soviet withdrawal from the issue of provisional government, thus reversing the previous Soviet position. Last week, however, following Gorbachev's statement that Soviet withdrawal could begin May 15, Soviet First Deputy Foreign Minister Yuly Vorontsov said Pakistani demands that a new coalition government had to be set up in Kabul before an accord bringing the withdrawal of Soviet troops were aimed at creating "artificial obstacles" to ending the war.
It is inconceivable, however, that the Soviets would hand over power exclusively to those most hostile to them: the Pakistan-based Afghan moujahedeen and the Afghan resistance. And it is just as inconceivable that the Soviets would go precipitously, leaving behind a chaotic Afghanistan. A Lebanon on their southern border would seriously harm Soviet security interests and, even more, neighboring Pakistan's. A government in which some elements of the ruling Peoples Democratic Party of Afghanistan along with some moderate moujahedeen and the Afghan resistance is what the Soviets prefer.
The other protagonist in the Afghanistan tangle, Pakistan, has largely achieved what it wants: an unconditional Soviet withdrawal, within a specified period time. Pakistan stands to gain by a comprehensive Afghan settlement--one that guarantees the safe return of 3 million Afghan refugees and an important say in the future of Afghanistan would be a great gain for a military regime that has never enjoyed popular support or legitimacy.
The largest power in the South Asian region, India, nervously watches others perform the Afghanistan drama. Major events in its neighborhood have transpired in the past nine years without India's participation. It found itself in an invidious position in the face of Soviet intervention: Criticize a friend for what it has done or condemn an enemy, Pakistan, which with U.S. support was determined to contest the Soviet presence in Afghanistan.
Throughout, India has been more concerned with the consequences of Soviet action than with the act itself. A Pakistan rearmed by the United States and bent on acquiring nuclear weapons has alarmed New Delhi much more than Soviet aggression. Without approving the Soviet action, it nonetheless acquiesced in it. The speed and zeal with which Gorbachev is trying to improve Soviet relations with China and the United States and winding up the Afghanistan and Cambodian conflicts has perturbed India, which has maintained no contacts with the Afghan resistance. In any event, Pakistan--and perhaps the United States, too--would oppose any Indian involvement in the peace process.
In the withdrawal phase and beyond, Pakistan is going to play a pivotal role. It is a guarantor of the Geneva settlement and the Soviets need Pakistan's good will to enable them to leave Afghanistan peacefully. Again, the Soviets hope that Pakistan will exercise a moderating influence on the key issue of the formation of a provisional government.