MOSCOW — The Soviet Union on Sunday completed the withdrawal of half of its troops from Afghanistan, one day before the agreed deadline, the commander of Soviet forces in that country said.
Lt. Gen. Boris Gromov, speaking at a press conference in Kabul, the Afghan capital, said that none of his forces remain in 25 of Afghanistan's 31 provinces and that the estimated 50,000 Soviet soldiers still in the country will leave over the next six months under terms of a U.N.-sponsored agreement.
Gromov acknowledged, however, that the northern provincial capital of Kunduz, close to the Soviet border, had fallen to the \o7 moujahedeen, \f7 the Muslim rebels fighting the Kabul government, shortly after Soviet soldiers pulled out of the town last week.
Will Not Participate
But Gromov said that his troops will not participate in government attempts to recapture Kunduz and will continue their withdrawal from Afghanistan under terms of the agreement signed in Geneva in April between Afghanistan and Pakistan, with the Soviet Union and the United States as guarantors.
Soviet forces stopped offensive combat operations after the agreement was signed, Gromov said, and they intend to remain in a defensive role as the withdrawal continues. All Soviet troops are to be withdrawn by Feb. 15, nine months after the agreement was signed.
Radio Kabul said the halfway point was reached when a Soviet motorized regiment of 3,000 troops left for home over the weekend in a 200-vehicle convoy from the western city of Herat.
Completion of the initial withdrawal, begun May 15, was welcomed by the United States, which has backed the \o7 moujahedeen \f7 with money and arms. White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said Sunday on behalf of President Reagan: "The Soviets appear to be on schedule in withdrawing from Afghanistan.
"Under the Geneva accord, half of their forces should be out by (Monday)," Fitzwater said as the President flew from Washington to New Orleans for the Republican Party convention. "We can never be absolutely certain, but it appears they have met that schedule."
Gromov said that Soviet soldiers remain in only six provinces. Four--Kabul, Bagwan, Samargan and Kapisa--are along the main Salang highway from Kabul to the Soviet border. The other two--Herat and Farah--are on the border between Afghanistan and Iran.
The departure of the remaining units will proceed as soon as Afghan forces are trained and ready to take their places, Gromov said, but he added that the next deadline--Feb. 15--for completing the withdrawal will definitely be met.
"The limited contingents will not participate in combat operations during the remaining period of their time," Gromov said, reiterating Soviet policy now of firing only in self-defense. "After the withdrawal of Soviet troops, not a single (Soviet) military unit, not a single (Soviet) soldier will remain in Afghanistan."
The withdrawal has been carried out so far with minimal Soviet casualties, according to Soviet sources, under largely informal cease-fire arrangements worked out by local Soviet commanders and the \o7 moujahedeen.\f7
Rockets Hit Kabul
But rebel rocket attacks on Kabul continue unabated, as if to tell the population that the government cannot protect them, particularly not after the Soviet pullout.
In Kabul, three missiles killed four women and a child Sunday and wounded six other people, according to Tass, the official Soviet news agency. Shelling in the residential areas of Gardez and Khost killed 14 people and wounded 20 over the weekend, it reported. Afghan army units killed 30 rebels near Khost, the agency added.
Skirmishes appeared to be taking place in the mountains around Kabul over the weekend, according to Western diplomats in the city, and occasional firing could be heard both there and in parts of the city itself.
The battle for Kunduz was bloody, with many military and civilian casualties, Gromov said. He blamed complacent provincial officials for its loss. Western diplomats here said that the Afghan army had asked for Soviet assistance but was turned down.
"The situation is truly very grave, but not so serious for Kunduz to remain in rebel hands," Gromov said. "I don't doubt that in the very near future the normal situation in Kunduz will be restored. . . . Kunduz will be a lesson for the opposition forces."
Crucial Test for Government
Kunduz, a provincial capital of 30,000 people along a major road from Kabul to the Soviet Union and only 40 miles south of the Soviet border, is one of the first major towns to be captured by the \o7 moujahedeen \f7 after the withdrawal of Soviet troops, and the government's effort to retake it will be viewed as a critical test of strength between its forces and the rebels.
Despite many Western predictions that one town after another would fall to the \o7 moujahedeen \f7 after Soviet troops withdrew, government forces have been able to recapture two key towns seized earlier by the rebels.