The Kremlin, describing its partial troop pullout from Afghanistan as a gesture of goodwill, indicates it is bigger than some in the West expected -- and that it looks for a large US gesture in return.
According to Radio Moscow late June 23, the Soviets are withdrawing one division (about 10,000 men) and 108 tanks. That would represent about 11 percent of Soviet troop strength, assuming a total of 90,000 in Afghanistan.
The official Soviet news agency Tass is hinting that Moscow wants the United States to thin out its naval forces in the Indian Ocean. It quotes an Arab newspaper to that end, and would not have done so unless it approved what the paper said.
But so far the Kremlin has made no direct statement of its own.
Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev told a semiannual full meeting of the 271-man Central Committee of the Communist Party June 23 that Soviet units were being withdrawn because life in Afghanistan was gradually returning to normal. "Large gangs of counterrevolutionaries were routed," he said, and rebels had "suffered a serious defeat."
In what was mainly a domestic-policy address, he repeated the Soviet reasons for sending the troops in six months ago and attacked the United States and China for stirring up "aggression" in Afghanistan. Mr. Brezhnev carefully refrained from saying the Soviet Army had inflicted the rout and the defeat, since Soviet policy insists it is the Afghan Army fighting the rebels. The inference seemed clear anyway.
Tass correspondents at the Venice summit condemned the allied statement that called for a full Soviet withdrawal, adding: "The Soviet Union demonstrated most convincingly goodwill. . . .This is exactly how this step [withdrawal] is qualified by the broad public in the West."
They went on to cite the Italian news agency Ansa, with obvious approval, as saying that the withdrawal move was a "manifestation of the spirit of detente."
Soviet television has shown color film of Soviet tanks -- old T-54 models dating from the 1950s -- and Soviet crews in broad-brimmed sun-hats talking with Afghan officers.
An announcer's voice said that the tanks were preparing to leave after spending six months in "friendly Afghanistan."
Pravda June 23 published of one tank crew and Afghan officers and an article by its own correspondent, which said that "a long column of tanks and infantry" moved from the outskirts of Kabul northward along a 500-kilometer road to the Soviet border at the Amu Darya River.
The road led to the Afghan town of Khairatan, which stands opposite the Soviet border post of Termez.
Muscovite citizens were saying June 23 that "our troops have done their job. The rebels have been contained and our boys can come home." This is clearly the impression the Kremlin wants to give.
"It's a good gesture," said one Moscow man approvingly. "The Olympic torch is approaching Moscow and now we can greet it and the games with the feeling that we have made a move for peace."
The June 23 Radio Moscow announcement of the size of the withdrawal cited the Afghan Information Ministry. similarly, the original troop withdrawal announcement June 22 was datelined by the Tass news agency from Kabul.
Soviet policy is to maintain what Western diplomats see as the fiction that the Afghan government makes its own decisions. Diplomatically, the Soviet aim is to have the Barbrak Karmal government fully recognized by Iran, Pakistan, and the United States, and then protected from rebel guerrillas by Pakistan agreeing to seal off the rebel camps in northwestern Pakistan.
The US says the Soviet Union invaded Muslim, third- world, nonaligned Afghanistan to prop up a pro-Moscow government Moscow itself installed, and must now withdraw in full before talks on how to guarantee Afghan neturality can proceed.
Radio Moscow said "one division." According to the authoritative International Institute of Strategic Studies in London, a full-strength Soviet armored division in Eastern Europe contains 11,000 men and 325 tanks. A mechanized Soviet division has 13,000 men and 266 tanks.
It was not immediately known here if the division being withdrawn had been at full strength. Only 108 tanks indicates well under division strength for Eastern Europe, at least.