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Backing off from the Afghanistan brink

Officially, there is still an Afghan crisis at the center of world affairs. But if you look just below the surface of the various things said and done by various people during the summit in Venice this past week, you will realize that , in fact, we are on the downhill side of that crisis.

It will not disappear officially for a long time. It will probably not disappear from US campaign rhetoric until after election day, since the "Soviet menace" is a useful campaign slogan for both Republicans and Democrats. But mounting tension has given way to declining tension. A deliberate defusing of the crisis is under way.

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One sympton of the defusing was that at the press conference that concluded the formal summit President Carter of the United States was the only principal to stress the Afghan matter. The others let it go unmentioned or brushed it off lightly.

Also, President Carter withdrew his objections to the coming visit of German Cancellor Helmut Schmidt to Moscow and made his peace with French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, who had already had a visit with Moscow's Leonid Brezhnev, thus breaking the conversational boycott Mr. Carter had attempted earlier to impose on the Western allies.

Moscow made a small contribution to the defusing process by announcing a withdrawal of one military unit, said to be an armored division, from Afghanistan.This is only a token withdrawal, diplomatic gesture that does not weaken the Soviet military grip on Afghanistan.

But it was a token proffered at the strategic midpoint of the Western summit in Venice and thus opened the way for some reciprocal token that might mark the reopening of normal diplomatic traffic between East and West.

On his stop off in Yugoslavia President Carter did provide a way out for the Soviets when he offered them a transitional arrangement on Afghanistan to accompany any complete pullback of Soviet troops.

Two other items are worth mentioning in the above context.

On the day before the opening of the Venice summit, June 23, the US government authorized US grain dealers to resume grain sales to the Soviets, provided they were selling foreign-grown grain.

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Also, when US Secretary of State Edmund Muskie was asked about the prospects of a complete Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, he said it might take a long time and added that "it took use 10 years to withdraw from Vietnam."

When great powers launch a military venture into some other country, they find it diffitult to call it off, even when it is proving to be a poor investment. The Soviet venture into Afghanistan is a poor investment. It has blocked SALT II, severely damaged "detente," startled the West Europeans, set back Soviet influence and prestige among the Islamic countries, and caused casualties to the Soviet armed forces.

But Soviet prestige is involved, and prestige is important to a great power. How to get out without admitting failure? Former US Sen. George Aiken of Vermont once proposed to President Lyndon Johnson that he declare a victory in Vietnam and get out. Was Mr. Brezhnev following the senator's advice in a different context? He told the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party assembled in Moscow that a "serious defeat" had been imposed on imperialist interventionists in Afghanistan.

Mr. Brezhnev's version of events inside Afghanistan rests, so far as any Westerner can discover, on mythology. There was no "imperialist intervention" in the beginning, but a fiasco for the puppet regime the Soviets had set up. Trouble developed between two factions of that regime. Neither the first nor the second puppet regime was able to obtain the loyalty of any significant segment of the population.

It was the failure of a Soviet political operation, not outside intervention, that plunged Afghanistan into chaos. So the Soviets sent their armed forces in to restore order. The first result was the defection of large segments of the Afghan Army. There has been no victory over alien forces. There has been nasty guerrilla fighting ever since.

Is Mr. Brezhneve looking around for a way to get out of the Afghan venture without heavy loss of prestige? If so, the Aiken formula can serve the purpose at home. Claim a victory, reduce your troops enough to reopen diplomatic traffic with the West, and hope that everyone will soon forget about Afghanistan.

The West Europeans are as anxious to forget about it in order that they can concentrate on the two things that matter the most to them. The first is the restoration of economic health throughout the whole Western trading community. The second is security for their access to the oil of the Persian Gulf region.

The Europeans like to think that they made some progress in both directions at Venice. They could agree on the emphasis that should be put by all of them on getting on with alternative sources of energy to reduce their independence on imported oil.

And it goes without saying that the Europeans will push more vigorously for progress in the Middle East toward liberation for the Arabs of the occupied territories. No one seriously expects that progress to be resumed so long as Menachem Begin continues to be prime minister of Israel. His total opposition to such liberation was underlined by reports that he would move his office into Arab east Jerusalem. But two more Cabinet resignations made the tenure of the Begin regime fragile. Its survival prospects are at a new low mark. A new Cabinet in Israel would certainly be less adamant on Arab liberation than the Begin Cabinet has been.

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