The Soviet Union wants out of Afghanistan. But Moscow is not in a hurry to offer an unconditional surrender. The Kremlin is seeking an honorable exit which will not harm its superpower image and security interests. And the Politburo is still not sure how to find an acceptable solution.
The reason Yuri Andropov and his colleagues would like to withdraw Soviet troops from Afghanistan is simple - they know that the war is unwinnable. According to informed sources, the Soviet general staff has advised the leadership that the resistance cannot be destroyed as long as the rebels enjoy sanctuaries in Pakistan. But to go after these sanctuaries - as some Soviet generals suggest - is politically inconceivable. Such a bold step would undermine chances to improve relations with China and would generate outrage in the Muslim world.
Andropov is not willing to pay this price. After all, as Selig Harrison writes in a recent issue of Foreign Policy, all available evidence indicates that the USSR does not perceive Afghanistan as a staging area for further moves to the Gulf. According to Harrison, a seasoned observer of the region, the Soviet military infrastructure ''appears related almost entirely to fighting the war against mujahideen.'' He goes on: ''Informed American and other Western intelligence sources agree that Moscow has not used the occupation to improve its logistical capabilities in Afghanistan for offensive action against neighboring Persian Gulf States.''
Nor is the Kremlin interested in turning Afghanistan into the 16th Soviet republic. Discussion in the Soviet news media reveals that the authorities are already concerned that the ratio of Muslims is growing in the Soviet Union. Adding millions of religious and nationalistic Afghans to the Soviet population would only aggravate this disturbing trend.
The Soviet military is also unenthusiastic about the continuing presence of Russian forces in Afghanistan. Of course, the war provides some useful combat experience and allows testing of Soviet tactics and weapons. Yet the costs outweigh the benefits. Fighting a protracted and unwinnable war is bad for military morale - as the United States has amply discovered in Vietnam. And Soviet allocations for the armed forces are not unlimited. Moscow's ministry of defense and the general staff are reported to be alarmed that too many precious rubles are being spent on Afghanistan. And this is at a time when marshals and admirals feel an urgent need to mobilize all available resources to face the US military challenge.
The Kremlin is already trying to build some distance between itself and the Kabul regime. Soviet representatives in a number of world capitals hint privately that Babrak Karmal is expendable. And the same may be true with the whole Afghan People's Democratic Party. At least there are signs that Andropov is prepared to be flexible on whether the discredited party maintains a monopoly on political power in Afghanistan.
Speaking at the end of April at a ceremony in Kabul to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the Afghan revolution, Soviet Politburo candidate member Sharaf Rashidov in contrast to Karmal's speech emphasized ''the national-democratic'' rather than the communist nature of changes in Afghanistan. And he pointedly mentioned the National Fatherland Front, an umbrella and officially nonpartisan organization, more prominently than the People's Democratic Party. Moreover, leading Soviet newspapers have suddenly published several stories praising the wisdom and patriotism of the Afghan Muslim clergy.
Nevertheless, Andropov and his associates are not ready to abandon Afghanistan unless their minimal terms are met. These terms include negotiating a face-saving formula for a Soviet pullout. Also among them are assurances that Afghanistan would remain under Soviet influence.
UN-sponsored indirect talks in Geneva between Afghanistan and Pakistan have demonstrated some progress. In the view of Pakistan's President Zia ul-Haq, ''the Soviet Union means business'' at the negotiations which are scheduled to resume on June 16.
The majority of Afghan resistance leaders are more skeptical. They fear that at best the negotiations represent a charade by the Kremlin. At worst, they are afraid of a deal between the USSR and Pakistan at their expense.
The Reagan administration is on the record supporting negotiated settlement in Afghanistan. And indeed if all local parties involved favor an agreement it would be both against American interest and beyond American capability to torpedo a solution. But neither is there a reason to hurry to endorse an agreement which may reward the Soviets for their aggression, punish the Afghan people, and work against US geopolitical interests.
It is an open secret that Andropov would
like to use the Afghan settlement to achieve rapprochement with China, to refocus Muslim attention from Afghanistan on the Palestinian issue, and to improve the Soviet image in Western Europe. As long as the US-Soviet relationship is on ice these developments would improve the Soviet leader's hand in rivalry with Washington. Exercising a double standard, Moscow complains that the White House by increasing assistance to the Afghan rebels attempts to sabotage the Geneva talks. And this is at a time when the Politburo through its Cuban surrogate aids rebels in El Salvador.
The Soviet Union demands a guarantee that the US will cease supporting Afghan rebels. The same is expected of China, Pakistan, and Iran. Totally abandoned, the rebels would - the Soviet leadership hopes - be faced with a choice between defeat and accepting a junior role in the Kabul regime. Neither morality nor pragmatic US interests require automatic support from the US of this type of Soviet disengagement from Afghanistan. A US noninvolvement guarantee should not be simply pocketed by the Kremlin. If Andropov wants it, he has to be prepared to discuss it directly with Washington and to pay the necessary price. If not, he deserves as much help from the US as this country received from the Soviet Union when it tried to negotiate an honorable exit from Vietnam: zero.