MIKHAIL GORBACHEV has frequently said that he wants to get Soviet troops out of Afghanistan, and there is little reason to doubt his sincerity on this point. He has much to gain by getting out. The medium-range weapons treaty he signed in Washington this week would have easier sailing to Senate confirmation were there no Soviet troops in Afghanistan. The fact of those troops in Afghanistan is the main reason used by the opponents of confirmation of the treaty.
It was the sending of those Soviet troops into Afghanistan that finally destroyed the initial ``d'etente'' that Richard Nixon had worked out with Leonid Brezhnev. It is the continued presence of those troops in Afghanistan that is the major hurdle to working out a second d'etente.
Add that the presence of those troops in Afghanistan worries the West Europeans and puts a strain on Soviet relations with the Muslim countries to the south, with India and above all with China. But Mr. Gorbachev is having to learn, just as Lyndon Johnson and Mr. Nixon had to learn in Vietnam, that it is far easier for a great power to invade a small country than it is to get out with dignity.
We can assume that he wants out sincerely, but that, like Johnson and Nixon in Vietnam, he is still reluctant to pay the necessary price.
Nixon wanted to get out of Vietnam from the time he took over the war there from Johnson in 1969. But he also wanted to get out without losing the war. He hoped to leave behind a noncommunist government that would be friendly to the United States. He made a deal with the North Vietnamese. The last US troops pulled out in March of 1973.
The government of South Vietnam held out for two years more but finally collapsed, on April 30, 1975.
This is precisely why Gorbachev is reluctant to pull his troops out. He can hardly be happy with the idea that Soviet intrusion into Afghanistan will repeat the story of the US in Vietnam.