Moscow hints at Afghan casualties -- but shows no sign of pulling out
He was a Muscovite, skilled at reading between the lines of the controlled Soviet press. As he finished reading a paean of Pravda praise for the "heroic" demeanor of Soviet troops in Afghanistan, he looked up -- and made a comment that crystallized much of the West's dilemma six months after the troops went in:
"They don't fight," he said, "But they die."
The Soviet press insists that the Afghan Army does the fighting. But many Muscovites take for granted that their troops wouldn't be in Afghanistan unless they had to fight.And Soviet rumor and Western intelligence agree that hundreds have been killed.
His ironic, laocnic comment underlines two key points: Soviet control over the domestic mass media (in marked contrast with lack of US government control during Vietnam); and the Kremlin's determination to keep on risking international detente by trying to save the pro-Moscow regime of Barbark Karmal in Kabul by force of Soviet arms.
Knowledgeable Western diplomats here see no break in the East-West impasse over Afghanistan -- at least until after US and West German elections are over. This despite efforts by both Moscow and Washington to continue a dialogue.
The fighting is intensifying -- and the Soviet press has at last begun to drop hints to its own people. What Western sources believe to be the first reference to a wounded Soviet soldier came June 13 in the youth newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda.A doctor in Tashkent, in Soviet Central Asia, trying to refute criticism from the United States in the Baltimore Sun newspaper, wrote:
"My son is a Soviet soldier, and he lies in a hospital. He received his wounds from the enemies of the  Afghan revolution supplied by American arms."
The doctor, L. I. Barsook, said he and his family of four had sent post cards of protest over President Carter's "anti-Soviet" policies to the White House. The newspaper says 218,627 cards have now been sent, signed by 1 million Soviet citizens.
In April, the State Department estimated about 8,000 Soviet troops had been killed or wounded in Afghanistan. To date, no account of fighting involving Soviet troops has appeared here.
"Yes, Moscow wants to keep on talking. It wants to have Afghanistan and normal detente as well," says one informed Western diplomatic source. "President Carter, too, now talks of the need to talk about strategic arms and to ratify SALT II.
"But the Soviets have made not a single concession so far as Afghanistan, and until they know who will be in the White House for the next four years -- and the result of the Bonn election -- they are unlikely to make any major moves, even if they wanted to."
Meanwhile, some diplomats here believe Moscow will rush more troops to Afghanistan the moment the Moscow Olympic Games are over.
To move the troops in before the games might cause even more countries to boycott -- and the Soviets are working hard to hang onto the 86 now said to be coming (against 54 boycotting).
"But if Moscow doesn't want the fighting to drag on for years," says another Western source, "it needs many more troops in Afghanistan than it has now. The rebels are attacking roads and camps. Uprisings continue in Kabul itself."
The Soviet press maintains a confident tones about Afghanistan and insists the United States is aiding and arming rebel "invaders." Two articles in Pravda recently described Soviet troops in Afghanistan as selfless and gallant, helping Afghan villagers with medicine and manpower, cooperating with the locals and with one another to turn back the rebel forces. Between the lines, it was clear that the troops were seeing difficult duty, though the articles stopped short of admitting the troops were fighting.
Meanwhile, commentaries in Pravda and remarks by Soviet officials in private emphasize the need for talks -- but on Soviet terms.
"Our position is clear," said one official to this correspondent the other day. "We think talks must go ahead. SALT [II] must be ratified. But, of course, you must guarantee an end to rebel attacks in Afghanistan, to rebel invasions. Iran and Pakistan must do the same. then we can talk about withdrawing our troops.
"We don't want to have our troops in Afghanistan. The whole world knows that. But we were invited in to help, and we are helping. . . ."
Those were the points contained in the May 14 proposals put forward by the Afghan government. But they are unacceptable to the United States, which insists that Soviet troops must be withdrawn before talk of a neutral Afghanistan can have meaning.