What Soviets gain from going. Afghan pullout augurs better ties with China, the West
Let us now mark down an important date in our history books. On April 14, 1988, the Soviet Union agreed in Geneva to pull all of its soldiers out of Afghanistan within nine months, beginning on May 15.
That the withdrawal will happen is no longer in serious doubt.
Soviet units began pulling back from forward positions to their concentration areas over a month ago. We know. We tracked them from our reconnaissance satellites overhead. Soviet units are no longer in intense combat with the Afghan resistance.
Moscow, for the first time since the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, is voluntarily giving up a country it had conquered with its own troops and in which it had planted a government which, by Moscow's own definition, is ``socialist.''
This is not only the beginning of the end of Soviet military occupation of Afghanistan. It is also the end of the ``Brezhnev Doctrine,'' which had decreed that any country once ``socialist'' must remain forever ``socialist'' and that the Soviet armed forces would enforce that rule.
The Soviet signing becomes as important as the decision announced in Washington on April 22, 1968, to begin drawing down the number of US troops in Vietnam. The last US soldier did not leave Vietnam until March 29, 1973.
But the decision in 1968 to begin withdrawing US troops cleared the way for the US reconciliation with China which Richard Nixon began in 1972, which ended in transforming the geopolitical world from a two-power confrontation to a three-power triangle.
This week's Moscow action equally clears the way for change.
Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan has long been one declared Chinese precondition for the resumption of ``normal'' relations between Moscow and Peking. It has, in fact, been a US precondition for the readmission of the Soviet Union to the modern technological world.
There are other still unsatisfied preconditions from both China and the US. China wants fewer Soviet soldiers along their common frontier and Vietnamese troops out of Cambodia. The US wants Soviet help in the Gulf and Mideast and a freer emigration policy for Soviet dissidents, primarily for Jews.
But the biggest precondition of all was the withdrawal from Afghanistan, because Afghanistan is of great strategic importance. It is a potential launching pad for Soviet troops moving farther south toward the Indian Ocean and the Gulf, for putting pressure on Pakistan, for exerting pressure on India and China.
For Moscow to give up such a favorable military position means to accept, certainly for the time being, a stabilization of the Soviet Union's southern frontiers. And this in turn is the first, but also the biggest, step toward meeting all of both China's and the West's preconditions for getting back to ``normal'' relations.
The Soviet Union has given up territory before, but not territory which had been taken by Soviet troops and upon which a ``socialist'' regime of Soviet selection had been firmly planted. It withdrew from the Soviet-occupied part of Austria, but Austria had never been ``socialized'' by a Soviet puppet regime. It had occupied large parts of modern China at the end of World War II, but never claimed them or planted puppet regimes there.
Moscow is giving up a lot in agreeing to pull its soldiers out of Afghanistan. But it stands to gain a lot. It can regain mutual useful trade relations with China. More important, probably, the Kremlin hopes to regain access to the high technologies of Western Europe and North America.
As the guns of World War II fell silent in 1945, Joseph Stalin decreed that the Soviet Union would go its own way in the modern industrial world. He decreed guns before butter, economic isolation, and political imperialism.
Khrushchev tried to break away from Stalinism, but without giving up imperial expansionism. He tried to put his missiles into Cuba and spoiled it all. Brezhnev reverted to Stalinism - guns ahead of butter, economic isolation, imperial expansion. He sent troops into Afghanistan.
Above all, the signing in Geneva this past week proves that Mikhail Gorbachev is a realist who understands that Stalin-type isolationism means the Soviet Union falling disastrously behind in the technologies of the modern world.
Some experts think it is already too late for the Soviet Union to catch up with Western Europe and North America. But it might at least be able to stay ahead of China - if Mr. Gorbachev has enough success at home. His decision to pull out of Afghanistan shows that he knows what is best for his country and is willing to pay the price to rescue it from economic oblivion - if he can.