Moscow settles down for a long stay

There is no evidence that the Russians will be pushed out of Afghanistan or negotiated out of Afghanistan as far as one can see ahead. It is well to pay close attention to what the Soviets say to their allies and to be wary of what they say to their adversaries.

You can take it for granted that, when Moscow reassures the East Europeans that it has no intention whatsoever of abandoning Afghanistan, it means exactly what it says.

But it is also well to realize that when Moscow lets the United States and its European allies think or hope or guess that there might be some give if we would turn our attention to detente, the diplomatic road may contain pitfalls.

When Mr. Brezhnev talked with Helmut Schmidt recently he told the German chancellor that a political solution might be possible, but he had already informed his allies in Eastern Europe that there would be no abandoning of Afghanistan.

Chancellor Schmidt was representing the views of the West when he made the plea to the Soviet president that he "could contribute significantly to reducing the dangerous crisis if you could state that the announced withdrawal of some Soviet troops from Afghanistan is the beginning of a continuous process which will go on to complete withdrawal."

It is at this point that Mr. Brezhnev said yes in words but not in substance. He did this by asserting that any settlement which would permit Soviet withdrawal would have to be "based on the proposals of the present Afghanistan government."

Here is the catch. Compare the two positions:

What the allies -- at President Carter's initiative and at Chancellor Schmidt's initiative in his talks in Moscow -- are proposing is that they would not guarantee the neutrality of Afghanistan and help establish a transition arrangement during the process of staged withdrawal.

When Mr. Brezhnev in his reply to Mr. Schmidt is proposing is that the West play a part in guaranteeing the continued existence of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul which Moscow has installed by force of arms, and that we help to conquer Afghanistan by preventing the rebels from obtaining weapons with which to carry on their resistance to the presence of the Russian troops.

Can it mean other than that the West would be keeping in power in Kabul a regime taking orders from Moscow and, in effect, doing Moscow's work by demobilizing the Afghan freedom fighters?

This is why it is wise to believe that the Soviets are telling the truth when they inform their East European satellites that they are not abandoning Afghanistan.

This is why it is wise to be wary when Mr. Brezhnev wants us to believe that the prospect of a negotiated withdrawal could be just around the corner.

It isn't. The evidence is that the Soviets want to resurrect detente and eat Afghanistan too.

Because the Russians avow they will not "abandon Afghanistan" and are prepared to negotiate "withdrawal" only under terms which would leave them there in control -- this does not mean that the time will never come when they may decide that the price of occupying their Afghan neighbor is too high.

Politically, diplomatically, and militarily, the attempted conquest is costing the Soviets dearly. The Afghan freedom fighters, poorly organized and poorly equipped, are bravely forcing the Soviet Union to pay a very high price of trying to bring this fiercely independent people to heel. To date they are not succeeding. The cost in casualties is considerable and the price in enmity throughout the Islamic world is high.

The Russians are uncomfortably aware that some of the East European communist government leaders have been criticizing the Afghan invasion. The Soviets know that during the recent Vienna meeting of Secretary of State Muskie and Foreign Secretary Gromyko, one East-bloc official remarked not sotto voce: "Call it what you like, when you put troops across someone else's frontier, it is invasion, whether it is Russian in Czechoslovakia or Afghanistan, the Chinese in Vietnam, or the Vietnamese in Cambodia.

The end of the tunnel in Afghanistan is not yet visible.

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