SINCE the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan nearly six years ago, most analysts have resolutely rejected the likelihood of a Soviet defeat similar to that suffered by the United States in Vietnam. Landlocked Afghanistan, they have noted, is an immediate neighbor of the USSR, isolated from any other great power that might wish to support the resistance. And the Kremlin has appeared capable of ignoring any domestic or international criticism of its actions. It might take a long time and be expensive, so go the arguments, but in the end Soviet military strengths will steamroller the Afghan resistance into oblivion.
Today, these seemingly self-evident truths deserve reexamination. The Afghan people's dogged battle is far from won, but if anything the Soviet position -- political as well as military -- is weaker now than it was immediately after the invasion. Rejection of the Soviet action continues not only in Afghanistan and in the world at large but, more significantly, it is even spreading inside the Soviet Union.
Without the support of 115,000 to 130,000 Soviet combat troops, the regime of Babrak Karmal would fall within hours. Despite a five-year intensive recruitment drive, the claimed total membership of the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), including candidate members, is only 130,000. That figure is a clear exaggeration, but even taken at face value it would amount to less than 1 percent of the population. From 1983 to 1984, the number of party committees in the 89 large districts and cities in Afghanistan actually fell, from 70 to 61. The celebration of the 20th anniversary of the founding of the PDPA, supposed to be held on Jan. 1, 1985, had to be delayed until Jan. 10; not even in Kabul could the combined forces of the Afghan military and Soviet occupation troops ensure the safety of foreign communist guests. Dramatic acts of sabotage, like last spring's destruction of a quarter of the Afghan fighter aircraft at one blow, illustrate the armed forces' continued unreliability.
Internationally, the USSR has been faced with a serious political embarrassment that simply will not go away. Although many claim that the Kremlin is immune to hostile world opinion, the erosion of goodwill in the third world has important implications for Moscow's ability to project its power there. It is one thing to endure brief, Western-sponsored rebukes. It is quite another to face unending hostility from countries whose support Moscow courts. Moreover, that hostility cannot but be tinged with cont empt as the Soviet military juggernaut fails to win an outright victory. It is bad enough to be regarded as an Evil Empire; it is intolerable to be seen as an unsuccessful Evil Empire.
By themselves, these factors would probably not be enough to force a Kremlin reassessment of its Afghan adventure. Recent signs, however, point to a mounting groundswell of public opposition to the war inside the Soviet Union itself.
From the outset, there have been indications of high-level concern that such opposition might develop. In 1981, the government ceased sending home coffins of the fallen. Not until 1983 did it acknowledge specific casualties. Soviet troops returning home from the field have been required to sign secrecy agreements that they will not discuss their experiences.
Nevertheless, information about the war has spread inexorably from the hundreds of thousands of returning servicemen, most of whom, predictably, ignore their oaths of silence. For the Soviet leaders there is the sudden specter of a dissident issue that could unite the normally isolated worker and intellectual classes. As a life-and-death matter for those of draft age, the incentive to protest is greater than for such issues as civil rights, where silent obedience is an option. Unlike Soviet authorities,
Afghan bullets do not respect proper attitudes. Particularly because the privileged nomenklatura are perceived as draft-immune, the seeds of serious class hostility are present, and some have sprouted. Draft dodging has become more frequent, penalties against those who aid draft dodgers have become more severe, and reports of antiwar demonstrations at conscription points are beginning to trickle in.
Two recent independent public opinion surveys -- one formal, the other informal -- among Soviet travelers abroad confirm that there is a significant body of Soviet public opinion that opposes the war. From 1984 data, one survey showed 25 percent in favor, 25 percent opposed, and about 50 percent having ``no clear attitude.'' More striking, the same survey showed that only 55 percent of the Communist Party members supported the war, 8 percent were openly opposed, and a full 37 percent withheld their comm itment, an indirect way of registering dissent. Within the last few months an informal polling of similar travelers reveals a significant polarization of opinion, with the vast majority (over 90 percent) now objecting to Soviet involvement.
How accurate are these findings and how much does public opinion count in the USSR? That remains to be seen, but the incentives for the new Soviet leaders to withdraw are growing.
Anthony Arnold, a retired US intelligence officer whose overseas service included two years in Afghanistan, is the author of ``Afghanistan: The Soviet Invasion in Perspective.''