ON May 15, the Soviet Union began what it officially terms ``an orderly and disciplined'' withdrawal from war-torn Afghanistan. Thirty-three years to the day, the Soviets also ended their occupation of Austria after years of difficult and tedious negotiations with the Western powers. Soviet troops and advisers did depart Austria in ``an orderly fashion,'' and Austria reverted to a neutral status in a divided Europe. The Kremlin has tried to ensure and to reassure others that the Soviet retreat will be planned and relatively painless, as it was in Austria. There is, however, a perceptible concern within the Kremlin that the historical analogy for the Soviets' Afghan pullout will turn out to be Saigon in 1975, rather than Vienna in 1955.
Soviet commentators are speculating about the longevity of the present Kabul regime, minus the supporting 110,000 or so Soviet troops. Political observers writing in Moscow News and Izvestia have taken pains to point out that the pro-Soviet government of Dr. Najibullah is stronger and more substantial than the pro-American ``puppets and class traitors'' left in power in Vietnam after the United States retreat.
That the Soviets openly acknowledge a comparison with Vietnam, if only to castigate it, is significant. In private conversation, Soviet analysts interviewed recently in Moscow admit that there is open speculation about the durability of the present Kabul regime. When pressed on time estimates, one academic wryly noted that ``they start at two weeks and go up from there.''
Soviet officials appear mindful of the risk of collapse and have taken precautions to prevent panic. A large contingent of Soviet ``advisers,'' for instance, will remain in Afghanistan to try to serve as a sort of palace guard. Economic and agricultural shipments will be stepped up in inverse proportion to the troop withdrawals.
Most important, Moscow insists on a staged withdrawal of Soviet combat troops over a full eight months, to ease the transition from intervention to isolation. Yet the Soviets are also setting up contingency plans, should the mujahideen mount a successful military drive against the capital. Soviet advisers in Kabul have issued ``identity cards'' to senior Afghan military and party officials and their families that would allow them to take Soviet transports back to the USSR along with their former military patrons and occupiers. The cards closely resemble the tickets issued by the US Embassy to South Vietnamese officials in the last hours before the North Vietnamese Army arrived in Saigon.
The Soviets are seeking desperately to establish an Afghan version of the ``decent interval'' made famous by Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon in Vietnam. Behind the scenes, Soviet negotiators in Geneva and Pakistan are searching desperately for common ground between Najibullah and the mujahideen on which to build a government of ``national unity'' - in the words of Gennady Gerasimov, the Foreign Ministry spokesman. But the Afghan government and the rebel leadership continue to be poles apart at the negotiating table and are gearing up for the next decisive phase of the conflict on the battlefield, minus the Soviet soldiers.
If Kabul does fall and the mujahideen sweep down from their mountain hideways to chase out or kill the remaining Soviets and Afghan stooges, chances are that a Western photographer will capture a classic picture. The USSR has erected reviewing stands on the Khyber Pass at the Soviet-Afghan border for Western correspondents to review the withdrawal; yet these scenes will render only the relieved faces of young Soviet conscripts returning home. The picture I have in mind is similar to the shot of the last US helicopter taking off from the roof of the US Embassy in Saigon in which a young Vietnamese man clings to the landing gear. It will be a picture of defeat and retreat, one that will immortalize in our minds the Soviets' Vietnam in Afghanistan.
Kurt M. Campbell is assistant director of the Center for Science and International Affairs at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.