THAT the Soviets have suffered a major setback in Afghanistan is an established fact. That they will actually withdraw their forces from all of Afghanistan, as agreed in the recently signed Geneva pact with the United States and Pakistan, is a different question. Why have doubts arisen, particularly among knowledgeable officials and Sovietologists in Europe, from which I have recently returned?
They point to the following:
Withdrawal from the costly and untenable position in southern Afghanistan is understandable. However, shortly before signing the Geneva withdrawal agreement, the Soviets shipped substantial quantities of arms into northern Afghanistan, adding to the large stockpile of arms that the departing Soviets will leave to Najibullah's puppet government. The obvious Soviet hope, if not expectation, is that Najibullah will be able to hold the northern provinces for them, particularly given rivalries between the various anti-Soviet resistance groups that may make united action against Najibullah difficult.
Prior to the Geneva accord, the Soviets signed economic agreements with Najibullah covering the northern provinces on energy and other matters.
If Najibullah holds the northern provinces for them over the next 12 months, Soviet withdrawal (leaving behind ``advisors'') could take place. If, contrary to Soviet hopes, the Najibullah government in the months ahead shows signs of collapse from assault by the Afghan resistance, the Soviets have already laid a legal and propaganda basis for remaining in North Afghanistan.
How? Within several days of signing the Geneva accord, Soviet spokesmen began accusing the US and Pakistan of violating it by continuing to arm and train Afghan resistance fighters in Pakistan. Most recently the Soviet foreign minister said that if continued this could ``delay'' the Soviet withdrawal.
That the Soviets wish to keep control of North Afghanistan as a possible stepping stone to the south should surprise no one. For centuries Russian ambition, under both the Czars and the Soviets has remained unchanged: to reach the warm waters of the south.
The Czars (before Gulf oil was discovered) coveted ice-free ports on the Indian Ocean. The Soviets have for at least the last 50 years had in mind the Persian Gulf, which sits on 60 percent of the world's proven oil reserves on which our two great allies, NATO Europe and Japan, heavily depend.
Control of the Gulf by a Soviet client state would offer tempting possibilities of using oil as an instrument of political persuasion.
Soviet Gulf ambitions were succinctly stated during the negotiations of the Hitler-Stalin pact in 1939 when the Soviets pressed Hitler hard but unsuccessfully to include the clause: ``The region to the south of the Soviet Union in the direction of the Persian Gulf is the center of the aspirations of the Soviet Union.''
At the 1943 Tehran Conference Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin agreed in writing that the military forces of the three powers would be withdrawn from Iran six months after the end of hostilities in Europe. United States and British forces withdrew. But the Red Army remained and supported the establishment of a puppet ``Peoples Republic of Azerbaijan'' in northwest Iran to breach the Turkish-Iran barrier to the Gulf. The Soviets only withdrew in 1946 under heavy pressure from President Truman.
So the concern of some that the Soviets may intend to retain control of North Afghanistan (by either a puppet or its own armed forces ) as a stepping stone toward the Gulf at some later, more propitious time is understandable. Their tactic may be one step back (from South Afghanistan) for a two steps forward later, perhaps into Iran, which the Soviets have long coveted.
The Soviet agreement to withdraw from Afghanistan is most welcome. But let us not be lulled by the euphoria flowing from the recent Moscow summit into accepting the Soviet Union's withdrawal from Afghanistan as an accomplished fact until the Soviets actually withdraw and permit the establishment of an independent but friendly government for all Afghanistan.
Douglas MacArthur II is a retired career ambassador who held six presidential appointments, besides serving as assistant secretary of state for congressional relations.