Exit from Afghanistan

THE United States has filed its first complaint against the Soviet Union for allegedly violating the accords governing Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. The complaint asks the UN to see whether Soviet bombers involved in heavy fighting around the northern Afghan city of Kunduz came from bases inside the Soviet Union. The US State Department says it believes that to be the case; if the charge proves true, then the Soviets will have violated the pact.

The first temptation is to say: ``There they go again, violating treaties. We can't trust them.'' That would be a mistake. One look at a map of Afghanistan will show why. Kunduz is the last major city covering the main withdrawal route for Soviet ground forces. It lies roughly 50 miles south of the Soviet-Afghan border.

The fighting under way there constitutes harsh Soviet atonement for a strategic mistake: the withdrawal of the Kunduz garrison earlier this month before the Soviets had pulled their remaining troops out of Afghanistan's interior.

The guerrillas moved in quickly and briefly captured the city. The Soviets and the Kabul government have drawn on ground forces stationed around Kabul to reassert their control.

Strip national insignia off uniforms for a moment and imagine a commander trying to recapture a city vital to safeguarding the withdrawal of his troops. The fighting is heavy, his forces are taking casualties, he needs air support, and he has a couple of air bases to choose from. Which will he call on? One inside his own country, which sends planes more quickly because it is closer? Or one that is in the country he is leaving, but will supply aircraft more slowly because it is farther away? The choice is obvious.

This does not leave the Soviets blameless, but it does suggest something less than sinister motives.

Nor are the mujahideen blameless. In capturing the city, they were clearly trying to embarrass the Soviets by showing that Afghan government forces couldn't hold their own against the guerrillas. To expect the Soviets just to roll with the insult is unrealistic. The smartest thing the guerrillas could do would be to avoid those kinds of attacks and give the Soviets a ``decent interval'' before consolidating their hold on the country. Unfortunately, Afghanistan's history suggests that more of this kind of heavy fighting is likely as the Soviets pull out.

No one should be content with the notion that Soviet troops deserve what they get on the way out. No one is served by additional casualties - whether Soviet or mujahideen. The US certainly tried to minimize its casualties as it withdrew from Vietnam, and neither side was a stranger to accusations it was violating cease-fire agreements.

A withdrawal process will never resemble a well-oiled machine. To its credit, the State Department accompanied its complaint with the recognition that the Soviets had introduced no fresh ground troops from their homeland. This would have arguably been a more serious violation of the accords.

Amid the to and fro over the bombing runs, one shouldn't lose sight of this point: The accords are achieving their purpose - to get Soviet troops out of Afghanistan.

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