AMERICANS are entitled to indulge these days in something less than sympathy for the tribulations the Soviets are enduring in their withdrawal from Afghanistan. The Soviets were anything but helpful to us when we were trying to get out of Vietnam as quietly and painlessly as possible. We repeatedly invited Moscow to help by such means as tapering off their shipments of weapons of war to the Viet Cong armies. The shipments kept on, and it all ended up in that humiliating and ignominious flight of the helicopters from the roof of the United States Embassy in Saigon.
The story is now reversed. The Soviets have decided to get out of Afghanistan. They have already taken half of their troops out. The official plan is to remove the balance in February.
But they would like to go with some shred of dignity left after their long investment in Afghanistan. They would like to have us keep the Afghans from rushing them on the way out. And they would like to have us persuade the Afghans to allow their client regime in Kabul to have a share in a new coalition government to be set up after the last Soviet soldier has gone home.
But Washington, understandably, has declined to have any part in persuading the Afghan rebels to include Moscow's clients in their future government.
And as for holding back on weapons, the US, and others, had sent large quantities for the use of the rebels before the agreement for the Soviet withdrawal was signed at the United Nations in New York on April 14. Those weapons were stored in ammunition dumps inside Pakistan, near the Afghan border. When the Afghans move that material across the frontier, does it mean that the US is still supplying new weapons, or only that the Afghans are moving what they already own?
Over the past two weeks, the Soviets have taken strong measures to improve the defensive condition of their own troops and that of their Afghan clients.
On Nov. 1, they paraded mobile SS-1 Scud B missiles through the streets of Kabul. On the same day, they bombed rebel positions between Kabul and the Pakistan frontier, using Scuds, MIG-27s, which they have recently moved inside Afghanistan, and medium bombers from inside the Soviet Union.
On Nov. 3, Pakistan claims that it shot down a Soviet SU-22 that had penetrated 10 miles inside Pakistan.
The Soviets are under pressure. The rebels, like the Viet Cong in Vietnam after they knew the US was pulling out, feel that the war is going their way. They have little care about some document signed in New York City which calls for letting the Soviets go peacefully. They are sniping at them from every corner, and have from the start.
The day after the accord providing for the Soviet withdrawal was signed at the UN, the Soviets flew a party of Western observers to Kabul. The plane had to fly at high altitude until directly over the Kabul airport and then descend in a tight spiral while Soviet artillery below filled the air around the descending plane with dummies to attract any Stinger missiles in the hands of the rebels.
There is little doubt that the Soviets will pull their troops out more or less on schedule, although they now say that the schedule may be changed because of the continued harassment of their forces, which they blame, of course, on Washington. They claim Washington is still shipping new weapons in violation of the terms of the UN accord.
But they have too much at stake in their dealings with the outside world. They are seeking easier relations with Western Europe, plus development loans. And they are hoping for an easing of their long-strained relations with China.
Better Soviet relations with both Western Europe and China are conditioned on completion of the withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Anyone inclined to think that we Americans are not being as helpful to the Soviets as we might should remember how unhelpful they were to us when we were trying to get out of Vietnam.