WHILE Moscow is letting its satellites in Eastern Europe spin off into free orbit, that is not the case with some of its other client states, particularly Afghanistan. Remember Afghanistan?
The Soviets pulled their troops out of that war-tattered country in February after a brutal and ineffective occupation. But while the Bush administration may have put Afghanistan on the policy back burner, the Soviets still give it high priority.
Some observers claim that the total withdrawal of Soviet forces was never made; that thousands of Soviet troops from Central Asia remain installed in Afghanistan, passing as Afghans. There is also a mystery about the nationality of pilots flying the highly sophisticated Sukhoi SU-27 jets the Soviets have provided to Afghanistan.
But there certainly is no doubting the massive logistical support the Soviets are pouring into Afghanistan to bolster the pro-Soviet Kabul regime of President Najibullah against the mujahideen.
By the Soviets' own admission, they left behind more than a billion dollars worth of military supplies and equipment for Najibullah's Army. Since their military withdrawal, they have been funneling in some $300 million a month.
Although disrupted at times by mujahideen missile assaults on Kabul airport, a Soviet airlift has been bringing some 40 flights a day of heavily laden Ilyushin-76 transport planes into the capital. They carry ammunition, rockets, missiles, and other war material. The Soviets are supplying and resupplying the Najibullah regime with trucks, tanks, and other armored vehicles. The Afghan air force is getting up-to-date fighter and bomber aircraft. The Soviets are shipping in some 800 long-range SCUD missiles.
All this is intended to shore up Najibullah in the face of mujahideen demands that he be deposed. The mujahideen say there can be no question of a negotiated peace until he is removed. The Soviets, however, are standing by him.
Najibullah has strengthened his political position by doing better on the battlefield than had been expected. Many observers had predicted that with the withdrawal of Soviet troops, the mujahideen would sweep victoriously into Kabul, toppling Najibullah.
That did not happen. The Afghan Army, with its enhanced supplies from the Soviet Union, showed quite a bit of mettle and beat back mujahideen attempts to seize the city of Jalalabad. The mujahideen recently launched a renewed assault on that city in eastern Afghanistan in an attempt to take it before the winter snows halt military activity.
Najibullah has also benefited from rivalry among the mujahideen factions, which has increased openly since the departure of the Soviet occupying forces. The reemergence of these traditional factional rivalries has eroded the superficial unity which the mujahideen managed to maintain in battle.
There is a particular reason for the Soviets' wanting to manipulate the situation in Afghanistan at the very time they are adopting a hands-off policy in Eastern Europe. They are desperately concerned lest Afghanistan be overtaken by Islamic fundamentalist extremists. The Soviets themselves have Muslim republics in the southern part of their country, and they do not want them roiled by the spread of Islamic fanaticism from Afghanistan.
Under the Bush administration, Afghanistan has not seemed to command the same urgency in Washington as it did under President Reagan. The American supply of weaponry to the mujahideen dried up at the time of the Soviet withdrawal, and although it has been cranked up again, it doesn't match Soviet aid.
Afghanistan will presumably be on the non-agenda at the non-summit Mr. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev are about to conduct in Malta. But Moscow seems to have a clearer idea of Soviet goals in Afghanistan than Washington does of its intent.