The fighting has dragged on for more than eight years—a brutal guerrilla war waged across the arid landscape of Afghanistan. For the Soviets, whose December, 1979, invasion was designed to prop up a shaky Marxist government, the battle against the stubborn U.S.-backed Afghan rebels quickly became a quagmire: Moscow’s Vietnam. Last week, after months of indicating that they planned to cut their losses and withdraw, the Soviets apparently cleared the last political hurdle. The breakthrough came when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev met with Afghan leader Najibullah in the central Asian city of Tashkent, 300 km north of the Soviet-Afghan border. Afterward, speaking to workers at two nearby collective farms, Gorbachev announced, “There is a certainty that an agreement will be signed on a political settlement.” In Geneva, where United Nations-sponsored peace talks have been sputtering along for the past six years, officials of Afghanistan and Pakistan—the latter representing the guerrillas—indicated that the final deal should be struck by the end of this week.
The Soviet pullout would remove a major point of friction between Moscow and Washington, both of which would act as guarantors of the peace pact. Under the terms of the accord, the 115,000 Soviet troops would begin a staged, nine-month withdrawal on May 15, in time to sweeten the atmosphere when Gorbachev and U.S. President Ronald Reagan hold their fourth summit in !
Moscow beginning on May 29. In fact, last week’s success apparently came when Gorbachev agreed to accept a U.S. proposal on the final sticking point—the question of supplying the two sides during the pullout period.
U.S. officials had at first agreed to stop giving military aid to the Afghan rebels when the Soviet withdrawal began. Last month, however, the United States demanded the Soviets also halt their aid to the Afghan government as they began to go home. The Soviets rejected that proposal. But last week they indicated they would accept Washington’s follow-up offer. Under that formula, the Soviets would be free to arm their clients, but if they did, Washington would be allowed to supply comparable aid to the rebels.
Even if the pullout occurs as planned, peace in Afghanistan may not be at hand. In a joint statement issued by Gorbachev and Najibullah last week, the Soviets reaffirmed their support for the government’s pledge to make Afghanistan a nonaligned state with a multiparty political system. But Western diplomats say that Najibullah’s hold on power may well be tenuous, and the question of how and when to bring 2.9 million Afghan refugees back from Pakistan is bound to be destabilizing. In the long, violent history of Afghanistan, the Soviet stay may prove to be only one chapter in a continuing struggle between perpetually warring factions.
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