The Communist Party newspaper Pravda said Monday that Soviet troops could start withdrawing from Afghanistan as early as May 1 if Pakistan and Afghanistan signed a peace settlement by March 1.
It was the first time that an authoritative Moscow source had set a date for the start of a pullout by the estimated 115,000 Soviet troops fighting rebel forces in Afghanistan.
A Pravda commentator, Vsevolod Ovchinnikov, said in an article that the main issue now is whether the United States and Pakistan will halt their military assistance to the rebel forces before a withdrawal begins. The rebel Afghan forces are based, for the most part, in neighboring Pakistan.
Agreements being discussed in Geneva, site of U.N.-mediated, indirect talks between Afghanistan and Pakistan, contemplate a Soviet withdrawal within 12 months once the aid cutoff takes effect, Ovchinnikov wrote.
'Interval Not Accidental'
"If it becomes possible to sign the Geneva understandings by March 1--and the Afghan side is by all appearances intending to aim for that--then the starting date for the withdrawal could be May 1," he said. "This two-month interval is not accidental. It is needed to give Islamabad (the capital of Pakistan) time to demolish the dushman bases on its territory."
Dushman is a pejorative Russian term for the rebel forces, describing them as bandits or renegades as opposed to their own description of themselves as moujahedeen, or holy warriors.
The Pravda article, following Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze's recent meetings in Kabul with Afghan President Najibullah, appeared to be based on authoritative, official sources.
Shevardnadze said in an interview with the Afghan news agency Bakhtar that Moscow wants to take its troops out of Afghanistan this year and end the fighting by establishing a coalition government in Kabul.
His statement seemed to indicate that the Soviet Union is ready to withdraw its troops even if the pro-Moscow regime headed by Najibullah should fail to survive the infighting among Afghan factions that is expected to follow.
U.S. officials have said they are prepared to halt U.S. military aid to the rebels only if the Soviet forces are withdrawn in a way that shows they do not plan to return.
Moscow sent troops to the landlocked country on its southern border in December, 1979, and installed Babrak Karmal as head of government. In May, 1986, with Soviet tanks and troops guarding key buildings, Karmal was replaced by Najibullah, a former head of the Afghan secret police. Karmal has been reported to be under medical care in the Soviet Union.
The inconclusive war has raised questions in the Soviet Union about why its soldiers are fighting and dying there. Arab and Muslim countries have been highly critical of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, a Muslim nation.
In the Pravda article, Ovchinnikov said that "hopes are solidifying" that the next round in the Afghan peace talks will be the last. He said Moscow and Washington would be the co-guarantors of an agreement to halt outside interference in Afghan affairs.
Role as Guarantor
"It is necessary to underscore here that the American side in this fashion agreed to act as a guarantor and, correspondingly, to stop its assistance to the armed groups fighting in Afghanistan against the local government," he said. "And precisely with this obligation taking effect, the withdrawal of Soviet troops will begin."
He said the recent improvement in Soviet-American relations, reflected at the meeting in Washington last month of President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev, would help achieve an Afghan settlement this year.
In turn, he said, a halt to the eight-year-old war would favorably influence the global climate and serve as an example for resolving other regional conflicts.
"There is no doubt," he said, "that an agreement to settle the situation around Afghanistan could become an important additional element for fruitful results at the next Soviet-American meeting, in Moscow." That meeting is expected to held in May or June of this year.