The lines of Soviet tanks, trucks and artillery forming up here Friday for the start of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan dramatized one of the most important shifts in the Kremlin's foreign policy in decades.
For the first time since the Bolsheviks came to power in 1917 with a commitment to a worldwide socialist revolution, the Soviet Union appears to be retreating from the front line of that revolution and to be withdrawing from a country that proclaimed itself a Communist state and an ally.
Yet Soviet officials here and in Moscow insist that this is not an abandonment of principle, not a retreat, not a defeat--and not the ignominious end to what many in the West see as "the Soviet Union's Vietnam."
The withdrawal, Soviet officials say, is part of an overall reshaping of the nation's foreign policy and the result of what one Soviet foreign policy adviser called "new political thinking" under Mikhail S. Gorbachev.
For the Soviet Union, the withdrawal agreement signed by Afghanistan and Pakistan, with Moscow and Washington as guarantors, was a "moral victory," Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze said as he signed the accord in Geneva last month.
The settlement envisioned here, he asserted, should become "a model of national reconciliation" for resolving other regional disputes, from Angola to Cambodia to Nicaragua, and thus a contribution to world peace.
"The Afghan nation will be able to build its life according to its own ideas, without outside interference, on the basis of general national reconciliation," Shevardnadze said.
Moscow hopes to maintain its influence in Afghanistan, Soviet officials added, through the development of normal "good-neighborly relations" and economic cooperation--whether with President Najibullah and his People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan or a possible successor regime that might be dominated by the moujahedeen guerrillas who are fighting Soviet troops even as they withdraw.
But such declarations do not obscure the wide ramifications of such a fundamental shift of policy by one of the superpowers. Nor do they reduce the drama of an estimated 115,000 Soviet soldiers pulling out of Afghanistan after more than eight years of fighting here.
The Kremlin had long declared that "the gains of socialism were irreversible" and would be defended as part of its "international duty" throughout the world.
This conviction is deeply rooted in Soviet political thinking since the days of V.I. Lenin, the founder of the Soviet state. And it led the late Leonid I. Brezhnev, then the Soviet leader, to send tens of thousands of troops to Afghanistan in December, 1979, to defend what the Kremlin saw as an embattled, pro-Soviet socialist government in a neighboring country vital to its security.
Became 'the Front Line'
Afghanistan, in the Soviet rhetoric of the time, had become "the front line in the struggle of the peoples of the world against imperialism and counterrevolution"--a struggle in which the future of socialism was at stake not only here but in every socialist country, including the Soviet Union.
This same conviction also had underpinned the extension of Soviet influence in Eastern Europe after World War II, Moscow's support of the Chinese revolutionaries in the 1930s and 1940s, its assistance to the Vietnamese Communists in the 1960s and 1970s, and the backing it continues to give socialist governments in the Third World, including those of Cuba, Ethiopia, Angola and Mozambique.
"For us, as Communists," a senior foreign policy adviser explained in Moscow this week, "it has always been an article of faith, a fundamental tenet of our whole view of the world, that we had an inescapable duty to bring others to socialism. . . . From the earliest days of our own revolution, we have believed that we could not have communism in one country alone, that for us to have true communism, the revolution had to be spread."
That commitment may still exist--Soviet officials say it does--but the interpretation has changed under Gorbachev, who is committed to a radical political, economic and social transformation of the Soviet Union as the Communist Party's first priority there.
Sees Soviet Way to Lead
The best way for the Soviet Union to lead the way to communism, the influential Soviet foreign policy adviser and analyst Alexander Bovin wrote recently, is to provide an attractive alternative to capitalism.
If Gorbachev's reforms succeed in the Soviet Union, and if modernization also succeeds in China, "one may well expect a major shift in world public opinion at the turn of the next millennium, the year 2000," Bovin argued.
Gennady I. Gerasimov, the chief Soviet spokesman, is even more blunt. Asked recently whether the Soviet Union would again commit its troops, as it did in Afghanistan, to preserve the gains of socialism in another country, Gerasimov replied:
"We will think twice, thrice, before we move in again. I think it's not going to happen. I cannot foresee it."
Consequently, diplomats here and in Moscow see far-reaching implications in the Soviet decision to pull out of Afghanistan.
Shift in World Politics
"What Moscow is saying is that it won't intervene militarily to save socialism, or what passes for socialism, in another country," a senior Western diplomat here commented. "Translate that into the context of Poland or Hungary or Czechoslovakia, and you can see a development in dusty Afghanistan that potentially changes world politics."
Gorbachev had formally committed the Soviet Union to a policy of noninterference in the affairs of other socialist countries and other Communist parties in a visit to Yugoslavia two months ago, a move that was itself regarded as an important development.
"Gorbachev is undertaking foreign policy initiatives of considerable magnitude," a Western ambassador in Moscow said. "We may see them as correcting Soviet mistakes of the past--certainly Afghanistan is just that, getting out of a mess they should not have gotten into--but that does not reduce their importance."
The Soviet decision to pull out of Afghanistan was made more than a year ago, according to informed Soviet sources, after considerable rethinking of Soviet domestic and foreign policies under Gorbachev.
'A Bleeding Wound'
He had described Afghanistan as "a bleeding wound" shortly after coming to power three years ago and, when a major effort by the Soviet military in 1985-86 failed to break the battlefield stalemate, Gorbachev started to search for a political solution to what was already the country's longest war in modern times.
"He wanted to move sooner, but there were questions here about such a big policy departure and what the implications would be," a Soviet official in Moscow said. "He also was looking for what you might call partners, principally the United States, with whom to work things out. And then the Afghans were, well, reluctant, and we had to prepare them for more than a year to go it alone."
The end result was an even firmer resolve by the Soviet leadership to withdraw, unilaterally or under an agreement, but to withdraw as quickly as possible.
"We found that getting out was a lot harder than getting in," a Soviet foreign policy specialist said. "At first we wanted to arrange things after we departed, but then we saw that we could only make some preparations and leave the rest to the Afghans. . . . It was imperative that we get out."
Soviet Reasons to Leave
The reasons, according to informed Soviet sources, were straightforward:
-- The war was unwinnable militarily, and prospects for a political solution were almost nil as long as Soviet troops remained to fight on behalf of the Kabul government.
-- The Afghan regime had failed to develop sufficient popular support for its socialist program, and its only real hope was drawing other parties into the government and making peace with the moujahedeen .
-- The Soviet Union felt that it could no longer afford to bear the political and economic costs of such a prolonged conflict, the purpose of which was being questioned increasingly by its own people.
-- Moscow's foreign policy priorities, including better relations with the United States, Western Europe and China, were being hampered by the continuing war, and the Soviet image in the Third World had been tarnished as well.
"In the end, the Politburo decision was unanimous," a foreign policy adviser to the government said in Moscow. "The question then was why it had taken us so long to wake up to the realities of the situation. . . .
"This is an example of what we call 'new political thinking.' People might have been unhappy about our being in Afghanistan, but everyone assumed we had to be there, that it was our duty. . . . Gorbachev asked why, and what were the other options."
Re-Examining Old Policies
Gorbachev, who was a non-voting member of the Politburo when Brezhnev and four or five other senior members decided to intervene here, did not feel bound by those previous decisions, the adviser explained, because they "reflected the old thinking . . . and he had resolved, and had party backing, to re-examine all the old policies."
"Maybe this revolution doesn't have enough local roots to be a real socialist revolution," Gerasimov remarked, reflecting the Soviet view that they had been deluded by a Communist label and Marxist rhetoric here--and their own desire to accelerate the spread of socialism worldwide.
Support for the withdrawal has grown in the Soviet Union with reports in the Soviet press recently that the Afghan government has little popular support, that its socialist policies have antagonized much of the country's population, that Soviet specialists had opposed the original decision to intervene and that Soviet troops were not winning the war.
"The original aims proclaimed by the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan have not been achieved," Alexander Prokhanov, a Soviet journalist and novelist, wrote earlier this year in the influential weekly Literary Gazette. "The party and the revolutionary government (of Afghanistan) have themselves repudiated them. If this is the case, the presence of Soviet forces in the country loses its meaning, and their departure is inevitable and logical."
Yet the withdrawal, hailed by Moscow television as "the news we have been waiting for" when the Geneva agreement on withdrawal was signed April 14, has raised some questions in the Soviet Union.
The Soviet military has strongly defended its role here against considerable criticism in the press at home.
"A real threat to the independence of that state existed," Vladimir N. Lobov, first deputy chief of staff of the Soviet armed forces, said this week. He said the Soviet goal here was just to safeguard Afghanistan's territorial integrity from Western threats.
"We did not come to this country to win or lose a battle," he said. "We came at the request of the Afghan people, to help them preserve their independence."
And Timur Gaidar, a military affairs writer, argued in the weekly Moscow News that "even our tiniest unit never retreated, never lost any battle, never yielded an inch of ground."
The original Soviet expectation, according to Bovin, was that Soviet forces would remain here "a year, perhaps less," and that the casualties would be minimal. (Western estimates put Soviet casualties at 10,000 to 15,000 dead and four to five times that many wounded. Moscow has said it will disclose full figures when it completes its withdrawal.)
Unsure of Afghan Future
A question that is little discussed in the Soviet press is what will happen here in a year, for example, after all the Soviet troops are gone.
"We don't know," a Soviet official here said. "We just don't know. We have hopes that things will stabilize, that there will be national reconciliation, that there will be peace. But it really depends on the Afghans. . . . One thing is sure, however. We are not sending our troops back."
And that, ultimately, has been one of the lessons of Afghanistan for the Soviet Union, which 10 years ago felt that it was well on the way toward the world revolution that Lenin had wanted.
"In Afghanistan we learned the limits of military power," a Soviet foreign policy commentator remarked in Moscow earlier this month. "In that, this has been our Vietnam. But we also learned an equally important lesson for us--that revolution is not an export product, that it must be home-grown. Although we can help water and fertilize it, we can't force its growth. Nobody can force historical development."
Michael Parks is chief of The Times' Moscow Bureau.