MOSCOW -- Most countries are weakened politically by such clear military failures as the one the Soviet Union has suffered in Afghanistan, but Moscow expects to emerge with greater international influence after the final withdrawal of its forces Wednesday from what proved to be an unwinnable war.
For Moscow, the retreat from Kabul is a costly but dramatic break with the Kremlin's past policies, and it is meant to strengthen President Mikhail S. Gorbachev's emphasis on "new political thinking." That approach is to seek the country's security through international trust and cooperation rather than military power.
The Soviet calculation is optimistic but straightforward: By pulling out of Afghanistan by the deadline agreed to 10 months ago, Moscow expects to prove that it has mended its ways, believes in the peaceful resolution of conflicts, accepts that socialism cannot be spread by force, adheres to agreements scrupulously--and that it consequently is worthy of trust.
From this will come, Moscow hopes, improved relations with the West, with China and with the Muslim world, all of which had vigorously protested the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in late 1979 and which had then armed and financed the moujahedeen --the Muslim guerrillas, who frustrated all of the Soviet Union's plans for the country.
"It is nonsense to say that our prestige in the world will drop after our withdrawal from Afghanistan," Alexander Bovin, a leading Soviet foreign affairs commentator, remarked Tuesday. "Our prestige, our influence will grow, in fact. They have to--because of Afghanistan, they could not have been lower."
The world should take the withdrawal, highly placed Soviet officials are saying, as an admission that Moscow should never have intervened and as strong a pledge that any superpower is likely to make that it will not again involve itself so directly in another country's internal affairs.
"We have learned important lessons--the very real limits of military power, the primacy of the political over the military, the necessity of revolutionary struggles to be waged by a country's own people, our own need for a more open society," a senior Soviet diplomat said recently, asking not to be quoted by name.
"Afghanistan has, no doubt, been a very, very chastening experience . . . . But I think we have learned very important lessons from it, and if so, we will emerge stronger and with a better idea of what we must do to help bring peace to the world."
Soviet officials see the withdrawal, further, as establishing an important precedent for negotiated resolution of regional conflicts, including those in southern Africa, Southeast Asia and the Middle East. They also see it as altering the basic relations among socialist countries, which had regarded the advance and defense of communism as justifying intervention in each other's domestic politics.
Need to Redirect
They also cite the country's increasingly evident need to redirect into its own economy many of the resources that have gone to the military and into foreign assistance programs in past years.
As Soviet officials and foreign policy specialists explain it, the decision to pull out was made primarily on foreign policy considerations in mid-1987. At that time, they say, the Kremlin undertook a broad reorientation of foreign policy so that the country's security rested on cooperative, even friendly relations with old adversaries, particularly the United States, its North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies, China and Japan.
With that has come a fundamental ideological shift that puts what Gorbachev calls "common human values" and "common human interests" above class struggle in international affairs. Since the new theory no longer asserts the inevitability of war, the need for ever greater military strength has been replaced by a doctrine of "sufficient defense."
The withdrawal from Afghanistan has been one of the first tests of these principles. "This step is painful, very painful--let's be honest," a Communist Party political lecturer replied to questions on the withdrawal and its implications during a regular public meeting on current affairs here this month. "But it cleanses us, and that is very important for the success of our new political thinking, our new diplomacy. . . .
'To Build on Trust'
"To command trust in the world, to build on trust, you must prove yourself worthy of trust."
To many Western diplomats, some of whom express delight in the Soviet setback in Afghanistan and in the success of their own countries' support of the moujahedeen, this thinking is simply making a virtue out of necessity.
"The Soviets are saying nothing more than they have been taught that crime doesn't pay," a senior Western diplomat commented. "That is well and good, but the only reason they are doing so is that they were caught by the international community and punished for breaking the laws of good international behavior.
"Whether they are truly reformed and no longer the bandits they were when they went into Afghanistan, it is too early to say; I think they should be kept on probation for quite some time yet."
Other diplomats argue that the lessons of Afghanistan will only be clear to Moscow when the moujahedeen have captured Kabul and the Soviet-backed government of President Najibullah has been overthrown.
"Najibullah is purely a Soviet puppet," another Western diplomat said. "He was put into power by the Soviet Union, and he was maintained there by Soviet troops. Why should we now pretend differently? Why should that regime continue for another day? Why should the Soviet Union be spared this humiliation?"
The early fall of the Kabul regime would undoubtedly be an immense psychological blow here, Soviet foreign policy specialists acknowledge, but Moscow is determined not to intervene further.
"They have everything they need, and they are trained to use it," Maj. Gen. Lev B. Serebrov, one of the top Soviet commanders in Afghanistan, told a seminar here on his return from Kabul this month. "But what the outcome will be, we will have to watch and wait."
Moscow has tried hard, however, to prevent a quick collapse. In recent months, it has stockpiled large amounts of arms, ammunition and other materiel for the Afghan army, helped Najibullah arm tens of thousands of members of the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan and its youth group, brought in food and other supplies in anticipation of a moujahedeen siege of the cities, counseled the government to show even great flexibility and continued its diplomatic search for a political settlement.
But, as the last troops were being withdrawn, Gennady I. Gerasimov, the senior Foreign Ministry spokesman, said the outlook was for "a second Lebanon."
So far, there had been no real progress at national reconciliation, Gerasimov wrote in a pessimistic appraisal published Tuesday in the Communist Party newspaper Soviet Culture. With so many arms in the country and with such deep enmity, it will be difficult to avoid a prolonged civil war.
And correspondents for Trud, the Soviet labor union newspaper, reported that Afghan soldiers were plundering the well-stocked garrisons left them by the Soviet forces and then deserting, leaving the outposts to the moujahedeen.
When Gorbachev agreed last year to the withdrawal, Moscow expected that Najibullah would have strengthened his position sufficiently to dictate terms to the moujahedeen groups for establishment of a coalition government that his party would dominate. In fact, his party appears significantly weaker, there is no agreement on a coalition in view and negotiations have gone nowhere.
"We have no more understanding of that country, its people and its politics now after more than nine years than when we went in," a Soviet journalist just back from Kabul said. "This plan, like everything else, was just wishful thinking on our part."
What may save the Kabul government from immediate collapse, however, is the inability so far of the moujahedeen to agree among themselves on a strategy for overthrowing the regime and the desire of many of them to minimize bloodshed in taking the capital and other cities.
Gaining More Time
Prolonged fighting, including clashes among rival moujahedeen groups, would gain more time for Najibullah, perhaps allowing him to consolidate his faction-ridden party while sapping the energy of the guerrillas. This would, in turn, diminish Western interest in the Afghan conflict, occupy Pakistan by keeping several million Afghan refugees there and diminish the magnitude of the moujahedeen victory.
Soviet commentators, however, reject such a scenario as resulting solely in greater bloodshed. "The most important thing is to end the bloodshed as quickly as possible, whatever the political result," Bovin said. "We must avoid a civil war. We must not prolong or compound the suffering."
Many Western analysts see in the Soviet withdrawal a reversal of what the late President Leonid I. Brezhnev called, just after his troops intervened in Afghanistan, "the onflowing tide of socialism, a tide that cannot be turned back."
"In historical terms, Afghanistan may prove a watershed, a point at which socialism, at least in its Soviet-inspired, Stalinist model, was stopped," a West European diplomat said. "The Soviet Union has pulled back from territory before, but not often and not where socialism was at stake. Remembering their claims a decade ago that the 'gains of socialism are irreversible,' you have to see a major break in the pattern."
When Moscow sent its troops into Afghanistan in December, 1979, to defend a pro-Soviet, socialist government in a neighboring country against what it termed the "forces of counterrevolution and imperialism," socialism did, in fact, appear to be on the advance worldwide.
Communist forces had won in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in 1975. Communist-led liberation movements had come to power in Angola and Mozambique about the same time, and the military junta in Ethiopia had later adopted Marxism. And the Sandinista guerrillas ousted the Somoza government in Nicaragua in July, 1979.
"We thought we couldn't lose," a senior Soviet editor recalled. "No one took a hard look at what we were doing, the nature of the Afghan 'revolution,' if we still want to use that term, or the national character of the people."
Many Were Stunned
Agreed upon by no more than half a dozen top party leaders, the decision stunned many in the upper ranks of the party and government, but they loyally backed Brezhnev.
"This was probably the most serious single error of the Brezhnev era," says Bovin, who acknowledges he accepted the decision and justified the action in his columns but is now an outspoken critic of Soviet intervention. "It resulted from and summed up all the failures and weaknesses in our political system and in the style of leadership at that time."
For this reason, Bovin is now hopeful that, after the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Soviet Union as part of its current political reforms will adopt legislation requiring any deployment of Soviet troops outside the country to be approved by the new strengthened Parliament to be elected next month.