The Soviet decision to suspend troop withdrawals from Afghanistan is a political minefield for Mikhail Gorbachev both at home and abroad that could backfire on the Kremlin.
More than the critical military situation facing the Soviet-backed government is behind the move. The Kremlin may feel it needs more time to set up a friendly government in Kabul that would be acceptable to the U.S.-backed Afghan rebels.Whether such a government is feasible is unclear, but after eight years of war and 48,000 casualties, the Kremlin is not prepared to leave behind a hostile regime. That would be admitting defeat and, in the view of conservative Kremlin military minds, leave Afghanistan even more insecure than it was in 1979 when the Soviet Union intervened.
Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Bessmertynkh, in announcing the suspension last week, blamed a deteriorating military situation triggered by increased arms shipments to the rebels from Pakistan and the United States for the halt in the pullout, scheduled to be completed by Feb. 15.
There was a note of desperation and annoyance indicating that at least to some extent the Soviets may have believed their own propaganda about the ability of the Afghan army to hold its own. As with the U.S. experience in Vietnam, the Kremlin may have seriously miscalculated the will of the Afghan government forces to carry on.
The Soviets have emphasized time and again that this is an orderly and voluntary withdrawal - one with honor - and not a helter-skelter forced retreat under fire from a ragtag army. But face-saving, at least in this instance, carries a heavy political price.
Although Moscow has suspended the withdrawal of its 100,000 troops for now at the halfway point, its room to maneuver is sharply limited.
Missing the February deadline would severely damage the Kremlin's carefully cultivated image of a country that can now be trusted to fulfill its international treaty obligations.
Failing to leave Afghanistan would also set back an intense Soviet diplomatic offensive among Arab states who have shunned Moscow for waging war against a fellow Moslem country.
Only when the Soviet Union agreed to the withdrawal last April in Geneva did the door truly swing open to its diplomats in such moderate Arab states as Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Tension also eased with Iran and economic contacts, including talks to carry Iranian oil through a Soviet pipeline, made progress.
Domestically, as well, it would be difficult for Gorbachev to leave the remaining 50,000 troops in Afghanistan.
With the official media now denouncing the war as a mistake of the Brezhnev era and Gorbachev himself terming it a bleeding wound, a reversal would damage the credibility that the Soviet leader has worked so hard to build at home.
Reneging on his vow to bring the boys home from Afghanistan would call into question the sincerity of some of the promises he has made about improving economic and political conditions.
It has been Gorbachev's policy of glasnost, or openness, that led to revelations of just how unpopular the war is among the population.
More and more, Russians regard the invasion of Afghanistan as a major error. To prolong the error and bypass the opportunity to leave would take a sales pitch to the Soviet people that even Gorbachev, with all his public relations skills, might not be able to pull off.