MOSCOW -- As the last few thousand Soviet soldiers leave Afghanistan, they are returning to a warm welcome from a relieved nation happy to have them home, but also to a growing political controversy over the nine-year war.
"Our boys are coming home," a Soviet television commentator said over the weekend, summing up the universal satisfaction both at the troops' return and at the knowledge that by Wednesday, the country will finally be out of an unwinnable and increasingly unpopular war.
"Hello, Motherland!" the government newspaper Izvestia said in a headline over one of its front-page reports on the withdrawal last week. "We've Waited for This for Nine Years," another front-page headline declared.
Each evening, Soviet Television shows more tanks, armored personnel carriers and trucks full of troops crossing the border from Afghanistan into Soviet Central Asia. Their clear joy is infectious as the cameras focus on the long-awaited family reunions and then on the on-the-spot demobilization of many soldiers.
And, like his troops, Lt. Gen. Boris Gromov--the Soviet commander in Afghanistan--will cross Friendship Bridge linking the Soviet town of Termez with Hayratan on the Afghan side "without looking back," a correspondent for the Soviet youth newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda reported.
Expected to be the last Soviet soldier to leave Afghanistan on Wednesday, the deadline for completion of the withdrawal of the 100,300 troops who were there when the pullout began nine months ago, Gromov will pause only for a minute or so to reflect on the long war, the paper said, and then he, too, "will have returned to the warm embrace of the motherland."
Although there are few emotions deeper than the joy of a homecoming for a Russian, the Soviet troops are returning to a growing and increasingly bitter political debate over whose mistake it was to invade Afghanistan in late 1979 and then to stay nine years, fighting on behalf of a government now perceived as largely without popular support.
One of "our old sins," President Mikhail S. Gorbachev called it during a speech here last month--only to change the characterization two days later, when his remarks were published, to a criticism of the "considerable expenditures" involved in the war.
Nearly 15,000 Killed
With nearly 15,000 Soviet personnel reported killed, huge resources wasted and the country's international prestige badly damaged in the war, this political sensitivity stems first from the question of responsibility.
The late President Leonid I. Brezhnev is officially being blamed for this and most of the country's other political, economic and social ills. But with its principle of collective leadership, the Communist Party, which repeatedly endorsed the Afghanistan action as in the finest traditions of the international Communist movement, is being pressed now to acknowledge the war fully and formally as a fundamental error.
As party members seek election next month to the new Congress of People's Deputies, Afghanistan is an issue on which they are frequently challenged as they assert the correctness of perestroika , the political, economic and social restructuring begun by Gorbachev in 1984.
"Why has it taken nearly four years under Gorbachev, under perestroika , to complete our withdrawal?" a trade union delegate demanded of a party official during a nomination meeting here last week. "Even now, with almost all of our boys back home, why can't you say we were wrong to go in? Why do you still say it was our 'internationalist duty' to defend a government and a party that were never socialist and came to power through a coup d'etat ?"
Cracks Are Showing
The party is still grappling with such questions itself, and, amid the continuing political ferment here, the divisions are increasingly apparent.
"Unfortunately, it has taken nearly 10 years," Alexander Bovin, a leading Soviet commentator, said recently of the decision to withdraw. "It took thousands of deaths, enormous materials costs, a fall in our country's prestige and the exacerbation of the international atmosphere to understand--to understand not in theory, but in practice--that every people has to decide its own fate itself, without outside interference.
"This conclusion is drawn not because we proved powerless to change the natural course of events in another country. This conclusion is drawn because the very attempt to change that course of events was mistaken in principle."
Bovin, whose sharp criticism has been cut several times from television commentaries, acknowledged that many, particularly those who fought in Afghanistan, find it difficult to accept this view, which contradicts past ideals of "internationalist duty" and "fraternal assistance."
"The bitter truth is all the same better and more useful than an 'elevating deception,' " he remarked, adding that blame did not lie with "the officers and men who fought in Afghanistan and were true to their oath and fulfilled their soldierly duty" but with those who made the political decision.
The Afghan war was never popular, but it was not the central and highly emotional issue here that the Vietnam War became in American politics. The Soviet political system permitted little debate until recently, and the scale of Soviet involvement in Afghanistan was only one-fifth that of the United States in Vietnam.
"Putting aside the differences we see in the origins of U.S. intervention in Vietnam and our involvement in Afghanistan--and we think they are quite significant differences, starting with the fact that Afghanistan was a neighboring country with a socialist government--the war was kept remote from our people," a senior Soviet editor commented last week, asking not to be quoted by name.
"The commitment of our forces was much, much less than those the U.S. deployed in Vietnam, our casualties were kept secret, the costs of the war were never disclosed and our press always treated the Afghan conflict in heroic terms as part of our internationalist duty as Communists."
Nevertheless, a survey of 1,000 Muscovites in December showed that 61% of the respondents thought the decision to send troops into Afghanistan was wrong; 22% believed that it was correct.
With glasnost , the opening of political discussion that came as an important part of Gorbachev's broader reforms, the Soviet news media began in late 1987 to give a more accurate picture of what the Afghan war was like--both its failure to achieve the stated goal of a flourishing socialist state and what the Soviet soldiers sent there on 18-month tours were going through in a particularly cruel conflict.
"For years and years, we had a war in which our soldiers never died and rarely even bled," Leonid Mironov, who covered the start of the war for the Communist Party newspaper Pravda, commented during a discussion on the war here this month. "It must have seemed like a war without casualties, without costs . . . a war that we could only win and in which we had only heroes. Maybe that is one reason why it went on for so long."
Only when the decision was made last year to pull out under an agreement signed April 15 in Geneva by Afghanistan and Pakistan--with the United States and the Soviet Union as guarantors--did it become possible to question why Moscow had intervened in 1979.
Mironov, who believes strongly that the war was "wrong from the beginning," speculated that the Soviet leadership--the party and the military alike--wanted to show the West, particularly the United States, the Red Army's combat ability and Moscow's determination to advance socialism in developing countries.
But Maj. Gen. Lev Serebrov, another of the top Soviet commanders in Afghanistan, replied: "Yes, we made mistakes! But everything we did there, and I stress that everything we did, was for the sake of the Afghan people!"
Serebrov, who was in Afghanistan for the first three years of the war and then returned about a year ago for a final tour, also said he could not quarrel with the Soviet leadership's initial decision to intervene. History would have to judge the correctness of their action, he said, adding, "We are still too close to events."
Unlike the bitter debate in the United States over the Vietnam War, which continued undiminished long after the protests erupted, the importance of this tough political give and take lies in its implications for perestroika , for fundamental change in the Soviet Union, and not for Afghanistan's future.
"We all--the party and the people--need a stern, hard, man-to-man talk about the lessons of Afghanistan," Bovin said in a December television commentary that was censored but later published in the highly influential, mass circulation political weekly Arguments and Facts. "We need the truth. I would like to hear the opinions and assessments of the main figures--high-ranking party officials, the military, the diplomats.
"In the past--I mean the conflict with Yugoslavia in 1948, the events in Hungary in 1956 and the troops sent into Czechoslovakia in 1968--we were too lenient with ourselves. Nowadays, in the years of perestroika , we cannot permit this. The mistakes for which we are paying in blood, in the prestige of the party and socialism and with the people's money, must not be repeated." The eventual judgment will inevitably reflect the outcome of events in Afghanistan over the next few months--and Soviet officials seem neither optimistic nor too concerned.
Assessing the present situation, the government newspaper Izvestia suggested Sunday that hundreds of thousands of people could die as the civil war intensifies.
"Afghans of opposing political persuasions have been left confronting each other," the paper said, adding that the moujahedeen, the Muslim rebels who oppose the Soviet-backed government in Afghanistan, are "thirsting for blood."
"The future holds the prospects of tens and even hundreds of thousands of deaths, which could have been avoided by the show of the most elementary good will and political reason," Izvestia said, lamenting the failure of final Soviet diplomatic efforts to pull together a political settlement.
Soviet advisers are no more optimistic. Although Gromov said last week that Afghan government forces had all of the arms, equipment, ammunition and other supplies they need to fight off the expected moujahedeen attacks and then go on the offensive themselves, many majors and captains doubt the Afghans' ability to use the equipment and, more importantly, their will to fight.
Equipment Left Behind
"We have left fine equipment, but they will have enormous problems using it, maintaining it, repairing it, even firing it," a Soviet army major said in an interview over Radio Moscow this weekend. "They have no experience, they have a poor base of skills and knowledge and they have very low morale."
Soviet officials are now reassuring the country, as well as outsiders, that after Wednesday their troops will be out of Afghanistan, not to return.
While Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze warned that Moscow will continue to supply arms and other materiel to the Kabul government if the fighting continues, Soviet spokesmen have repeatedly declared that there will be no further military support, such as air strikes, to help the government forces.
The supply of food, medicine and other essentials will continue. Up to 40 large Soviet cargo planes are transporting nearly 700 tons of supplies to Kabul each day in an airlift from Tashkent in Soviet Central Asia. Air drops are beginning to other towns. And final repairs are being made on the pipelines that carry fuel from the Soviet border to Kabul.
But fewer than 6,000 troops now remain, according to a Radio Moscow broadcast on Sunday, and most of those are on the way out by convoy. The last major contingent to leave--aside from an embassy of 200 people and several hundred officers advising the Afghan army--will be the 500 soldiers guarding Kabul airport and the column led by Gen. Gromov.
"I hope they can last six months," a Soviet military journalist said of the Afghan government forces after returning last week in one of the convoys. "Six months would not just be what Americans call a 'decent interval' before collapse, because if they last that long they might have a chance of getting a political settlement. . . . At this point, once we get our boys out, that is all we want, a political settlement that avoids a bloody finale."