Is Russia trying to back out of its agreement to withdraw all Soviet troops from Afghanistan?

Though that might seem to be the case in view of Moscow's announcement this week that it has halted withdrawals with only half of its forces gone, it would be a mistake to assume the worst.Russia halted the withdrawal as a means of protesting stepped up attacks against its puppet government in Afghanistan from guerrilla forces within the country and from neighboring Pakistan. Soviet diplomats can't ignore such attacks without compounding the embarrassment of Russia's defeat in Afghanistan. But the fact remains that the Afghan government, with its more than 300 incursions into Pakistan since mid-May, has violated the withdrawal accord just about as readily as the guerrillas have. Moreover, nothing has changed the no-win situation that is impelling the Soviets to leave. The Soviets can't permanently cancel their withdrawal without wounding themselves even more deeply.

Even so, Washington can't afford to be complacent. It still must keep exerting diplomatic pressure on Russia to make good on the Kremlin's vow to pull the last of the Soviet troops out of Afghanistan by next February 15. Even after all those troops are gone, the West had better be prepared for more turmoil in Afghanistan.

Without Soviet help, the weak puppet government - which controls only major cities but not the countryside - can't last long. But the rebel forces are so deeply divided that it may be years before a dominant faction finally emerges, possibly only after the rebels start fighting among themselves. Even after all the internal disputes are sorted out, it would be unrealistic to expect a country with Afghanistan's history to be run by a government along the lines of a western democracy.

Meanwhile, as Afghanistan limps from one brand of turmoil to another kind, the West had better be prepared to replace military support with much more humanitarian forms of foreign aid.