THE TALK is that the Soviet Union is ready to cut its losses and pull out of Afghanistan later this year without waiting to set up a government in which the place of local communists would be ensured. Good. Let the withdrawal begin. Up to now the Soviets have stated a determination to create a ''coalition'' and to promote ''national reconciliation'' among warring Afghans before departing. These euphemisms for ensuring a place for local communists have been a mask for staying on. If the Kremlin has dropped the mask and is prepared to leave its clients in Kabul to contend for what power they can earn with their own resources, termination of the Soviet invasion is within sight, though the war of the Afghans may go on longer.
A certain equation is made between Soviet support of one set of Afghans and American support of another, and on this basis some people expect the United States to conduct a matching cutoff of aid to the resistance. But the basis for a cutoff should be a Soviet withdrawal making moot the purpose -- repelling an invasion -- for which aid is rendered. Practically speaking, aid should taper off as withdrawal progresses. The American purpose is not to harass or further humiliate the departing Soviets but to make sure they don't change their mind. As we note, Afghans may have scores to settle among themselves. Both sides have stockpiled weapons against the day that Soviet troops leave and American and other foreign aid ends. How they use these weapons may not be much influenced by outsiders' exhortations for peace.
Something basic needs to be better understood here. Afghanistan is a Soviet-American ''regional dispute'' in the sense that it's in a region and is in dispute between the great powers, but it's not a regional dispute in the sense that the Soviet Union has a right to claim for its proxies some share of the power. The Kremlin was wrong to invade Afghanistan eight bloody years ago, and it has no right to demand any particular internal result. If fairness were the measure of these things, Afghans would have a right to demand far-reaching internal changes in the Soviet Union to prevent another invasion.
The Soviet Union says it does not seek a pro-Soviet regime and asks the United States to say it does not seek a pro-American regime. This is fine. The ''free, nonaligned and neutral'' Afghanistan Moscow says it wants is what Washington wants. The way to get from here to there is for Soviet troops to withdraw.