MOSCOW--Mikhail S. Gorbachev announced Monday that the Soviet Union will withdraw from Afghanistan beginning on May 15 if U.N.-sponsored peace talks reach a settlement within five weeks. He said the pullout could be completed within 10 months.
The Soviet leader also said that the Kremlin does not want a say in who governs Afghanistan after the departure of its estimated 115,000 troops, who have been battling Afghan guerillas for more than eight years.
A White House spokesman praised the speech but said the administration would wait to see whether any conditions were attached to the proposed withdrawal.
It was the clearest indication yet that Gorbachev is moving rapidly to extricate his country from the conflict he has termed a "bleeding wound."
The mediator of the U.N.--sponsored peace talks, Diego Cordovez, said today in Pakistan that the next, and possibly final, round of talks will begin March 2 in Geneva. He said the timing of a Soviet pullout, which would be overseen by United Nations military observers, has virtually been agreed upon.
Cordovez told reporters in Islamabad that only logistical details of the Soviet army's departure remain to be established. He has spent the past 20 days shuttling between Islamabad and Kabul, the Afghan capital.
"The Afghans themselves will decide the final status of their country among nations," Gorbachev said in a statement read on national television by an announcer. Afghanistan's future "is none of our business," he said.
The remarks left the future of Afghanistan's Marxist president, Sayid Mohammad Najibullah in serious doubt. Foreign observers believe Najibullah, 41, will not be able to retain his grip on power if he is deprived of Soviet military backing.
Najib also announced the timetable for Soviet withdrawal on radio and television in Afghanistan on Monday.
According to Gorbachev, the Soviets will not demand that Afghanistan be neutral and non-aligned, phrasing that was once standard when Kremlin officials spoke of their neighbor's future.
The Kremlin sent troops, tanks and military hardware into Afghanistan in December 1979, and presided over the replacement of one Marxist ruler by another. The intervention has been a major irritant in U.S.--Soviet relations and has soured Kremlin ties with many Moslem and Third World countries.
It also has been opposed at home as Soviet casualties have mounted. Western diplomats estimate as many as 10,000 Soviet soldiers have been killed and tens of thousands maimed.
Monday's statement was Gorbachev's first mention of a specific date for the withdrawal. Previously, the Soviets had said only that they wanted to pull out by the end of the year, and that it would take about 12 months.
Gorbachev said the date of May 15 was fixed based on the assumption that the Geneva negotiations will reach an agreement no later than March 15.
In the event a settlement is signed before then, "the withdrawal of troops will, accordingly, begin earlier," he said.
Soviet TV interrupted a serial film to broadcast Gorbachev's statement, assuring that his remarks would have the widest distribution. It was carried on the official Tass news agency and was the lead item on the evening TV news.
At the White House, President Reagan, said: "We'll wait to see what the conditions are," when asked by reporters about Gorbachev's statement.
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said Gorbachev's statement "sounds like a positive step and we hope it is, but we need to see the fine print. We've got to know what it means."