We think the West Europeans are on the right track in seeking a fresh strategy on Afghanistan. In a nutshell, a European Community proposal calls for the Soviet withdrawal of forces in return for a "neutral" Afghanistan, a neutrality to be backed by some sort of guarantees. How one gets from A to Z is problematic, to say the least. But the underlying motivation is valid: The diplomatic need is to find a peaceful, political solution which will enable the Soviet Union to get out of the mess it has gotten itself into without an intolerable loss of face. This, in turn, would make it possible to defuse the heightened East-West tensions and eventually resume efforts to nurture better ties.
This is not to criticize President Carter's retaliatory strategy. His shock treatment -- a policy of applying economic, political, and sports penalties -- has been effective. The Russians no doubt thought they could batten down Afghanistan quickly but are stunned to find they have yet to come to grips with the situation. They have not pacified the country. The Afghan Army is eroding. They are sustaining casualties. To their discomfiture, the invasion has mobilized not on the West but the whole third world against them. The political , not to mention military, cost of prolonged occupation is thus extremely high.
The question is whether the men in the Kremlin would accept a way out of the morass if the opportunity presented itself. The tough reactive policy by the US and its allies should not be abandoned -- and we continue to favor a boycott of the summer Olympic Games, among other measures. But, if the situation is not to worsen, this hard line could reasonably be accompanied by constructive diplomatic efforts to engage the Soviets in a discussion of their predicament. They claim, for instance, that their move was defensive, aimed at "protecting" a Marxist state on their border at a time of alarming instability in another border region (Iran). This theory, as the West Europeans suggest, should be tested. If the Russians were assured of a neutralist buffer state -- i.e., that they would not lose control to an anti-Soviet bastion -- they might find this an attractive option.
There are lots of imponderables, of course. This would mean finding a replacement for the detested Soviet puppet Babrak Karmal, someone more amenable to the Afghan people. It would mean, perhaps, persuading the Afghan rebels to accept some sort of coalition regime -- if, indeed, one could even find anyone among the rebels to negotiate with. Nor can one underestimate the concern Moscow would have about the establishment of a fundamentalist Islamic government in Kabul. Although its own Islamic citizens are not restive, keeping Soviet Central Asia insulated from potential religious and political influences from across the frontier remains crucial to the Soviet leadership.
Nonetheless, however futile such an approach might seem, peacemaking ought to be tried. Many times in the past, political efforts to resolve conflicts have gone on even while bitter fighting was in progress. Mr. Carter himself has suggested that a peace-keeping force espoused by the UN, perhaps comprised of Muslim troops, might be used in Afghanistan during a transition to a neutral government. The idea is worth probing. And third-world states might effectively be brought into the search for a diplomatic solution. India, for instance, has a keen interest in keeping the USSR (as well as the US) out of the region and could be used in a mediating capacity.
In short, boycotts and embargoes, valuable as these are, will not in themselves persuade the Russians to reverse their strongarm course. The time has come to try other, more politically creative approaches as well.