Moscow — Western diplomats are straining to catch the slightest sign, public or private, that the Soviets are ready to discuss ways and means of lessening their presence in Afghanistan.
But so far, despite growing rebel opposition in Kabul and other cities, and despite Babrak Karmal's clear lack of popular roots, the small handful of elderly men making the key decisions in Moscow is holding firm.
The United States is trying in a number of ways to find out if there is any hope of a Soviet shift buried in the wordy and ambiguous passages in Leonid Brezhnev's Feb. 22 speech dealing with Afghanistan.
Both here and in Washington, US diplomats are asking Soviet officials what those passages mean. They are taking the passages apart word by word. tfar from being an "olive branch," as some reports have suggested, the passages seem to add up to a tough Soviet line, indicating moscow intends to keep its estimated 95,000 troops in Afghanistan indefinitely.
But a new note of uncertainty about Soviet intentions came late Feb. 27 when Mr. Brezhnev was quoted by veteran US businessman Armand Hammer as reformulating his Feb. 22 references to conditions for a Soviet pullback.
According to Dr. Hammer, the Soviet leader talked of the US guaranteeing to use its influence to put an end to outside interference in Afghanistan. Other countries including Iran and Pakistan should join in this "guarantee." Mr. Brezhnev was quoted as saying he realized Mr. Carter could not control all elements in Afghanistan, but that the US could use its influence. among guarantees Moscow wanted was one that Us arms to Pakistan would be for defense only.
This is a softer version of the Feb. 22 speech. Taken at face value it might mean a Soviet willingness to find a way out of Afghanistan -- but it leaves a lot of questions as well.
Was Mr. Brezhnev quoted accurately? What does he mean by US "influence"? Western sources here cannot imagine that Moscow would be satisfied with any arrangement that would weaken a pro-Moscow government in Kabul.
Meanwhile, some Soviet diplomats don't even refute Western diplomats who visit the Soviet Foreign Ministry and lay out just how high a price the Soviets are paying for their Afghan venture.
Western sources beleive these diplomats arejeopardized the Soviet standing in the Islamic, Arab, third, and nonaligned worlds -- to say nothing of undermining ally fidel Castro in his capacity as current head of the nonaligned movement, and surrendering all hope of arms control talks in the near future.
To the Western mind, the question arises: How can the Soviets begin to extricate themselves from the Afghan mess? They have lost millions of tons of US grain. The US (and other countries) won't come to the Moscow Olympics in July. And the very man the Soviet press pours scorn on -- President Carter -- the very man the Soviets prefer -- Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts.
But Mr. Brezhnev and his top military advisers don't see it that way. They demand a compliant, pro-Soviet government in Kabul on a strategic southern border. They want a future springboard for diplomatic or military moves against Iran or Pakistan. In the meantime they want the world to turn back the clock and behave as though nothing had happened, while Soviet troops stay in place. A Soviet "peace offensive" is in full gear publicly, as symbolized by a long article in the weekly Literary, Gazette by Central Committee Information Chief Leonid Zamyatin Feb. 27.
Mr. Zamyatin urged a return to the detente of the early 1970s, which he said had a "reasonable" basis. Western Europe should certainly want this, he wrote, thus continuing the standard Soviet tactic of trying to separate Washington from its NATO allies.
But, he went on, Washington was utterly to blame for the downturn in detente. It had staged one crisis after another, from its outcry over Soviet troops in Cuba, to aiding North Yemen, to making propaganda over Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees. If the US wanted Soviet aid to Afghanistan to cease, all the US had to do was "issue a command" for stopping rebel attacks into Afghan territory and all other forms of "interference."
This was routine Soviet propaganda. As such it disappointed Western diplomats hoping for something more constructive and reasonable.
The only reason Mr. Zamyatin gave for alleged American activites was that the US wanted to "brandish arms" and distract attention from internal problems. He did not refer to US hostages in Iran, Soviet SS-20 missiles within range of Wes
The passages in Mr. Brezhnev's Feb. 22 speech attracting attention here are those in which Soviet leader talked of how Soviet troops might be withdrawn in the future.
At one point Mr. Brezhnev said the White House knew that "the USSR will withdraw its military contingents from Afghanistan as soon as the reasons that caused their presence there desappear and the Afghan government decides that their presence is no longer necessary."
This last reference to the Afghan government strikes an ominous note, since the Kremlin can now argue at any point that the Afghans still want the Soviet troops to stay. The US considers the Afghan government simply a Soviet puppet with no mind of its own.
At another point Mr. Brezhnev said Moscow would be ready to "commence" withdrawal as soon as all forms of outside interference were "fully terminated."
Then he said, "Let the US together with the neighbors of Afghanistan guarantee this, and then the need of Soviet military assistance will cease to exist."
But what does that mean? Is the Soviet Union demanding that the US announce that all "interference" will stop, or that it has stopped? The US says it gave no help to Afghan rebels in the first place, so Washington cannot make any statement implicitly admitting any aid. Nor is Washington ready to make any private commitments to end something it says it never began.
At this writing the Soviets give no public or private sign they are interested in interpreting the Brezhnev remarks in a way that might begin to defuse Western criticisms.
Nor have the Soviets seemed interested in the British proposal that Afghanistan be declared neutral in return for a Soviet troop withdrawal. The Tass news agency has called the idea "illogical."
The Carter administration is studying the Feb. 22 Brezhnev speech carefully and has expressed interest in a neutral Afghanistan. Meanwhile Western sources here say the Soviet dilemma deepens all the time in Afghanistan.
The shop closings and public demosntrations recently surprised Western experts, who read them as signs that the So viet presence is alien to growing numbers of Afghans.
"The Soviets badly miscalculated the political situation in Kabul and the amount of force it would need to ensure stability," says one source here.
Other sources point to internal Soviet pressures: the US grain boycott, the precarious state of Soviet agriculture (and reports now circulating that the Communist Party Central Committee is about to hold its second full meeting on agriculture in two years), industrial slowdowns, and energy shortages.
The Soviet dilemma is whether to keep sending more troops to Afghanistan and continue running the key ministries in Kabul, or to start a private, gradual , calibrated method of disengagement.
Whatever the Kremlin does, it will not tolerate an anti-So- viet government in Kabul, nor anything but an avowedly proMoscow regime. A purely token withdrawal of Soviet troops would not be enough to interest the US in returning to normal diplomatic business or attending the Olympic games.
In Moscow, where Western diplomats take a more pessimistic view of Soviet intentions than many Western capitals do, the feeling is that the elderly men in the Kremlin and in the Defense Ministry are too inflexible to pull back or change course, at least for many months to come.
Past experience suggests that, having taken the plunge of sending in troops, the Kremlin will keep on pouring them in, just as the US did for years in Vietnam. A number of West ernble and even higher diplomatic costs around the world.