New Delhi — Artillery fire has flared just north of the Afghan capital of Kabul, reinforcing Western skepticism of an early compromise with Moscow on the withdrawal of its occupation force.
Yet as an indication that compromise may be possible in the longer run, Afghanistan's Soviet-installed President has hinted to an Indian newspaper that he would be open to an eventual international initiative on trying to resolve the Afghanistan crisis.
Western diplomats who are in contact with Kabul maintain that the key to how or when that might evolve lies inside Afghanistan -- with the battle between Soviet-Afghan forces and a widening popular resistance movement. Indications from travelers arriving here March 6 were that this battle, which peaked in Kabul late in February, could soon flare anew.
Diplomats said that Moscow had pulled some of its troops out of Afghanistan's mountain capital -- though not out of Afghanistan -- following the February showdown, but might well bring them back in the event of new trouble.
"As for any major Soviet troop pullout from Afghanistan," said one Western diplomat, "I think it is clear that Moscow wants first to carry out a major crackdown on local rebels and leave with relative certainty that a regime to its own liking is intact."
That juncture, he and other diplomats were agreed, still seems a good way off.
Passengers on the March 6 flight from Kabul to New Delhi said that the Afghan regime of President Babrak Karmal seemed to fear fresh anti-Soviet demonstrations on the Muslim sabbath March 7, and had beefed up its troop strength in the capital accordingly.
A French schoolteacher on the flight added that there had been a three-hour spate of artillery fire just north of Kabul March 5.
That would appear to be the most serious shell outburst around the capital since the February clashes, according to a Western reporter who returned from Afghanistan at the beginning of March.
The most likely explanation, recent visitors to Afghanistan suggested, is that the Soviets are trying to consolidate control of major road arteries into the capital -- and battering nearby villages in the process.
Meanwhile, President Karmal's interview -- hitting New Delhi newsstands March 6 -- focused the attention of some diplomats on the lines of an eventual negotiated deescalation of the Afghanistan crisis.
It is becoming increasingly clear that any resolution must involve some kind of "international" guarantee. The Soviets -- and now Mr. Karmal -- want foreign pledges of "noninterference." Britain, spearheading Western diplomatic efforts, envisages Afghan "neutrality." Countries like India and Syria -- with a more pro-Soviet vision of nonalignment -- seem to foresee a "nonaligned" Afghanistan, yet without Soviet troops.
There is "obviously room for eventual accord" in these three visions of an Afghanistan without Soviet military occupation, commented one Western diplomat.
But first, in the opinion of most diplomats, Moscow will have to feel it has accomplished its original aim in installing President Karmal and its own troops late last year. That aim, reports from Kabul suggested at the time, was to crack down on Muslim rebel forces yet eventually foster some sort of compromise between the new Kabul government and the rebels.
If that compromise seems far off, Mr. Karmal's interview with the leftist Indian tabloid "Blitz" suggests that it has not been entirely forgotten.
The Afghan President stressed that the country was being given a new flag -- substituting the formerly all-red banner for one including the color green, symbolizing Islam.
And what about another bit of red -- Moscow's muscular Army? Mr. Karmal was asked whether he would entertain efforts to convene a conference along the lines of the 1954 Geneva parley on Indo-China.
"We say 'yes' to any noble initiative," said Mr. Karmal, who was described as "soft-spoken" by the Indian interviewer. "Any such arrangement should, however, be in conformity with the UN Charter, that there should not be the slightest meddling in our internal affairs."
Should the main guarantor be neighboring Pakistan, he was asked? Mr. Karmal replied that the Pakistanis must stop providing sanctuary to the Muslim rebels and "playing into the hands of our [foreign] enemies."
Western diplomats, meanwhile, cautioned that the timing of Mr. Karmal's remarks was as important as their content -- in that the interview had been conducted several days before the February violence in Kabul.
The violence, they suspected, would revive sooner or later. "And until the Soviets feel they have settled all major accounts [in Afghanistan], we must view the prospect of a negotiated calm as a long-run issue," one diplomat concluded.