United Nations, N.Y. — There are signs here that the prospect for peace in Afghanistan may be brightening. According to high-ranking United Nation officials, the Soviet Union is exploring ways to extricate itself from Afghanistan.
"One cannot expect public theatrics on a matter that involves face-saving and maintaining the vital interests of a major power," says a diplomat whose foreign minister recently discussed the Afghan situation with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko.
"But there are definite indications that the Soviets have begun to study seriously the nuts and bolts of a comprehensive solution that would enable them to end their military presence in Afghanistan," he added.
One possible solution, still to be refined, which these officials and diplomats say might be considered by the Kremlin, would include:
* The withdrawal of Soviet troops.
* An international agreement of noninterference in Afghan internal matters and on Afghanistan's strict nonalignment.
* A semblance of self-determination for the Afghan peopel, which would lead eventually to a pro-Soviet government, possibly without Afghan President Babrak Karmal.
"Yes, even without Karmal," a leading Soviet diplomat is reported to have said in reply to a senior Western official's question.
UN and Western officials who have recently discussed the Afghan problem in great depth with Soviet diplomats feel Moscow's display of relative mellowness flows from its frustration over a war that it does not seem able to win.They also see the Soviets as concerned by the political and economic consequences of the Afghan occupation.
"The Soviets are not going to simply concede defeat and forsake an ally," says one Western diplomat. "If they are to withdraw from Afghanistan, they must make sure that their prestige as a superpower won't be diminished and that their vital interests will be protected.
"But they are now in the process of seriously thinking about the way to disentangle themselves from Afghanistan while preserving a somewhat friendly regime in Kabul and making sure that the country not fall into outright hostile hands," the diplomat adds.
"In any event they will not leave Afghanistan before the situation in Iran is stabilized. From the perspective of the security of their southern borders, the situation in the two countries is definitely linked."
Other sources remain unconvinced. They suspect the Russians' apparent softening is more a matter of propaganda aimed at the nonaligned as well as at the Islamic nations, which are embarrassed by the Soviet role Afghanistan.
Either way, the atmosphere here seems markedly different from the mood only a few months ago when attempts to resolve the Afghan situation met with little success.
A European Community plan, for example, presented to the Soviet authorites by British Foreign Minister Lord Carrington, was rejected recently by Moscow. It proposed that the five permanent members of the Security Council, as well as India, Iran, and Pakistan, meet to work out safeguards for Afghanistan's security, independence, and nonalignment. They would have been joined at a later stage by Afghan representatives. In the Soviet view, this was a way of denying legitimacy to the Kabul regime.
Separate talks among UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim, his special representative Javier Perez de Cuellar, and the foreign ministers of Pakistan and Afghanistan also failed to break the stalemate. But, according to a source close to the negotiating process, the Soviet Union has gradually softened its position.
Originally, Moscow had demanded direct negotiations between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Later, the Soviets agreed such talks could take place in the presence of Mr. Waldheim.
Iran, whose stance on Afghanistan is crucial to any regionally based agreement, has recently taken a small step toward accommodation as well. At a nonaligned meeting in Havana last month, its representative did not insist on putting the question of Afghanistan on the agenda, as had been the case previously.
Pakistan continues to insist on the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan as a precondition to any political solution. For the moment, however, Afghanistan wants a pledge of noninterference from Pakistan before it considers the departure of Soviet forces. But, behind these public statements, both sides are seeking greater flexibility, sending out feelers, and developing new channels of communication.
Some diplomats here believe that by pretending to be accommodating toward the Soviet Union, Pakistan is simply sending a message to the US congress asking for more economic and military aid.