Signs are piling up that the Soviet Union would like to resolve the Afghanistan problem. The latest is President Zia's comment in New York that there is a ''hint of flexibility'' in the Soviet attitude. True, the Pakistani leader earlier was careful to dampen any expectation of early solution. But with Soviet leader Yuri Andropov also making positive sounds, there is reason to be quietly en-couraged.
Nothing the Russians could do at this moment would please the world so much as a withdrawal from Afghanistan. Instantly Moscow's stock would go up in the third world. Instantly the way would be opened for a serious improvement of East-West relations. If Mr. Andropov is seeking an early foreign policy success to strengthen his domestic flanks, this certainly would be a logical candidate. While there may be Soviet hawks who would need to be persuaded of the geopolitical advantage of such a step, many in the Soviet establishment are thought ready to shed an overseas involvement that has had such a high political and military cost.
The elements of any political settlement are generally recognized: a withdrawal of Soviet troops; a return of the Afghan refugees; establishment of a government acceptable to Moscow; and recognition by that government of the boundaries between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Talks being conducted through UN auspices have focused on these and other elements, and some progress is reported. But the main problem is how to devise a government that is representative of the Afghan people and suitable to the Russians. There is considerable anxiety among the hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees that Pakistan, in order to obtain a border agreement, may sell them down the river by recognizing a nonrep-resentative, perhaps even restructured communist government in Kabul and then cutting off the supply of arms to the insurgents.
There are thus two knots to untie: Moscow must realize that the government has to be acceptable to the Afghan people, and the Afghans must realize that the Soviet Union has to have at least a nonaligned, friendly Afghanistan on its frontier.
Given the will, a meeting of the minds should be possible. There is in fact speculation that the Russians are preparing to make overtures to Afghans in exile, including the former King who is now in Rome. The Afghan insurgents, for their part, who clearly want nothing to do with Babrak Karmal, the Soviet-picked Afghan leader ensconced in Kabul, must find a way to unify their own political groups so they can suggest to Moscow a government of their own choosing. They must surmount their present divisiveness if they are to achieve national independence.
Will they be sensible enough to do so? Will the new Soviet leadership be bold enough and sophisticated enough to undo a major mistake? The possibility may be slim but it is no longer unthinkable.