Talks aim to loosen Soviet-Afghan knot

Despite a recent flurry of diplomatic activity, the Soviet bear is as entrenched in Afghanistan as ever. The search for a political settlement to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan is currently focused on the latest in a series of United Nations-sponsored ``proximity'' talks between Afghan and Pakistani officials which first began in 1982.

Diplomatic sources say the purpose of the current meetings, which began Friday and will continue through this week, is to translate four broad negotiating principles agreed to in earlier sessions into an actual draft document. The principles call for the withdrawal of Soviet troops, the return of more than 5 million refugees to Afghanistan, the end of outside interference, and the establishment of an independent, nonaligned Afghanistan.

Both sides have shown some interest in resuming the on-again, off-again negotiations.

The talks could give the Soviets at least partial diplomatic cover necessary to hold critical world opinion at bay.

For Pakistan, the talks may be the key to at least a temporary respite from increased Soviet military action along the Afghan-Pakistani border. The attacks are being mounted in retaliation for Pakistan's harboring of thousands of Afghan guerrillas.

Even so, diplomatic sources doubt that the circumstances are right to produce either a timetable for a phased Soviet troop withdrawal or a commitment on Pakistan's part to stop aiding the rebels.

The UN meeting follows two days of talks on Afghanistan last week between United States and Soviet representatives, the third in a series of bilateral discussions of regional issues which began last fall. State Department sources say the talks produced no change of position on either side.

The Geneva negotiations also follow a widely reported speech by Rajiv Gandhi, delivered during a recent state visit to Washington.

Speaking before a joint session of Congress, the Indian prime minister briefly raised hopes on the issue by denouncing ``outside interference and intervention'' in Afghanistan and hinting that India might play a role in helping find a negotiated solution to the Afghanistan occupation.

Although the speech was warmly received here, most experts say it contained little that was new.

``It was basically the same Indian policy,'' says one South Asian expert. ``It's just that the nuances are different, depending on whether Rajiv's in Washington or Moscow.''

Right now, many experts say, only two circumstances have the potential to move diplomacy off dead center.

One would be stepped up diplomatic pressure from India. US officials have long urged India to use its influence to help end the Soviet occupation, saying that by further isolating the Soviets, New Delhi could dramatically increase the diplomatic cost of the Afghan conflict. But they concede that such pressure is unlikely, so long as India continues to enjoy the economic, military, and diplomatic benefits that accrue from close relations with Moscow.

The other would be a reversal of Soviet military fortunes in Afghanistan, a prospect also considered unlikely in the near term, given the limited resources available to the resistance fighters. Commenting on covert aid channeled to the Afghan resistance, the South Asia expert noted: ``We've given them enough to fight, but not enough to win. Meanwhile the Soviets are hurting, but not enough to quit.''

Beyond this, there are thought to be at least two other major obstacles to a negotiated solution to the Afghanistan conflict.

One is the problem of finding the basis for a political settlement within Afghanistan between the Soviet-backed regime and opponents of the Muslim mujahideen -- ``holy warriors,'' or resistance fighers.

``What you have in Afghanistan is two parties whose very conceptions of Afghanistan as a nation-state are radically different,'' says Robert Litwak, a senior associate at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, in Washington.

``There are simply no terms of co-existence between them, and therefore no way to fashion a consensus,'' says Mr. Litwak. ``To talk about a neutral, nonaligned government is a total nonstarter.''

In addition, a settlement could be complicated by differing definitions of ``neutrality'' and ``nonalignment.'' Western diplomats look to the model of Finland, or to Austria, with its five-power guarantee of neutrality.

But many experts say the Soviet model for Afghanistan is Mongolia, a country which essentially exists as a satellite of the Soviet Union. That such a model would be acceptable to the US and other Western nations is doubtful.

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