Soviet strategy in the Afghanistan conflict

BEGINNING with the US-Soviet summit in November, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev has been intimating that the Soviet Union is tiring of the six-year-old war in Afghanistan and is seeking a political settlement. In all likelihood, the situation in Afghanistan will have to become considerably worse, from the Soviet perspective, before Moscow will consider the kind of settlement that would restore Afghanistan's independence and nonalignment. Nonetheless, the possible shift in the Soviet posture creates new challenges for the United States and its regional security partner, Pakistan, as they attempt to explore avenues to a settlement while avoiding concessions that would effectively legitimize the Soviet military occupation. The signal failure of Soviet policy in Afghanistan is Moscow's inability to create an Afghan government with any shred of legitimacy or credibility.

The lack of an effective Afghan ally, when coupled with the heterogeneity and determination of the Afghan resistance, makes any notion of a negotiated settlement an idea whose time probably has not yet come. Politically isolated, divided by deep personal, ethnic, and ideological fissures, and totally tainted by association with the invaders, the Babrak Karmal regime could have no standing in a political settlement.

Given the poor prospects of a settlement that would bridge the conflicting interests of Moscow and its Afghan allies on the one hand, and the Afghan freedom fighters and their supporters on the other, the most likely explanation for Mr. Gorbachev's recent comments is a variant of a long-identifiable Soviet strategy:

Wear down the Afghan resistance militarily.

Pressure Pakistan to recognize the Karmal regime and sign a bilateral agreement of mutual noninterference with it.

To date, neither objective has been achieved.

Not surprisingly, more than three years of ``indirect'' negotiations between Pakistan and the Karmal regime under United Nations auspices thus far have failed to bear fruit. The parties have reportedly made progress on drafting agreements dealing with mutual noninterference between Pakistan and Afghanistan, guarantees thereof by outside powers (the US and the USSR), and the return of the refugees. But the talks remain essentially deadlocked over the unwillingness of the Soviets to negotiate (through the Afghan representatives) the withdrawal of its forces within a definite time frame and Pakistan's insistence on obtaining such a commitment.

Moscow seeks to use ``progress'' on the Pakistan-Afghanistan bilateral issues as a wedge to separate those issues from the question of a troop withdrawal, whose timing it maintains is solely a bilateral matter between the USSR and Afghanistan. At the same time, it holds out the possibility of linking a settlement in some way to a Soviet withdrawal, but insists that Pakistan accept direct, face-to-face talks with the Afghan delegation as a precondition for substantive negotiations.

Islamabad has agreed to a number of important procedural concessions. The Pakistani foreign minister has even acknowledged that Pakistan might talk directly to the Afghan delegates once the sides had reached an understanding about a Soviet withdrawal. Islamabad has remained adamant, however, about firmly linking agreement on other issues, especially mutual noninterference between Pakistan and Afghanistan, to a time-limited Soviet withdrawal.

A skeptical view of Soviet intentions seemed to be validated by how they and their Afghan allies approached the recent sixth round of the UN-sponsored ``proximity'' talks held at Geneva Dec. 16-20. Apparently the talks produced no substantive discussion of the troop withdrawal issue. While the Afghan delegates reportedly held out the prospect of discussing a timetable for the withdrawal of Soviet troops, they made such discussions contingent on face-to-face negotiations, which Pakistan once again refused. Since then Gorbachev has again spoken of his desire for a settlement. But his reference to the situation ``around Afghanistan'' as the matter to be resolved suggests that the substance of Soviet policy remains unchanged.

As for US policy, the most appropriate response may well be the same, whether or not the Soviets are serious about a negotiated withdrawal. US strategy could beneficially seek to:

Improve the strategic political environment of the conflict by supporting measures to enhance the political unity and status of the Afghan resistance and calling attention to reports of the use of indiscriminate terror against the Afghan population by Soviet and Afghan government troops. One positive recent development has been the UN General Assembly's adoption, by a margin of 80 to 22, of a significant report on human rights violations in Afghanistan.

Continue to support Pakistan politically and militarily, with confidence that its leaders understand well Soviet strategy and the limits of Soviet capabilities and will not be pressured into irrevocable commitments in return for empty promises or negligible gains. (Pakistan's apparent effort to acquire a nuclear weapons option poses the greatest threat to US support, and should be reconsidered by Islamabad.)

Continue to be forthcoming about US willingness to guarantee an agreement on noninterference between Pakistan and Afghanistan if the Soviets give an acceptable commitment to withdraw their forces.

Obviously, the US could make life much easier for the USSR at a cost of its own interests and of those who are struggling against the Soviet occupation. It is more problematical whether the US could really do much to facilitate a ``graceful'' Soviet withdrawal, given the hostility Moscow faces on the ground. It remains a widely held article of faith, nonetheless, that the role of the US would be crucial. A forthcoming US attitude on the question of guarantees can help to counter accusations that the US seeks only to ``bleed'' the Soviets in Afghanistan, without obligating us to support an unacceptable agreement. It signals that we stand ready to react positively if and when Moscow offers more credible evidence that it seeks a withdrawal from its Afghan tangle.

Richard P. Cronin is a specialist in Asian affairs at the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress. The views expressed here are his own.

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