Moscow — One of the stumbling blocks to an Afghan peace settlement may have been removed with the replacement of Babrak Karmal as the leader of Afghanistan. Lt. Gen. Mohammad Najibollah replaced Mr. Karmal on Sunday, a move some analysts say is clearly designed to ease the way toward a negotiated settlement of the Afghan conflict.
Mr. Karmal, diplomats say, was so closely identified with the 1979 Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, that a political settlement was virtually impossible so long as he stayed in power.
However, there are other obstacles to bringing peace to the embattled country, diplomats say. It remains to be seen, they say, whether General Najibollah will seek a negotiated settlement or pursue a military victory over the Afghan guerrillas who are seeking to overthrow Kabul's communist regime.
The changeover came the day before indirect UN-sponsored talks between Afghanistan and Pakistan to hammer out a settlement resumed Monday in Geneva.
Karmal's resignation as general secretary of the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan was ostensibly ``on health grounds,'' according to official statements from Kabul. But the Soviet Union, which reportedly has over 100,000 troops in Afghanistan propping up the communist government, is widely thought to have been dissatisfied with him.
But the official Bakhtar news agency expressed the party's ``gratitude'' and praised Karmal, who was installed as Afghan leader shortly after the 1979 Soviet invasion. The praise was echoed by the Soviet news agency Tass, suggesting to some diplomats that Karmal is not in disgrace. He stays in the largely ceremonial post of President and in the Communist Party Politburo.
Karmal had just returned from a month-long stay in Moscow for medical treatment. He had missed an important ceremony marking the April 27, 1978, communist takeover in Kabul, reportedly because of illness.
Nevertheless, the Kremlin had clearly distanced itself from Karmal in the 14 months since Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev came to power. Western diplomats here say the deciding voice in choosing Najibollah as his successor clearly was Russian, not Afghan.
One diplomat dismissed Najibollah as a ``puppet,'' the same term often applied to Karmal.
For some time, the private calculation of Pakistani officials has been that the Kremlin viewed Karmal as expendable, and would dump him if necessary in order to extricate itself from Afghanistan. But diplomats say it is unclear whether Moscow is ready to withdraw its troops from the country. Many diplomats say that is absolutely necessary in order for a settlement to be reached.
``There are 3 million refugees in Pakistan, and they will not go until the Soviet Army goes. That is the basic problem,'' a diplomat says. Indeed, one Afghan guerrilla leader told reporters on the eve of the latest round of negotiations, ``We will not lay down our weapons until the last Soviet soldier has left Afghanistan.''
Mr. Gorbachev, as well as other Soviet officials, have repeatedly spoken of their willingness to withdraw the Red Army troops from Afghanistan. Soviet forces, along with the Afghan Army, claim to have scored some significant military victories against the rebels recently.
Najibollah himself quickly pledged to step up the fight against Muslim guerrillas in order to end the conflict in Afghanistan. He will bring with him experience as the former head of the Afghan secret police, the ``Khad''. (He gave up the post last December.) The agency, under his leadership, made notable headway in infiltrating guerrilla ranks and stemming guerrilla infiltration from Pakistan.
Najibollah himself is known as a deft political gamesman, especially adept at playing tribal and ethnic ties to his advantage. He is a member of the Pushtun ethnic group. Yet he is a member of the Parcham faction of the ruling Communist Party, which is often at odds with the Pushtun-dominated Khalq faction.
Recent articles in the Soviet press have criticized the party -- and, by inference, former leader Karmal -- for failing to ``broaden'' the Afghan ``revolution'' by including diverse elements.