A Soviet `decent interval'

IF Moscow wants to pull its remaining troops out of Afghanistan with minimal loses, it should talk to the people who carry the guns. Instead, Moscow has reverted to advanced saber-rattling. It brought long-range bombers, advanced jet fighters, and short-range missiles into the battle against the Afghan mujahideen, who are fighting to overthrow the communist government in Kabul. Moscow has also announced that it has suspended the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, scheduled to be complete by Feb. 15. About 50,000 troops remain there.

In the short term, the new weaponry has been used heavily against guerrillas around the city of Kandahar. Should that fall to the rebels, the Kabul regime could collapse from lost morale and defections before the Soviets leave. Over the longer term, Moscow is trying to intimidate Pakistan into stanching the flow of weapons to the mujahideen; the Soviets' beefed-up arsenal is more suited to attacking large stationary targets than highly mobile guerrilla units are. Properly positioned inside Afghanistan, the missiles can hit Peshawar, Pakistan, where the mujahideen's political leaders are headquartered.

The only visible response to the Soviets' battlefield thunder so far has been a statement from the United States of its support for Pakistan, a trip to Washington by the chairman of the Afghan resistance alliance to discuss reconstruction aid, and renewed attacks against Soviet troops by guerrillas in the field.

The United States has tried to convince the mujahideen that harassing Soviet troops will only slow the withdrawal. It should continue to do so. But US influence shouldn't be overestimated. The fiercely independent guerrilla forces that have so tenaciously resisted the Soviet invasion don't appear likely to take direction from yet another outside power.

Kabul's refusal to deal with the resistance during the UN-sponsored withdrawal negotiations has paid grim dividends. The Afghan prime minister has now said he plans to ask UN Secretary-General Javier P'erez de Cu'ellar to help bring Afghan resistance leaders to the bargaining table; Moscow should do likewise. Any ``decent interval'' for withdrawal requires the agreement of those shooting at you - as the US learned in Vietnam.

But the Kremlin's expectations should be modest and Kabul's realistic. One approach might be an interim government that contained neither communists nor rebel groups. Such a government would remain in power long enough to cover the withdrawal timetable and then supervise the formation of a new government.

Given the bitter feelings the war has aroused, Kabul's hope for a long-term coalition government with communists in influential positions isn't likely to pass muster among the rebels.

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