Signals from Moscow

It is much too soon to tell if the Soviet Union is softening its stand on Afghanistan, but we are glad to see that some signals out of Moscow these days are getting attention in Western capitals. A week ago Leonid Brezhnev stated publicly that the Russians are prepared to being withdrawing their troops "as soon as all forms of ouside interference directed against Afghanistan" are ended. Now he has reformulated his conditions in a talk with American businessman Armand Hammer, suggesting the US, Pakistan, Iran, and other guarantee to use their influence against alleged subversion of Afghanistan in return for a Soviet pullout.

On the face of it there is little in this to suggest anything but a smokescreen for continued Soviet occupation of that hapless country. With many nations threatening not to attend the Olympic Games in Moscow, and grain and other embargoes underway or planned, this is an opportune time to launch a diplomatic "peace offensive." This could all be merely self-serving. But the Western allies are properly proving to see if behind an ostensibly hard-line stance lies some room for a negotiated settlement of the crisis. Mr. Brezhnev's comments in fact come against the background of increased diplomatic activity in the West aimed at achieving a Soviet withdrawal. The European Community foreign ministers have called for a neutralized, demilitarized Afghanistan. Presient Carter, for his part, has proposed in a letter to President Tito that the US and the Soviet Union would join other nations in guaranteeing Afghanistan's neutrality if Russian troops were withdrawn.

It would be extremely difficult for the Soviets to back down in Afghanistan because their prestige is on the line. Yet they cannot but be having second thoughts about their disastrous decision to go all out in securing their hold there. The situation grows worse every day. Anti-Soviet strikes by shopkeepers continue to hobble economic life in Kabul. Martial law has been imposed and the country apparently is being run by a Soviet military commander.* There are reports that Shiite religious leaders have been executed for instigating riots -- a development which, if true, could have reverberations in Iran. The guerrilla war goes on. The Afghan people, in short, are turning against their Soviet overlords with a vengeance and pacifying them could only be done at enormous cost. From Moscow's point of view, this must look like an impossible situation -- and this is not even to mention the hard blows it has sustained in the West and in the third world.

This is why it is important for the West to keep pursuing the possibilities for a political solution. But, as we have suggested before, this is also a signal opportunity for the nonaligned nations of the world to demonstrate by more than mere rhetoric that they wish to be free of the influence of either superpower. The countries of the region, especially, which have an interest in a nonaligned Afghanistan, ought to be in the forefront of efforts to find a diplomatic formula acceptable to the Soviets. Following up their stern condemnation of the Soviet Union at the United Nations with concrete initiatives aimed at a Soviet pullback, they could show they have come of age in assuming responsibility for what happens in their own backyard.

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