In a major turnaround, Pakistan is moving rapidly toward an accommodation with Afghanistan's Soviet-installed regime. Until recently, Pakistan has been one of the most vocal critics in condemning the Soviet invasion and occupation of neighboring Afghanistan. Pakistan also has provided a haven for the 1 million or so Afghan refugees, many of whom return intermittently to their mountainous homeland to fight guerrilla engagements against the Soviet and Afghan government forces.
But now it appears likely that direct talks between high-level Pakistani and Afghan officials will take place soon, probably before two international meetings at which the subject would have arisen: the Jan. 28 Islamic Conference summit in Taif, Saudi Arabia; and the Feb. 9 conference of nonaligned foreign ministers in New Delhi.
These Pakistan-Afghanistan talks, according to reliable sources here, will be held in the presence of a representative of UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim.
Observers here see the political solution being worked out now as a softening of the positions of both Pakistan and the Soviet Union. They say that Pakistan, left out in the cold by its friends and provided mostly with rhetorical support by the West, is eager to placate the Soviet Union, whose military forces are stationed at its borders.
For its part, the Soviet Union is eager to remove this bone of contention between itself and the nonaligned countries and to move out of its isolation at the UN.
Intense diplomatic efforts in the last few weeks have led up to this softening. During her recent visit to New Delhi, Mrs. Anahita Ratebzad, minister of education of Afghanistan, had indicated that President Karmal is no longer opposed to meeting with Iranians and Pakistani leaders in the presence of a UN representative, as long as the resolution condemning Soviet intervention in Afghanistan is not explicitly linked to the meeting.
Agha Shahi, foreign affairs adviser to Pakistani President Zia ul-Haq, has stopped insisting that Soviet troops be withdrawn before any talks with Afghanistan can take place and no longer insists that Afghan rebel forces be represented at the talks. Furthermore he has just traveled to Peking and to Belgrade to explain his position to the two non-Western governments who were among the strongest critics of Soviet intervention in Afghanistan and whose understanding, if not support, he tried to obtain. A high-level Indian emissary is also shuttling between Kabul and Islamabad.
Two obstacles to the Afghanistan-Pakistan talks remain to be overcome:
* Pakistan's insistence that Babrak Karmal participate in them not as head of the government but as the leader of the Popular Democratic Party. Well-placed sources believe that this difficulty will be overcome by Mr. Karmal by not attending the meeting personally but delegating to it a lesser governmental official in his capacity as a party member. Thus the fiction that Pakistan is not at this point talking to the Afghan government could be maintained while Mr. Karmal's dignity as head of state would not be tarnished.
* Pakistan's uneasiness about seeking a solution to the Afghan problem without Iran, inasmuch as the Islamic Conference had mandated that the two countries work together on this issue. However, Iran has problems of its own, and so Islamabad may feel justified in acting on its own, according to the same sources.
Pakistan's change of heart can be explained, diplomats say, by its growing feeling of isolation. "Pakistan has been left alone to bear the brunt of the grave consequences of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan," says one nonaligned diplomat.
He adds, "China is weak. The US is far away and its offers of military aid have lacked credibility in Pakistan's eyes. The USSR is close and menacing. It could support dissidents in Baluchistan and bring about the disintegration of Pakistan."
Another highly respected analyst does not see Pakistan's move toward the Kabul regime as a unilateral diplomatic retreat. "Moscow is also softening its stance somewhat under the pressure of the nonaligned votes to condemn it at the UN. Until recently the USSR had claimed that the question of the legitimacy of the Karmal regime was a purely internal affair," he says.