The attempt to find a political solution for Afghanistan has bogged down in a procedural wrangle. Only a month ago it seemed that a way out of the political quagmire might be found. But hopes for negotiations now are fading fast.
Indeed, the Soviet-installed Afghan regime in Kabul is still poles apart from its two neighbors -- even on such basics as who should talk to whom, in what capacity, and under whose auspices.
Hopes that negotiations on Afghanistan could begin soon peaked last month on the eve of a nonaligned foreign ministers meeting in the Indian capital. Pakistan had received signals of a Soviet willingness to negotiate, and it had petitioned United Nations Secretary General Kurt Waldheim to name a special representative to get a dialogue going.
Mr. Waldheim did name one of his top deputies as a special representative. But then, belying earlier understandings, Afghanistan and the Soviet Union insisted that the United Nations be a passive observer rather than active participant in the talks.
Afghanistan also insisted on separate one-on-one talks with each of its neighbors, Pakistan and Iran, while Pakistan stuck with previous Islamic Conference resolutions mandating three-way talks.
One apparent Soviet-Afghan concession was that the Afghans would take part in talks as representatives of the ruling party rather than the government.This was a face-saving move for Pakistan and other Islamic nations that refuse to recognize the Soviet-installed Karmal regime.
But Iran then balked at any contact at all with the "illegal regime" and said it would talk only to representatives of the Afghan people -- the rebels fighting both the Soviet troops and the Karmal government.
The talks have been stalemated since the nonaligned meeting. Many observers now think Moscow was hinting earlier at "flexibility" on negotiations just to hold down criticism from the nonaligned countries over the continued Soviet presence in Afghanistan. Later, at the 26th party congress in Moscow, the Kremlin leadership reiterated its 10-month-old preconditions for a settlement and troop withdrawal: an end to what it called the "infiltration of counterrevolutionary gangs" and dependable international guarantees that there would be no fresh intervention.
The Kremlin position is based on the presumption that the Afghan rebels are foreign trained, armed, and instigated. The foreign culprits are most frequently identified as the US, China, and Pakistan.
The Soviet view belies the fact that the rebellion is homegrown, intensely nationalistic and partly religious, aimed at driving out foreign occupation forces and the Karmal government which they prop up.
"These are all maneuvers between states," says a diplomatic observer of the moves for a political settlement. "If they agree on anything, I don't think it would have any effect on the Mujahideen [holy warriors] in Afghanistan. There are no speakers for them."
In this view, shared by many skeptical observers of the political settlement prospects, the rebels would go on resisting any foreign-imposed government -- no matter how many international signatories "guaranteed" an end to the fighting.
"What if there are guarantees and there's still resistance?" a regional analyst asks. "The Russians are not going to admit that the Afghans don't like them. They'll take the position that as long as there's resistance i n Afghanistan, then there's outside interference."