Pressures are growing here for Pakistan, viewed in Washington as a key strategic ally against Soviet expansionism, to consider a softer line toward Moscow.
Well-placed Pakistani sources report that the editor of a prominent weekly magazine with close ties to President Zia ul-Haq has been asked for a confidential report on how popular opinion would react to any move toward recognizing the Moscow-backed Kabul government of Babrak Karmal.
Meanwhile, Western sources in Islamabad say they detect among some senior Pakistani diplomats a growing feeling that the only way out of the impasse with Moscow is to signal some kind of recognition of Babrak Karmal and to open a new dialogue with the Soviets.
The new pressures may represent a split between President Zia's generals and the civilians who operate Pakistan's diplomacy.
The Reagan administration would strongly oppose any Pakistani softening. It is going to great lengths to assure General Zia of US support against Soviet troops next door. The US also seeks Pakistan's cooperation to counter the Soviets in the Middle East.
Some Western sources dismiss the report about the weekly newspaper, saying it represents, if true, no more than normal government contingency planning.
But other observers tie the report to the rationale they detect among Pakistani diplomats. The rationale goes this way:
Soviet troops cannot be dislodged from Afghanistan by force, just as they cannot subdue areas outside the cities unless they are strongly reinforced. Soviet strategy seems to be to hold on, to support Karmal and await developments.
(The Karmal government was installed by Soviet troops in December 1979. Some 85,000 Soviet troops remain in Afghanistan.)
The thesis argues that now is the time to send some kind of signal to Moscow that Pakistan is prepared to accept Babrak Karmal as a fact of life in Kabul. This, it is said, could break the diplomatic impasse with Moscow, lend greater flexibility to Pakistani democracy, and lead to an easing of Soviet and Afghan pressure on Pakistan's western borders.
There is even some hope, according to this thesis, that talks with Moscow might open up some kind of inducement to the 2 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan to start going home. The aim would be to cut the financial burden on Pakistan and reduce the tribal frictions that the refugee presence exacerbates.
But the hope is slim: The refugees fled Afghanistan because they dislike and fear Karmal and Soviet occupation. Pakistani recognition of Karmal could add to their fears.
So far, General Zia and his military government have rejected Moscow's demand for talks that would, in effect, grant Karmal legitimate status.
Even if so inclined, President Zia is unlikely to take new iniatives toward Moscow while the US Congress is considering an aid package.
The US Senate has just approved a $3.2 billion package of economic aid and military credits for Pakistan, on condition that President Zia does not explode the nuclear device many experts say he is building. The House of Representatives is about to take up the package.
Neither Senate nor House has yet acted on a formal administration notification Oct. 23 that the US intends to sell Pakistan 40 super-sophisticated F-16 fighter-bomber aircraft. The sale will go through unless both houses veto it within 30 days.
The choices for Pakistan seem to be to continue standing firm against Soviet diplomacy with US support and international aid for the Afghan refugees, or exploring a softer line toward Moscow while keeping as close as possible to Washington.
An important pressure on President Zia is the refugees. Two million of them (the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates 1.6 million, while Pakistan says 2.5 million) are camped along the broad arc from Peshawar in the northwest to Quetta, further south.
They have millions of head of livestock with them, all grazing on land claimed by local tribes.
Two issues confront President Zia. One is financial: Who is to pay for maintaining the refugees? The US contributed $100 million last year. Western Europe, Japan, and Australia gave another $100 million. Pakistan says it spent $ 200 million of its own money. For how long will other countries keep up their payments?
Already some European countries are saying privately they cannot sustain another Palestinian-type of aid program for 35 years or more.
The other major issue is tribal: The refugees are Pashto-speakers. In Baluchistan Province, where Baluchis are in the majority with 1.6 millon, there are now almost 1 million Pashto-speakers (half a million local, half a million Afghans). This alarms the Baluchis. Their separatist movement appears to have quieted since the Soviet troops arrived next door, but the Soviets could try to exploit it at any time.
Despite Pakistan's present pro-American tilt, a US visitor quickly detects, even at senior levels, reservations about the United States.
Conversations recall how Washington cut off spare parts to Pakistani armed forces during the war with India in 1965. US spare parts to India also ended, but the effect was much greater here. Pakistani arms are largely US, while India's are largely Soviet and French.
The Pakistani sources who revealed the request to the weekly newspaper editor said the man is a close confidant of President Zia. His weekly is published in the Urdu language. All publications are under strict censorship during the current period of martial law. The editor is said to be still working on his report.