As the world grapples with each new crisis, it tends to forget the old. So it is with Afghanistan. Yet someone ought to be noticing the glimmer of hope surrounding events in that war-ravaged land. What it boils down to is the Soviet Union's recognition that it made a gross miscalculation in invading Afghanistan and its apparent desire to find a political way out of the morass. Needless to say, such an outcome is much to be desired.
The Afghan people obviously have proved harder to deal with than the Russians expected. As Monitor correspondent Edward Girardet brings out in his recent dispatches from the scene, popular resistance to the Soviet occupation continues to grow. Despite their recent massive offensive in the Panjshir Valley, the Russians are giving up the effort to hold it. Their losses have been high, those of the mujahideen or freedom fighters relatively light.
Like the Americans in Vietnam over a decade ago, the Russians face a fierce nationalism that does not go away. They could opt for an all-out military victory by pouring half a million men and sufficient arms into Afghanistan. But , perhaps having learned the lesson of Vietnam, they have chosen not to do so.
How Moscow will extricate itself from an impossible situation is still far from clear. But the first substantive talks last month between Pakistan and the Soviet-backed Afghan regime under UN auspices evidenced some modest movement.For one thing, the Afghans (with the Russians present informally behind the scenes) actually touched on the subject of a withdrawal of Soviet occupation troops - a subject they had previously insisted was a bilateral matter. For another, the Kabul representatives agreed on the need for some mechanism for consulting with the Afghan refugees regarding their future. This is deemed important because the mujahideen, who are hardly distinguishable from the refugees, could ultimately become involved in consultations.
In this connection it is significant that the guerrillas are cooperating with each other more militarily. Afghans outside the country, meanwhile, are also making some progress in bringing together various political factions. This is encouraging because it is fractiousness and lack of unity that have prevented the Afghan people in the past from forging a strong, self-styled national government.
There is a long way to go, of course, before the UN diplomatic process bears fruit. But the low-key talks last month at least keep the process going. UN Under Secretary General Diego Cordoves will talk with the Russians again in Moscow in the fall, and he may also travel to the region. If the Soviet leadership is as eager for a nonmilitary solution as seems evident, these visits could lead to further direct talks among the parties involved (including Iran).
Clearly the West ought to do everything possible to encourage a political settlement. It can help most not through making an East-West issue of the Soviet brutalization of Afghanistan. But through continued military and other aid for the Afghan freedom fighters and quiet support for the UN's diplomatic effort, leaving it to Pakistan and others to carry the ball. As for the Russians, they will be done in by their own folly.