Afghanistan: a way out?

One area where the new Soviet leadership could make an early impact on world opinion is Afghanistan. The recent tunnel disaster there in which hundreds of Soviet soldiers and Afghan civilians were killed is but the latest tragic reminder to Moscow of what an impossible situation it is in - politically and militarily - as long as it continues to rule an unwilling people.

In military terms, the Russians are capable of maintaining the occupation indefinitely. The Afghan guerrilla fighters, for all their prowess, have not been able to dislodge the Soviet invaders. Yet they continue to deny them a victory, adding daily to Soviet casualties. In recent months there have even been bold partisan raids in and around the capital of Kabul. Whatever the Soviets do to put down the resistance, it is clear that they will never eliminate it or pacify the country.

This makes it difficult for Moscow to enhance its position elsewhere in the world. As long as its troops are in Afghanistan, it will continue to be the target of opprobrium. The Soviet leadership may rail at America's ''imperialism'' and ''cold war'' policies, but such rhetoric merely hides the Kremlin's embarrassment over what is an egregious case of Soviet imperialism.

There are in fact signs that the Russians would like to shed this diplomatic and military albatross. They have watched closely as Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan, through the good offices of the UN, have discussed the possibility of a political settlement. Andrei Gromyko in September referred to the talks as ''moving in the right direction.'' With relations on the Asian continent in a state of flux generally, the UN mission could grow in importance.

Western experts believe the Russians would agree to a pullout on certain conditions: an international agreement on non-interference in Afghan internal affairs, Afghanistan's strict neutrality, and a moderate regime in Kabul that would not be hostile to the Soviet Union. One solution might be a Finland-style solution that combined internal autonomy for Afghanistan with security guarantees to Moscow.

The West should be doing everything it can to encourage a political settlement, being mindful in the process of the legitimate security interests which the Soviet Union has in this part of the world. It is disconcerting to read that some in the Reagan administration may not be interested in a Soviet withdrawal because the US would lose a strong propaganda weapon against Moscow. If true, that would be diplomacy at its most cynical.

The Soviet suppression of Afghanistan need not be lasting. Bold diplomacy can foster a solution which enables the Russians to undo their costly mistake without intolerable loss of face - and frees the intrepid Afghan people of their heavy foreign yoke.

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