If the Soviet Union's peace feelers on Afghanistan are genuine, as reported this fall, that assuredly is good news. If the USSR demands improved relations with the United States and China as a prerequisite to taking action itself, however, that casts doubt on Soviet sincerity. It is all too reminiscent of traditional Soviet Pavlovian diplomacy, a standard stumbling block to meaningful negotiations with the USSR.
Pavlovian diplomacy involves several stages of negotiation, somewhat analogous to the Russian psychologist's stages of experimentation with animals. The first stage (deprivation) equates in diplomatic terms to the insistence by the USSR on a set of unac-ceptable conditions. In Afghanistan, it has been the Soviet demand that only Babrak Karmal's firmly pro-Soviet government (or a clone thereof) would be tolerable to Moscow, and that all interested powers (or the United Nations) would have to guarantee that regime's stability before the USSR would consider withdrawing its occupation forces.
In effect, the USSR is insisting that the thankless, hopeless task of keeping a totally discredited government in power should be internationalized. This demand, of course, is unacceptable.
The next stage is akin to Pavlov's ringing of the bell before feeding his animals, with the difference that Pavlov usually followed through on his implied promise and the USSR usually does not. In the diplomatic world, this stage is typified by an apparent sudden softening in the Soviet position, one that is telegraphed not directly but by unnamed high-ranking diplomats or Moscow officials, sometimes via some breathless third-world figure.
This, one fears, may be the stage we have now entered in negotiations on Afghanistan, with the implication that agreement is near and only a few minor obstacles need to be cleared up.
The euphoria produced by this stage is as illusory as it is fleeting. The minor obstacles in the path of agreement, when examined closely, are not minor at all, or the Soviet negotiators refuse to specify precisely what Moscow wants. The goal is to split the opposing team.
There are several indications that the USSR today is not too serious about its signals of an impending withdrawal. One is their condescending acknowledgement that the Afghans should be a granted a ''measure of self-determination.'' As the Soviets know better than anyone, the Afghan resistance has not been fighting for a ''measure'' of self-determination, nor is it the business of the USSR, the US, or any combination of powers to grant them a portion of what inherently is all theirs. The worst mistake the US could make would be to become involved in propping up any regime in Afghanistan, especially if this were done in league with the USSR.
A second indication that the outlook for a successful negotiated settlement is dim comes with the murky allegation that the Reagan administration may secretly wish the Soviet occupation to continue in order to blacken the Soviet image. This looks suspiciously like early preparation to place the blame on the US for any anticipated failure in negotiations.
The most outrageous part of the Soviet package, however, is the demand that China and the US must mend their relations with the USSR before a settlement can be negotiated. This puts the cart before the horse, for it was the Soviet invasion of her small neighbor, more than any other factor in recent years, that brought Moscow's relations with the Americans and the Chinese to their nadir. Until some concrete steps are taken by the Soviet side, it is unlikely that Washington or Peking would accept a mere promise to withdraw as a valid reason for altering policies that the act of invasion provoked.
Nevertheless, despite the indications that Pavlov is at the negotiating table , the outlook of meaningful results is not entirely pessimistic. It is encouraging that the USSR has been extremely careful to leave the door open for retreat. Although they made the error of referring to Afghanistan as a ''member of the Socialist family of nations'' in 1979, they have studiously avoided all such professions of kinship in later times, especially after the invasion. Today , Soviet sources consistently describe the country as being in the ''national democratic'' stage of development. Even the Afghan communists, who early in 1980 boasted that the Soviet forces had arrived to help ''spearhead socialism,'' by 1981 were denying that socialism would arrive in the lifetime of the current leadership generation.
The significance of this seemingly minor point is that the Brezhnev Doctrine of protecting socialism ''wherever in the world it is threatened'' does not apply in Afghanistan. Instead, the occupation is justified (incorrectly) on the basis of Article 51 of the UN Charter and the 1978 Soviet-Afghan Friendship Treaty, both of them nonideological - and hence relatively weak - commitments. With tough, wary, patient negotiations, it should be possible to induce the USSR to put them aside.
Meanwhile, both the Western public and its negotiators should be aware of the dangers of Pavlovian diplomacy. So, in fact, should the Soviets. Pavlov drove some of his dogs mad with random ringing of the feeding bell. The Soviets may not achieve that effect with our negotiators, but they certainly risk destroying all belief in their good faith, a result just as detrimental to their best interests in the long run.