An end to the Afghan conflict could hardly come too soon.
Apart from dangerously destabilizing Southwest Asia, the communist takeover in 1978 and the Soviet invasion almost two years later have created the world's largest current refugee crisis, devastated countless villages and towns, and led to the deaths of up to half a million people.
In addition, the conflict has been a thorn in the side of the Russian bear.
Already well before the passing of Leonid Brezhnev in November, Soviet diplomats had made it known in conversations with Westerners that the Kremlin's Afghanistan venture had become too sticky for comfort and that it was angling for a way out. Since the rise to power of Yuri Andropov, Soviet peace feelers have begun to penetrate virtually every debate regarding a political settlement.
Although Moscow is not even included in the next round of United Nations talks on Afghanistan, Undersecretary-General Diego Cordovez is cautiously optimistic that Soviet flexibility could open fresh avenues. He is also well aware that the communist regime in Kabul cannot act without the assent of the Soviets.
At the recent summit meeting in Copenhagen, European Community leaders reacted to a possible change in the Kremlin policy by calling on the new leadership to reassess its Afghanistan policy if it wanted to improve international and East-West relations. And commenting on Afghanistan's future, President Zia ul-Haq of Pakistan said he believed the Soviets were prepared to pursue negotiations but would never accept the existence of a government hostile to Moscow.
Nevertheless, considerable skepticism exists among informed Western and third world observers concerning the Kremlin's sincerity about wanting to pack its bags and leave. Similar reservations have been expressed by Soviet, Polish, and other Eastern European dissidents. The Soviets, it is felt, have too much to lose - militarily, politically, and economically.
Officially, the Kremlin still insists that Afghanistan is an ''internal affair'' and that Soviet troops are not militarily involved except in a supportive role to the Afghan Army. But were it not for the Soviets, the 25,000 -strong, demoralized, and defection-ridden Afghan Army would have collapsed long ago, and with it, the Kabul government.
Ever since their liquidation of recalcitrant communist Afghan leader Hafizullah Amin during the December 1979 invasion and his replacement by surrogate leader Babrak Karmal, the Soviets have to all intents and purposes assumed total command of the Afghan government and the war against the resistance.
Every government minister in Kabul, for example, is provided with at least two Soviet advisers who maintain close liaison with their embassy and have the final say over all matters. Because of the high rate of defections among competent civil servants, teachers, and qualified technical personnel, the Soviets have brought in their own people, many of them Soviet Central Asians, to run the administration and schools. Even the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan, the Afghan communist party, has long since lost its powers of decision in the running of the country.
Although Moscow tries whenever possible to launch combined operations with Afghan troops against the mujahideen (''freedom fighters''), Soviet conscripts have assumed full combat roles. This is reflected by the rise in Soviet casualties, believed to be much higher this year than in 1981. According to Afghan Air Force defectors, fighter planes are no longer piloted by Afghans but by Soviets. Many of their sortiesare said to be flown from bases inside the Soviet Union.
All military actions are planned by Soviet commanders with Afghan officers standing by on an advisory basis, if at all. Because of the intense collaboration of many Afghan Army officers and government officials with the resistance, the Soviets have begun to inform their Afghan counterparts of planned attacks as late as possible to avoid leaks. One reason behind the increasing number of operations carried out by Soviet troops or planes based across the border is said to be an attempt to retain secrecy.
Since its intervention, the Soviet Union has invested heavily in Afghanistan. It has nearly completed new airfields in southern Afghanistan and improved or enlarged others such as Shindand near the Iranian frontier, putting Soviet jetfighters and helicopters within easy range of the Arab Gulf oilfields.
Furthermore, the Soviets are already exploiting the huge natural gas reserves in the northern part of Afghanistan - at prices that are about half the normal commercial rates. The country's vast mineral resources are suspected to include oil deposits, and exploration is already in an advanced stage.
It seems improbable that the Soviets would simply withdraw. They would have to tolerate the political presense of a ''victorious'' force of Islamic freedom fighters, whose influence has already begun to spread across the frontier into the Soviet Muslim republics.
If anything, the Soviet presence in Afghanistan has become more subtle. Moscow's idea of an Afghanistan ''friendly to the Soviet Union,'' it is felt, bears much more resemblance to a Mongolian-style satellite than the Finlandization some Western observers have suggested the Soviets might be prepared to accept.
In recent months, Western journalists and travelers have returned from Afghanistan with reports of changing strategy. The Soviets have recognized that to annihilate the resistance would require a commitment involving hundreds of thousands of troops, a move the Kremlin has been unwilling to take.
In some areas where the guerrillas have remained embarrassingly prominent, the Soviets have continued to use massive military force with the aim of crushing every vestige of resistance. Allowing uncompromising mujahideen leaders such as the Panjshir Valley's Ahmad Shah Massoud to survive would endanger plans for continued Soviet domination albeit within the framework of a ''political'' settlement.
But in other parts, KGB-style subversion in the guise of informers and agents provocateurs has been introduced to replace conventional military tactics in an attempt to cause splits among the guerrillas.
''It's a matter of working on personal rivalries in order to get the mujahideen to fight among themselves,'' said Alain Guillo, a French reporter who has traveled to Afghanistan several times and has been in the northern provinces near the Soviet border.
Military assaults are still carried out, but on a sporadic and smaller scale. They are aimed primarily at demoralizing the population. The Soviets have resorted to calculated economic pressure tactics ranging from artificial price increases of foodstuffs such as wheat and ghee (butter) to bombardment of harvests.
There are strong indications the KGB was placing its agents in the resistance even before the invasion and has continued to do so. If certain reports are to be believed, the KGB has been at odds with Red Army tactics on how to deal with the resistance from the very beginning. But the Red Army has proven itself incapable of making real headway against the guerrillas. Now with Andropov, the former head of the KGB at the helm, things have begun to change.
Some observers say the Soviets could make a gesture, perhaps under a proposed UN plan, to make a staged withdrawal of some of its troops. Perhaps as many as 30,000 troops on Afghan territory could easily be dispensed with. Any suddenly required military reinforcements could be flown in without difficulty from the Soviet Union. The Kremlin could declare itself ready for negotiations with the Peshawar-based guerrilla organizations, but would still retain substantial security forces in and around the towns and particularly the air bases.
The Soviet concept of a political solution may not necessarily coincide with what the Afghan resistance has in mind. Hatred for the Russians and their communist stooges has become too bitter to be dismissed with the signing of a peace document. It is therefore doubtful that any broad-based government including communists would be acceptable to the overwhelming majority of the Afghans.
Nevertheless, many Afghans are tired of the war and would welcome some form of respite. The Afghans also seem realistic enough to understand that they will have to live in the shadow of the Soviet bear no matter what.
Within this framework, a government ''not hostile to Moscow'' could be formed eventually, but there is little indication that the Afghans would tolerate the presence of Soviet armed forces on Afghan soil, even if that presence were limited to one or two air bases. In addition, many Afghans would insist on an immediate end to Soviet political meddling and economic exploitation of their country's resources.
At the same time, however, it is difficult to believe that the Soviets will surrender complete control of such a strategic forward base as Afghanistan.
As a negotiating basis, the four-point UN plan offers some hope. Basically, it would include a timetable for the departure of Soviet troops and guarantees by each side that neither would promote armed intervention against the other. The Soviet Union, the United States, and China should ensure the guarantees. The right conditions would be promoted to allow the safe return of the 2.8 million refugees in Pakistan and the estimated 500,000 to 1 million in Iran.
But all this still leaves a great deal of leeway for individual interpretation. What, for example, are the right conditions which would encourage the return of Afghanistan's swelling refugee population?
Another major problem is that an anti-Soviet alliance has yet to emerge. The Afghans lack a political leader acceptable to both the Peshawar-based organizations and the so-called ''fronts of the interior,'' although someone as widely respected as Abdul Rahman Pazhwak, former president of the UN General Assembly, would certainly have an influential role to play to get things moving.
In principle, five out of six of the main Peshawar Afghan organizations have declared themselves prepared to talk with the Soviets. Only the Hezb-i-Islami faction run by fundamentalist leader Hekmatyar Gulbuddin has loudly announced that its men will continue the ''jihad'' (holy war) against the Soviets. Ironically, it is his group that isconsidered to be in indirect collaboration with the Kremlin.
President Zia ul-Haq of Pakistan could probably pressure all the Peshawar groups to sit down and work out a settlement by threatening to throw them out or stop their financial support from the Gulf. But the Peshawar exiles, particularly the moderate organizations, have lost a great deal of influence among the interior fronts.
Some Western sources have reported unity among resistance fronts in parts of Afghanistan where it did not exist a year ago. Some regional leaders reaching positions of influence that have begun to challenge the exiled Peshawar leaders. A few have maintained they will negotiate only once every last Soviet soldier has left Afghanistan. To prevent an outbreak of civil war resulting from an unacceptable compromised settlement, a broad consensus will be needed.
A nonaligned Afghanistan, open to both East and West, appears to be a common desire among the resistence. At present, the moderates and the fundamentalists are divided over whether a new Afghanistan should be an Islamic republic, a lay republic or a constitutional monarchy. The fundamentalists themselves are at odds as to whether they want a progressive Islamic republic or one as radical as Ayatollah Khomeini's Iran. Even without the Soviets, Afghanistan's future will be a difficult one.
But some observers say the KGB will never allow Afghan independence to develop that far. The Soviets will see to it that the resistance remains divided until they can find a leader strong enough to rule at Moscow's bidding, or insipid enough to keep the country weak and divided.