Are the first glimmers of light beginning to flicker at the end of the long Soviet tunnel in Afghanistan? It is premature to voice optimism but not too early to note some interesting activity. Soviet leader Yuri Andropov has told UN Secretary-General Perez de Cuellar in Moscow that he backs United Nations efforts to end the Afghanistan war. This follows on signals over some months now that Mr. Andropov is seeking a fresh approach to one of Moscow's most difficult and embarrassing foreign policy problems.
He should be encouraged by the international community to press ahead in that search. Mr. Andropov is shrewd enough to know that removal of the Afghan millstone would do much to recover the diplomatic ground the Soviet Union has lost throughout the world as a result of its occupation of an independent nation. By this act alone, Mr. Andropov could bolster Soviet ties with the Muslim world and the nonaligned nations. He could repair tattered relations with the West. And, with gradual withdrawal of the 100,000 Soviet troops now fighting in Afghanistan, he would save a parcel of money.
Moscow's dilemma is how to pull out without a total loss of its military and political investment there and intolerable loss of face. The talks being conducted by a UN emissary with Afghan, Pakistani, and Iranian representatives have run into obstacles, including the refusal of the government in Kabul to consider a political accommodation with the freedom fighters. Kabul will not talk with the ''rebels'' though it apparently is prepared to talk with refugee representatives of the resistance - if these can be agreed upon.
Probably the minimum the Russians would accept is an international agreement on noninterference in Afghan affairs, Afghanistan's neutrality, and a ''friendly'' regime in Kabul. Whether the latter could be a Finland-style state is open to question, however. Some Western observers believe that Moscow's goal is more likely a Mongolian-style satellite that is little distinguishable from the Soviet Central Asian republics. The rich mineral resources of Afghanistan, which the Russians now are exploiting, may be too tempting to give up. But who knows?
Much may depend on what the Afghan guerrillas themselves do. The Afghan people are reported to be weary of the war and, for all their hatred of the Russians, know that they must somehow adjust to living next door to them. Unfortunately, the Afghan guerrillas after three years of fighting have yet to develop a united leadership acceptable both to the resistance organizations based in Pakistan and those inside Afghanistan. This disunity among the freedom fighters has only played into the hands of the Russians, who cleverly infiltrate guerrilla ranks in an effort to keep the pot stirred. Building a united resistance front is therefore crucial to a good settlement.
In any case, if Mr. Andropov wants a settlement, the West should be encouraging such a course. The United States, especially, can make it known to the Kremlin that a political solution in Afghanistan would have a positive effect on US-Soviet relations. Indeed, Mr. Andropov is not apt to end - or moderate - the Soviet domination of Afghanistan without the quid pro quo of arms control and other agreements with the US and a stabilizing of US-Soviet ties. Diplomatic progress may thus have to be made simultaneously on a number of fronts.
For Mr. Andropov, the alternative to a political settlement in Afghanistan can only be more fighting, more Soviet casualties, the lasting enmity of the Afghans, and the continuing scorn of the world community. Is this the legacy he wishes to shape for his country?