Steady progress on United Nations' plan for Afghanistan

The UN secretary-general's efforts to find a compromise on Afghanistan are showing signs of progress. Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar is not expected to make a sudden or dramatic announcement. But, inch by inch, a solution is being worked out that would restore Afghanistan's independence and self-determination.

According to highly placed sources, a second round of Afghanistan talks in Geneva between Afghan Foreign Minister Shah Muhammad Dost and Pakistani Foreign Minister Sahibzada Yakub Kahn has made progress toward a comprehensive settlement. Perez de Cuellar's representative, Diego Cordovez, has been the interlocutor for these talks.

The draft of a package that sets out the principles and objectives of an agreement is near completion. It contains specific provisions and a time frame for implementation, focusing on arrangements concerning:

* The gradual withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan.

* The gradual but unimpeded return of the refugees.

* The announcement of international guarantees of noninterference in Afghan internal matters as well as Afghanistan's proclaiming itself strictly neutral and nonaligned.

The agreement establishes a specific schedule for each of these ''steps.''

According to informed observers of the process, various strings of the package remain loose. ''The word 'time frame' is used in the Geneva communique but in a vague manner, without specifying what it is supposed to relate,'' says one analyst. But the glass that looks half-empty to some looks half-full to others and the same diplomat admits that ''two years ago Afghan authorities refused to even use the word refugees.''

A key question lurking in the background of the discussions is whether the Soviet Union would eventually be willing to replace the Babrak Karmal regime by a broader-based one and whether it will be able to get the rebels - now diplomatically referred to as ''refugees'' - to support and even to take part in such a regime.

According to reliable sources, Soviet officials have talked periodically to the former King of Afghanistan, Muhammad Zahir Shah, who lives in Rome and who could act as an umbrella under which a national consensus could be glued together. This seems to indicate that the Soviet Union is seeking ways to extricate itself from the Afghan hornets' nest.

Many observers say that an improvement in US-Soviet relations and a more stable Middle East are essential to a political solution in Afghanistan. ''The Soviet Union wants out of Afghanistan, but not at any price, and as long as US-USSR tensions remain as serious as they are now, there is little likelihood of a Soviet pullout from Afghanistan,'' says an Asian ambassador.

''It may take a year or two until we get there, but we are watching step-by-step movement in that direction,'' says a high-ranking Western diplomat.

The Geneva talks have been suspended to enable the delegations to consult their capitals, but will resume June 16.

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