Diplomatic efforts to resolve the Afghanistan problem are at a watershed. Recent talks between UN Secretary-General Perez de Cuellar with Afghan and Pakistani officials have proved sterile. Depending on further meetings with Afghan, Pakistani, Soviet, Iranian, and American officials in the coming days, he will decide whether to pursue his efforts or to drop them altogether.
Mr. de Cuellar is known not to want to appear party to a charade. But neither does he want to be accused of failing to go the extra mile in attempting to work out a negotiated settlement which would put an end to the bloodshed in Afghanistan.
Two rounds of Geneva indirect talks between Pakistan and Afghanistan produced some progress regarding procedure but almost none regarding substance, according to reliable sources.
The aim of the exercise, carried out essentially by the UN Secretary-General, is to tie up a package deal which would provide for:
* The phased withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan.
* The gradual return of Afghanistan refugees to their country.
* International guarantees of non-interference in Afghanistan's internal affairs by its neighbors and by the members of the security council.
* The free choice by the Afghan people of their own form of government.
While there is agreement on the principles of such a package, so far there has been no indication from Soviet officials that the Soviet Union is ready to consider a timetable for its withdrawal from Afghanistan. At the same time, Pakistan, cued by its Chinese and American friends, has also been somewhat less than forthcoming, according to diplomats in a position to know.
''A solution of the Afghan problem can only be part of a global deal between the US and the USSR,'' says a Western diplomat familiar with the problem. ''Essentially, the US would allow the Soviet Union to save face, to pull out of Afghanistan while making sure that that country could not become hostile to its northern neighbor. But as relations between the two superpowers have recently taken a turn for the worst, such a deal is not around the corner.''
Mr. de Cuellar is known to feel that if a third round of Geneva talks are to take place, the Afghan refugees should be represented at the bargaining table. It is unlikely that he will negotiate with rebels, whether they be anticommunist or anticapitalist.
''If he starts talking to rebel leaders as such, the Secretary-General would have to talk to the Salvadorean guerrillas, and, who knows, Corsican or Puerto Rican underground people,'' says one analyst. But he can bring the Afghan refugees into the talks. The UN high commissioner is mandated by the international community to deal with refugees.
Whichever way he goes, Mr. de Cuellar is likely to be criticized.
If he decides to send Assistant Secretary-General Diego Cordovez once more to shuttle between Islamabad and Kabul and if his efforts lead to no results, the Secretary-General might be accused by some of playing into the hands of the Soviet Union.
If he gives up on his efforts, others could accuse him of negligence and of siding with the hard-liners who are happy to see the Soviets trapped in Afghanistan.
The next step is under serious consideration by all parties. Mr. de Cuellar met with the foreign ministers of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He also had contacts with US, Soviet, and Iranian officials. The Secretary-General is expected to hold meetings again before the end of the month and will then decide whether to pursue his efforts or drop them.