Prospects for a settlement of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan have dimmed. Highly placed United Nations diplomats even believe that the efforts of UN Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar are doomed to fail.
Both Afghanistan and Pakistan - and beyond them the Soviet Union and the United States - have hardened their positions significantly in recent weeks.
Nevertheless, Mr. Perez de Cuellar has decided to send the UN undersecretary for political affairs, Diego Cordovez, to Tehran, Kabul, and Islamabad early next year in search of an elusive compromise.
Presumably this trip could lead in May or June to a third round of indirect talks in Geneva between Pakistan and Afghanistan, with the US, China, and Soviet Union watching in the wings and with Iran ''being informed of the proceedings.''
Or, if Diego Cordovez does not succeed, it could force Perez de Cuellar to give up on his efforts at ensuring the Afghan peoples' right to self-determination and the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan.
Since the last Geneva rounds held in June, all the parties concerned have been stalling and, to some extent, backtracking, according to sources here.
Recent talks held by Perez de Cuellar with Afghanistan Foreign Minister Muhammad Dost and with Pakistani Foreign Minister Yacuv Kahn have proved disappointing.
Last spring, Afghanistan hinted at its willingness to allow its refugees in Pakistan to have a voice at the Geneva talks. This was a way to bring the resistance fighters, without defining them as such, into the negotiations.
But Kabul has since made this politically impossible by insisting that only the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and not Mr. Dost, should ''consult'' the refugees.
Perez de Cuellar had been adamant about receiving a timetable from the Afghans and their Soviet friends for withdrawal of Soviet troops. The central idea was that Afghan refugees would be allowed to return gradually to Afghanistan as Soviet troops would leave the country.
Afghanistan rejects this and demands that Pakistan first stop giving shelter and military support to rebel groups.
Pakistan had made a major concession in drafting a ''declaration of nonintervention'' by which it commits itself not to support rebel activities inside Afghanistan once Soviet troops have been pulled out of the country. Now it is unwilling to make further concessions. It will not talk directly to Afghan representatives or specify what guarantees could be given to Moscow to the effect that Afghanistan not be allowed to become hostile to the Soviet Union.
This toughening of the Afghan and Pakistani positions is attributed to the worsening of US-Soviet relations.
''The US is not interested in providing the Soviets with a graceful exit from Afghanistan. Everyone - the Soviets, the Americans, the Pakistanis, the Afghans - dream of a return to the status quo ante: a neutral, independent Afghanistan not hostile to any of its neighbors,'' a senior Western diplomat said.
''However, the Soviet invasion has created such animosity against the USSR that it is impossible to artificially lead Afghanistan back to where it was before 1979.''
The Soviet Union is not interested in withdrawing from a strategically placed country that puts its armed forces within striking distance of the Middle East and the Indian Ocean. Afghanistan might have been a bargaining chip at a superpower summit, but any such tradeoff is not possible right now, according to observers here.
In sum, Perez de Cuellar's renewed and cautious efforts toward a settlement, while praiseworthy, are unlikely to lead to a quick solution of the Afghan problem, according to analysts here.
''Basically none of the parties concerned is exceedingly unhappy with the present situation, except of course, the Afghan people,'' one diplomat said.