THIS is a crucial moment in the tragic Afghanistan war. Renewed diplomatic efforts are under way to find a resolution to the brutal conflict, now in its sixth year. At the same time, the Soviet Union and its Kabul-backed regime have been stepping up their war against the guerrillas during recent weeks, driving the war closer and closer to the Pakistani border.
Clearly, it is in the best interest of all parties to the dispute -- including the Soviet Union -- that a diplomatic settlement be reached. The war has already taken a terrible toll in terms of casualties and suffering. For the Soviets, the war also represents a severe financial drain as well as an emotional tug that diverts the attention of government officials away from making needed economic reforms at home. And, as President Reagan has correctly observed, the war continues to be a major hindrance to better Soviet-US relations.
For just such reasons, the diplomatic stirrings under way deserve public awareness and the support of all persons of goodwill. This week officials from the United States and the Soviet Union sit down to discuss Afghanistan, the first time they have done so since 1982. And later this week, UN sponsored talks will resume in Geneva between Afghan and Pakistani delegations.
Such modest efforts, of course, must be kept in careful perspective. Although a definitive breakthrough at some point cannot be totally ruled out, the Soviets continue to play their ``Afghan card'' particularly warily. Still, there are reports that the Soviets might be willing to pull back some of their 125,000 troops in a staged withdrawal as part of a settlement that would ensure the ``independence'' of the Kabul regime from Western influence.
Would the Soviets in fact be open to diplomatic flexibility and accept some form of negotiated settlement, such as a ``Finlandization'' of Afghanistan -- that is, accepting a neutralist government in Kabul, withdrawal of most Soviet troops, and the return of the millions of refugees who have fled into neighboring countries?
Such a course would present both opportunities and potential dangers to new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. He would be free of a major and costly foreign policy problem. But, by accepting some form of settlement, he could find himself undercut at home by Soviet hardliners.
Surely, however, the Soviets would stand to win more than they would lose by extricating themselves from the Afghan conflict, just as the United States finally had to extricate itself from the Vietnam conflict.