Looking past Geneva to better US-Soviet ties. Afghanistan, fewer troops in Europe are issues holding promise of progress

As the United States and the Soviet Union digest the results of their summit encounter, diplomatic observers are watching for early signs of movement in superpower relations. Intensive planning has begun in the administration to launch an array of bilateral talks at ministerial and lower levels, as agreed upon in Geneva. These will probably not get under way until after the holiday season, US officials say. But work has started on putting together delegations of experts and drawing up agendas as part of the effort to keep the momentum going.

Tangible progress could take place on a number of fronts. One is in the Mutual and Balanced Force Reduction (MBRF) talks in Vienna, which have been going for the last 12 years.

``Watch those talks,'' says a key State Department official who was involved in the summit discussions. The NATO and Warsaw Pact countries are now deadlocked over the issue of how to count their respective combat forces in Central Europe. But the US is planning to put another proposal on the table before the talks adjourn next Thursday, according to another administration official.

The proposal, picking up on the latest Warsaw Pact offer, calls for small interim reductions in US and Soviet forces in Central Europe, along with a strong verification package, says the official. The verification measures, including aerial and ground inspections, would then be used to try to resolve the discrepancy on troop-level data.

Under the proposal, says the official, US forces would be cut by 5,000 and Soviet troops by 11,000. The British and West Germans support this new offer, he says. Other allies now are looking it.

``Verification will be a stumbling block for the Soviets,'' says the official, ``but this proposal should be more attractive to them. If they agree on these measures on MBFR, this could be used for agreement in the START and INF talks as well.''

In other areas:

The next round of UN-sponsored negotiations on Afghanistan will begin next month, perhaps providing the first post-summit test of Soviet intentions on regional disputes. American officials detected a change in Soviet tone on this issue in the Reagan-Gorbachev exchanges, but it is unclear whether this means a change in the substance of policy.

The so-called ``proximity talks,'' which are aimed at a negotiated settlement in Afghanistan, have been deadlocked on a procedural issue. The Soviets refuse to provide a timetable for withdrawal of their forces without direct talks first between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Pakistan is resisting such talks for fear of giving de facto recognition to the Kabul regime without the assurance that the Soviet withdrawal would follow.

But the State Department official says Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev implied that the process of Soviet withdrawal would not have to wait until all the elements of a negotiated settlement were in place. If this proves out in the coming round of talks, the US official says, progress could be made on the issue.

``Afghanistan got relatively more attention at the summit than any other regional issue,'' the official says. ``Because it is so important symbolically -- having led to the breakdown of SALT II -- if that could be solved, it would set us on a healthier road.''

The nuclear and space arms talks resume in Geneva on Jan. 16. The administration is waiting for Moscow to respond to the latest US proposal on nuclear weapons. The two sides agreed in Geneva to seek progress in areas ``where there is common ground,'' including the principle of reducing strategic arms by 50 percent and working out an interim agreement on intermediate-range weapons in Europe.

Administration officials, acknowledging that Moscow has not abandoned its public outcry against the President's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), say there is no give in the US position on this crucial issue. But they also say the Soviets are not as panicked on this issue as they make out.

Moscow has now unlinked intermediate-range weapons and SDI, administration officials say, and could do the same on strategic weapons. Privately, however, some officials do not rule out an eventual trade-off between strategic offensive weapons and some aspects of the SDI ballistic-missile defense program, particularly if the Soviets weigh in with an attractive offer on reductions in land-based systems -- something they have hinted at.

Another early breakthrough in the arms control area could come at the Stockholm Conference on Disarmament, where the two sides pledged to work for agreement on so-called ``confidence-building measures'' and the principle of nonuse of force. The West is urging advance notification of major military exercises and the stationing of observers at maneuvers. This round of the conference ends Dec. 21.

Bilateral discussions are planned on other arms issues, including the establishment of centers to reduce the risk of nuclear war.

American officials also see a dialogue beginning on the question of preventing the proliferation of chemical weapons, with the difficult issue of negotiating a total ban viewed as a more long-term proposition.

Administration officials say they do not expect early progress in other regional issues, including Nicaragua, Angola, and Ethiopia. But they say that President Reagan in his first plenary meeting in Geneva provided a tough rundown of US concerns. ``He gave Gorbachev a cold bath on regional issues and on the Soviet military buildup,'' the State Department official says.

In the administration's view, Mr. Gorbachev will now seek to use the better atmospherics surrounding US-Soviet relations to persuade Congress not to support bigger defense programs, including SDI, or aid for the rebel forces in Angola.

``It's important to us not to let that happen, but to work on the real issues and not let euphoria set in,'' says the State Department official.

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