The Soviet Union and the United States are working on a behind-the-scenes deal that would result in the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan. The Soviets submitted the confidential plan to UN Undersecretary-General Diego Cordovez in December, say three senior diplomats who are closely involved in indirect Afghan-Pakistani negotiations on ending the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Mr. Cordovez, who mediates the talks, then passed the plan on to senior US officials.
Under the Soviet plan, these diplomats say, the US and its allies, mainly Pakistan, would stop providing arms and other support to the mujahideen (Afghan guerrillas) as soon as the estimated 115,000 Soviet troops in Afghanistan begin withdrawing. These two issues -- foreign aid to the mujahideen, who oppose the Soviet-backed government in Kabul, and the timing of a Soviet pullout -- have been the main stumbling blocks to resolving the crisis.
``The prospective US-Soviet deal puts a double buffer in place,'' says one diplomat whose country is a party to the talks. ``Afghanistan and Pakistan will remain independent and sovereign under the double Moscow-Washington umbrella. . . Both are now front-line states and will be turned into a military glacier.''
In effect, ``Afghanistan will become an Islamic Finland and Pakistan an Islamic Austria,'' says one UN diplomat. Both countries would become politically ``neutral,'' but Afghanistan would stay in the Soviet sphere of influence while Pakistan would keep its links with the West, he says.
Since last November's summit between President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, both sides have shown signs of wanting to work out compromise solutions to regional conflicts, notably in Afghanistan and the Mideast.
Pakistan is eager to see a resolution to the Afghan conflict, says one diplomat involved in the Geneva talks, because it feels ``threatened'' by the Soviets who have indicated that ``to punish Pakistan for helping the Afghan insurgents, Moscow was preparing to lend support to the Baluchis [a tribe in southwest Pakistan] who had traditionally sought to break away from Pakistani rule.''
As yet no comprehensive agreement has been struck and ``it may take some more months before the agreement is signed and its implementation may not go smoothly,'' one US source says. Other diplomats concur. ``But when the two superpowers agree on something, they usually have their way,'' says one high-ranking official who is active in the indirect negotiations.
Other US sources contacted, however, denied reports of behind-the-scenes Soviet-US talks and said no proposal calling for a Soviet withdrawal had been made.
Official denials regarding such a deal are to be expected at this stage, says the UN diplomat, because neither side wants its bargaining position to be undermined before the final handshake on an agreement takes place. Both Moscow and Washington need to keep their options open until the last minute, he says.
Once the Soviets and the US have hammered out the details according to their satisfaction, Afghanistan and Pakistan will sign the final agreement, the diplomats say. This accord would put into effect a three-point package to which they have already subscribed:
Guarantees by the Soviet Union and the US that the agreement will be observed. The US officially offered to provide a written guarantee for implementing the terms of an accord last December.
A pledge of noninterference by foreign powers in internal Afghan affairs.
Allowing the estimated 3 to 4 million Afghan refugees to return home.
The Soviet troops would be withdrawn from Afghanistan within six months of signing the agreement, the sources say.
``Essentially, the unspoken US-Soviet agreement makes for the return of Afghanistan to its status quo antes -- the way it was before the Soviet invasion six years ago,'' says a Western diplomat closely involved in the negotiations.
``The KGB [Soviet secret police] rather than the Soviet military forces will have to try to run things in Afghanistan to the satisfaction of Moscow,'' this diplomat continues. ``This could be done by replacing the present hard-line Afghan regime by more flexible, more pragmatic communists . . . . It may be only window dressing but it will be more palatable to Western public opinion than the presence of Soviet tanks in Kabul. . . .''
Informed sources say Mr. Gorbachev will not be able to finalize this agreement before the end of the Soviet Communist Party Congress, beginning Feb. 25, where he is expected to consolidate his position. Therefore the next round of Geneva talks could be postponed until mid-March.
There is no guarantee that all the Afghan guerrillas will agree to lay down their arms and be a party to this deal. But the Soviets believe that once the mujahideen stop receiving outside aid they can be gradually brought under control by the Afghan Army. The Soviets hope they can co-opt some of the resistance leaders into entering a coalition government. In sum, they think they can manage things and allow the dust to settle. This is the view held by several Western and Asian sources.
Some resistance leaders in the Panjshair Valley area have already agreed in principle to be parties to such a settlement, say Pakistani sources.
Without US support and amid international indifference, other groups that continue fighting would be an irritant rather than a threat, Soviet sources say.