UN Undersecretary-General Diego Cordovez has received -- and revised -- a suggested timetable for the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan. Mr. Cordovez says he will negotiate the timetable further at the next round of indirect Afghan-Pakistani talks, starting May 5. It will be the first time the two governments, in four years of UN-sponsored Geneva talks, have discussed the sensitive issues of a Soviet pullout and ending Pakistani and United States aid to Afghan guerrillas.
Questions about the sincerity and motives of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in agreeing to a possible withdrawal of his estimated 120,000 troops have sparked controversy. According to one knowledgeable diplomatic official, the plan proposes a one-year, four-phase withdrawal of Soviet troops, who rolled into Afghanistan in December 1979.
Although it is possible that things could be derailed, UN officials are now more hopeful than they have been for years that the Soviet Union seriously wants to explore a negotiated solution to the Afghan conflict and withdraw its troops. This guarded optimism appears to be shared by the military-backed government of Pakistan. But Washington is skeptical, and no solution would work without the support of the United States.
Washington is providing Afghanistan's anticommunist guerillas, known as mujahideen, with $470 million in covert assistance this year -- though less than 50 percent is believed to be reaching Afghanistan. In a major policy shift, the US agreed last month to provide 100 to 150 Stinger antiaircraft missiles to the mujahideen. Shipments of US-manufactured weapons had previously been barred.
``I want an agreement that can be effectively implemented,'' Mr. Cordovez said in an interview. ``This agreement will help everybody. There are no winners now. Everybody is losing -- the Pakistanis, the Afghans, the Americans, and the Soviets. All I want is for these forces to give us a chance.''
He would not say where the impediments lie. Other UN sources, however, say there is much concern that if next month's round -- the seventh since 1982 -- does not produce substantial progress, it could portend the end of the talks.
``There will be no eighth round,'' Cordovez said at a press conference last week, after his return from a trip to Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Soviet Union, and Iran. But what he did not tell the press conference was that the Soviet Union, which has been lobbying for direct Pakistani-Afghan negotiations for at least two years, made it clear that this would be the last time it would sanction Cordovez's shuttling between the two delegation's hotel suites. The message was relayed to Pakistan's President, Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, who is under increasing domestic pressure to negotiate directly with Kabul. Thus far, Pakistan has refused to do so because it does not recognize the Soviet-backed Babrak Karmal regime.
Now, in a major shift in Pakistan's policy, General Zia has reportedly agreed that when an accord is reached on how to withdraw the Soviet forces and cut off the mujahideen's Western aid, Pakistan would then enter direct negotiations and sign an agreement with the Karmal regime. Implicit in Zia's concession, according to sources who know him well, is that he would enter the negotiations with or without the agreement of the US.
No one, however, is under any illusions on the number of obstacles that remain. Even if the Soviets agree to withdraw, how would that withdrawal be monitored, and by whom? How many troops will they retain to man their bases inside Afghanistan? Would the mujahideen support an agreement and end their guerrilla war? What would be the makeup of the Kabul government? What would be the ``parallelism'' between a phased Soviet withdrawal and the cessation of aid to the guerrillas? Would it be simultaneous, and thus a phased end to US support?
``There's a lot to settle before a timetable,'' said Gen. Vernon Walters, US ambassador to the UN. ``What happens at the end of the timetable, for example? What kind of a government will there be in Kabul? The majority of the Afghan people, and the majority of the UN member-countries have said it is up to the Afghan people to choose their own government. To impose Karmal would simply be unacceptable -- to the Afghans, to all those UN countries who have condemned the invasion and, certainly, to us.''
If Pakistan, the fourth-largest recipient of US economic and military aid, were to negotiate with Karmal, would US-Pakistani relations deteriorate?
``I can't answer that question. It's hypothetical,'' General Walters said. ``It's like saying what would you do if Zia went to the border and stood on his head.''
Mohammed Gailani, the mujahideen commander of Kabul Province, who was in New York this week, made it clear in an interview that the mujahideen would keep fighting as long as Mr. Karmal, or any Soviets, remained. Mr. Gailani has seen both sides of the war. He commanded this year's Khost offensive, the largest the mujahideen have waged.
``We have not been briefed by the Pakistani government on this round, the last round, or the round before that, of the UN peace talks,'' the commander said. ``And, unless the mujahideen are involved in the negotiations directly, I can assure you these negotiations will not be a success.''
Would the mujahideen negotiate with the Karmal government?
``Absolutely not,'' he said. ``We will deal only with the Soviet Union. Let them talk to us. They invaded our country. We won't talk to a puppet regime. Our conditions for a peace settlement? A complete withdrawal of all Soviet troops and a government of our choosing. Karmal has got to go.''
What would the mujahideen accept as a reasonable time period for a Soviet withdrawal? ``One to two days,'' he said. ``The same way, and the same period, in which they came in.''