Following the announcement this weekend of plans for a six-month nationwide cease-fire in Afghanistan, two senior Soviet leaders have unexpectedly arrived in the Afghan capital of Kabul. The visit of Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze and Secretariat member Anatoly Dobrynin comes at a time when the Afghan government is intensifying its push for a resolution of the conflict, and when Moscow is making it abundantly clear that it would like to see the Afghan problem behind it.
Announcing the Soviet officials' arrival yesterday, the Soviet news agency Tass described the trip as a ``working visit.'' Mr. Shevardnadze is a member of the ruling Politburo and Mr. Dobrynin is one of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's key advisers on foreign policy. Tass says the two men were met on their arrival by the Afghan ruler Mohammed Najibullah, and talks were held later in the day.
In a speech made public Jan. 1, Dr. Najib, as the Afghan leader is better known, called for the cease-fire starting Jan. 15, and repeated his willingness to form a coalition government of national reconciliation. More surprisingly, he noted that ``the leaders of armed antigovernment bands operating abroad'' should not be excluded from the reconciliation process.
Soviet sources here say they doubt it is possible to draw fundamentalist guerrilla commanders into talks. The main group of seven mujahideen (guerrilla) organizations, based in Peshawar, Pakistan, is already reported to have dismissed Najib's speech and cease-fire call as ``meaningless.'' Soviet sources are, however, more optimistic that tribal groups might be induced to take part in a coalition government. And they refuse to rule out the participation of exiled royalists.
The offer of a coalition government does not mean that Moscow's Afghan allies are willing to share power equally with other groups. Najib has pointedly noted in recent speeches the growing strength of his People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan. The party would remain the core around which any government is built. But the creation of a coalition, coupled with Pakistan's curtailment of aid to the mujahideen, might allow the Soviets to pull out all or most of their estimated 115,000 troops. Soviet sources say a withdrawal timetable has been worked out. Analysts here estimate that a withdrawal could take place over 18 to 24 months.
Najib's call appears to be a Gorbachevian gesture - he has assimilated some of the Soviet reform jargon recently. It seems intended to depict Kabul as flexible and dynamic, and its adversaries - the mujahideen and their main backers, Pakistan, and the United States - as dogmatic. And it comes less than a month before the start of the next round of UN-sponsored indirect talks on Afghanistan in Geneva.