The Soviet Union, frustated by seven years of military stalemate, wants out of Afghanistan - but strictly on its own terms. As a result, new offers by Moscow of ``constructive cooperation'' to achieve a political settlement of the Afghan war should be weighed with utmost caution.
This is the assessment of State Department and private analysts following a recent flurry of Soviet-engineered diplomatic steps related to the conflict.
Yesterday the leader of Afghanistan's Soviet-backed communist regime, Mohammad Najibullah, commenced a unilateral cease-fire which, he said, would last six months if honored by the antigovernment guerrillas. The cease-fire is part of a plan announced by Dr. Najib on Jan. 1, which also includes proposed steps leading to a coalition government in Afghanistan. (Guerrillas divided over government initiative, Page 9.)
Last week Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze and Anatoly Dobrynin, the Kremlin's senior foreign-policy adviser, traveled to Kabul to demonstrate Soviet support for Najib's plan for ``national reconciliation.''
The Reagan administration has consistently said, however, that until the Soviets actually propose a reasonable timetable for withdrawal of their estimated 115,000 troops from Afghanistan, the United States will remain skeptical about Moscow's motives. Yesterday a White House spokesman said that, without an agreement on political aspects of the conflict, a vague Soviet pledge of a troop withdrawal was ``a hollow offer'' and ``a propaganda ploy.''
US Undersecretary of State Michael Armacost leaves today for Islamabad, Pakistan, to consult with Pakistani officials on a response to the latest Soviet moves, the State Department announced yesterday. The consultation is in anticipation of the next round of United Nations-sponsored peace talks in Geneva, scheduled to begin Feb. 11.
``There are lots of possible explanations'' for the Soviet moves, says one knowledgeable State Department official. She says the Soviets may simply be covering themselves in case the peace talks fail to produce any breakthrough.
Soviet efforts to woo international public opinion may also be designed to induce Pakistan - which borders Afghanistan and is one of the parties in the Geneva talks - to make concessions, possibly related to a permissible timetable for a Soviet troop withdrawal.
Alternatively, the US official says, recent Soviet diplomatic moves may be intended to pressure the Kabul regime to make needed reforms to strengthen its political base. The Kremlin has grown impatient with factional disputes within the ruling People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan and with Kabul's inability to lure leaders of the Afghan resistance into a coalition government.
Most Western analysts seem to agree that the Soviets are increasingly restive over the impasse in Afghanistan, described by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in a statement last November as a ``bleeding wound.''.
The war has been an obstacle to Moscow's improving relations with China, the United States, and the Arab world. Moreover, pulling the Soviet bear out of the Afghan quagmire - the war has already cost Moscow mated $15 billion to $20 billion - is key to Mr. Gorbachev's plans for Soviet economic reconstruction.
But analysts say that prospects for ending the war remain elusive.
``The bottom line is, can [the Kabul] regime survive without the kind of direct Soviet military intervention we've seen up to now? Would the Soviet Union withdraw from Afghanistan if it meant the collapse of the regime?'' asks Robert Litwak, an expert on South Asian affairs at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. ``The answer to both questions is no. As long as that remains the case, I don't see any early prospects for a Soviet withdrawal.''
The Geneva talks so far have produced draft agreements pledging mutual cessation of outside interference, outside guarantors including the US and the Soviet Union, and the return of Afghan refugees.
The main hitch has been linking these three agreements with a fourth providing a specific timetable for the withdrawal of Soviet troops.
Afghanistan, backed by Moscow, says three years may be needed for a withdrawal of Soviet troops. Pakistan, backed by Washington, says ``months'' should be sufficient.
The Soviets are also looking for airtight provisions for the cessation of outside aid to the Afghan rebels. Pakistan says measures to stanch the flow of ``alleged'' outside aid to the rebels will begin when Soviet troops start to leave.
US officials express concern that if the end of outside aid to the guerrillas and the withdrawal of Soviet forces do not occur simultaneously, the Soviets could gain a military advantage. ``We can't permit [the Soviets] to do in the negotiating process what they have been trying to do militarily,'' a State Department official says.
The fundamental question remains: Are Soviet leaders serious enough about finding a way out of Afghanistan to make political compromises they have long resisted?
Robert Neumann, a former US ambassador to Afghanistan and frequent visitor to the Soviet Union, says Soviet officials are more openly pessimistic about the prospects for a military victory in Afghanistan.
But Ambassador Neumann and others say the Soviets may have invested too much to grant concessions that would bring Afghan resistance leaders to the bargaining table - concessions that would come perilously close, from Moscow's point of view, to restoring an unacceptable prewar status quo.
But the long-term outlook for a settlement may be brighter as the Soviets - like France and the US in Vietnam - weary of trying to subdue a fiercely nationalistic resistance movement.
``The commitment of the Afghan people has not diminished after seven years of fighting,'' says Tom Gouttierre, director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska in Omaha. ``History doesn't record many instances where that kind of commitment, combined with external support and emerging leadership, has failed.''