United Nations officials have expressed cautious optimism that indirect peace talks on Afghanistan between Kabul and Islamabad may finally result in an accelerated timetable for the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan. But few informed observers here believe an agreement will produce an imminent end to the bitter Afghan conflict, now in its eighth year.
At the start of the so-called ``proximity talks'' last Wednesday, UN Undersecretary-General Diego Cordovez said that both sides had promised to come back with an open mind and new proposals to resolve the withdrawal issue - the most crucial aspect of negotiations.
Previous negotiations have been slow and difficult because of deep mistrust between the two sides. Conference sources said the current talks - the ninth such round since 1982 - could last anywhere from several days to three weeks. ``I fear that Geneva is only the beginning of a very long haul,'' said one Paris-based central Asian specialist.
The atmosphere was not helped by reports of successive Afghan air raids against villages and refugee camps in northwest Pakistan on the second and third days of the talks. Islamabad, claiming that more than 70 Pakistanis and Afghans were killed and 200 wounded, warned it would retaliate if the attacks did not stop. A senior Afghan official here denied the reports.
The main problem, analysts note, is that the two protagonists - the Soviets and the Afghan resistance - are not negotiating with each other. The minority Kabul regime is widely seen as a Soviet surrogate, while Pakistan, which provides asylum to some 3.2 million Afghan refugees, can only partially claim to represent resistance interests. Mr. Cordovez says the UN can only mediate between recognized governments and not with ``outside forces.''
Observers point out that the UN approach fails to take into account the realities of the Afghan conflict. ``It's as if the Vietnam peace talks had not included the Americans or the Viet Cong,'' a West European diplomat comments.
Nevertheless, Western diplomats monitoring the talks say the UN should persevere in its efforts in order to keep the door open to an eventual broader political settlement. As before, Cordovez is meeting separately with the Afghan and Pakistani delegations, shuttling between rooms in the marbled-walled Palais des Nations here. Pakistan, which does not recognize the Soviet-backed Kabul regime, refuses to meet directly with the Afghans.
So far, both sides have agreed on three of the four points in the UN peace initiative: the voluntary repatriation of refugees; a normalization of relations between the two countries; and guarantees by the United States, the Soviet Union, and China of future Afghan independence.
The main stumbling block lies with the withdrawal of what Kabul and the UN refer to as a ``small contingent of Soviet forces'' - an estimated 115,000 troops.
The Soviets, who invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, have repeatedly hinted that they want out. Recently, the Kremlin promised precise withdrawal suggestions for Geneva. These, it said, would be too attractive for Pakistan to refuse.
Instead of pushing, as before, for a three- to four-year disengagement period, sources say Moscow may now be willing to reduce this to as little as 18 months. In return, it is demanding a halt to all arms shipments by the US, China, Iran, and certain Arab states to the mujahideen, as the guerrillas are known.