DESPITE stepped-up fighting this spring on both sides of the war in Afghanistan, a global resolution of that eight-year struggle is now within sight. A major roadblock still looms. But finding a face-saving way out for the Soviets, acceptable to the West, appears increasingly likely. The topic may well come up in Secretary of State Shultz's arms control talks with the Soviets early next week. As chief supplier of military aid to both the Afghan mujahideen and to next-door Pakistan, the United States should guard closely the amount and kind of aid it sends. The White House should look beyond 1988 to the long-term US goal of postwar stability in the South Asian subcontinent.
The US should also encourage Afghan resistance fighters to offer a clear political solution to the conflict. The US has long insisted that the future of the Kabul government is for Afghans themselves to decide. However, Washington would contribute more constructively by floating a few practical suggestions of its own rather than continually carping at Kabul suggestions as unworkable and proof that Moscow and the Afghan government are less than serious in their intentions.
In five years of UN-sponsored peace talks in Geneva, the Soviets have come a long way toward admitting they made a serious mistake in sending troops into Afghanistan in 1979. The Soviet-backed Afghan government and Pakistan, the direct parties in the talks, are close to agreement on a timetable for a Soviet troop pullout. Within the last year Kabul has reduced its demand for time for such a pullout, after the signing of any agreement, from four years to 18 months; Pakistan says seven months should be adequate. It is likely that both sides would compromise on 12 months.
The major roadblock to an agreement is the kind of government in Kabul that would be left behind. It is an item not technically on the Geneva agenda and has as yet rarely surfaced in any in-depth discussions.
The Soviet-backed Afghan government earlier this year proposed a government of ``national reconciliation,'' based on the existing Communist government. The Kabul government at one point wrote leaders of the seven resistance parties, appointing them to specific cabinet posts (not defense or state security). Not surprisingly, the Muslim guerrillas, who view the Communists not only as bitter enemies but atheists, declined. The mujahideen suggest an all-Islamic government, including communists who want to accept their offer of amnesty. A neutral, nonaligned regime in Kabul would probably be acceptable to Moscow if the right formula and guarantees can be found. The US would do well to devote some energy to that task, however quietly it may choose to float its suggestions.
Military pressure against Soviet troops and the Afghan government should continue while an agreement is worked out. The US has given millions of dollars annually in covert aid to the resistance fighters, including steady shipments of new Stinger anti-aircraft missiles since last fall; the US is also weighing a new $4 billion, six-year aid package to Pakistan.
But the US has other important interests in the region to consider. With an eye to the future stability of South Asia after the war, Washington should keep guard on the kind and duration of aid it sends. Pakistan President Muhammad Zia ul-Haq now concedes that his nation can make a nuclear bomb but will not do so. Certification by the US President that Pakistan is not making the bomb is a key criterion for continued US aid. US officials say stopping aid may encourage building of the bomb and undermine the Afghan resistance. The mood in Congress has been shifting to try to find a way in which aid can continue. Sen. John Glenn (D) of Ohio now proposes renewing the aid for a full six years, followed by a careful review. But the war may not continue that long.
The US should carefully weigh any inclusion of airborne warning and control systems (AWACS), which the Indians suspect might be used against them rather than the Soviets and Kabul. Sending AWACS would escalate the conflict and involve a long-term US commitment; increased Pakistani use of US anti-aircraft missiles could be an effective substitute.
The US should keep in focus its long-term goals of peace in the South Asian subcontinent and the tightest possible curb on nuclear nonproliferation. Pakistan must not be transformed into a military base nor made the pillar of US policy in the region as is now the case.