Expectancy and skepticism greet new round of UN Afghan talks

The Kabul-Moscow axis appears to have scored a tactical victory with its surprise call for a new round of UN-sponsored indirect talks to end Afghanistan's 7-year war and Soviet occupation. What UN mediator and Undersecretary-General Diego Cordovez calls a three-day ``quickie'' meeting initiated by Afghanistan begins in Geneva on Monday. The two countries do not negotiate directly, as Pakistan does not recognize the Soviet-backed communist government in Kabul. The last session of indirect talks, which have been held on and off for five years, ended in March.

Caught off-guard by Kabul's short-notice request to resume the talks, Mr. Cordovez this week professed ignorance of what the Afghans have in mind. But he added that he welcomes the initiative and assumes that ``they have something to say.''

Pakistani UN sources say Afghanistan is likely to take one of two tacks - either of which would be a diplomatic victory for Kabul and Moscow and damaging to Pakistan and its supporters. UN observers expect the Afghans either to:

Unveil a compromise timetable for withdrawal of the estimated 115,000 Soviet troops in Afghanistan. This issue is the main stumbling block to a resolution: Kabul insists on 18 months; Islamabad wants seven months.

Use the meeting, convened the week before the 42nd UN General Assembly session begins, to demonstrate their sincerity in wanting a peaceful settlement. The strategy might persuade wavering UN delegations not to vote again for the annual assembly resolution demanding an ``immediate'' Soviet pullout. Though of no practical significance, the loss of even a single vote via a negative ballot or abstention might be a psychological setback for Pakistan.

Referring to the long deadlock over a withdrawal time frame, a Pakistani source said: ``By taking the first move toward compromise, Afghanistan would be making an offer Pakistan couldn't refuse.'' Pakistan, he said, is under strong international and domestic pressures to move toward a settlement. The Pakistani public has become increasingly restive and resentful at having to play host to more than 3 million Afghan refugees for the last several years.

Diplomats also expect Afghanistan to insist on setting a date for the next Geneva talks. Another session was foreshadowed by Cordovez, who said, ``I don't think we are going to conclude a settlement'' at this month's meeting.

UN observers speculate that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev masterminded Afghanistan's strategy of springing the unexpected peace initiatives. They point out that the tactic parallels Mr. Gorbachev's surprise offers for summit meetings with President Reagan on the Gulf war and, in the UN Security Council, on reallocating military spending to economic development aid. Reagan's rejection of both offers, propaganda or not, scored points for Gorbachev as a peace-seeker. Any new initiative by the Afghan-Soviet side, diplomats say, would similarly reflect badly on Pakistan and the US.

The negotiations have reached a critical stage with Cordovez's assurance that almost everything in the four-part peace package has been settled. As he put it: ``There is only one blank to fill - the time frame.''

The three other parts, all accepted by both sides, deal with:

Pledges of external noninterference in Kabul's affairs.

Return of Afghan refugees.

Guarantees by the US and Soviet Union that the agreement will be carried out by all parties.

Cordovez emphasized that what he calls ``the second track'' - national reconciliation among the Afghans - remains a barrier to peace. While the UN mandate does not cover that issue, which is considered an internal matter, Cordovez says he believes that ``first-track'' agreement in Geneva would stimulate movement along track No. 2.

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