The time is ripe for real progress on Afghanistan, but Moscow has yet to demonstrate sincerity with a concrete proposal for withdrawal of its 115,000 troops from that country, according to a senior Reagan administration source. Moscow has been following a ``calculated policy of loose talk'' for months, he says, that suggests they want to pull out, but so far the words are not accompanied by deeds.
``We'll wait and see,'' the senior source adds. If the Soviets make the basic decision on a timetable for withdrawal, the US will be helpful, he says. If they don't, the US will continue its support for the Afghan guerrillas and the costs for Moscow will increase, he says.
The administration source declined to talk directly about this week's high-level Soviet-American talks on Afghanistan in Geneva. But he says Moscow is under a lot of military and diplomatic pressure to demonstrate flexibility. And if the US is to take advantage of this opportunity to find a solution, Washington must be consistent in its support for Pakistan, which is on the front line of the Afghan problem, he argues.
The timetable for Soviet troop withdrawal and a fixed commencement date are the key for progress, this source says. Only agreement on these items will concentrate the minds of all the Afghan parties on the need for political compromise, he and a senior foreign diplomatic source close to the talks say. (The main internal actors include the Soviet-backed Afghan government, the seven main resistance groups, and the country's former King.)
Pakistan, which is negotiating indirectly with the Kabul government through the UN, will only conclude an agreement if the Soviet withdrawal timetable is short enough (probably seven to 12 months) to prevent the Soviets from crushing the resistance during that period, according to US and other officials.
It is generally understood that the still-secret, UN-brokered proposals would require the cutoff of outside aid to the resistance soon after the withdrawal timetable begins.
The withdrawal timetable is the major stumbling block in the ongoing UN-sponsored talks. Diego Cordovez, the UN underscretary-general for political affairs, oversees the five-year-old negotiation and is floating the idea of an all-party dialogue that would include the main Afghan resistance forces, according to UN, US, and Afghan sources.
The reported objective is to get the Afghan government and the resistance to sit down together, and eventually for them to begin to discuss the makeup of an interim government during the period of Soviet withdrawal. The Soviets hinted publicly on Monday that they would consider a short (seven to 12 month) withdrawal, if a formula for ``national reconciliation'' could be found.
The US fully recognizes Moscow's interest in saving face, in avoiding a blood bath of its supporters, and in a stable Afghanistan, the senior administration source says. But if the Kremlin is serious about solving the Afghanistan problem, it can't make agreement by Afghan parties to an interim government a condition to withdrawal, he says.
The US supports any proposals, including Cordovez's, which facilitate contact among the Afghan parties, says the senior administration source.
But without the pressure of a fixed schedule for Soviet withdrawal, the sharply divided Afghan parties will never agree, he says.
Both Pakistan and Moscow have given Mr. Cordovez a green light to pursue his initiative, diplomatic sources say. Pakistan shelters 3 million Afghan refugees and supports the resistance forces.
A senior foreign diplomatic source, who is familiar with the negotiations, is also skeptical that UN mediator Cordovez will find more than ``shadowboxing'' if he tries to begin discussions on an interim government soon, as is rumored.
Meanwhile in Washington, some congressmen are threatening to cut off or put heavy conditions on further US aid to Pakistan because of worries that Pakistan violated US law in acquiring nuclear-weapons technology. The sources interviewed say the Soviets are testing the waters and watching to see if the US-Pakistani relationship will be weakened over the issue of Pakistan's nuclear program.
Kabul-instigated terrorist bombings inside Pakistan and the potential weakening of US-Pakistan ties over the nuclear issue could combine to strengthen Moscow's hand, the non-US diplomat says.
US officials agree. Kabul has ordered hundreds of bombings inside Pakistan with Soviet knowledge, a US terrorism specialist says.
The bombs have undermined popular support for the Afghan resistance in Pakistan and generated criticism of Pakistan's cooperation with the US on this issue, US specialists say.
The senior administration source and the senior foreign diplomat say that Moscow has many reasons to want out:
The military costs are high. The Soviets face a deteriorating military situation. Resistance morale is good and it continues to score major victories.
Moscow's efforts to make the Kabul regime more politically palatable, by changing presidents, etc., have failed.
Despite tremendous Soviet diplomatic efforts to turn around this month's UN vote on Afghanistan, the Pakistanis successfully engineered a 123 to 19 call for immediate Soviet troop withdrawal.
Last week's public endorsement of visiting Afghan resistance leaders by President Reagan and congressional leaders confirms US support for the mujahideen.
Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev would like to grease the skids for the intermediate nuclear forces agreement and its ratification by removing Afghanistan as a constant irritant in US-Soviet relations. Senior US officials agree, but do not rule out a Soviet gesture surrounding the US-Soviet summit.