Some American conservatives, alarmed by apparent warming in US-Soviet ties, are warning that the administration may bargain away too much in order to get a settlement in Afghanistan. But informed United States officials say that is poppycock. These conservatives say the danger of ``selling out'' and mismanaging the situation is evident in reports of policy disagreements between the White House and the State Department. The debate concerns when the US would be willing to stop aid to the Afghan resistance as part of an overall settlement package.
Stories about disagreement are way overblown, State Department and other officials say. The US will hold firm in its support of the Afghan mujahideen until Moscow has agreed to a short withdrawal timetable and a date certain for that to begin. With this and other assurances that the resistance will not be endangered, officials add, the US will stick with its previously confidential agreement to terminate aid to the guerrillas when the Soviet troop withdrawal begins.
Thus far this is academic, officials say, because Moscow has yet to move beyond enticing words to a firm and acceptable withdrawal plan. No substantial progress was evident during this month's US-Soviet summit, they say. Until the Soviets bite the bullet, the full range of US support (including covert military aid) for the mujahideen will continue.
The next opportunity to measure Soviet intentions will be the expected February round of United Nations indirect talks between the Soviet-supported Afghan regime and Pakistan, which provides refuge for the Afghan resistance and millions of refugees.
Sen. Gordon Humphrey (R) of New Hampshire, lashed out last week at the administration's handling of Afghanistan. Senator Humphrey, a longtime champion of the Afghan resistance, charged that the administration was not applying enough pressure on Moscow to withdraw its troops. The US is not giving enough high-level attention to the Afghan problem, he said. Calling for a ``manly'' policy in ``the face of genocide,'' Humphrey said he felt betrayed by the ``gap between the rhetoric and the practice'' of the administration on Afghanistan.
The senator's remarks - at a round table discussion sponsored by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative public policy research institute - seemed to reflect the more general souring of some conservatives on President Reagan's approach to the Soviets since the INF agreement was concluded.
Several at the discussion argued that the Soviets had not yet decided to withdraw from Afghanistan but were trying to maneuver the US into cutting off aid to the resistance. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's suggestions that he is looking for a face-saving way out is just part of a ploy to isolate the guerrillas, said Elie Krakowski, director of the Pentagon's office of regional defense.
What is needed, the conservative speakers argued, is a lot more pressure on Moscow through military aid to the Pakistan-based resistance. A number of others, including former UN ambassador Charles Lichenstein,argued that Afghanistan should be on the negotiating table simultaneously with arms control questions. It should not be treated as a separate issue.
Informed US officials say these concerns are misplaced. They share a skepticism about Soviet intentions. A senior official says the Soviets are clearly still shopping for the best deal they can get. The US is not going to make any commitments until Moscow demonstrates it is ready to withdraw its 115,000 troops quickly and with a fixed commencement date, he says.
The main concern is that the Soviets not use the withdrawal period to crush the resistance. Gorbachev offered a 12-month period during his visit to Washington, but US officials say that is too long and favor 8 months which Pakistan has proposed. Even within that 8 months, US officials say the Soviets should take out most of their troops in the beginning.
There is no sentiment, officials say, at the White House or the State Department for anything short of totally ending the Soviet presence and letting the Afghan people choose their government freely.
Thus, full US diplomatic and aid support for the resistance and for Pakistan will continue, they say. This support includes more than $500 million in annual covert military aid. In addition to Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, this will reportedly soon include longer-range mortars, according to some at the Heritage Foundation round table.
If the Soviets finally make the decision to get out, officials say, Washington will cooperate in assuring a verifiable accord. Washington has told Moscow that it has no military ambitions in Afghanistan and will be willing to accept any government - even neutral on the Austrian model - if it is freely decided by the Afghans. However, despite Soviet requests, the US will not exercise any pressure on the guerrillas to accept an interim government before a Soviet withdrawal is set, nor cut off aid to them until that it is under way, officials say.
The US has agreed to a still confidential proposal on aid as part of the package being worked out in the UN-sponsored talks on Afghanistan. Under that proposal, ``all outside interference'' would be terminated 60 days after the agreement is signed. This would apply to US and other aid to the resistance and presumably to Soviet aid to Kabul.
Conservatives latched on to this issue after President Reagan appeared to differ with that approach in press statements before the summit. He implied that the US would continue aid until all the Soviets were gone. He drew a parallel to the need to keep supplies flowing to the Nicaraguan contras.
But officials in both places are now saying the US will abide by commitments it made in the UN proposal.
Humphrey says such a commitment is ``unwise'' and that the US should take the position that it will agree to scale back aid to the resistance in parallel with the Soviet withdrawal. Humphrey argues that this incident raises the question as to who is running the operation and why the White House did not know what the State Department had agreed to under the UN.
Informed administration sources say the President just made an error. They point out that unlike Nicaragua, where the contras face a well ensconced regime, in Afghanistan if the Soviet troops are gone the pro-Moscow regime in Kabul will crumble.
The key thus remains whether the Soviets stay or leave, officials say. Currently, they are hurting on the ground with continued mujahideen successes. Diplomatically, they are more isolated than ever and their hopes that the US and Pakistan might split over Pakistan's nuclear program are dashed, officials say.