Endgame for the Afghan war

THE Soviet-Afghanistan war, which enters its ninth year this Christmas week, is a vivid reminder of the courage of the Afghan resistance movement - and mankind's refusal to be ground down by repression. At first a ragtag force, the Afghan mujahideen have hardened into battle-seasoned veterans. They now control much of the countryside. Moscow appears eager to cut its losses and get its 120,000 troops out of Afghanistan. An estimated 25,000 Soviets have already lost their lives there. Thousands more have been injured. Economic costs for the Soviet Union are staggering.

The people of Afghanistan have also had enormous losses - with deaths and injuries reaching perhaps 1 million or more people since Soviet troops invaded their land back in December of 1979.

Unfortunately, though Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and President Reagan discussed Afghanistan at their recent summit, no accommodation was reached. The Soviets talk of a pullout over 12 months. But a condition would be an immediate halt in US aid to the resistance. The Soviets also seek an interim government that includes representatives of the current communist regime in Kabul.

The Reagan White House is understandably wary of a lengthy withdrawal timetable, which could be used to allow Moscow to get an upper hand. Still, the timetable is not the stumbling block barring a settlement. The hang-up continues to be the complexion of an interim government. Resistance leaders, by and large, refuse to accept representatives of the Kabul regime as part of a settlement.

There is another challenge as well. Let's call it the ``discomfort factor.'' Washington, with the grim memory of Vietnam in the background, is not totally unhappy about the embarrassment the Soviets face in extricating themselves from Afghanistan. Continuing Soviet involvement in Afghanistan also works against the long-range Soviet goal of winning friends throughout the Middle East. Nor is such ambivalence about the war limited just to the United States or Western Europe. Pakistan would like to find a way for the 3 million Afghans now in its territory to go home. But Pakistan knows that a settlement will mean less US aid.

All that said, it is time for this terrible conflict, with all the suffering it has produced, to come to an end. Washington and Moscow need to strike a deal that saves face all around: There should be a Soviet withdrawal, monitored by the United Nations, over a short period of time, such as six months. The US might then simultaneously cut off aid to the rebels. If the Soviets were to violate the agreement, aid levels could be quickly resumed. All sides should also continue to work toward the creation of an interim government, perhaps headed by former King Mohammad Zahir Shah, who was deposed in 1973. Reprisals must be prevented. The interim regime must be neutral.

Many of the guerrillas dislike the former monarch. But an interim government - backed by a UN security force or a peacekeeping delegation from Islamic nations - represents a promising avenue toward peace for Afghanistan.

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