The Reagan administration is sending Moscow a firm message on Afghanistan: We are not going to lessen our support to the guerrillas despite your new military pressure. Nor will we press them to make a bad political deal. That message is symbolized in President Reagan's meeting today with the current leader of the Afghan Guerrilla Alliance and representatives of the alliance's seven parties.
His visit comes as Moscow continues its 10-day missile and bombing barrage of guerrilla positions in Afghanistan.
Washington is counseling restraint. The United States and Pakistan have been urging the guerrillas not to give the Soviets a pretext to delay their pullout by pushing too hard militarily, officials from both countries say.
The US is advising Moscow that it cannot force a political settlement in Afghanistan, US officials say. With only three months until all Soviet troops must leave, Moscow should just concentrate on an orderly transfer of power, they say.
Washington has said it will not lessen its support for the resistance or Pakistan, but will help bring about a smooth transition, if Moscow is interested.
But if the Soviets further up the ante militarily, the resistance will respond, US officials say. If Moscow calls into question its basic commitment to the Afghan accords signed in Geneva last February, they add, the consequences for US-Soviet relations would be disastrous.
Conservatives in and out of the administration are pressing for a vigorous response to the Soviet escalation. A number of them believe the US has no business urging restraint on the resistance, in any case, as the Soviets deserve to pay the full price for their invasion.
But the majority view is that the US should work to avoid needless deaths and delay. ``If the Soviets are leaving in any case, we don't need to fight them to the last Afghan,'' a ranking official says.
Nevertheless, the Soviets continue to increase military pressure in Afghanistan. Soviet officials are publicly railing against alleged US and Pakistani violations of the Geneva accords and saying they are ``reassessing'' the situation.
``The Soviets are bluffing,'' says a well-informed US official who helped negotiate the Geneva accords. He and others say Moscow hopes these tactics will intimidate Pakistan and spark a political solution in which its Afghan allies can survive.
A US specialist on the Soviet Union calls it ``a game of chicken.'' Moscow is being purposely ambiguous, he says, sowing doubt about what it will do next.
US experts say any attempt to reverse the current military situation on the ground would require a sizable reintroduction of Soviet troops and a lot more weaponry. So far, the Soviets have used low-risk, low-cost tools to increase the psychological pressure.
The surface-to-surface Scud missiles, for example, are very inaccurate and designed for nuclear exchanges, not a guerrilla conflict. The Soviets are clearly using them to scare people, US specialists say.
Moscow's moves have added an element of uncertainty.
``I'm still relatively confident Moscow will meet the Feb. 15 withdrawal date,'' says a well-placed Soviet watcher. ``But the odds are a bit less than two weeks ago.''
Moscow is frustrated with the weakness of its Afghan clients, he says. It seems to be ``feeling its way'' from decision to decision, rather than following any plan.
``The Soviets aren't learning from our experiences in Vietnam,'' says a ranking US official. ``They aren't even learning from their own mistakes in Afghanistan, but seem to be making them over again.''
The visiting Afghan resistance leaders say the Soviet attacks will not cause them to deal with ``the communists.''
``The Soviet actions may have a very short-term effect,'' says one grizzled leader. ``But it won't change the long term - they are going to leave. The important thing now is that our American friends assure the continued supply of weapons.''