Talks on prisoner exchanges between the Soviet Union and Afghan resistance could turn into a formal parley for a transfer of power once Soviet forces fully withdraw from Afghanistan, Western diplomats say. The talks, which took place Sunday in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, also suggest that the Soviets may feel less strongly about insisting on the participation of the ruling People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan in any negotiations on the country's future, the diplomats add. Last September, Moscow pushed for talks about a broad-based coalition government with the Kabul regime, the guerrillas, the Soviet Union, and the United States taking part.
According to resistance and diplomatic sources, officials of the Soviet Embassy in Islamabad met with guerrilla representatives for an hour-and-a-half at Pakistan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs Sunday. A guerrilla spokesman said yesterday that another round of wider-ranging talks would be held in the coming week.
Sunday's talks reportedly focused exclusively on the exchange of Soviet prisoners of war held by the mujahideen (as the Afghan guerrillas are known), as well as the return of Afghan children sent for education to the Soviet Union.
Only two of Afghanistan's seven resistance alliance parties took part. They were the Jamiat-e-Islami, led by Professor Burhanuddin Rabbani, chairman of the resistance alliance; and the Hezb-e-Islami party, led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Both are known to hold relatively large groups of Soviet POWs.
Soviet Embassy officials stressed that the talks dealt only with questions ``pertaining to the release of Soviet servicemen taken prisoner.''
Nevertheless, Western diplomats say the Soviets may soon open official negotiations with the resistance on other issues.
``The Soviets know that eventually they're going to have to deal with the mujahideen, but they are still finding it hard to admit it,'' a West European diplomat says.
Sunday was not the first time the Soviets negotiated directly with the resistance. In January 1983, a senior Soviet official from Kabul met with guerrilla commander Ahmed Shah Massoud in Afghanistan's Panjshair Valley to discuss a temporary truce.
To the guerrillas, that encounter represented Moscow's first de facto recognition of the resistance. The meeting caused considerable concern among the Afghan communist authorities in Kabul. It also set a precedent for later direct deals with commanders and the talks in Islamabad.
In recent years, there have been other direct meetings between Soviet officials and the resistance inside Afghanistan. These have dealt primarily with local truces and exchanges of Soviet prisoners in return for captured guerrillas. On Nov. 17, the Soviets reportedly exchanged 30 mujahideen for the return of three soliders in Baghlan Province.
Some West European sources say that Mr. Hekmatyar has cultivated direct contacts with the Soviets for at least three years, through Bonn and Vienna. Others say his relations go back even further.
Last April, the Soviet authorities claimed that 311 servicemen were missing in action in Afghanistan. At least 100 are believed to be dead, but many are reportedly being held by the resistance.
International human rights organizations say thousands of suspected civilian guerrilla supporters have been arbitrarily killed by the occupation forces, or have died in detention since the Soviets first invaded in December, 1979.
The mujahideen have themselves admitted to executing hundreds of Soviet prisoners.
For officers, being captured almost automatically implied death because of their alleged communist affiliations. But ordinary conscripts, who some times received greater sympathy among certain groups, are known to have been killed for rebelling or simply because they had become a burden to their captors.
At the same time, scores of Soviet soldiers, largely of Central Asian and non-Russian origin, are believed to have defected. Some have fought with the resistance; a number have sought asylum.