It's decisionmaking time on Afghanistan. The Soviet ambassador to Afghanistan, Yuli Vorontsov, is in Moscow for consultations.
Washington specialists suspect that Ambassador Vorontsov and his Kremlin bosses will be deciding when to start the second and last phase of the Soviet troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The Soviet hierarchy will also be looking at strategy for the next meeting with the Afghan mujahideen leadership. No date has been formally announced, but that meeting will probably take place next week, informed United States sources say.
The initial Soviet-mujahideen dialogue has been ``sterile,'' US officials say. Despite efforts to create the impression of secret deals, one ranking official says, the Soviets are still ``flailing for a solution'' and have not yet ``bitten the bullet.''
Moscow ``is still talking about power sharing with its Afghan allies, but the mujahideen is only talking power transfer,'' another official says.
At the same time, intelligence available to Washington shows significant Soviet preparations for withdrawing the approximately 50,000 Soviet troops still in Afghanistan.
The state of preparation suggests the withdrawals could begin as early as late December. US specialists calculate that the Soviets could still meet the Feb. 15 deadline set in the Geneva accords on Afghanistan, if they begin to pull out by early January.
But the Soviets continue to hedge in their comments to the Americans and others, stressing the need to have a political solution in place. ``We suspect Moscow will be trying to cut deals right down to the wire,'' says one well-placed US specialist. ``They really want some semblance of continuity, but they aren't finding anyone with the same urgency to talk - except about working out a smooth withdrawal of Soviet troops.''
In an attempt to generate that urgency, jets based in the Soviet Union continue high-level bombing attacks at an average rate of 100 sorties a day, US officials say. The attacks, which began in late October, are still concentrated around the besieged town of Kandahar. But there have also been sorties in support of Afghan government garrisons in northern Afghanistan.
Even after the pullout, the Soviets could continue such operations from their territory, as well as resupplying the pro-Soviet regime as long as it holds onto Kabul. That's ``one of our nightmares,'' says a US official.
Michael Armacost, undersecretary of state for political affairs, called in the Soviet ambassador late last week for a stiff warning on the bombings.
``The Soviets are pressing us to be helpful on a political settlement, but that is increasingly difficult to do while their bombings continue and Afghans are dying,'' says a well-informed US official. ``The mujahideen don't take kindly to having their wives blown up. This is not conducive to restraint or dialogue.''
US officials say the mujahideen have eased up their missile attacks on Kabul as a gesture to the Soviets. The Soviets have privately acknowledged this restraint but have not reciprocated militarily. The mujahideen leadership is under increasing pressure to respond to the Soviet bombings.
Washington continues to believe that the pro-Soviet Kabul regime cannot last long once the Soviet troops are gone. The US is urging Moscow to accept the inevitable and use its next meeting with the mujahideen to work out arrangements for a peaceful withdrawal and a smooth power transfer.
In this connection, says one US diplomat, Washington has made clear to Moscow that Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's recent proposals on Afghanistan are ``non-starters.'' The mujahideen are not willing to accept a cease-fire in place, nor is anyone going to volunteer for a peacekeeping force trying to stand between the warring Afghan parties.
The Afghan resistance also has to make some tough decisions soon, US specialists say, if it is to contribute to a smoother power transfer.
Currently, the resistance leadership is wrestling with whether to offer the Soviets any type of ``fig leaf,'' US officials say. While the resistance has ruled out participation by Afghan Marxists in a transitional government, it could still come up with some ``good Muslims'' connected with the current regime who would have a role in the transition.
More broadly, US specialists worry that if the current guerrilla-alliance leadership does not overcome its divisions and devise a workable political mechanism to guide the resistance in the months ahead, it could be a much messier transition with more fragmentation among the resistance forces.
The US, officials say, is not offering any plans to the mujahideen. ``The US could only lose by trying to broker any deals,'' says one. But it is strongly urging the resistance leadership to come up with something concrete on the political front.
Pakistan seems on the same track, US officials say. Initial signs are that the new government there is pulling back from previous efforts to manipulate the outcome among the guerrilla factions.