The Soviets' diplomatic chess game in Afghanistan

THE future of government in Kabul today is as uncertain as it was this week nine years ago when the Soviets began their direct military intervention. Mikhail Gorbachev's proposals on Afghanistan earlier this month at the United Nations - calling for a cease-fire, a cutoff of military supplies to the combatants, an international conference to ensure Afghanistan's future neutrality - are inadequate to promise an orderly transition. Likewise, the first formal negotiations between Soviet and Afghan guerrilla representatives in Taif, Saudi Arabia, underscored Soviet recognition that the Kabul regime's policy of national reconciliation has failed. Moscow must now negotiate directly with the Afghan mujahideen to deliver what the current head of government, Najibullah, could not. Its approach is a multifaceted policy regarding the future government in Kabul, negotiating with virtually all parties, often over Kabul's shoulders.

The Soviet commitment to the Afghan ruling party, and particularly to its leader, Najibullah, appears to be wavering. Recent Soviet pronouncements seldom invoke supplies to the guerrillas as a threat to the Afghan ``revolution.'' Soviet frustrations and Afghan bitterness are now openly aired both in Moscow and Kabul.

Sayed Gulabzoy, the leader of the Khalq faction of the Afghan ruling party and head of the 30,000-strong militia force, has reportedly been considered by the Soviets as an alternative leader. Najibullah failed to purge him in a recent party shuffle, as he had some elements of the Karmal faction. Instead, Mr. Gulabzoy was recently sent to Moscow as an ambassador. A worst-case scenario would have the Red Army putting its weight behind Gulabzoy's ruthless Khalq faction.

Prime Minister Mohammed Hassan Sharq, a nonparty leader of the old elite, is projected as a possible head of a proposed coalition government. The mujahideen dismiss the idea.

The fundamentalist parties in Peshawar are solidly opposed to suggestions of a possible role for the former king, Zahir Shah. They are no more open to the other three possible expatriate leaders being weighed by UN mediators: Abdul Samad Hamid, Abdul Satar Sirat, and Abdul Wakil. The UN efforts in this regard seem, in fact, to have reached an impasse, brought on in part by Moscow's policy of seeking India's help.

The Soviets are also trying to court local mujahideen field commanders like Ahmed Shah Massoud from the Panjshair Valley, Ismail Khan from the western provinces, Amin Wordak from the southeastern, and Abdul Haq from the eastern provinces. These commanders, formally tied to mujahideen parties in Peshawar, enjoy considerable freedom in their operations and represent a loose coalition of more than 200 field commanders.

Yet, Mr. Massoud, a Tajik, cannot win support from the Pathan tribesmen of the south. Far from being a desirable alternative, Moscow's direct and indirect contacts with such leaders are perhaps an effort to attain breathing space for the Kabul regime, a secure passage for its withdrawing troops, and an uninterrupted supply of Afghan gas to Soviet Central Asia.

Finally, Moscow has shown no interest in talking to Islamic fundamentalists like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. His group, close to the Pakistani military and a major recipient of American supplies, has contacts in Pakistan with Benazir Bhutto's major foe, Jamiat-i-Islami. Like Moscow, the middle classes in Kabul are apprehensive about fundamentalists. They tend to cling to the ruling People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan primarily out of fear that the fundamentalists would introduce a puritanical Islam and put women back in veils. Likewise, more-moderate groups in Peshawar, headed by Sayed Ahmed Gailani, of the Mahaz-e-mili Islami, recently moved swiftly to preempt fundamentalist victories around Jalalabad and Kandahar, fearing that such victories would give the fundamentalists unstoppable momentum before reaching Kabul. The resulting melee explains why the guerrillas have not been able to overrun Kandahar and Jalalabad since Soviet withdrawal from those areas in August.

In many respects the dilemmas facing Moscow will be shared by Ms. Bhutto, Pakistan's new leader. Notwithstanding the present relations with the military, Bhutto's party primarily represents the section of public opinion that finds itself more comfortable with the reformists or traditionalists in Kabul and elsewhere in exile than with fundamentalist guerrillas.

A complete Soviet withdrawal would provide the new US president, George Bush, a higher pedestal for conducting bilateral relations with Moscow. This will be possible only if in its remaining days the Reagan administration negotiates some kind of moratorium with Moscow regarding military supplies for the Afghan combatants.

Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's political d'emarche and strategic gambits in Afghanistan are efforts to adjust to changing political realities in southwestern Asia. By slowly distancing Soviet policy from rigid ideological formulations and military postures, Mr. Gorbachev is seeking to seize specific opportunities in Afghanistan. Broadened Soviet negotiations with the mujahideen would further add to the growing friction between Moscow and Kabul. About a decade and countless Afghan lives later, for Moscow, the Afghan question remains unanswered.

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