AS the battle for the Afghan government stronghold of Jalalabad goes on, the United States is shifting its policy gears to fit Afghanistan's changing realities. Soviet troops are gone. Washington is now focused not only on the mujahideen's battle to topple the Kabul Marxist regime, but also on the type of government that might emerge and how the US can promote a positive outcome.
While a few eyebrows have been raised by the length of the mujahideen siege of Jalalabad, US officials say they are sure the pro-Soviet regime will topple.
``While some so-called experts were predicting the fall of Kabul in several weeks,'' a ranking US official says, ``the real experts were saying this would be a matter of months given the great amount of arms the Soviets gave their allies, the small areas left for them to defend, and the divisions among the resistance.''
Another key official admits that Afghan government troops in Jalalabad have fought better ``than some of us expected.'' But he predicts that the city will eventually be captured and the communist regime wither - ``its only a matter of time.''
Support for the mujahideen remains strong here. But there is also concern that divisions among resistance forces may prolong the struggle and result in an unstable or anti-Western Afghanistan.
Nine key senators, including the majority and minority leaders and the chairmen of the appropriations and intelligence committees, introduced a resolution last Friday reflecting those worries.
The senators have two basic messages for the administration, say informed aides: ``Don't cut military aid until Kabul falls or a political settlement is in place,'' and, ``take a close look to ensure that US policies are working to prevent a post-communist government hostile to US interests.''
A third message, they say, is intended for the resistance: ``Continued US aid and assistance is dependent on how well you overcome your internal divisions.'' The senators, aides say, are concerned about persistent reports that US aid has been diverted by Pakistani military intelligence to fundamentalist groups who are ideologically hostile to the US and by evidence that the resistance is unable to form a workable broad-based coalition. ``They don't want us to end up with another botched situation like Iran,'' one key aide says.
The Bush administration was already reviewing its policies with these concerns in mind, officials say. The US has no illusions that it or other outsiders can shape an outcome in Afghanistan, they add. Nor does it want to ``get in the middle of Afghan politics,'' as one source puts it.
``However much we might want it,'' says a specialist on the region, the new leaders of Afghanistan ``are not going to be our friends.'' But the administration ``can work to ensure that they aren't against us,'' he says - and that Afghanistan does not break up into warlord fiefdoms.
The Bush administration has made, or will soon make, a number of decisions intended to achieve those ends.
It has decided to continue its military supply of the Afghan resistance until the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul is replaced. The logistic channel will continue to be through Pakistan. US officials see no alternatives to close coordination with Pakistan.
Despite earlier bias by Pakistani military intelligence in favor of fundamentalist Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, key US officials say they believe that arms distribution is proceeding on a more equitable basis. ``We don't think Hekmatyar is being overindulged now,'' says one.
US officials say Washington is not interested in Soviet proposals for a mutual cutoff of military supplies. Moscow missed its chance, they say, when Washington offered ending the arms flow from both superpowers, called negative symmetry, last spring. ``Negative symmetry isn't realistic now given how the Soviets have armed their allies to the teeth,'' says one policymaker.
Secretary of State James Baker III is reviewing a short list of candidates to be named special envoy to the Afghan resistance. The administration is not ready to recognize the interim government established by the Pakistan-based guerrilla parties.
It is still operating from Pakistan and is not seen as broad based. US officials and private specialists estimate that the Shura, or council, which chose the interim government represents only 15 to 20 percent of the Afghan populace.
But US officials see the new government as a positive step, which the US should recognize with an envoy. Secretary Baker is reportedly looking for someone who will not only be good at working with the range of resistance leaders, but who over time might also become the ambassador to Afghanistan and would be able to manage the large US aid and relief programs that are expected.
US officials are weighing a formal break in diplomatic ties with the Kabul regime. While no decision has yet been made, ``there are not a lot of people standing in the way of a break,'' says a top US official.
The administration has decided to increase humanitarian and development aid. It wants to channel this directly through the interim government.
US development aid currently flows through committees set up by the Pakistan-based resistance. The US is urging the new government to quickly put ministerial structures in place to handle the aid flow.
This, US officials say, will serve as a means to expand the government's effectiveness and legitimacy. They hope other foreign donors will do follow suit.
As the military conflict settles down, the administration plans to shift funds allocated for weapons to development aid. In the interim, it is looking for other money.
David Isby of the pro-mujahideen Committee for a Free Afghanistan says that channeling aid through the interim government may be one of the most important US levers to influence Afghanistan's future political makeup.
It can force the Pakistan-based leaders to develop skills needed to administer, he says, and give them ``goodies'' to make their administration relevant to ``the guys with guns inside Afghanistan.''
Selig Harrison of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace is one of the few in Washington arguing that the US is heading in the wrong direction. He says Washington should try to negotiate a mutual arms cut off with the Soviets, which would not leave either side with a big arms advantage. Such an accord, Mr. Harrison says, could set the stage for an effort, led by the United Nations, to form a broad-based government.
``It's time to reassess and see that any military victory will be terribly costly, if possible at all,'' Harrison says. Or ``the end result could be an unstable government'' and a ``balkanized Afghanistan.''