THROUGHOUT the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the mujahideen were Washington's favorite ``freedom fighters.'' Since the Soviet pullout Feb. 15, congressional support for continued arming of the Afghan resistance has remained strong, especially in light of the massive military aid the Soviets have been pumping in to bolster the Najibullah regime.
But as the military stalemate inside Afghanistan drags on, the Bush administration is likely to face increasing demands from Congress to justify its policy.
Already, a key member of Congress, Rep. Anthony Beilenson (D) of California, chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, has called on the United States and Soviet Union to negotiate a mutual cutoff of arms supplies. A tough sell on the Hill
Analysts inside and outside the US government see the war continuing well into next year. And in that event, ``increasingly, the administration will have to sell its program'' to Congress, says Sen. Gordon Humphrey (R) of New Hampshire, a staunch supporter of the mujahideen.
The ``program,'' say US officials, is to keep giving the Afghan resistance what it needs to push the Marxist regime in Kabul out of power, to keep fighting until the Afghan head of state Dr. Najibullah's forces fall.
But given that US policy was predicated on an assumption that proved false - that Najibullah would fall within days or at most weeks of the Soviet pullout - US policymakers are very sensitive about it.
The administration also feels constricted from exploring other policy options as freely as it might because support for the mujahideen is an emotional issue for conservatives here, and because the US coordinates closely with Pakistan on policy.
One US official involved in Afghan affairs, interviewed on condition of anonymity, agreed that the present policy will be increasingly hard to sell on Capitol Hill. The Soviets, after all, are out of Afghanistan. (According to another official, however, there are 300 Soviet military ``advisers'' operating Scud missile sites inside Afghanistan.) As far as most Americans are concerned, the war there is over. Reasons for Afghan stalemate
``Furthermore, these [resistance leaders] are not all boy scouts,'' says the first official. ``There's the issue of narcotics trafficking, attitudes toward women, human-rights violations, the shadow of Islamic fundamentalism.''
In the weeks and months since the Soviet pullout, a variety of factors have been blamed for the mujahideen's inability to achieve their objectives.
Those factors include: fighting among various resistance factions; lack of unity between the Afghan interim government and the mujahideen field commanders inside Afghanistan; a slowdown of US arms shipments to the resistance at the start of the summer. There has also been a massive Soviet outpouring of war materiel to bolster Najibullah that US officials estimate amounts to $250 million a month. The mujahideen were also unable to make a quick conversion from guerrilla warfare to conventional tactics.
US policymakers have taken steps to quiet the criticism. After complaints last month from congressmen over the issue of supplies to the mujahideen, the Central Intelligence Agency replaced the head of its Afghan task force, who critics say had little operational experience. Pakistan's role
In addition, the US and Pakistan decided to reduce military supplies to the Pakistan-based resistance parties and to try supplying field commanders directly. The move was aimed at boosting the influence of the field commanders within the overall resistance movement and reducing the clout of the Islamic extremists, whom the Pakistani government has favored over the years with generous supplies.
Some analysts, noting that the US has tried to deliver supplies directly to the commanders before, questioned whether the new strategy would really be carried out. As long as Pakistan's intelligence service, the ISI, still plays a dominant role in deciding where the supplies go - which is reportedly part of the plan - the current setup of going through the parties would probably not change, analysts say.
When asked whether the arms-supply situation had indeed improved in the past few weeks, US officials said either that they did not know, or simply would not comment.
Senator Humphrey, who heads the congressional task force on Afghanistan, reported a marked improvement in the flow of weapons. But one US official questioned whether the situation there could get that much better that quickly. Trying to enlist royal support
Another element of the US effort to broaden the base of the Afghan interim government (AIG) is a renewal of official contact with Afghanistan's former King, Zahir Shah. The king is remembered fondly by many inside Afghanistan for his peaceful reign, and it has been suggested that he could be a unifying force among Afghanistan's disparate factions.
The purpose of a visit by the deputy chief of mission from the US Embassy in Rome was to ask the king to voice support for the AIG and the resistance in general. According to sources familiar with the king's thinking, the king was not impressed. The AIG, in his view, is a creation of Pakistan, and therefore not a sound base upon which to develop an indigenous Afghan leadership, they say.
Administration officials, pointing out that the Rome deputy chief of mission has visited the King on two previous occasions, and that a higher-level official was not sent this time, say the visit did not indicate a change in policy.
Still, the move was the first official US contact with the king since the early days of the AIG, which was formed before the Soviet pullout, and therefore signaled a US acknowledgment of the need to explore more actively the nonmilitary aspects of policy. Patience is counseled
In the face of calls for negotiation with the Soviets, supporters of the present US policy counsel patience. Pakistan's ambassador to the US, Zulfiqar Ali Khan, says he believes the Soviets will not pursue Afghanistan to the bitter end.
Because of the excessive cost of propping up Najibullah, the financially strapped Soviets will give up within six months to a year, and Najib will fall soon thereafter, Mr. Ali Khan says.
Back in Pakistan, a key official has signaled a possible softening of position. In a Sept. 13 press conference, chief of staff Mirza Aslam Beg told reporters that the mujahideen should be willing to talk with the ruling, pro-communist People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan if Najibullah steps down.
The next day's headlines declared a shift of Pakistan's policy, but US officials were not willing to go that far. General Beg's remark could have been just a trial balloon, says one official.