WHAT once looked like the beginning of victory for the cause of freedom in Afghanistan now looks more like a political and military stalemate. But even that stalemate could slide into a defeat unless the US makes a much more vigorous and flexible effort to reach peace, say a number of experts who have followed events since withdrawal of Soviet troops last February.
The issue now is whether to continue current United States policy or to ``pronounce it a failure and start from scratch,'' says former US ambassador to Afghanistan Robert Neumann.
US predictions early this year that the war would soon end, and the Marxist regime of President Najibullah in Kabul would collapse, were clearly off target. Fueled by weapons from the Soviet Union, US, and Saudi Arabia the war goes on - in some ways more intensively than before.
Lacking both tight discipline and unity, the mujahideen have been hard pressed to shift from defensive to offensive tactics and have scored no significant victories. Despite two coup attempts, Mr. Najibullah remains in power.
Critics of US policy say it should adapt to circumstances.
``Our principle interest was satisfied when the Soviets withdrew,'' says Rep. Anthony Beilenson (D) of California, head of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. ``I don't think we should pull out and leave our friends [the mujahideen] without support, but I do think we have to start nudging everybody toward trying to find a way to negotiate an end to all this.''
Many, including the congressman, say an agreement to stop all foreign military aid to both sides in Afghanistan is a logical first step. The US first suggested it in March 1988 to the Soviets who turned it down. Now the Soviets urge it, and the US rejects it.
The administration's reasons include new Soviet insistence on a cease-fire (which the US says it could never deliver), and the advantage such a pact would give to Najibullah. His regime is being inundated with $250 million to $400 million worth of Soviet weapons each month, including powerful Scud missiles.
Though Afghanistan was discussed by US and Soviet officials both at the Wyoming minisummit and at Malta, the US has said little about specific progress. ``The discussions may have moved the situation along a little bit,'' says Selig Harrison, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. But there are no strong signs that talks have prompted a genuine reappraisal of US policy, he says. The US is ``essentially trying to find a way to salvage present policy,'' Mr. Harrison says.
The US views its continuation of covert military aid to the mujahideen largely as a political bargaining chip, rather than as the key to a battlefield victory. As one US official puts it: ``The Kabul government isn't just going to roll over.'' The US also hopes the Soviet Union's economic troubles may in time force cuts in aid to Kabul, and that time may improve prospects for another coup attempt against Najib, as the Afghan leader is also known.
Both Washington and Moscow say they want a political solution to the conflict but differ on the specifics. The US says it seeks no advantage over the Soviets, and desires no government hostile to them. The US does, however, still support mujahideen refusal to talk with Najibullah and his People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) about the shape of a new government or any coalition that includes the former secret police chief and his top associates.
``We don't deal with Najib and I don't think we should,'' says Ambassador Neumann. ``He's a murderous scoundrel who has lots of blood on his hands. Every member of the resistance has friends and relatives who were killed by his security forces.''
Thomas Gouttierre, director of the University of Nebraska's Center for Afghan Studies, says the resistance should not be asked to form a coalition with PDPA leaders. ``There are times when treasonous acts go beyond a standard that can be accepted.... I believe that if the top of the PDPA leadership could be skimmed off, the road would be open for the kind of negotiations that could end the war.''
Despite a readiness to admit their intervention in Afghanistan 10 years ago was illegal and immoral, the Soviets have shown no inclination to compromise on support for Najibullah. They admit they are surprised and pleased at his apparent strength and say they cannot abandon him now.
Some analysts say the US should bend on this point. They note that Najibullah and his aides are not likely to be significant players in any final settlement. ``Any genuine political process in Afghanistan will lead to the ouster of Najib - I think that's a certainty,'' says Barnett Rubin, a fellow of the US Institute of Peace.
Alternatives now discussed include a transition period presided over by Zahir Shah, the Afghan king overthrown in a military coup in 1973. The US, Soviets, and a number of Afghans would favor his return, but some Islamic fundamentalist leaders remember his rule as repressive.
Another suggestion involves a coalition that would permit on the communist side those so-called ``good Muslims'' associated with the Kabul regime, but who may not be members of the party or the inner circle of rulers.
For the noncommunist delegation, the US continues to support the seven-party, Pakistan-based Afghan Interim Government. The AIG represents the resistance and was formed last February by Pakistan and the US. Controlled by Islamic fundamentalist factions, the group is viewed by many as too narrow to speak for the broad range of Afghan citizens.
``We're stuck with them [AIG] - we don't know how to get out from under this commitment we've had,'' Harrison says.
Many analysts, Harrison included, say they would prefer that the US endorse a recent proposal by United Nations Secretary-General Javier P'erez de Cu'ellar to involve a wider group of Afghans, including tribal and religious leaders, in a settlement. The US supports the idea of a UN effort but does not embrace its proposal.
Much of the Capitol Hill concern about Afghanistan in the past has come from conservatives who thought the mujahideen were not getting as much US support as they need. But if the current stalemate in both war and peace efforts persists, Congress may hear more from the likes of Representative Beilenson and Sen. Claiborne Pell (D) of Rhode Island, who recently visited Pakistan. The two lawmakers urged the US to give up thoughts of a military solution and get on with a settlement.
``The war is doing nothing but killing lots of Afghans,'' says Beilenson. ``I get the feeling - and I don't know if I'm fair or correct in this - that the Soviets are more willing to deal on this than we are at the moment.''
US officials emphasize that it is the Afghans themselves who will ultimately decide in which direction their country moves. Resistance forces who fought against communists long before Soviet troops arrived have amply demonstrated their staying power.
``They are determined,'' says Mr. Gouttierre. ``They're going to be there until this thing is resolved in the way they believe it should be. That could take a long time.''