FOR great powers engaged in limited wars the hardest part often is the "endgame." In the messy, confused, indecisive wind-down of a limited conflict, how does a nation disengage from the war gracefully, while preserving gains it no longer is willing to fight for? That's the dilemma that confronts the United States and the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Both patrons are weary of the seemingly interminable war between a puppet government installed by Moscow and the guerrillas (mujahideen) that pushed the Soviet Army out of Afghanistan in 1989. With the end of the cold war, the Afghan conflict doesn't hold its former proxy significance for Moscow and Washington. Yet both governments have made commitments to their respective clients that they cannot, in good conscienc e
, simply abandon.
The case for continuing US arms aid to the mujahideen (more than $200 million last year) is getting ever weaker, however. No major US national interests are at stake anymore. And most US aid is directed by the Pakistani conduit to Muslim fundamentalist factions. The ascendancy of these factions is more in Pakistan's interest than that of the US. Some of the fundamentalist guerrilla groups even supported Saddam Hussein in the Gulf war.
The US has been trying to negotiate with the USSR a mutual cutoff of military aid to Afghanistan, and to broker a deal between Kabul and the guerrillas including an internationally supervised election. But the talks have foundered, largely over the future role of Afghan President Najibullah. Now there are hopeful signs that, even without a pact, the US may be trying to entice Moscow into cutting back its military aid to Kabul by a unilateral reduction in US arms shipments.
Perhaps the best way to break the diplomatic logjam would be to enlist the United Nations - its prestige greatly enhanced by its firm action against Saddam - to settle the dispute. The UN in the past has signaled its willingness to become involved. Hardliners on all sides would resist this step. But it's past time to end this fierce little war - "little" to everyone except the hundreds of thousands of Afghan civilians who have lost their lives or been turned into refugees.