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Trying again on Afghanistan

Remember Afghanistan? More than two years ago the Soviet Union outraged the world by marching its troops over the border and installing a Marxist puppet regime in Kabul. The international community duly condemned the Russians, and the Western allies took some less-than-wholehearted economic and other steps to show their displeasure. The Soviet invasion also served to brace the West's determination to build up its military strength, especially in the Gulf region. Yet the general public perception is that the continuing tyrannical Russian occupation of Afghanistan is a fait accompli about which little can be done.

Or can it?

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If the United States seems to have written off Afghanistan -- President Reagan after all lifted the gain embargo on Moscow with nothing in return -- the West Europeans apparently have not. It is somewhat disappointing that so little public attention in being paid to a European Community initiative to try to get the 85,000 Soviet troops out of Afghanistan and negotiate a political settlement. Proposed initially by Britain, the plan is for a two-stage conference to deal first with the issue of foreign intervention in Afghanistan and then with Afghanistan's independence and neutrality.

The unanswerable question is whether the Russians, if the right face-saving formula could be found, would see it in their interest to withdraw.From their standpoint they must calculate that Afghanistan is a rankling problem that continues to sour their relations with the rest of the world, including the countries of the Middle East where they have legitimate interests. Inside Afghanistan the war continues unabated, with the rebels putting up a sturdy fight, the Russians taking a beating, and the puppet Karmal government unable to heal interparty rivalries. If the Soviet leadership is genuinely interested in reviving detente and establishing a better relationship in the world, it clearly will have to take into account the Afghan issue -- just as the United States had to rid itself of its burden in Vietnam.

Admittedly the chances for success of the conference are limited. Moscow's official line all along has been that the only outside threat to Afghanistan is from the Afghan rebels supported by Pakistan, the US, China, and others. There are, moreover, a number of factors that are bound to make the Russians wary of giving up the strategic advantage their presence in Afghanistan gives them -- the turmoil and growing threat of civil war in Iran, for instance, and the feelers which their client India in putting out to China on the Sino-Indian border dispute.

Yet the fact should not go unnoticed that Leonid Brezhnev has pointedly been dropping hints of his willingness to talk. Just this week he told former West German Chancellor Willy Brandt he wants to see a political solution in Afghanistan. What does he mean? Is he looking for a way out of the Afghan quagmire? It remains for Lord Carrington, Britain's able foreign secretary who has already proved his prowess at peacemaking, to test the waters during his visit to Moscow next week.

To raise expectations would be foolhardy. But there are precedents for the withdrawal of Soviet military power from occupied foreign territory. The Russians got out of Iranian Azerbaijan in 1946 and out of Austria in 1955: It would be a mistake for outside powers to stop aiding the Afghan fighters or otherwise keeping up their pressure on the Russians as long as the latter are in Afghanistan. But this should not rule out a serious effort to negotiate. It is just possible that the European Community idea will work -- that if the sides talk lo ng enough they will find ways to reach an accommodation.

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