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Will new Afghan talks break deadlock? Diplomatic flurry, signs from Moscow raise hopes for accord

It wasn't long ago that Afghanistan's ambassador to the United Nations branded antigovernment Afghan insurgents ``miscreants,'' ``armed gangs,'' ``bandits,'' and worse. Almost overnight, all that changed. Suddenly the guerrillas became ``the opposite side,'' ``those who do not share our beliefs,'' or simply ``these chaps.''

The turnabout marked the peace offensive launched by Kabul and Moscow last December to end their debilitating seven-year war against the mujahideen, as the Afghan guerrillas are known.

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The offers ushered in a surge of diplomatic activity before the newest round of indirect Afghan-Pakistani talks, which are scheduled to open in Geneva today. Convened by UN Undersecretary-General Diego Cordovez and originally scheduled for Feb. 11, they were postponed to give the parties time to make sense of the diplomatic whirlwind that has blown up since the last round in August.

A UN source close to the negotiations said the postponement signaled ``positive and constructive'' developments and enhanced prospects that the talks would break the deadlock over getting the estimated 115,000 Soviet troops out of Afghanistan.

The past month's diplomatic flurry has involved Soviet, Afghan, Pakistani, Iranian, and American officials, and seemed aimed at assessing recent developments, including:

The high-visibility role that Moscow has suddenly assumed via talks with the principal parties.

Signs of more flexibility over a Soviet withdrawal schedule.

The reaction of the mujahideen, Pakistan, and the US to Kabul's offer of a six-month cease-fire and guerrilla participation in a ``national reconciliation'' government.

The most dramatic development since last August's Geneva session was the public emergence of the Kremlin as the focal point of efforts to negotiate a settlement to the war.

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Moscow has ``openly abandoned the fiction that Kabul is a sovereign government acting independently,'' a UN diplomat said. ``If there was any doubt before, there is none now that Moscow is calling the shots.''

Thus, withing a matter of days in February, representatives of the principal parties were summoned to Moscow to meet with Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze.

Pakistan's foreign minister, Shahabzada Yaqub Khan, visited Moscow twice this month. His visits overlapped with those by Mr. Cordovez and by the Afghan premier. In the same period, Iran's foreign minister met with Soviet officials. Diplomats say talks touched on incursions against Soviet-Afghan forces by mujahideen operating from Iran.

The United States, as co-guarantor with the Soviet Union of whatever accord emerges, has been active on the fringes. US Undersecretary of State Michael Armacost met with Pakistani officials in Islamabad in January. Last week, he was briefed in Washington by Cordovez.

Publicly, Cordovez remains committed to his original mandate - to deal only with the external issues relating to the Afghanistan conflict. At Soviet insistence, the UN was to keep its hands off Afghanistan's internal affairs, including Kabul's dealings with the mujahideen and the nature of any post-war regime.

Cordovez has repeatedly emphasized that the key to an accord is agreement on the last of a four-point package: the time frame for a Soviet troop pullout. One of the most significant concilatory signals concerns this issue: Diplomats say that Moscow has reduced its four-year time frame to two years; Pakistan, which has insisted on a three- or four- month schedule, is said to be open to something closer to one year.

The conferees already have agreed on three other points: noninterference in Afganistan's internal affairs, the voluntary return of some 3 million refugees from Pakistan and 2 million from Iran, and US-Soviet guarantees for any final accord.

But diplomats say other issues have entered the picture. Foremost, they say, are negotiations over the composition of Kabul's post-war government. That would, they say, require involving the seven main Pakistan-based mujahideen factions in negotiations. After rejecting Kabul's December peace proposal, the guerrillas offered to negotiate - with Moscow, and in the presence of Pakistani and Iranian officials. They refuse to deal with Kabul, which they regard as a Soviet puppet.

Observers say the guerrillas' second thoughts are a response to Pakistan's increased pressure to be flexible. Pakistan is believed to be secretly sounding out the mujahideen to find common ground between them and Kabul. Mr. Yaqub Khan appeared to be nudging the guerrillas toward conciliation when he publicly expressed the opinion that, this time, the Soviets are serious about wanting to get out of Afghanistan.

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