THE United States and the Soviet Union are making headway toward a deal to end the fighting in Afghanistan. The plan is expected to top the agenda when Secretary of State James Baker and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze meet this week in Irkutsk, Siberia, to discuss regional issues. Both superpowers have had to swallow doses of realism since the Soviet troops pulled out of Afghanistan a year and a half ago. Washington's confident expectations that, hard on the heels of the departing Red Army, the mujahideen resistance forces would sweep to victory, have turned to dust. The mujahideen fighters, whose hit-and-run ambush tactics proved so effective in the mountains, have been unable to dislodge the Afghan government forces from their city strongholds. Meanwhile, the coalition of resistance groups has become ever more fractious now that the hated Russian invader is gone.
For its part, Moscow doesn't want to provide massive support to Kabul indefinitely. Also, the Soviet Union is eager to improve relations with its Islamic neighbors, especially as the USSR's large Muslim populations in Azerbaijan and the Central Asian republics grow more restive.
A major snag in negotiations has been the status of Najibullah, Moscow's handpicked ruler in Kabul. The former head of Afghanistan's brutal secret police is despised by the mujahideen, and the US has insisted that he must go as a precondition to elections for a new government. The Kremlin has said that Najibullah should preside over the transition to new power sharing.
Now the US and the Soviets seem close to agreement on a plan whereby new elections would be held under the supervision of the United Nations and the international Islamic Conference. Najibullah would remain in office and could run in the election, but control of the armed forces, the security apparatus, and the information ministry would be turned over to an internationally monitored interim authority.
Najibullah reportedly accepts the plan. Washington may have trouble selling it to the resistance, however.
The United States must walk a fine line with the mujahideen. It must continue to honor its commitment to the resistance. Having just announced a major policy shift on Cambodia - which some critics portray (wrongly, we think) as a sellout of longtime clients - the US cannot afford another policy lurch that looks like an abandonment of friends.
But US policy in Afghanistan cannot become captive to mujahideen politics, especially as some fundamentalist factions, backed by Pakistan, have interests and goals that may not contribute to long-term stability in the region.
The US could start by reestablishing a small diplomatic presence in Kabul. Some resistance leaders would brand that as disloyalty, but the US shouldn't be totally out of the swim in Kabul at a time of sensitive and possibly fruitful negotiations.