Afghanistan: An End in Sight?

Even if Soviet troops are heading home, the war is likely to continue

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Mikhail Gorbachev may finally get his way. Two months ago, the Soviet leader said he wanted to begin withdrawing the 115,000 Soviet troops mired in Afghanistan by May 15, but deadlocked negotiations in Geneva over the precise terms of the pullout cast doubt on his schedule. The snag was caused by Washington's insistence that the U.S. could arm Afghanistan resistance fighters as long as Moscow continued to provide military help to Kabul's Communist regime.

The Geneva talks were about to break down over that contentious point last week when Gorbachev decided to yield to the U.S. demand. Having won support from the Politburo, all that remained for Gorbachev was to secure agreement from Afghanistan President Najibullah, a former secret-police chief who is reportedly displeased with the Soviet pullout plan. Gorbachev summoned Najibullah to Tashkent, 200 miles north of the Soviet-Afghan border, where the two men conferred along with Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze. No details of the talks were released, but a Western diplomat in Moscow said, "I think it is a fair assumption that the Gorbachev meeting with Najibullah was the ultimate persuader, a combination of arm twisting and reassurance."

When the discussions ended, Gorbachev and Najibullah were all smiles. A joint communique declared with notable finality, "The last obstacles to concluding the agreements have now been removed." It stated that the withdrawal of the first Soviet units could still begin on May 15. The next day, at the United Nations-mediated talks in Geneva between Pakistan and Afghanistan, the gloom of recent weeks lifted almost instantly. Diego Cordovez, the U.N. troubleshooter who has shepherded the negotiations for the past six years, emerged from morning sessions with Afghan and Pakistani diplomats and told reporters, "We have discussed; we have negotiated. That's over. I want to inform you that the documents are now finalized and open for signature."

Though Cordovez announced that all the parties to the negotiations -- directly, Afghanistan and Pakistan; indirectly, the U.S. and the Soviet Union -- were prepared to sign the accords within a week, the response from Washington was more cautious. Administration sources noted that the Soviets had yet to answer formally the U.S. demand for the right to arm the rebels at a level "symmetrical" to Soviet military assistance to Kabul. Since the superpowers' symmetry discussion has not been a part of the Geneva negotiations, it will probably be covered in a separate declaration. Speaking on U.S. television after a futile round of shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East, U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz said, "Perhaps what we suggested . will be agreeable to them, but we still want to see the answer."

In Pakistan, which has suffered Afghan air and artillery attacks along the border as well as terror bombings in retribution for Islamabad's support for the mujahedin, the response to Gorbachev's concession was more clear-cut. Legislators thumped their desks in approval as President Mohammed Zia ul-Haq told a joint session of the parliament that a Soviet pullout was imminent. He called the development the "miracle of the 20th century, God willing."

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