ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — President Zia ul-Haq of Pakistan, during a lengthy interview last week at his palace, said the Soviet Union appears to be seriously interested in exploring a political settlement to the six-year-old war in Afghanistan.
Zia, in office now for nearly nine years, also spoke about Pakistan's relations with India, about the Middle East and of the progress of democracy in his own nation.
Unlike some Washington analysts and officials, Zia believes the Soviets may want to pull out of the country they invaded in 1979; he bases this on more than educated guesses.
"We are in touch with them directly and indirectly," he said, "and from all counts, the signals we are receiving are that the Soviet Union wishes to withdraw."
Referring to a recent speech in which Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev called Afghanistan "a bleeding wound," Zia said, "Let us believe what the Russians say. It can't be any worse than it is now."
Zia added: "Inside Afghanistan, if you look at it from the Russian point of view, things are not going so well. I'm sure they can't afford to suffer as many casualties as they are suffering today. So, from that point of view, they also appear to be keen to resolve the issue of Afghanistan."
Zia, reaching for a well-worn atlas to help explain why he believes the Soviets originally invaded Afghanistan, dismissed Soviet claims that they were invited in by a friendly power.
"It was a fear of a neighboring country not being friendly," he said, "and also acquiring a very important strategic position. If they move here (he pointed on the map to Pakistan) over the bodies of Pakistanis, they are at the mouth of the gulf, and whoever controls the Strait of Hormuz, controls the gulf. In one move they have threatened to secure the Strait of Hormuz, encircle Iran and tell the Chinese, 'We are on your flank.' So strategically speaking, this is ideal."
In Washington there is continuing debate over whether it is necessary to increase aid to the moujahedeen, the Afghan resistance fighters. Those who favor an escalation of aid argue that it is necessary to inflict greater casualties on the Soviets to force a political settlement.
Zia disagrees. "To expect that the greater the insurgency, the less the time the Soviets will spend in Afghanistan, is wrong," he said. "You've got to find a political solution to the problem. The insurgency is a tactic. It will help find a political solution, but it will not bring about a solution. So, if anybody's thinking that the greater the heat of the insurgency, the easier the solution, he is wrong. The freedom fighters must continue their effort at the present level."
Zia did not hide his concern that an escalation of Western aid to the resistance could bring attendant dangers for Pakistan, which is now is home for more than 3 million Afghan refugees. Moreover, Pakistan provides a base for the resistance fighters--and a route for supplies and arms to enter Afghanistan. Thus far, said Zia, Soviet incursions into Pakistan have been minimal. But if further provoked, the Soviets could cause trouble.
To date, Pakistan's president has played the political game with considerable skill, minimizing the East-West aspects of the Afghan struggle while enabling the resistance to receive covert aid. The strongest evidence of his success is the most recent United Nations vote, where 122 out of 159 members voted to condemn the situation in Afghanistan.
"The question is at what temperature does the kettle boil?" Zia said. "If it's too high, the lid will fly off."
Zia outlined his idea of an acceptable political solution.
"The Soviet Union must withdraw," he said. "The refugees must return and it would be left to the people of Afghanistan to decide what kind of a government they want. We grant the Soviet Union that a superpower cannot tolerate a hostile neighbor." But he noted ironically that Afghanistan was pro-Soviet and hostile to Pakistan long before Soviet troops marched in.
Pakistanis are especially fearful of a two-front war: Afghanistan, a battleground for the last six years, to the northwest, and India, Pakistan's traditional enemy, to the southeast.
Until recently, Pakistani-Indian relations seemed to be improving, with the successful meeting in December in India between Zia and Rajiv Gandhi. Despite the fact that Gandhi recently postponed a visit to Pakistan--claiming that normalization was not proceeding at a satisfactory pace--Rajiv is a major improvement over his late mother, Indira, according to Zia. "We have already made good progress, and I hope it continues," he said.
As for India's close relations with the Soviet Union, Zia predicted there will be no change. "It's not possible," he said, "if you analyze the Indian position, you will see that their entire military is dependent on the resources of the Soviet Union . . . . Even if the leadership desires to change, it's impossible."