WILTON, CONN. — The war in Afghanistan, eight years old next month, goes on as though it were a malevolent force of nature. A few weeks ago in Peshawar, Pakistan, I saw photographs, just hand-carried in, of a newly bombed village near Herat in the northwest. One showed a family sitting in their house overtaken by death, as in Pompeii. In another, a dozen or more youngsters were laid out for burial. Around Peshawar, the moujahedeen resistance fighters moved back and forth across the border and some of the more than 3 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan lived for the day they could go home.
There is a grinding sameness in the struggle, as there is in the Afghanistan debate that resumes in the U.N. General Assembly next week--and as there has been in the negotiations the United Nations has conducted with Kabul and Pakistan for five years about Soviet withdrawal and a peace settlement.
But there are also striking new elements, signs of change. Unfortunately, they point in different directions. The regime installed by the Soviet Union in Kabul has offered reconciliation, with amnesty and high position in a coalition government, to freedom fighters and leaders who come into the fold. Moscow, in the spirit of glasnost , asserts that it favors self-determination for the Afghans --not through elections, still less by voting under international supervision, but by traditional consultation of tribal elders, the jirga , leading to consensus.
The Soviets say quietly that their man, Najib, and his predecessor, Babrak Karmal, might well not find a place in such a picture. General Secretary Mikhail S. Gorbachev has more than hinted at his readiness to see the 74-year-old former King Mohammed Zahir Shah return from exile in Rome as a reassuring, unifying transitional head of state. How that would happen is not clear. Najib, head of the ruling party, has assumed the presidency.
Pakistan seems more disposed than ever to consider compromise. The Afghans it shelters, the largest refugee community in the world, although taken in as kinsmen, are a burden. To be sure, they have brought Pakistan the good will of the United States plus billions of dollars in military and economic aid that would not have been forthcoming had Pakistan refused to take a stand against the Soviet invasion. But all this year, bomb blasts bringing death and damage to Pakistan's big cities, laid at the door of Kabul's secret police, have aroused animosity against the refugees as a source of danger. More vocally now, Pakistanis want their government to be more "flexible" in bargaining with Kabul to send the refugees home. Another new factor is Moscow's insistence about wanting to withdraw troops as soon as possible, with only assurances that withdrawal not be followed by a blood bath, that the new government not be hostile and that there be no intervention to tilt Afghanistan's nonalignment.
The Soviet stance is plausible. It is embellished with admission that the invasion was a mistake and the justification that in December, 1979, the Soviet Union was acting defensively against renegade clients who were opening the door to "imperialistic aggression." But the logic is thin. There has never been a government hostile to the Soviets and the moujahedeen accept the impossibility of charting an anti-Soviet course. They call Moscow's intervention completely unprovoked and not to be justified by the mistakes it made in playing its Afghan pawns.
One hears the hypothesis that the Soviet Union, a great power not given to adventurism, would not heedlessly have sent its own army against an independent Islamic neighbor, but would have moved only for the gravest reasons of state. These are not hard to imagine. In 1979 Iran was a revolutionary bedlam quite possibly sliding into chaos. The Soviets have long sought influence in this rich, strategic territory and have even tried to break off pieces for themselves. The Russian drive to the south is not a figment of the imagination. It was expressed when Stalin in 1941 accepted Hitler's invitation to join the German-Italian-Japanese Tripartite Pact, on the condition, among others, that "the area south of Batum and Baku in the general direction of the Persian Gulf is recognized as the center of the aspirations of the Soviet Union."