ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN -- "I have never seen a test case like this," says French diplomat Jean-Francois Deniau of the proposed Soviet pullout from Afghanistan. "It's the only way we can see if Gorbachev can do what he says. It's so important for freedom and for hope. It's like D-Day . . . . We can't accept that a question like this will receive a false solution."

A real solution, says the French special envoy on Afghanistan, would be the complete withdrawal of Soviet troops and the creation of a truly independent country -- as friendly with Pakistan as with the Soviet Union.

The French diplomat is asking the right questions: Is Mikhail Gorbachev's announcement that the Soviets will withdraw from Afghanistan -- trumpeted around the world this month -- for real? Does Moscow plan a "real solution," or just a cosmetic one that maintains a Soviet proxy government in Kabul? And will the Reagan administration, anxious for a foreign-policy success, accept a false solution?

Answers to these question could begin to surface tomorrow, as Secretary of State George P. Shultz holds talks in Moscow on Afghanistan. Conservatives worry that he may accept a deal that would halt U.S. aid to the mujaheddin at the start of a 10-month period of promised Soviet troop withdrawal. Such a deal, made without the participation of the Afghan resistance fighters who waged the war, could well collapse -- with the resistance fighting on and Afghanistan becoming a second Lebanon.

A clear picture of what's at stake in the current diplomatic debate over Afghanistan emerges from conversations with some of the key players -- in the Soviet Union, Afghanistan, Pakistan and China. What comes through above all is a sense of uncertainty about what really lies ahead in Afghanistan. Many of those most closely involved are skeptical about Soviet intentions and doubtful that it will be possible to create the neutral, nonaligned Afghanistan that nearly everyone proclaims as the goal. These comments provide a healthy antidote to the optimistic expectations prevalent now in Washington that a lasting settlement of the Afghan conflict is in sight.

Here's a summary of what some of the key officials told me in interviews during the last two months:

The Soviet Union. Soviet First Deputy Foreign Minister, Yuli Vorontsov, claims that as a result of the so-called "new thinking," the Soviets have decided to withdraw their troops from Afghanistan and to arrive at a political settlement. But Vorontsov insists that withdrawal from Afghanistan does not mean defeat. Indeed, he notes that "we haven't used all the military power we could have applied."

Anatoliy Dobrynin, head of the Soviet International Department, says he favors withdrawal but warns that if the withdrawing Soviet troops come under attack, "it will make the process of withdrawal more difficult. We are not prepared to withdraw at any cost."

The future Afghanistan that Dobrynin says he envisions is a "neutral or nonaligned country with no foreign bases." (The Soviets use the words neutral and nonaligned interchangably, ignoring the differences between Austria, a neutral, pro-West country, and Angola, a Marxist regime that describes itself as nonaligned.) Asked where the neutrals will come from -- in a country where one side has been killing the other for the last eight years -- Dobrynin admits it is difficult to say.

The Soviets expect that the Geneva accords between Pakistan and Afghanistan will stop western aid to the mujaheddin from coming across the Pakistani border. But Iran, home to another 1.5 million Afghan refugees, is another gateway for aid, and Iran is not part of the Geneva talks. Vorontsov says the Soviets are hoping to get the Iranians to seal their border, too.

Even if the Soviets withdraw their troops, says ambassador-at-large Nicholai Kozyrev, they will continue "to provide assistance to Afghanistan." Economic relations, he said, have good prospects. After all, the Soviet Union has signed about 300 economic treaties with the Soviet-backed Afghan government and it is hoping that the next government will assume the obligations in these treaties. One treaty is thought by Pakistani intelligence to cede the Wakhun corridor to the Soviet Union.

Both Kozyrev and Vorontsov say that Soviet advisors will remain in Afghanistan even if troops are withdrawn. At present there are said to be 9,000 Soviet advisors in Afghanistan -- directing every aspect of Afghan life.

Afghanistan. In Kabul, signs of Soviet control are evident everywhere from the moment you land at the airport. My Aeroflot plane was encircled as it landed by other Soviet planes that dropped flares to distract the Stinger missiles the mujaheddin possess.

It's easy to spot Soviet convoys rolling down the road. And you can't overlook the large KGB headquarters, which is centrally located. The KGB, and its Afghan counterpart, known as KHAD, are said to rule the city. Remarks one western diplomat: "Here, there is not one centimeter of change."

"It's a complete and methodic colonization," explains one diplomat in regard to the Sovietization of Afghanistan. Since 1980 when they invaded, the Soviets have taken about 60,000 young Afghans to the Soviet Union to be "educated." "All the main officers in the Afghan administration were formed in the USSR," says a knowledgable western source in Kabul.

In Kabul, I found the diplomatic community surprisingly united in their conviction that the Soviets aren't likely to withdraw from Afghanistan -- and that even if they do withdraw some troops, Soviet influence will not disappear.

One senior western diplomat in Kabul made the case most effectively. "The Soviet Union doesn't want to abandon Afghanistan," he says. "The Soviets want you, by diplomatic means, to help them stay in Afghanistan . . . . They want to deceive your country . . . . Afghanistan isn't Vietnam. Afghanistan is at the border of the Soviet Union. They want to stay and they want the guarantee of the United States that they can stay."

The West is overestimating the mujaheddin, says this veteran diplomat in Kabul. He insists that western analysts are wrong in predicting a bloodbath if Soviet troops withdraw, as the mujaheddin take their revenge on the puppet Afghan regime: "Even if the Soviets troops pulled back, the Kabul regime will be aided by advisors, weapons and money. It is possible that it is strong enough to resist and the mujaheddin are divided and will not succeed."

Pakistan. There is pressure on Pakistan to agree to a settlement at the upcoming Geneva meeting with the Afghan government, scheduled for March 2. Gorbachev said a week ago that if an agreement is signed by mid-March, then the Soviets will start to pull out their troops in mid-May. With a summit coming up in June, American officials would like to have the Afghan war settled so that it won't obstruct disarmament talks.

The Geneva negotiations have been underway since 1982. So far, Pakistan and Afghanistan have managed to agree on three points: reciprocal assurances of non-interference and non-intervention by Afghanistan and Pakistan; guarantees of this non-interference by the Soviet Union and the United States; the right of Afghan refugees to return to their homeland. A fourth item that would provide a time-frame for withdrawal of Soviet troops hasn't yet been resolved.

Gorbachev's recent proposal of a 10-month withdrawal period seemed to close the gap, and some analysts thought a settlement was near. Then Pakistan's President Zia ul-Haq introduced a new element when he told me in an interview last month that he would not sign the Geneva Accords with the Soviet-backed president of Afghanistan, Najibullah. Zia said he would sign the accords with a coalition government formed of and by Afghans and controlled by the mujaheddin and Afghan exiles.

The reason for President Zia's demand for an interim government is that he wants to be sure that an agreement is a real agreement -- that it will insure both the withdrawal of Soviet troops and the ability of the 3.5 million Afghan refugees housed in Pakistan to return to their homes.

A former senior Pakistani official explains that Islamabad is worried that if Pakistan signs the Geneva accords with Najibullah, it will achieve what Deniau calls a false settlement -- one in which the mujaheddin are excluded and continue to fight, one that gives Najibullah the legitimacy he has been denied for so long and one which leaves Pakistan stuck with the Afghan refugees, who won't return home as long as Najibullah reigns.

The present Soviet strategy, explains one senior Pakistani official, is to improve relations with both Iran and Pakistan so that "sandwiched between the two, Soviet security in Afghanistan can be insured." In five to 10 years, according to one knowledgable Pakistani, the Soviets expect to have pro-Soviet governments in both Tehran and Islamabad: "That could be not an unreasonable expectation," he says. "Then Soviet influence could extend into India, Pakistan, Iran and Syria, and you would have a whole belt."

As for Afghanistan's future, a Pakistani defense analyst explains: "I think the Soviets will withdraw but leave Afghanistan in a state of civil war like Lebanon so they retain the option of returning."

Summing up Afghanistan's future with an analogy, one Pakistani official asks: "Is it possible for Mexico to have any other influence than the United States? A superpower expects its shadow to fall on Afghanistan."

China. Although President Zia is often portrayed as a hardliner, Chinese offcials and analysts take an even tougher position -- skeptical of Soviet intentions to withdraw from Afghanistan and convinced that increased aid to the resistance is the key to removing the Soviets from Afghanistan. (An end to the conflict in Afghanistan has been one of China's three conditions for improving relations with the Soviet Union.)

Chinese defense analysts at the Beijing Institute of Strategic Studies express doubt that the Soviets are sincere in their stated intention to withdraw from Afghanistan. "The Soviet condition is that the United States and other countries stop interference," says one expert. "For the United States and China to cut off the resistance is a condition that must not be accepted."

The Chinese analysts agree that the so-called "southern strategy" of the Soviet Union -- the drive to control warm-water ports -- hasn't changed. "It started back in the Czarist period," says one. "It's their dream. They won't give up what they have achieved: They have got Afghanistan and it's a springboard for the Soviet Union."

President Zia of Pakistan had disclosed in our interview that Chinese aid to the resistance was as important as U.S. aid. A senior Chinese official, speaking anonymously, confirmed Beijing's role: "We have been helping the Afghan resistance forces for many years now with arms and money and are still continuing to do that." The defense analysts advocate increased aid to the resistance from both the United States and China as the most effective way to persuade the Soviets to withdraw from Afghanistan. Argues one: "The right approach isn't to reduce our bargaining position but to reduce theirs. We should increase our aid to the Afghan resistance and not stop until after the Soviet Union withdraws its troops".

One senior foreign ministry official warns that "some U.S. friends are too optimistic about the Soviet withdrawal." Huan Xiang, a senior official, puts it this way: "I guess the Soviets do want to withdraw but how to withdraw is the question. They want to leave a pro-Soviet government in Afghanistan and are finding it difficult."

The Mujaheddin. The last word belongs to Younis Khalis, one of the leaders of the Afghan resistance, and it doesn't bode well for a negotiated settlement. "We said the Russians should leave Afghanistan. This is our suggestion," says Khalis. But he isn't interested in Zia's idea of forming an interim government that would give even a minor role to Najibullah's party, the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan, or PDPA: "We will never accept any communist element in a future government of Afghanistan."

Khalis says the resistance groups "reject the Geneva negotiations because the real parties {to the conflict}, the mujaheddin and the Russians, were not participating. Any outcome of such a negotiation would not be acceptable to the mujaheddin. The Russians, if they really want to leave Afghanistan, should suggest negotiations with the mujaheddin. Then we will be ready to sit down and negotiate about a peace settlement. There is nothing in between." Lally Weymouth writes regularly about foreign affairs for The Washington Post.