Afghanistan's Moscow-installed government has started returning property seized in past land reform programs as part of an apparent campaign to win some measure of support from the Afghan people, travelers from Kabul reported here today.
In a series of moves during the past two weeks that diplomats there saw as an effort to show its benign nature, the Afghan government reported freeing 1,500 Afghans picked up after a general strike a month ago in Kabul, promised to withdraw changes in the education system that were widely believed to threaten the nation's fundamentalist Islamic tenets, and talked about holding a jirga -- tribal council -- that would provide a measure of democracy.
"Those are things people like to hear," a traveler quoted diplomats in Kabul as saying.
The measures designed to consolidate President Babrak Karmal's domestic control coincide with diplomatic attempts to end Afghanistan's isolation in the nonaligned world. Cuba earlier this week offered to mediate between Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan. Today Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat said he was asked by Kubul to help mediate its dispute with Iran, which is supporting Moslem insurgents fighting the Soviet-backed Kabul government.
Arafat is here on an official visit following India's recent extension of full diplomatic recognition to his Palestine Liberation Organization.
The Kabul government's backing down from the hastily improvised land reform scheme instituted by the previous Marxist governments of Nur Mohammed Taraki and Hafizullah Amin may be the most important since a Western European diplomat reported here that the land redistribution was harming agricultural production.
This diplomat said that peasants were refusing government-supplied seeds and were not plowing because they felt they had been given land in violation of Islamic law.
As a result, travelers from Kabul said here, the Babrak government was returning land to its original owners.
For example, the large parcel of land on which the former American aid mission had been located had been expropriated by the government. Recently, though, four of the five owners have received the land back with proper deeds of title.
"They have made a pronouncement that they respect private property," said one traveler.
Aside from making these efforts to gain some support among a population that appears to despise both the Soviets and the Afghans they have installed as rulers, the Babrak government is keeping a low profile in the country.
Neither the president nor his Cabilnet -- many of whom had feuded and fought in the past -- make frequent public appearances and Babrak is always surrounded by Soviets.
According to reports reaching here, his driver, cook, bodyguard and secretary are all Soviets. "This indicates those guys [the Afghans] still don't trust each other," said a well-informed traveler who reached here recently.
"The Babrak government would not survive 24 hours without the Soviets there," he continued.
The Afghan Army has melted away from its original strength of 90,000 and the latest estimates put its force at about 30,000 to 40,000 men, with half of them considered reliable.
It was only within the past two weeks, a source who came here from Kabul said, that Afghan troops guarding the capital city were given live ammunition for their weapons.
The government is trying to build a cadre of loyalists to take over police duties in Kabul --an adaptation of the Defense of the Revolution Committees set up in Cuba and Ethiopia.
According to travelers from Kabul, armed committee members are seen hanging around street corners and party headquarters in the city, and at night they run patrols looking for violations of the 10 p.m. curfew.
They are said to be slipshod in their searches, but quick on the trigger with anyone who argues. One night last week, according to a report reaching here, they shot and killed an Indian resident of Kabul who argued with them over getting out of his car.
He was left lying in his blood for a half-hour while his friends were forced to hold their hands over their heads and the committeemen squabbled over what to do next.
The Soviet forces, though, remain firmly in control of the city. Kabul residents appear to have been intimidated by the strong reaction to a Feb. 22 resistance move, and travelers observed they have not learned the value of nonviolent, antigovernment protests such as scribbled graffiti and clandestinely circulated night letters.
"They want to shoot the Russians, but appear surprised when the Russians go after them," said one diplomat who arrived recently in Pakistan from Kabul.
Rebel forces in Peshawar were reported to have complained that the Soviets were fighting unfairly by using modern weapons, such as the MI-24 helicopter gunships and wearing flak jackets agains them.
The Soviets, meanwhile, continue to pour heavy military equipment into Afghanistan. At least 18 to 20 big transports land in Kabul each day and heavy earth moving equipment has been seen on roads leading from the Soviet Union.
The Soviet military might is clearly present at Kabul international airport, where a traveler said he counted a squadron of a dozen Mig 21s, about 30 Mig 24s and 25 smaller troop carrying helicopters.
In Kabul itself, large Soviet surface-to-air missiles -- some as long as a house -- are seen in front of main buildings as if the Soviets were expecting a major air attack.