The Reagan administration plans to clarify its position on negotiations aimed at settling the war in Afghanistan but sees no need to change its policies in the light of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's statements in his meetings with President Reagan, according to White House and State Department officials.
More than a week after the Geneva summit, there is continued uncertainty within the administration about the meaning and significance of Gorbachev's Afghanistan-related remarks, which officials have described as "intriguing" and "different."
They include Gorbachev's talk of the need to end the fighting in Afghanistan, where about 120,000 Soviet troops are battling U.S.-backed tribesmen. According to the latest U.S. estimates, 10,000 Soviet soldiers have been killed and 700 Soviet aircraft lost since the Soviet invasion in December 1979.
A summary of Gorbachev's remarks, prepared by a participant in the summit discussions, mentioned the term "cease-fire," leading to speculation within the U.S. government about a new element in Moscow's negotiating position. But the official who wrote the summary said the Russian word for "cease-fire" was not used. He added that he did not think that any major new element had been introduced by Gorbachev during the Geneva meetings.
"Gorbachev had a slightly novel way of stating the Soviet position," including "a different order of things" that could imply subtle shifts in the Soviet stance, said the U.S. participant in the Geneva meeting. He added, however, that nothing he heard suggested that a basic decision had been made in Moscow to withdraw Soviet troops.
Another U.S. official with access to information on the Geneva discussions -- but who did not participate in them -- said an interesting element was Gorbachev's omission of Moscow's usual clear-cut linkage between an end to "outside interference" in Afghanistan and Soviet troop withdrawal.
Reagan told a group of journalists at the White House Nov. 22 that his talks with Gorbachev earlier that week produced "evidence that they the Soviets want a solution to this problem." In a radio address Nov. 23, Reagan said that in light of the summit discussions, "we'll be watching very closely for any change in Soviet activities in the third world" and specifically mentioned Afghanistan.
Referring to the U.N.-sponsored talks between the Afghan and Pakistani governments aimed at settling the war, Reagan said, "If these talks are to succeed, the Soviets must provide a timetable for getting out and recognize that the freedom fighters will not be conquered."
In October in New York, Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi came away from a private discussion with Reagan convinced that the United States is standing in the way of a diplomatic settlement by refusing to guarantee western nonintervention in Afghanistan if Soviet forces withdraw.
Gandhi's views took on particular significance because he previously had been encouraged about the possibility of a negotiated Soviet withdrawal, based on his discussions with Gorbachev during a May trip to Moscow and with Reagan during a June visit to Washington.
U.S. officials disputed Gandhi's October interpretation. One senior administration source described it as a "willful" misstatement of U.S. policy that might be Gandhi's rationalization for refusing to become involved more deeply in seeking Soviet withdrawal.
For the eve of the next round of U.N.-sponsored talks, scheduled for Dec. 16-20 in Geneva, the administration is said to be planning a public statement, requested by U.N. negotiators, clarifying its position on "guarantees" of noninterference.
State Department officials said the United States would be willing to provide guarantees to facilitate Soviet withdrawal as proposed in the U.N.-sponsored negotiations, but that Washington will not provide such assurances until it approves the overall agreement, including details of the Soviet withdrawal.
A statement to this effect was provided to U.N. chief negotiator Diego Cordovez shortly before the August round of the U.N.-sponsored talks, State Department sources said. But the statement was considered so sensitive within the administration and internationally that it was not put in writing but told to Cordovez by Charles Dunbar, a State Department official who deals with issues on Afghanistan.
In Moscow, a conversation on the eve of the August talks between senior Pakistani and Soviet officials also generated speculation in diplomatic circles about a Soviet shift in position.
According to an account circulating in Washington, Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister Georgi Kornienko made no specific declaration about potential withdrawal of Soviet forces. What Kornienko did, according to this account, was to ask Pakistani Foreign Minister Yaqub Khan about such matters as the length of time that could be allowed to withdraw Soviet troops under a political settlement. This seemed to suggest that Moscow was giving serious thought to extricating itself from the war in Afghanistan.