Conflicting statements by administration officials this week have underscored the apparent confusion within the Reagan administration over its policy toward the Afghan resistance movement, which has begun a diplomatic campaign to win international recognition.
White House spokesman Larry Speakes quoted President Reagan as telling four visiting leaders of the newly formed Afghan Alliance that formal recognition is "an important issue" and that the administration will "keep discussing it." But Reagan also said the issue was "premature to resolve now," according to Speakes.
These pronouncements were followed by a senior administration official telling reporters that when Reagan said official U.S. recognition was "premature, he meant it's not out of the question."
"It's a way of encouraging them. It's not a way at all of saying forget it," he added.
Speakes then responded with a statement that the interpretation of the president's words by the unnamed senior administration official was "wrong" and that U.S. recognition was "not appropriate" and "not something that we were discussing at present."
A State Department official concurred with Speakes, saying the senior administration official was "an ideologue" who did not understand what U.S. policy toward the Afghan resistance was all about.
Supporters of the Afghan cause in Congress and elsewhere asserted that the contradictory utterances signified disarray in the administration's attitude toward the Alliance and confusion over how to deal with the rebels' latest requests of the United States. The rebels reportedly receive nearly $500 million annually in U.S. support.
A director of the Committee for a Free Afghanistan, which is sponsoring the Afghan rebels' visit here, called the president's refusal to recognize the Alliance "unfortunate" and "a mixed signal" to the Soviets. "It's showing to the Soviets there is no cost to hanging tough in Afghanistan," he said.
In addition to U.S. recognition, the Afghan Alliance is seeking Washington's support in a drive to replace the Soviet-backed Kabul government as the legitimate representative of Afghanistan at the United Nations, and in efforts to gain a seat at the ongoing U.N.-sponsored negotiations over a peace settlement in Afghanistan.
The senior administration official, who cannot be named under the ground rules of the briefing, said Reagan had told the four Afghan resistance leaders that "they would not be greatly helped" to have recognition from only the United States.
"What they have to do is work so they can expand their support and have the recognition of a large section, or the whole, of the international community," the official said. "At that point, when they have that kind of support, it would be possible for us to address the question."
Earlier recognition would make the Alliance "look worse" in the face of Soviet charges that it is "an American creature" and "an invention of the United States."
The administration's sometimes contradictory policy on giving the Alliance a seat at the negotiating table can be traced to a Reagan speech at the United Nations Oct. 24. "The starting point," the president said in discussing efforts to settle regional conflicts, must be "a process of negotiation among the warring parties in each." In Afghanistan, he added, this includes the Soviet Union.
Administration officials acknowledge that in the nine months since the speech, the United States has done nothing to promote direct talks between the Afghan rebels and the Kabul government, let alone between the main warring parties, the Soviet Union and the Afghan resistance.
Instead, it has continued to back the U.N.-sponsored talks, which include neither the rebels nor the Soviets.
The chairman of the Afghan Alliance, Burhanuddin Rabbani, this week reasserted the rebels' demand for a seat at the Geneva talks, saying no settlement is possible "without the full participation of the Afghan Alliance in the Geneva talks. Self-determination for the Afghans must be guaranteed."
But one State Department official said, "There isn't any chance the Kabul government is going to sit down and talk to them the rebels . In a general sense, it would be nice; but in a practical sense, impossible."