MOSCOW, JAN. 27 -- Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze said tonight he is confident that a settlement in the Afghan war is now within sight, even if the timetable for a withdrawal of Soviet troops slips into 1989.
"We want to bring our boys home as soon as possible," Shevardnadze told a small group of American reporters at a reception this evening. "It all depends on Geneva."
Shevardnadze, in an interview with the Afghan news agency Bakhtar earlier this month, set 1988 as the target for a withdrawal of Soviet troops, signaling that Moscow is now willing to disengage even if the survival of the current regime in Kabul is not assured. Tonight he said he still hopes to see the withdrawal this year, although it might slip "a month or two" into next year.
The next round of United Nations-sponsored talks on Afghanistan are due to start in February in Geneva, and Soviet spokesmen have stressed repeatedly that they hope this set of talks will be the last.
A senior Soviet official said today that the Soviet Union and the United States have been holding "intensive" talks on the Afghan situation since last fall. He said discussion on the issue at the Washington summit in December had for the first time moved beyond "polemics to constructive dialogue."
In his interview with Bakhtar, Shevardnadze said the Soviet Union would be ready to start withdrawing its troops within 60 days of the signing of a settlement. He also said the United States, as joint guarantor of the peace, has agreed that it would stop supplying military aid to the Afghan rebels.
Shevardnadze said tonight he expected that a mechanism to verify the agreement could be resolved at Geneva. But he declined to discuss the timing and pacing of a Soviet withdrawal, which he said would be decided in talks between Moscow and Kabul.
The Soviet foreign minister made his remarks in informal comments to reporters at a reception he hosted in honor of the 30th anniversary of the first U.S.-Soviet cultural exchange agreement.