The Soviet Union has been signing scores of local economic agreements with the towns, districts and provinces of Afghanistan, causing U.S. analysts to wonder whether the Soviets are preparing to withdraw their troops or are instead planning tighter control of Afghanistan.
"There is still considerable disagreement about their intentions there," said one U.S. official of the debate within the Reagan administration over whether the Soviets will withdraw their 115,000 to 120,000 troops stationed in Afghanistan.
U.S. intelligence agency analysts are sharply divided. Many Defense Department and Central Intelligence Agency analysts remain deeply skeptical, citing continuing Soviet military construction and hardening of their defenses as evidence that the Soviets are digging in deeper rather than preparing to go home.
Elie D. Krakowski, director of the Pentagon's Office of Regional Defense, has publicly expressed his view that the Soviets are engaged in "a game of mirrors" and have no intention of leaving. In a Dec. 15 speech to the Heritage Foundation, he charged that the Soviets are angling for a cutoff of U.S. aid to the Afghan resistance.
Other Pentagon officials emphasize there is no tangible evidence on the ground in Afghanistan that the Soviets are preparing to leave, and they note that Soviet military deliveries to the Afghan army last year were even greater than in 1986.
State Department analysts, however, generally appear more inclined to believe that the Soviets will withdraw, but even they seem divided. One noted that the indications so far are still "all rhetorical statements," but added: "The Soviets have gone too far now in their statements to retreat. A lot of people would be furious with them if they back out."
These divided assessments of Soviet intentions in Afghanistan come as the administration debates how to respond to Soviet pressure -- and comply with a possible legal commitment under a U.N.-sponsored peace agreement -- to cut off all U.S. military assistance to the Afghan resistance in return for a withdrawal of Soviet troops.
Congressional supporters of the Afghan rebels, particularly Republican conservatives, are worried that the Reagan administration will "sell out" the resistance before a Soviet withdrawal is assured.
In a Jan. 27 letter, 49 House members, led by Rep. James A. Courter (R-N.J.) and including nine Democrats, asked President Reagan to continue U.S. military aid "until all Soviet troops have been withdrawn and until a genuinely independent government is in place."
Under the U.N.-sponsored peace accords being negotiated in Geneva, the United States would be committed to ending its military aid 60 days after an agreement is signed and as a Soviet withdrawal starts.
But Secretary of State George P. Shultz, at a Jan. 7 news conference, said the United States intends to wait to ensure that there is "a certain inevitability" and "no turning back" in the Soviet pullout before U.S. aid to the Afghan resistance ends.
U.S. analysts are scrutinizing the new economic and technical agreements the Soviets are signing with the various towns, districts and provinces of Afghanistan. The accords involve Soviet material aid and technical assistance as well as training for Afghans in the Soviet Union.
Soviet officials have told the United States these town-to-town and province-to-province agreements are devised to bypass "the corruption" and "bureaucracy" of the Afghan central government and deliver aid to the grass roots.
But some U.S. officials believe the accords are part of a larger Soviet plan for extensive Soviet control of Afghanistan, and possibly the de facto annexation of the northern provinces, whether or not they withdraw troops.
Other officials believe, however, that the fact the Soviets are signing the agreements in such numbers and haste is evidence that they are preparing to pull out their troops.
"Some think it's the Soviets trying to exercise a different kind of influence," said one U.S. analyst. "The Soviets are looking at the post- withdrawal period and turning their direct control into a more indirect one where Soviet economic links are so strong they still keep control."