Washington — The ragtag Afghan guerrillas have fought the Soviet Army to a standoff. This is the conclusion of Charles F. Dunbar, an American diplomat who recently returned here after serving for nearly two years in Afghanistan.
Mr. Dunbar says that much will now depend on whether the mujahideen, or freedom fighters, can better coordinate their actions. The diplomat describes the anti-Soviet guerrillas as a broad-based but still highly fragmented movement.
Working against the guerrillas in the long run, possibly, is the desertion of villages by the population in strategic areas of the country hard hit by Soviet tanks, artillery, and air strikes. But there is no evidence so far that this has diminished the intensity of the guerrilla resistance.
The Soviets, meanwhile, are thought to be capable of sustaining their current losses in Afghanistan indefinitely. Whether they can ever win the war or not is questionable. It is possible that the Soviets will one day succeed in turning Afghanistan into a totally subservient nation, such as Mongolia. But given the current size of the Soviet occupation force in Afghanistan, Dunbar says the chance of that happening is ''a very long way off indeed.''
American officials say that the Soviet forces in Afghanistan number about 105 ,000 men. Soviet losses are estimated at more than 5,000 killed. But there is little opposition to the war on the Soviet home front. The ordinary Soviet citizen is told that a ''limited contingent'' of Soviet troops is helping an ally subdue a bunch of primitive bandits.
Soviet tactics call for major strikes into areas of resistance only when things get out of hand. The Soviets leave most of the fighting to the Afghan Army, which has use press gang tactics to get recruits.
Dunbar and other diplomats saw numerous sweeps of the capital city of Kabul by Army patrols. Whole neighborhoods were cordoned off and searched. Men of various ages were hauled off on trucks for the most rudimentary kind of training before being sent to the front.
In the spring of last year, according to Dunbar, an Afghan soldier, mistaking a young American diplomat for an Afghan citizen, ordered the American onto a truck. The American produced his identification papers and was allowed to go his way.
For the past two years, the Afghan regime has barred males, almost without exception, from taking the entrance examination at Kabul University. Young men of this age are needed for military service.
The almost desperate attempt to recruit new troops becomes understandable when one considers that, according to some estimates, the Afghan Army last year lost, through deaths, desertions, and defections, as many as a third of its men.
According to Dunbar, fully a third of Afghanistan's more than 280 district capitals are outside government control.
In an interview, the American diplomat said that the network of support for the guerrillas can be found everywhere, not least of all in Kabul. Assassinations of government officials are an almost daily occurrence. Sabotage of the electrical power system is frequent. The owners of trucks make monthly payments to the resistance fighters so that their trucks can pass unmolested through the countryside.
Dunbar recalls an incident in the spring of this year when schoolchildren taunted Soviet soldiers riding in a jeep through a heavily populated part of Kabul. Apparently out of panic, the Soviets shot one of the children. A crowd began stoning the jeep and shouting ''Death to the Soviets'' and ''Death to Karmal!'' Babrak Karmal is the Soviet-installed Afghan leader. Afghan security forces had to be called out to rescue the beleaguered Soviet soldiers.
Dunbar, who served as charge d'affaires at the small American embassy in Kabul until May of this year, considers it highly significant that guerrilla fighters were able on July 1 to penetrate the heavily defended Kabul airport and damage a DC-10 and Boeing 727 jet belonging to Ariana, the Afghan airline.
The guerrillas were also reported to have blasted a hole in a Soviet-built grain silo in Kabul. The capital city is the main bastion of Soviet strength in Afghanistan.
But the resistance fighters have paid a heavy price in some regions of the country. Dunbar estimates that as a result of six major Soviet offensives into the Panjshir Valley north of Kabul, two-thirds of the valley's population of some 100,000 people have fled.
In late 1981 and again in the spring of 1982, the Soviets bombarded Kandahar, the nation's second largest city, leaving about a third of its buildings unfit for human habitation. In the spring of 1983, Soviet aircraft bombed villages around Herat, the third-largest city, and then extended the bombing into the city itself.