Peshawar, Pakistan — Beginning at the Khyber Pass, some 30 miles from here, and reaching into virtually every part of the rugged landscape on this frontier, Pakistan is dotted with millions of drab, olive-green tents furnished by the United Nations. The refugee camps here have become home for the hordes fleeing the conflict in neighboring Afghanistan.
The estimated 3 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan are said to be the largest group of refugees on earth. The plight of these millions and the international effort aimed at resolving the Afghan war have become a major factor in East-West relations and an important element in domestic Pakistani politics.
Pakistani and other sources throughout the country say that the problems arising out of the Afghanistan situation could also be decisive to the six-year-old military regime of Pakistani President Zia ul-Haq as it seeks to expand its political base. Some even go as far as to forecast that President Zia is trapped in a hopeless dilemma on the Afghan issue that will lead to his downfall in a few months.
Many observers say that domestic and international pressures on Zia are increasing. On the one hand, there is pressure for results from the stalemated negotiations conducted under United Nations auspices to obtain a Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan and a return of the refugees. On the other, there is mounting domestic tension over the economic and social consequences from the Afghan refugees in Pakistan.
Negotiations between Pakistan and Afghanistan, according to various experts, are at transition point. For the first time, the UN official in charge, Undersecretary General Diego Cordovez, will begin consulting the Afghan refugees about their views on a settlement. In addition, groups belonging to the moderate Afghan refugee factions have recently decided to rally around the former Afghan king, Mohammed Zahir Shah, who has been living in exile in Rome following his overthrow in 1973.
Despite these developments, most observers are pessimistic about early success in the negotiations. Optimistic UN statements before the last round of direct talks in Geneva in June were judged to have been either unfounded or undermined.
Some observers inside Pakistan attribute the lack of negotiating progress to the United States, which has agreed to help Pakistan with military and economic aid. A senior Pakistani official remarked, ''Washington wants to keep the Soviet Union bogged down in Afghanistan both to bleed it as much as possible and to tarnish its image with Arab, Muslim, and nonaligned countries.''
Others say that the US wants to keep the Soviet Union pinned down in Afghanistan to lessen the risk of another Soviet intervention in neighboring Iran when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini passes from the scene.
But Pakistani Foreign Ministry sources also note that many negotiating points remain unsettled and that the pace is slow. The first point they cite is a precise timetable for the removal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan to back up the vague promise of withdrawal by Kremlin leader Yuri Andropov.
Another unresolved subject is the establishment of a government in Kabul that is acceptable to all in the region. The other major sticking point, according to one source, is the cessation of military aid to the Afghan rebels in Pakistan and elsewhere and their repatriation.
It is as part of this process that Mr. Cordovez is expected to begin consulting Afghan refugees in the near future. The view inside the Afghan community in Peshawar is that the negotiations are only a propaganda exercise for the Soviet Union that will never achieve a settlement without diplomatic and military pressure.
''What is the sense of these consultations?'' wonders an Afghan spokesman. ''What we are resisting is the presence of a foreign army and a communist regime imposed by this foreign power.'' The Afghan sources are also beginning to fear both growing Western apathy to their plight and the possibility of direct Soviet aerial attack on their bases in Pakistan. Many overflights and scattered bombardments have already been reported.
Another growing concern is the possibility of clashes between the Afghans and the local populations. While leaders on both sides minimize any such conflict, growing resentment is heard among Pakistanis. ''What is remarkable and interesting,'' an Afghan leader notes, ''is that there have been no incidents with the local population because of the similarities in language and customs.''
But other Pakistanis say there is mounting competition between the refugees and Pakistanis for jobs, housing, resources, land, and other commodities. What many fear is that many of the 3 million refugees, having found a better standard of living in Pakistan, would never return to Afghanistan even if a peace settlement were achieved.