Washington — The Afghan leader, clad in traditional dress and crowned with a Chitrali hat, seemed out of place sitting in a posh Washington hotel suite -- 4,000 miles from the battlefields where Afghan resistance fighters have been engaged in a bloody war with Soviet occupying forces since 1980. And the somber message brought by Burhanuddin Rabbani, one of four leaders of the Afghan Resistance Alliance, a coalition of seven guerrilla groups formed one year ago, also contrasted with his bright Washington surroundings.
``The regime the Soviets brought and wanted has cost 1 million deaths and 5 million refugees,'' Mr. Rabbani said. ``The war [which pits an estimated 120,000 Soviet troops and some 40,000 Kabul-regime troops against a resistance force of 50,000] is escalating on both sides,'' he added.
``The mujahideen are becoming more experienced and more organized,'' says this former dean of Islamic law at Kabul University. ``At the same time the Soviets are bringing more troops and they have intensified their activity. We do not think a breakthrough is very close.''
The visit to Washington by the mujahideen leaders is the latest in a series of visits by heads of anticommunist resistance movements seeking the diplomatic and financial backing of the United States.
While aid to antigovernment rebels in Angola and Nicaragua has been hotly contested in Congress, the Afghan resistance has enjoyed broad bipartisan support here. By current estimates, the US now provides between $300 million and $500 million per year in covert aid to support the Afghan guerrillas, mostly in the form of arms and support equipment.
Nonetheless, the visit this week fell short of achieving two key objectives. In a meeting with President Reagan on Monday, the Afghan delegation urged the US to sever diplomatic ties with the Soviet-backed Kabul regime and to extend diplomatic recognition to the resistance.
But Reagan officials insist that breaking relations with Kabul would be counterproductive. Says one State Department official: ``By maintaining an embassy in Kabul we can pick up useful information. Besides, the US does not want to leave contacts with the Afghan people in Kabul solely to the Soviet Union and its friends.''
US officials are also said to fear that severing ties with Kabul now could undermine UN-sponsored talks between Afghanistan and Pakistan that, since 1983, have been aimed at reaching a political settlement in the six-year war. Thousands of Afghan refugees have settled in camps inside Pakistan, and most outside aid to the Afghan guerrillas is channeled through that country.
In addition, the mujahideen leaders apparently will leave Washington today with no clear resolution on the question of whether the US will provide ``Stinger'' antiaircraft missiles to the resistance. The guerrillas say that antiaircraft weapons have become essential to contend with the heavily armored helicopter gunships used by the Soviets.
According to news reports, the Reagan administration agreed earlier this year to supply the mujahideen with 300 of the shoulder-fired, heat-seeking Stingers, along with 150 missile launchers. But so far his troops are still waiting, Rabbini says. Reagan officials have reportedly ascribed delays in delivery to various logistical and administrative factors.
The Afghan Resistance Alliance has sought to attract foreign aid, diplomatic recognition, and a seat at the bargaining table at the UN-sponsored talks in Geneva. But the alliance has been beset by ethnic and ideological splits that analysts say have hurt the resistance both diplomatically and militarily.
Those splits were highlighted this week when two of the alliance leaders issued a statement in Pakistan denouncing the Washington visit of the mujahideen delegation and criticizing the decision to seek US recognition.
So far the Geneva talks have produced draft agreements pledging a mutual cessation of outside interference and a return of refugees displaced by the war. But a major sticking point has been reconciling Soviet demands for a compliant Afghan regime with US insistance that any future Afghan government have a complete right of self-determination.