Discreetly, quietly, slowly, the door has been opening toward a negotiated settlement of the Afghanistan crisis.
No dramatic change in the present situation is expected in the coming months. Nor is the Soviet Union expected to withdraw some 85,000 troops from Afghanistan in the immediate future.
But for the first time ''there is a glimmer of hope,'' according to highly reliable sources.
Down the road, senior Western officials can see the return of Afghanistan to the status quo ante, before the overthrow of the monarchy in 1973, when the country was independent, nonaligned, and not in any way hostile to the Soviet Union, its northern neighbor. Soviet troops, which entered the country in December 1979, back the government of Babrak Karmal against often fervently Muslim insurgents.
A year ago Javier Perez de Cuellar, then UN undersecretary-general for political affairs, managed to get Pakistan and Afghanistan to agree to a negotiation of their differences. Earlier this month UN Under- secretary-General Diego Cordobes, consulting with Mr. Perez de Cuellar, achieved some substantive movement toward peace during a trip to Islamabad, Kabul, and Tehran.
A four-point package was unofficially agreed on to provide the basis for a comprehensive political solution:
* The withdrawal of foreign troops.
* Nonintervention in the internal affairs of Afghanistan.
* Guarantees of noninterference (presumably by the USSR, China, India, the United States, and Saudi Arabia, although no countries were specified at this stage).
* The voluntary return of the refugees. (Some 1.5 million Afghan refugees are believed to be in Pakistan.)
The scope and content of these issues has been defined. On June 15 the foreign ministers of Pakistan and Afghanistan will hold talks in Geneva, through Diego Cordobes. An agenda has been agreed on. Iran will not take part in the discussions but will monitor them and will want to be kept informed on their progress.
Until recently Iran took an uncompromising line vis-a-vis the Karmal regime, insisting that Soviet troops in Afghanistan be replaced by an Islamic peacekeeping force and that a government of mullahs take over from the present regime. Iran still stands firm on matters of principle. But reportedly it has allowed its diplomacy to become more prag-matic out of a conviction that it has an important role to play in foreign affairs.
Informed European sources say the Soviet Union is seriously studying ways to eventually withdraw its forces from Afghanistan while making sure that the present regime will not collapse and be replaced by one hostile toward Moscow.
This may mean a gradual broadening of the Karmal regime's popular base, a softening of its policies to make them acceptable, or even, in good time, replacing its leadership. High Soviet sources have hinted in private to Western officials that such an option is not ''unthinkable,'' though officially Moscow angrily denies it has any intentions of the sort.
Diego Cordobes adopted a low profile when talking with Pakistani President Zia ul-Haq, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Vellayati, and Afghan leader Karmal.
''The way to map a path is to start walking,'' he told them when they wondered where he thought he was heading.