Throwing up thick clouds of dust that drift across the sprawling airfield, Soviet helicopter gunships bristling with 57-mm rockets line up in groups of six.
In the shimmering desert heat, the bizarre mechanical ballerinas lift up briefly in a trial hover. Then, rotors chopping loudly, they roar off to attack resistance positions beyond the crusty, ocher mountains that overlook the Afghan capital.
Further down the tarmac, heavy Soviet transport planes and MIG jet fighters stand along the runway aprons, while teams of shirtless Russian soldiers wearing Boy Scout-like hats unload supplies. Bored, tanned, and sporting wispy mustaches , the soldiers pause to watch the Ariana Afghan Airways DC-10 passenger plane from London and Paris taxi toward the terminal building. One or two venture a casual wave.
In many respects, one cannot help being reminded of many American GIs during the Vietnam war. Youthful and apparently benign, they bear the same ambivalence for a war and a country in which they have little interest.
Kabul International Airport has changed much since the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in December 1979. Commercial flights from the West still touch down twice a week, but this is a far cry from the days when the Afghan capital bustled with tourists, international development technicians, and advisers. Tourism is now virtually nonexistent, and apart from a few embassy staffers, teachers, and aid officials, Westerners have long since left.
Nevertheless, Ariana, which used to be operated by Pan American, continues to try to provide regular services in its bid for international prestige and hard currency. Now it is more or less a subsidiary of Aeroflot, the official Soviet airline. Occasionally Ariana pilots and crew defect to West Germany and elsewhere, and the planes fly half full. The airline relies primarily on French and British tourists taking advantage of the its bargain rates to India.
Only a sprinkling of passengers - some Afghan Embassy and UNESCO personnel from Paris, three members of the French Communist Party, and several Russians - disembarked at Kabul on a recent trip. The rest, including this correspondent, waited in the airport transit lounge for three hours before catching the next connection to New Delhi.
Few Western journalists are permitted to visit Kabul officially. When they are, their movements are closely monitored and organized. Repeated requests by the Monitor to enter Afghanistan through ''normal'' channels rather than solely with the resistance have either been ignored or refused by the Babrak Karmal regime.
Hence information regarding conditions inside the Afghan capital must come from Western diplomats, guerrilla sources, refugees, and travelers. Ironically, only three weeks after my transit visit to Kabul, I was trekking with mujahideen forces just beyond the mountain ridges northeast of the capital.
According to numerous sources interviewed by this correspondent, the dragging war in Afghanistan is being increasingly felt in the capital. Public animosity toward the Soviet-backed authorities is rampant in the face of unabashed communist propaganda onslaughts. Food prices have more than doubled since the end of last year, and urban guerrilla warfare is back on the rise following a substantial lull during the bitterly cold winter months.
''Hardly a night goes by when you cannot hear some shooting or explosions in the city,'' a Western diplomat based in Kabul told the Monitor. Although curfew runs from 10 p.m. to 4:30 a.m., the streets are virtually deserted by 7:30 p.m., except for armed military patrols. Taxis charge exorbitant rates toward the end of the day. They, too, stop running as darkness sets in.
Nighttime assassinations of Communist Party members are commonplace, although resistance fighters are not necessarily the ones responsible for attacks. The feuding Khalq (People's Party) and Parcham (Banner Party) factions of the party, who pose almost as great a problem to Soviet attempts to forge a respectable governing front as the guerrillas, often settle accounts during the curfew hours.
Resistance groups tend to warn their victims of impending assassinations. One female radio announcer was told that she would be killed if she continued her broadcasts. When she persisted, the guerrillas carried out their threat.
Russians, who usually walk around in armed groups when in town, are less vulnerable to attacks than party officials, but they, too, feel Afghan wrath. People shout abuse at them in the streets, refuse to give them directions or serve them in the chaikhanas (tea houses). Small boys throw stones at them as they pass. Soldiers are occasionally murdered. Last November guerrillas actually rocketed the Soviet residence on the outskirts of town.
Resistance sources have promised to step up urban guerrilla incidents during the summer. ''It is now vital that we take the offensive,'' noted a leader with organized groups already operating in the Kabul area. ''We have got to show both the Communists and the people of Afghanistan that we are not just a minor nuisance but a force that can make life for the Russians very uncomfortable.''
The present combined Soviet-Afghan incursion in the strategic Panjshir Valley has temporarily delayed several planned operations not only in Kabul but also in other cities. This correspondent has been informed of a series of major strikes that threaten to put the Communists on an even more defensive footing.
One 18-year-old student from the prestigious French-language Istiqlal Lycee in Kabul who recently defected to escape from military service (and has requested that his name not be mentioned), said discipline has completely broken down in schools and the university. Academic quality has dropped to a dismal level. Of the 4,000 schools and colleges that existed before the April 1978 coup d'etat, only a handful remain operational. Most of them are in Kabul and other cities.
''Although we are obliged to attend political lectures, we walk out when the teacher enters, shouting 'death to the Soviets' and 'death to the Communists,' '' he said.
Out of roughly 30 pupils in each class, two or three are Parchamites. ''They carry guns and can do what they like. They order teachers around and inform on people in the school,'' he said. ''We have no respect for the (Communist) teachers, only the five French who still teach there. And as for the principal, he walks around with a Kalashnikov (rifle) and knows nothing about education.''
Both university students and high school students face military conscription in a country where the army is now equated with schooling. Last April, Radio Kabul announced that 10th grade dropouts who volunteer for two years of military service will be granted automatic 12th grade certificates, while those in 11th grade can expect to be enrolled at the college of their choice at the end of their service without having to meet the usual entrance requirements.
Students are often picked up off the streets of Kabul and taken off to military camps in buses. Government radio recently announced that ''those students who have been rejected by all educational institutes will automatically be inducted into the armed forces.'' This means that the growing numbers of political undesirables or neutrals who are now being refused entrance to higher education will be packed off to the Afghan Army.
The government continues to arrest and torture dissidents. In early April, five prominent Kabul Unversity professors, including Dr. Hasan Kakar, a well-known Afghan historian; Dr. Fazel Rabbi Pazhwak, a political scientist and outspoken critic of the regime; and Dr. Tarzi of the law faculty, were picked up at their homes and beaten and humiliated in front of their families.
Their books and research work were confiscated and the men were hauled off in black vans to unknown destinations, presumably the infamous Pul-i Charki prison just outside the capital, where an estimated 10,000 political prisoners are reported to be incarcerated.
According to both diplomatic and resistance sources, executions persist. And torture such as electric shock and beatings are commonplace. Interrogations are carried out by both members of the Khad, the Afghan secret police, and nonuniformed Russians.
One way in which the Soviets try to manipulate public opinion is through government-run radio and television. Bari Jehani, former nonparty vice-president of Kabul TV who recently fled from Afghanistan, maintains that all aspects of programming are controlled by the Russians. At least four Russian films, most of them depicting anti-fascist heroes during World War II, are shown each week, as is a ''workers show,'' a ''farmers show,'' and a ''youth show.'' Only two American films, previously extremely popular among Kabulis, have been shown since the invasion.
''Kabulis have virtually abandoned watching TV except for the weekend Indian film,'' Mr. Jehani said. ''Programming is extremely monotonous and all attempts to deviate from this diet were cracked down upon by the minister of information at the orders of Soviet advisers.''
The evening news very often features contrived interviews with mothers of Afghan soldiers talking about their pride in having a son fighting for the great April revolution against ''foreign imperialists.''
''It is quite absurd,'' an Afghan said,''to see these illiterate peasant women mouthing such words as 'the patriotic front' or the 'irreversible' and 'progressive stages' of the revolution. Very often they are struggling to pronounce the words.''
But while Kabulis now tend to listen to government radio only for popular music, many are tuning in to radio free Kabul, which broadcasts from three transmitters hidden in the mountains between 30 and 50 kilometers from the capital.
''We only broadcast half an hour every day, but we know that those who can receive us are very enthusiastic about it as we can normally contradict what is being said in the official press,'' said Es-Haq, the head of the clandestine radio program. ''People feel it is their own radio.''
The picture it presents of conditions in Kabul is completely different from that painted by the Communists and foreigners sympathetic to the present regime. ''Most of the time you would have absolutely no idea that there is a war going on if you believed everything the government media say,'' said a former resident of Kabul.