In another month, the snows will blanket Afghanistan's precipitous Hindu Kush mountain range. Both Soviet forces and Afghanistan resistance fighters, the stoically persistent mujahideen, will retire to bunkers or the valleys farther south, to devise new strategies, regroup, and retrain, for yet another spring offensive in the subcontinent's most protracted war, a war that has cost at least 156,000 lives.
It will be four years this December since the Soviet Red Army swept into Afghanistan to shore up a puppet Communist government. The Soviets now number 105,000 men. It has been four years of defection and quarreling, of scorched-earth policies, of fields and villages destroyed. And it has been four years of protracted stalemate for the armies on both the Soviet and resistance sides.
For, although the mujahideen, according to Afghan resistance sources and Western diplomats, continue to control ever-larger areas of the often rugged, then lush, countryside, their growing strength in area and numbers is very often offset by continuing power plays and disunity that often verge on communal warfare.
Much of the responsibility lies with their Western benefactors, in the view of Said Mohammed Maiwand, an Afghan exile in New Delhi, who was one of Kabul's most prominent economists before the Soviet thrust.
''If the US, China, and Saudi Arabia would unify their assistance, both economic and military,'' Mr. Maiwand said, ''then you would force a unity. Otherwise, the fractious infighting will go on, because you, the donors, give hope to every mujahed who happens to appear, that he will be the future leader of Afghanistan.''
As Mr. Maiwand spoke, news arrived that the son of a prominent resistance figure, based in the frontier town of Peshawar, in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier , had been gunned down by an assailant and was close to death. He is the third leading Peshawar exile attacked in as many months. The others have died at the hands of their assailants, as have scores of faceless fighters from the ranks of the mujahideen.
Yet inside Afghanistan, the Peshawar tendency toward bloodletting is often not reflected on the ground, and moves toward tenuous alliances are being broached between local commanders of some of the warring resistance groups.
A key element in the embryonic unity moves is the nearly legendary Ahmed Shah Massoud - a 30-year-old former engineering student who has become the most charismatic figure of the Afghanistan war. Massoud agreed - much to the annoyance and confusion of Peshawar-based guerrillas - to a six-month truce with the Soviet army in the middle of March. Though it has expired and has not been formally renewed, it is still holding, say exile sources and Western diplomats.
The truce gave Massoud and his fighting force of some 3,000 men a breathing space to rebuild scores of villages in the lush, Panjshir Valley, where earlier he had repulsed six massive Soviet assaults, to plant a new crop, and to embark on his tentative unity moves.
Unity has become even more imperative, according to exile sources, as the Afghanistan standoff enters its fifth year. For, although the mujahideen scored impressive military victories in 1983 and appeared to have better quality and larger numbers of arms, it was not a particularly good year for the fighters, according to a Peshawar source.
For one thing, there were a number of successful penetrations by the Afghan security organization, Khad. Raids by rival groups on each other resulted in the destruction of large numbers of arms. A new emphasis on aerial warfare by the Soviets meant the destruction of vast tracts of the mujahideen's economic base. The Soviets depopulated large areas, and, as thousands of new refugees fled villages and fields, crops that survived the bombardment were never harvested.
By its own account, the Babrak Karmal regime in Kabul had to import 100,000 tons of sugar and 300,000 tons of wheat this year. Cotton and sugar-beet production have fallen to nearly nothing, according to official files. And, in the vineyards of the Shomali region, north of Kabul, harvests have fallen 60 percent from the prewar level.
According to Western diplomatic officials, the mujahideen army, which only four years ago was considered a rather motley, ragtag collection and inspired more bemusement than military confidence, now controls most of Afghanistan's sprawling countryside. Its ranks have burgeoned to anywhere from 20,000 to 100, 000 men and hold more than 250 Soviet prisoners and have received stepped-up assistance this year from Iran's revolutionary Shiite regime.
Ayatollah Khomeini reportedly dispatched a fleet of helicopter gunships and pilots, which provided air cover during a devastating battle for Herat. He also reportedly offered assistance to Massoud in the Panjshir Valley, though the offer is said to have been spurned.
The mujahideen now control two posh areas in the suburbs of Kabul. Yet, theirs is a war that militarily will be almost impossible to win.
United Nations efforts for a diplomatic solution, which gave rising hope in April, then faltered in June when the Soviets refused to agree to a timetable for troop withdrawal, are about to resume. This comes at a time when the Soviets have launched a major prewinter bombardment in certain parts of Afghanistan.
And Afghan exile sources find a guarded ray of hope in the fact that their deposed king, Zahir Shah, overthrown in a July 1973 army coup, has had, or has sent emissaries to, four meetings with the Peshawar-based resistance leaders since early this year. He has also met a former defense minister of the Karmal government, at Karmal's request. And there are unconfirmed reports of Soviet visits to the king in Rome.
Meanwhile, in the mountains and valleys of Afghanistan, the unremitting warfare goes on.