Afghan resistance fighters are considering a new tactic in their war against the Soviets. They are listening with increasing interest to outside sympathizers who suggest an alternative way of handling Soviet soldiers held by the Afghan mujahideen (Muslim guerrillas). This approach would alleviate both the difficult conditions of the Soviets' captivity and the burden they impose on the Afghans.
These sympathizers are encouraging the Afghans to establish a separate all-Soviet fighting unit that would attract discontented Soviets who do not go over to the guerrillas for fear of being killed.
Russians and other non-Central Asian nationalities are also reluctant to convert to Islam and adopt Afghan culture, which are in effect required. There would be more motivation, the idea goes, to fight alongside their own countrymen.
According to Soviet deserter Vladislov Naumov, widespread sentiment exists in the Soviet forces to support this idea. He has told of much-discussed rumors of a free Russian regiment operating in Afghanistan against the Red Army. Some soldiers have even left the Army to try to find it.
The reasons Soviet soldiers choose to desert were made clear when this reporter interviewed four Soviet prisoners this spring outside Peshawar, Pakistan, where they were being secretly held.
The Soviets' policy in Afghanistan is one of ''total terror,'' said the soldiers, who were all in their early 20s.
''We were ordered by our officers that when we attack a village, not one person must be left alive to tell the tale. If we refuse to carry out these orders, we get it in the neck ourselves,'' said Oleg Khlan, a Ukrainian.
The theory, he explained, is that killing only a few people creates a strong desire for revenge in the survivors. If large numbers are killed, the remainder will be terrorized into submission.
Igor Dzhamalbekov, also from the Ukraine, related an example of this policy. At his major's birthday celebration, news came that the major's younger brother, a lieutenant, and six soldiers had been killed by Afghan villagers from whom they had tried to steal apples for the party.
The enraged major ordered three regiments to destroy every living thing in Kholm, a town of 3,000 in the north of Afghanistan.
All four prisoners expressed disillusionment with Soviet Army activities in Afghanistan. They had had little idea before arriving what they would encounter.
''We knew, of course, that we were fighting the Americans and Chinese there, but that was really all,'' said Igor Rykov, a White Russian sergeant. ''We knew our country was helping out the Afghan people, but we know what kind of help we give anyway,'' he said with a wry smile.
After training for four to six weeks, they arrived in Afghanistan. Once they saw that the only foreign troops in the country were their own - and that they were fighting the Afghan people, most of whom are involved in the resistance - they began to have doubts, they said.
Like many other Soviet deserters, the four men left the Red Army because of harsh treatment from their officers. All described regular beatings by sergeants.
''It was a way of proving their superiority,'' said Dzhamalbekov. ''We couldn't touch them. The officers picked on them and they picked on us in a hierarchy of beatings.''
After repeated beatings, Rykov finally struck an officer back and was imprisoned. Together with Khlan, he escaped. They broke into the armory, and when they gave themselves up to the Afghan guerrillas, they carried a supply of rifles.
All the prisoners complained of the arduous physical conditions of Soviet Army life in Afghanistan. For pay of 9 rubles ($11.25) a month they endured the harsh climate, relatively primitive conditions, and frequent disease. The rations they were given read, ''To be eaten by 1965.''
As Muslim converts, the Soviet prisoners pray five times a day under the watchful eyes of their Afghan guards.
All expressed eagerness to go to the West. Rykov and Khlan have left for Britain, and Dzhamalbekov and Nikolai Balabanov, the fourth Soviet deserter interviewed, are hoping to receive political asylum in the United States soon.
(On Wednesday, two Soviet soldiers captured by Afghan rebels and held in Switzerland for two years were returned to the Soviet Union. Under an accord between the Soviets and Afghan guerrillas, Soviet soldiers held by Afghan rebels stay in Switzerland for two years or until the end of ''hostilities'' in Afghanistan.
(The first three Soviets freed under the agreement were released in May, and two decided not to return to the Soviet Union.)
The chances of obtaining political asylum in the West are slight for many of the other estimated 200 prisoners held by the resistance fighters.
Some, particularly Central Asians, have joined forces with the guerrillas. Taj Muhammad, a Kazakh, commands a band of 50 fighters in Kunduz in north-central Afghanistan. He is married to a mullah's daughter and has reportedly shot down two helicopter gunships.
Soviet troops entered Afghanistan in late 1979 to shore up an Afghan Communist regime faltering under widespread guerrilla opposition. There has been a marked escalation in the Soviet military effort this year. According to Western military sources, the Soviet occupation force has been increased to 120, 000.
Soviet soldiers reportedly are more active in combat. However, the mujahideen appear to be holding their own.