Five years have passed since the Soviet Red Army first invaded Afghanistan. But a look at the country now can only hint at the sheer bleakness and gruesomeness of this much-ignored Central Asian war.
From the military point of view, the conflict remains a bitter stalemate. The past 12 months have witnessed some of the hardest fighting so far, with 1985 promising an even tougher conflict. Yet neither the Soviet occupation forces nor the Afghan resistance appears capable of tipping the balance one way or the other.
(Soviet troops in Afghanistan have been placed on alert for an expected wave of guerrilla attacks today to mark the anniversary, the Associated Press reports from Pakistan.)
It is on the civilian front, however, that the Afghan resistance is in serious danger of losing its struggle. For although the mujahed, or holy warrior , has persevered in his defiance of the Soviets, he lacks the resources and organization to provide for the civilians. Once the local inhabitants are gone, the guerrilla will have lost a valuable source of support and local intelligence.
Aware of this, the Kremlin has stepped up its policy of ''migratory genocide'' - the killing or forcing out of people suspected of sympathizing with the guerrillas or known to be actively supporting them. Hundreds of thousands of Afghan men, women, and children have died because of the war. Some 5 million people, one-quarter to one-third of the prewar population, have fled the country. Countless others have sought refuge in the mountains or in already overcrowded cities.
The Soviets continue to apply a Machiavellian arsenal of political, economic, and subversive pressures designed to split loyalties or to make living conditions so difficult that Afghans have little choice but to accept the Communist regime of Babrak Karmal, or leave.
Earlier this month, the Helsinki Watch Group in New York issued the most detailed report so far on human rights violations in Afghanistan since the invasion. A compilation of accounts by Afghan victims and witnesses, French doctors, relief workers, Western journalists, and other observers, the document lists an array of atrocities by Soviet forces and their Afghan surrogates.
The report refers to mass executions of villagers, prisoners crushed by tanks , the mutilation of children by plastic ''butterfly'' mines, and the burning alive of resistance sympathizers.
''The crimes of indiscriminate warfare are combined with the worst excesses of unbridled state-sanctioned violence against civilians,'' say researchers Jeri Laber and Barnett Rubin.
Denying or simply ignoring such allegations, the Soviets have refused to permit internationally recognized fact-finding missions to visit the country. Only twice has the International Committee of the Red Cross been able to visit the capital of Kabul, and then only under severe restrictions.
The authorities, for example, arranged tours of Puli Charki prison, which holds thousands of dissidents. According to former inmates and other resistance sources, many of those interviewed by the Swiss delegates were either agents of the Khad, the Afghan security police, posing as political prisoners or inmates who agreed to cooperate with the government in return for privileges.
The Red Cross has not been allowed to return since autumn of 1982. The Soviets have also refused to cooperate with the special rapporteur on Afghanistan appointed by the UN Human Rights Commission.
The Soviets have intensified their efforts to prevent foreign journalists and relief workers from clandestinely operating inside Afghanistan and furnishing the outside world with testimony of the war. French-run hospitals have been bombed and medical teams hunted like wild game by Soviet paratroopers in the northern mountains.
Last summer, French reporter Jacques Abouchar was captured and sentenced to 18 years in jail, then deported. In a warning to other journalists seeking to cover the war, the Soviet ambassador to Pakistan dryly observed that in the future any ''bandits and so-called journalists accompanying them will be eliminated.''
When the Red Army first crossed the Oxus River (Amu Darya) in December 1979, Afghanistan had already been caught up for almost 18 months in a steadily expanding civil war between Muslim rebels and a repressive Communist government. Had the Soviets not intervened, there is little doubt the regime would have fallen within a matter of months, if not weeks.
But for the Soviets, the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan by 85,000 Red Army troops also meant a free hand in the running of the war.
For the sake of appearances, particularly vis-a-vis the third world, they sought to maintain the facade of Afghanistan as an independent nation. The Kabul government, the Soviets claimed, had appealed to them to help fight outside ''reactionary'' or ''imperialist'' influences. Yet almost from the start, it was apparent that Moscow was intent on ''Sovietizing'' Afghanistan along the lines of its own (Muslim) socialist Central Asian republics.
Today, Soviet advisers effectively control the deci-sionmaking in the ministries and the Army. The school curriculum requires the study of Russian and has been adapted to reflect Marxist-Leninist principles. Social structures in the cities have been revamped to reflect the Central Asian models on the other side of the border.
Tens of thousands of young men and women, including schoolchildren and alleged orphans, have been sent to the USSR for training and indoctrination. Many Afghan parents have withdrawn children from school for fear they will be brainwashed or sent to the Soviet Union.
Even if it takes a generation or two, the Kremlin hopes to replace the present administration with appropriately groomed pro-Soviet cadres. Until now, strife between the Khalq and Parcham factions of the Afghan Communist Party has hampered plans to broaden the party's base.
The first waves of ''new'' Afghans are already returning. Although resistance sources have expressed fears that increased Sovietization will make it more difficult to cultivate sympathizers in the government or Army, it is not yet certain whether such forms of indoctrination work. In the past, Afghans who studied in the USSR returned home as ardent anti-Soviet nationalists because of the racial discrimination they experienced.
The Soviets have established an elaborate informer network in the internal resistance as well as in refugee circles in Pakistan. Offering high salaries and privileges, they have formed a security militia in and around the towns that also hinders the mujahideen. But the purchasing of loyalties can backfire. Many groups accept government guns and money but cooperate with the resistance. Last summer, a militia commander and his entire brigade protecting the power lines leading to Kabul defected to Pakistan after being pressured by a regional guerrilla commander to declare whose side they really were on. Several days later, the Afghan capital was plunged into darkness when the mujahideen blew up the lines.
Soviet determination to improve the fighting capabilities of the Afghan Army has floundered. The Army, some 100,000-strong at the time of the Communist takeover in Kabul in April 1978, now rarely totals 35,000 men despite conscription drives and prolonged service periods. While in the Panjshair Valley region last summer, this reporter met 10 to 15 deserters every day from the government garrisons in the valley. They and other sources say the desertion rate among Afghan soldiers is as high as 50 percent during their first month of service.
Over the past few years, the unreliability of the Afghan Army has forced the Red Army to assume the brunt of the fighting. Unlike the Americans in Vietnam, the Soviets are trying to conduct a war without seeking a drastic escalation of troops. The Kremlin also sees the counterinsurgency as being fought on economic and political as well as military fronts. Nevertheless, some analysts say that bringing in more and better troops would require moving forces away from Moscow's European or Chinese military zones, which Moscow is reluctant to do.
Only gradually has the number of troops fighting on Afghan soil been increased. It is now thought to stand at 115,000 to 120,000 men. But the Soviets often send some of their 40,000 troops based inside Soviet Central Asia into Afghanistan for short-term operations. Aircraft from the north regularly fly missions deep inside Afghanistan.
The Soviets have tailored some tactics to deal more efficiently with the counterinsurgency. In the first several years of the occupation, they tended to launch major operations using heavy armor and air support. Soldiers rarely left the protection of their motorized escorts.
Since 1982 the Soviets have made increasing use of heliborne troops trained in mountain warfare, who pursue the mujahideen on foot. Signaling a trend toward more professional rather than conscript soldiers on the front lines, they are proving far more motivated and tougher and have gained respect among guerrillas.
Overall, Soviet troops have been taking higher casualties than before. This is in part because of their willingness to move out into the open. It is also the result of new tactics by some guerrilla fronts, such as attacks on convoys, air bases, and government positions. Estimates on Soviet casualties vary. Official British sources put the number of Soviet dead and wounded at less than 6,000 since the invasion. The US puts the figure at 9,000 and maintains that some 600 aircraft have been destroyed.
The consensus among independent European and American observers is that both those official casualty estimates are far too low. Many argue that some 20,000 dead is more realistic. At the same time, however, they say the number of aircraft lost is inflated, with possibly no more than 200 damaged or destroyed.
''Whatever the figure, the Soviets have suffered relatively few losses and probably lose more men from military accidents alone inside the Soviet Union,'' notes Alex Alieev, who is with the California-based Rand Corporation and is a specialist on the Red Army. ''It is a small war for the Soviet Union, a war it is prepared to carry on for years, if necessary.''