IT is a miserable, gloomy place of buttes and sand, inhabited for hundreds of years by only the most hearty of smugglers. Just beyond Chagai, a town on the Baluchistan-Afghan frontier, 20 men converged from all directions late last month to take possession of a cache of recoilless rifles, grenades, and mines that had crossed three continents over 18 days.
Originating in West Virginia, then flown to West Germany and shipped to the Makran Coast of Baluchistan from nearby Oman, the 10 steel boxes were part of a burgeoning American program of covert support to Afghan mujahideen, or resistance fighters. Budgeted at $250 million for the current fiscal year, it is the Central Intelligence Agency's largest operation since Vietnam years.
But this consignment was different from the vast majority of the thousands of containers of United States aid to the mujahideen since Soviet tanks rolled into Afghanistan in December 1979.
Amid growing accusations in the US Congress and from the mujahideen themselves that sizable amounts of the covert shipments were being siphoned off, this consignment was bypassing the traditional route. Instead of going through the Pakistani authorities and the mujahideen's political leaders in the Northwest Frontier Province, it was being sent directly to a guerrilla leader inside Afghanistan.
Five lieutenants of the Panjshair Valley guerrilla commander, Ahmed Shah Massoud, transferred the boxes into a commandeered Soviet Army truck. Then, under cover of darkness, the truck rattled off toward the mountains and, beyond them, the Afghan capital of Kabul.
Across Pakistan in Peshawar, the hot and dusty capital of the Northwest Frontier Province, Afghan resistance leaders continually quarrel. They accuse each other, the Pakistani government, and the CIA of responsibility for what they say is an appreciable gap between what Washington claims it is sending and what is reaching fighters inside Afghanistan.
The fundamentalists accuse the mujahideen moderates and the moderates accuse the fundamentalists -- the Afghan ``jamaati'' fighters and the ``jamaatis'' of Pakistan -- of siphoning off huge covert shipments, then either stockpiling them or selling them for personal gain.
One resistance leader estimated that only 20 percent of US covert aid was actually reaching Afghanistan. US intelligence sources claimed the figure is 70 percent.
It is just such discrepancies in figures, combined with the serious control problems that have accompanied the mushrooming of US covert aid to Afghanistan, that have led the Reagan administration to order assessments of the program's ``cost effectiveness.'' Scores of CIA operatives have been sent into the underground bazaars of the Frontier Province, notebooks and calculators in hand, to find out what happens to US-supplied arms.
In Peshawar, said to be populated only by mujahideen, drug-dealers, journalists, and spies, an AK-47 rifle now sells in the teeming underground bazaar for 15,000 rupees (about $1,000), down from 1982 prices by nearly 50 percent. The ones I saw had Egyptian markings -- as those meant for Afghanistan have -- and traders conceded readily that much of their merchandise was purchased from the Peshawar-based mujahideen.
Muhammad Bashir, a guerrilla commander from Afghanistan's Herat District, was asked if his forces were receiving what they needed in US aid. Mr. Bashir was at Peshawar's UN hospital after being wounded.
He was bitter and laconic, charging that his men had gone through a harsh winter without proper clothing or boots. He said they had received only a ``scattering'' of mines and communications equipment, and were incredulous at reports that an improved version of the shoulder-fired SAM-7 missile, antitank rockets, and antiaircraft guns were being sent in through the CIA ``pipeline.'' He claimed that his group, the fundamentalist Hizbi Islami, which is headed by Hekmatyar Gulbuddin and headquartered in Peshawar, had seen no trace of such sophisticated weapons inside Afghanistan.
Mr. Gulbuddin was out of Peshawar, but one of his aides said that the ``moderate'' groups within the mujahideen movement were skimming off the supplies.
The moderates, not surprisingly, accused the fundamentalists of selling vast amounts of weaponry on the open market, of selling to Pakistanis opposed to the military regime of Gen. Zia ul-Haq, or of simply bartering arms with their Pakistani counterparts in the militant Islamic movement, the Jamaat-i-Islami, which has built up a veritable arsenal in Pakistani universities.
``Many of the arms are staying right here in Pakistan,'' said Sibghatullah Mohadidi, president of the three-party moderate alliance. ``The fundamentalists' warehouses are full. They're stockpiling for the future -- both here and inside. They're anticipating the day when there'll be no more supplies.''
Such feuding among the mujahideen groups is not unusual, but, with the stepped-up CIA assistance, there is far more cleavage in the ideological divide. Their disputes over arms and money have greatly intensified.
US intelligence sources acknowledge that this is not their ideal covert war. But they insist that the circuitous American pipeline, meant to supply approximately 200,000 men with arms and ammunition, has been largely effective, with no more than 30 percent going astray. These sources say that a shipment is delivered to the mujahideen leaders every five to six days.
One of the problems, they concede, is that with such a maze of intermediaries -- in Europe, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait, all meant to disguise direct links with the US -- there is little, if any, accountability.
The program is reportedly run almost exclusively by a core group of 100 CIA-trained Afghan exiles who operate out of shipping companies, travel agencies, and Islamic organizations in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf. They have perfected the fine art of concealing arms in containers that bear the labels of electronic gear, sewing machines, fertilizers, and television sets.
Those based with Islamic organizations, which regularly ship religious material to Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines, often reportedly ship arms and ammunition to Southeast Asia. There the consignment is placed in a secure cargo hold marked ``special'' which ultimately makes its way to Pakistan.
The number of ships handled in Karachi has risen substantially since the Soviet invasion -- from 3,237 to more than 5,000 in the last year alone. Nearly half of their cargoes originated in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf.
According to Karachi customs officials, anything marked ``special'' or ``humanitarian assistance'' for Pakistan's 3 million Afghan refugees is given priority handling. It is never opened and is transferred immediately to Pakistani military trucks. The ``national logistic cells'' of the Army then ply the tortuous route from Karachi to Peshawar or to the porous Baluchistan frontier.
They reportedly ferry Soviet-made AK-47 rifles, mortars, surface-to-air missiles, bazookas, and rocket-propelled grenades. The three primary suppliers from whom the Americans buy are reliably said to be Egypt, China, and Israel -- the last having stockpiled a veritable arsenal of Soviet and Eastern European arms, captured in the south of Lebanon or during the 1973 war. Map: US arms to Afghan guerrillas make their way to Afghanistan via Pakistan through a maze of intermediaries in Europe, Egypt, the Persian Gulf, and Southeast Asia. This method has always involved Pakistani authorities in either Peshawar or Baluchistan Province.