MOSCOW the mountain strongholds of Afghanistan, which historically have proven fatal to invaders, have created a military and diplomatic quagmire for the Soviet Union.
Of the many problems inherited by Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet armed forces six year failure to subdue the fiercely independent mountain tribes is among the most intractable and brutal. Soviet television during the summer showed rocks strewn with bodies and identified them as massacred government forces. Soviet sources say prisoners are rare, on either side.
For the Soviets, however, the diplomatic losses may be as great as the human ones. While there is no public Soviet opposition to the war, like that which shaped American policy in Vietnam, there is Opposition in the rest of the world to the 115,000 troops in Afghanistan.
The Soviet presence is complicating its relations with a host of countries with whom Gorbachev would like to cultivate better relations.
Despite the unexpected establishment of diplomat relations with Persian Gulf sultanate Oman in September, Soviet diplomats have had a hard time explaining their war against Moslem rebels to the Islamic world.
Gorbachev has had a similar problem in ending the two decades old rift with China. Although the countries are exchanging visits of foreign ministers, China repeated during the latest normalization talks that among the obstacles to better relations are the Soviet presence in Afghanistan.
China is one of five countries sharing frontiers with landlocked Afghanistan. The other four are the Soviets, Iran, Pakistan and India.
Afghanistan is a desperately poor and barren land, but its location astride trade routes and on the threshold of India has drawn invaders through the centuries.
In 1842 it was the British that challenged the Afghans. Only one among the thousands of soldiers who entered the mountains made it back to Pakistan.
But the British returned two more times, drawn not by the desire for Afghanistan itself but to prevent the advance of the empire on the north Russia.
That tradition of Russian expansion spurs the current suspicion. Although a communist regime had ruled Afghanistan since a 1978 revolution, Moscow decided on a change of ruler.
On Christmas Day 1979, with U.S. Power already ousted from neighboring Iran, Soviet troops began flooding in. Hafiz ullah Amin was summarily executed and replaced as Afghan leader by Babrak Karmal.
Nearly six years after Soviet troops arrived under the familiar “pressing appeal” by the new government, they are still no closer to defeating the anticommunist insurgency.
“The scale of the undeclared war unleashed by the forces of imperialism and reaction against the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan is expanding from day to day,” the Soviet Tass news agency said this month. The reality of that war has become better known with more graphic news coverage recently, probably reflecting a general increase in media openness under Gorbachev rather than any policy change.
Officially, Moscow will pull its troops out only if Pakistan and the West agree to end all aid to the Afghan rebels, something the Reagan administration is unlikely to consider.
The invasion of Afghanistan may not be a Gorbachev policy, but once in, Soviet troops are unlikely to leave until the government they installed is secure, regardless of the human and diplomatic costs.
Across the Soviet Union thousands of young Afghans are undergoing training a future ruling class, loyal and steeped in the ways of Moscow.
In the meantime, the Kremlin is probably willing to take its few thousand annual dead indefinitely. When Russia conquered the area north of Afghanistan a century ago, its soldiers faced decades of resistance.
They outlasted it.