PRESIDENT CARTER'S call to "begin registration" for the military draft was obviously a part of his effort to send the Soviets a message about our concern for their naked aggression in Afghanistan. But in this case he is sending Moscow the wrong message.

Carter is right in his belated recognition of the potential military threat that the Soviet Union poses to world peace and to our own security. But taking down the names and addresses of the young people of America under the threat of five years in jail or a $10,000 fine is a weak and possibly dangerous response.

What the Soviets would understand is a clear, effective move to strengthen the combat capability of the armed forces of the United States. Registration does not do this. Rather, if enacted, it could easily lull us into a truly dangerous state of complacency.

If there ever was sudden threat to our national security, any form of a military draft would be virtually worthless. Even with the names and addresses of young men and women neatly typed on computer printouts, it would take at least three to four months to contact them, induct them and hastily train them -- if the training facilities were ready. Without advance registration, it would take a few weeks longer. The end result -- with or without registration -- would be hundreds of thousands of teenage soldiers, some serving reluctantly, most with no experience and little training, flooding into the ranks of the armed forces many months too late.

As the Defense Manpower Commission noted in its report to the president and the Congress on April 19, 1976: "The changing nature of war and its technology will not allow for any lenghthy period of time for national mobilization for a major conflict. Thus, the national security relies on the ability to mobilize our reserve forces from a peacetime 'citizen soldiers' status to a combat-ready status in a relatively short time."

What is vital to our national security is a large, well-trained reserve force, one that is really, one that can be called into service in a matter of days in case of an emergency.

Registration for the draft would not do this, but it will do something else. The conventional wisdom that seems to be held by many in the upper ranks of government, the academic world and the media is that our all-volunteer force has problems, especially in the reserves, and that the military draft will solve them. Half of that wisdom is true. We have severe problems, particularly in the reserves. We should have 1 million men and women in the active reserves; we have about 800,000. There should be 700,000 members of the Individual Ready Reserve; we have about 200,000. But the draft, or its advance proxy, registration, will not solve these deficiencies in a timely or sensible fashion.

As Richard Danzig, the principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for manpower, reserve affairs and logistics, stated a few weeks ago, "although, if constantly updated, peacetime registration would give us a ready list of people that we could call instantly in an emergency, I think our capacity to call them would exceed our ability to begin training . . . we would not be able to accept draftees within the first weeks of an emergency moblization."

The danger is that so many people sincerely believe that our military manpower problems can be solved by the draft. If registration is enacted, they will view this as leading directly to the reinstitution of the draft, sigh contentedly and turn their efforts and talents to solving other problems. The passage of a draft registration law will only give a false sense of security to our people and to many of our political leaders. It will be used as a reason by some, and as an excuse by others, for not taking the hard steps that will strengthen our reserve forces to the point where they can effectively back up our active forces.

It will also give a false signal to the Soviets. The political-military leadership of the Soviet Union understands and respects military power. They are fully capable of distinguishing between the military capability of computer lists as potential additions of young, inexperienced draftees and that of a significantly strengthened reserve force. They will view registration more as a stamping of our feet than as a shouldering of arms. And they will act accordingly.

What we should do is:

Immediately bring our active forces up to full combat capability. While our active forces are very close to their targeted manpower levels, the quality of their weapons and other equipment -- including tanks, planes and ships -- often falls far short of the military needs of the 1980s.

Announce that from now on the reserves are serious business, not a paid routine gambol. Anyone staying in the reserves or the National Guard should fully realize that in the event of a military threat to this country they will be called first to supplement out active forces. And that they will be called regardless of whether they are married, have children or know a congressman.

Arm the reserves and National Guard with modern weaponry and other equipment that is fully comparable to what the active forces will have.

Take steps to encourage more people to join the reserves and, for those already serving, to reenlist. These steps should include improved recruiting efforts, competitive levels of pay, reenlistement bonuses and improved management of our current reserve forces. For example, current planning in the Department of Defense assumes that only 70 percent of the Individual Ready Reserve would show up if we mobilize. This percentage could be increased significantly if assignments were made in advance and addresses were kept current. Some of these relatively simple measures are now beginning to be taken, but there is still vast room for improvement.

Institute an effective program of lateral entry into the armed forces so that more mature men and women, from their late 20s through their 40s, and, in special cases, up to 65, can enlist for a period of time -- both in the active forces and the reserve forces. This could provide the armed forces with a potential pool of talented people that could be utilized in many positions, and could reduce their almost total reliance of people coming up through the ranks. Further, it is the one effective way to ensure that the upper ranks of the military do not become isolated from the rest of our society.

And, finally, the president of the United States should address the nation and explain clearly and comprehensively exactly why he feels that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan is such a threat to world peace and the United States. The history of this country's response to a call to arms shows that Americans have always turned out in overwhelming numbers when they felt their country was threatened and they believed that our cause was just. There is no evidence to suggest that this would not also be the case today. If the only way we can induce our citizens to participate in the defense of this country is to threaten them with five years in jail or a stiff fine, then our leadership has failed to convince them of the seriousness of the situation and the validity of the course of action proposed to deal with it.

Enactment of the draft registration law would diminish our national security by increasing the chances that our reserve forces will be left in limbo, at a time when we need to strenghten them the most. It would in time lead to a new military draft, one that would almost certainly include women. And it would call into question the commitment this nation made almost a decade ago when we decided to raise an armed force in a manner consistent with the principles of freedom on which this country was founded.

If we really wish to respond to the Soviet more in Afghanistan, let us do it directly by arming and training a combat-ready active and reserve force that is second to none. Let's forget about making lists.