WE WERE 100 MILES inside Afghanistan, in the mud-walled village of Attakhuna. Khairkot, the capital of Paktika province, was just 10 miles away in a grove of trees on the rolling Katawaz plateau below us. The Russian presence was nowhere. No helicopter gunships or Mig jets menaced the skies. The only sign of war was two partially damaged mud houses, the result of tank shells fired three months ago when a gathering of guerrillas in this village had irritated the garrison commander in Khairlot (or Zarghun Shahr, as the government calls it). Just one man was killed in the attack.

Today there were over 100 guerrillas gathered in Attakhuna. There were Russian and Chinese rocket launchers, mortars from Egypt and captured machine guns and Kalashnikov rifles. But the people of Attakhuna and neighboring villages were reluctant to let the mujahideen (holy warriors) mount an attack on Khairkot garrison, a huge fort with 200 Afghan soldiers, a couple of tanks and half a dozen armored cars but no Russians.

The debate had begun the day before, in a nomad tent. "What will happen to our women and children in the villages after we attack? Surely the bombs will rain down upon them while we fight the soldiers," a white-bearded chief proclaimed, his arm sweeping the air in emphasis.

A younger village leader said, "We just can't attack in haste and so ill-prepared. It will achieve nothing but the destruction of our villages."

The outcome was a victory for the cautious and a defeat for the television team waiting to film battle scenes. It was a defeat, too, for Pir Ishaque Gailani, the 29-year-old guerrilla leader hoping for Western aid through publicity for an undaunted resistance movement.

This was my second visit to the provinces of eastern Afghanistan bordering my home, the North West Frontier Province in Pakistan. Last fall I had spent 10 days in Paktia province and witnessed a guerrilla attack on the garrison at Gardez, the provincial capital. This year I spent a more peaceful 12 days, Sept. 13 to 25, in Paktika, south of Paktia.

I had wanted to revisit Paktia so that I could compare the changes brought by the Russian invasion of Afghanistan last December. But I could not go under mujahid protection. Important Paktia tribes like the Mangal and Jaji, whose guest I had been last year, already have been pacified by the Russians with huge cash subsidies and promises of noninterference in their traditional tribal lives. In Paktika I saw the beginnings of the same process.

Paktia and Paktika together with Nangarhar and Kunar provinces constitute the principal fighting zone sustained by supplies of food and arms brought through the porous Pakistan border. With Kunar bombed out and Nangarhar being destroyed piecemeal wherever resistance crops up, the Soviet strategy has shifted to winning over important tribes such as the 3 million strong Ghalji, who account for 40 percent of the Pushtu-speaking population which dominates Afghanistan. No ruler in Afghan history has been able to sit in peace in Kabul without the approval of the Ghalis.

One of the Ghalji clans, the nomadic Sulaimankhel, makes its home in Paktika and its men are said to be among the fiercest fighters in Afghanistan. It was in their heartland, the Katawaz plateau, that I traveled.

From Khairkot in the north to Qamruddin Karez on the Baluchistan border in the south, I covered 100 miles of sparsely forested hills and barren, rocky plain. I accompanied Pir Ishaque, commander of Paktika and nephew of religious and guerrila leader Syed Ahmed Gailani.

In Attakhuna the tribal leaders gathered in the hujrah (guest room) to pay homage to the pir (a title meaning hereditary spiritual leader). But when a burly, mutton-chop-whiskered man in his mid-40s entered, the chiefs suddenly walked out. Nauroz Khan had mad his fortune in Pakistan and returned to his village in a chauffeur-driven Toyota Corolla. He was suspected of being friendly with local government officials and had been labeled a Khalqi, a follower of the of the communist Afghan People's Party. Ishaque had ordered Nauroz kept under surveillance until it could be determined whether he was a traitor to his tribe. To prove that he was loyal, Nauroz had decided to come in for an audience with the visiting pir.

Nauroz came in unarmed and sat crosslegged on the covered floor before the pir, who reclined against richly colored bolsters on a raised string cot. He was quickly followed in by one of Ishaque's commanders, a defected officer of the Afghan Army, who placed himself behind Nauroz, a Kalashnikov rifle ready in his hands. Outside, on the porch, stood the other commander, also a defected Afghan Army officer, with another Kalashnikov on the ready.

Nauroz spoke boldly. "I am not a Khalqi as fellow members of my tribe accuse me," he told the pir. "I have lived in Pakistan for the last 16 years. I came back to my ancestral village only two years ago to avenge the death of a brother killed in a family feud and also to marry a woman I was engaged to.

"Sure, I was ostracized by my tribe for past misdeeds and chose to settle into the construction business in Larkana in Sind [a province of Pakistan]. But I did not return to do mischief. I minded my business and simply looked after my lands until I got caught by the war. Sure, I have sat and eaten with government officials in Khairkot and tried to open a dialogue between tribal elders and the governor. But it is not as a traitor that I have done this. It is only to benefit my tribe ravaged by war. In fact, I have become so enmeshed in this go-between role that the government now refuses to allow me to go back to Pakistan, and I fear if I do my lands and property here will be confiscated and I will never be able to return again. So I stay on despite the painful knowledge that my brother's murderer has fled to the Punjab in Pakistan."

The pir looked at him coldly and said," I have heard about your association with the godless government and I have even appointed your executioner should you prove a traitor to your tribe, which regards me as its spiritual leader."

Undaunted, Nauroz replied with a veiled threat: "Pir-sahib, all I can say is that I have a brother here who will deeply mourn my death."

Then Nauroz began to plainly speak his views on the rebellion: "Pir-sahib, please tell me why you have come here all the way from Pakistan to wage war, a war that does not exist. People here know that it is futile to provoke the government when we ourselves are not being provoked. The governor now is an Ahmedzai, a Ghalji. With others, I have talked with him about the problems of our people and he seems to understand. There have been no more bombings of camel caravans going to Pakistan for the past four months. There is no conscription, no land reform and no communist schools here. Indeed they have not even attempted to recapture the garrisons we destroyed last year. Why should we provoke them now by attacks when there is nothing to fight about?"

Ishaque listened politely, with only an occasional nod.

"Things have changed for us now," Nauroz said. "The government will not attack if we don't. This is what I have been telling them and for this some of these village elders accuse me of being a Khalqi, a traitor. I have no more love for the Russians than they have, but we have to be realistic. Why should our women and children die and our houses be bombed and property pillaged in a futile war, a war that we cannot win with the puny rifles that we have? What can we do against the gunships, jets and tanks? No outside power is helping us, as we have sadly learned over these two trying years."

When Nauroz had finished, Ishaque was silent for at least a minute, staring into the distance. Then he simply signaled to Nauroz that the audience had ended. Other tribal leaders waiting outside began dribbling in. All sat and talked and sipped tea with the pir for the rest of the afternoon. Nauroz among them.

The pir did not pass judgment on him but restricted him to the village. He ordered that Nauroz stay with the mujahideen for the rest of their sojourn there, a kind of insurance against his going to Khairkot and reporting the pir's presence.

A year ago, a man like Nauroz would never have dared to appear before Ishaque. He would have been imprisoned by his tribe on the mere suspicion of sympathizing with the government. Now even the pir had to tolerate his presence and listen to his views.

Nauroz dined with us that night, and the next morning was allowed to bring in his German revolver to show it to the pir. Ishaque in return displayed his 9-mm Chinese Luger-style pistol, Nauroz admiring the size of the bullets. After that the pir showed his growing trust in Nauroz by allowing him to come into his presence armed.

Nauroz later spoke with me even more frankly about the Russians. "Russian might is a reality and we should talk politics rather than fight," he began. "As long as the Russians or the government don't interfere with our daily lives, why should we engage them in losing firefights?"

He complained of a lack of weapons and pointed to a cluster of Kalashnikovs stacked in a corner of the hujrah. "You know how many of these our Jalalkhel tribe has? Just 22 for several hundred fighting men. We don't even get enough of them to go around, let alone heavy weapons. And the pirs want us to go on fighting."

In fact, I saw more foreign arms in the guerrillas' hands than I had on my first trip here a year ago. On the Pakistani border, I had seen a truckload of Egyptian and Chinese arms and ammunition cross into Afghanistan. And one source close to the Gailanis told me that the CIA is involved in the weapons traffic through Pakistan.

Yet there hadn't been any real fighting in the area since June. Then an armored column estimated at 400 tanks and armored cars and probably involving Russian troops passed through the area in an apparent show of strength. Guerrillas ambushed the column near the garrison of Urgun but could do little damage. (Guerrilla leaders in Peshawar claimed the ambush was highly successful, with many Russian soldiers killed and tanks destroyed.)

An eyewitness who saw part of this column fan out on the pass above Attakhuna said that several tanks got bogged down so that the Afghan government soldiers had to get down and walk. The guerrillas failed to destroy this vulnerable column because of a lack of leadership and organization. I walked through the tangle of hills around the pass and found old tank tracks and the holes on the mountain road which were said to have housed old guerrilla mines. The broken country was ideal for ambush.

The last guerrilla victory in the area was six months ago when the government garrison of Sadat was captured.

"It is difficult to take Khairkot," Nauroz continued. "The fort is huge and protected by 15-foot-thick walls." Khairkot had been under a futile siege for several months last year. There had been four Russian maintenance men in Khairkot last year, but this year Nauroz said he had seen none.

"The government in Khairkot already knows that the pir is here planning an attack with his men," Nauroz told me. "But they won't take action until attacked. They are merely tolerating the visits of the pir and other religious groups from Pakistan for the sake of the people who believe in them."

The border tribesman has survived since Alexander's days by learning to compromise with the successive changes of government around him. Scratch a border tribesman and beneath that coating of Islamic zeal is a shrewd realist who has always been able to accept a measure of outside control in exchange for local autonomy. Just as the British failed to subdue him in open warfare and were content to leave him more or less alone, the Russians may have now learned the same lesson.

In this stalemate situation the tribesman may now be ready to compromise and talk with the government through middlemen like Nauroz rather than continue to follow the Islamic mullahs and pirs who have led them in this futile holy war.

Nauroz spoke with contempt of the mullahs. "They will suffer the most in the new government. Every household has to give them 10 percent of its wealth in what they like to call zakat [the Islamic poor tax]. Zakat is supposed to benefit the poor and not these mullahs who are rich and rule our lives." Nauroz spat snuff juice into a brass spittoon. Then he said quietly, "At least the Russians don't force you to pray."

I questioned Nauroz about the land reforms touted by the communist government. "The ceiling is eight jaribs [one jarib equals half an acre] for Class 1 land," he said. "Over here the land is Class 5, for which the ceiling is 40 jaribs. I myself own 400 jaribs but I have evaded the ceiling curbs by cultivating parcels of land alternately, leaving the rest fallow yet fit for grazing."

The government had suffered a setback a few days before I entered Afghanistan with the killing of Faiz Mohammad, its frontier affairs minister. It was the big story during my trip with the rebels, for whom his death meant a significant victory.

Faiz had been touring the area in a jeep accompanied by three local officials, we were told by a tribal leader at Murazgah, on the road to Khairkot. Each tribe held a meeting of its chiefs to hear him. Our informant said money had been handed out to many chiefs, with promises of more if the tribes cooperated with the government.

Then Faiz moved to the territory of the Zadrans, by all accounts the tribe with the best fighting record in the two-year war against the Kabul regime. The Zadran chiefs opposed Faiz's pacification program and refused to cooperate. Angry words and insults may have been exchanged, for on his return trip Faiz was ambushed in a defile near Urgun and all four officials in his jeep were killed.

Because Faiz belonged to the Pakistan-based Mahsud tribe, the mujahideen suspected him of bribing the Mahsud and Wazir tribesmen living in the South Waziristan tribal agency. On our way to Afghanistan, several Wazir chiefs had come to pay homage to the pir. When Ishaque found none were willing to commit men to his expedition, he said, "They must have eaten Faiz Mohammad's money," Until now, the Wazirs had been taking part in forays across the border.

Whatever the reason, the pir had a hard time collecting men for his foray across the border. In fact, we were delayed three days in South Waziristan trying to get hold of promised but phantom men. At Azam Warsak, just five miles from the agency headquarters at Wana, refugees of the Hasankhankhel tribe squabbled with the pir over past distribution of arms and ammunition.

Two miles from the Afghan border, at the refugee camp of the Kahroti tribe in Manna, the pir finally lost his temper when a Hassankhankhel chief spoke disdainfully of the amount of arms and ammunition his tribe was getting. Even after they were reconciled, the pir had to reassure the Hassankhankhel chiefs that he would not allow the Kamrani tribe, who had killed one of their men elsewhere, to fight alongside them in Afghanistan, at least until they had avenged his death.

The Hassankhankhel chiefs finally took their share of the arms and ammunition from Ishaque, promising to join him in Attakhuna on Sept. 22. When I left Attakhuna that evening, the men still had failed to arrive.

My three-day return journey took me on the main road (little better than a desert track) from Khairkot to the Baluchistan border town of Qamruddin Karez. We passed barely two miles from Khairkot in gathering dusk and as night fell nervous eyes seemed to see an armored car in every pair of approaching tractor headlights.

Nearing the Pakistan border, we passed through the two garrison villages of Wazikhwa and Tarweh, both captured in May 1979 during the first guerrilla offensive here. The forts and official quarters remain dilapidated and destroyed while the village of Tarweh is deserted. Similar small garrisons at Or and Do China near the Pakistan border remain deserted. The Afghan government, even since the Russian invasion, has failed to recapture or reman them.

The ghost of Faiz Mohammad followed us right into Pakistan when our bus made a tea stop. Two big Zadrans showed my companion and me a poster airdropped into their village. The message was that the Zadrans had broken the time-honored tribal code of hospitality and protection of guests. Faiz Mohammad had come as a guest to the Zadrans and instead of protecting him they had murdered him, the poster proclaimed. Therefore, all Pushtun tribes and the Zadrans themselves should rise and deal with the renegades responsible for Faiz Mohammad's death.

"Divide and rule," that's what the Russians want, one of the Zadrans explained. "They are already inciting rival tribes against us." The Russians must be really doing their homework on British colonial history.