The U.S. armed forces are geared up for all-out war, but the only action they are likely to see is what the Pentagon calls special operations or ''low-intensity conflict'' -- the kind of thing that happens in the Persian Gulf, Lebanon and Grenada.

The special operations forces that fight those minibattles should be trained well, lead well and unfettered by bureaucratic hassle. But the biggest battle that American servicemen have fought for the past two years has been in the halls of the Pentagon and White House. That has been the battle to create a decent leadership structure for special operations forces.

Since 1986, Congress has passed two laws on Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflicts (SO/LIC). Because of bureaucratic foot dragging and secret opposition by Reagan appointees, Congress may have to pass a third bill to do what it shouldn't have to do -- create a fifth military service for special operations.

Congress has mandated three things: the creation of a special assistant to the president on SO/LIC; a new military command under a four-star general to cover special operations in all military services; and the new position of assistant secretary of defense for SO/LIC.

The SOL/LIC law has become stuck in ''malicious implementation'': the appearance that officials are carrying out a program while they are really bogging it in quicksand.

First, the administration put a Navy admiral in the new job of SO/LIC special assistant to the president. His expertise is in the nuclear Navy, not special forces. Instead of a staff, he was given an Air Force colonel with no special operations experience either.

Second, when the Pentagon created the new command as required by the law, it took an old command -- the Readiness Command, which was always a backwater in military circles -- dusted it off and renamed it the U.S. Command for Special Operations.

Finally, the job of assistant secretary of defense for SO/LIC remains unfilled, despite a pool of able candidates. The Pentagon first picked an Air Force general whose name was later removed from consideration. Our sources say that the man had no real special operations experience.

The next candidate was a Justice Department official, Kenneth Bergquist, a friend of Attorney General Edwin Meese. Bergquist had vigorously opposed the SO/LIC legislation. He knew the business of special operations only through the reserves and correspondence courses. Opposition to Bergquist on the Hill was exceptional.

The strongest opposition came from the late Rep. Dan Daniel, who was the chairman of the House Armed Services readiness subcommittee. It was the first time in 20 years he had opposed a White House nomination. He called Bergquist ''unsuitable {from} the standpoint of experience, from the standpoint of stature, from the standpoint of mental discipline.'' The nomination was doomed, and the administration quietly withdrew it.

All breathed a sigh of relief when Frank Carlucci was nominated secretary of defense. The special forces community saw in Carlucci someone who would understand it, someone who would withdraw Bergquist's name and pick a better person. But Carlucci surprised everyone by heartily endorsing Bergquist.

Just as Congress has grown weary of the battle, hoping that the administration will come to its senses, word comes that it is about to nominate an elderly retired ambassador with no special operations experience.

There have always been several suitable candidates. The most obvious is William Cowan, a retired Marine officer with broad experience in SO/LIC and on Capitol Hill. He has the endorsement of more than 50 senators and representatives from both sides of the aisle.

Pentagon sources tell us the chief roadblock to any movement on the special forces law is Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Armitage. They say he doesn't care if the post ever gets filled.

That's why the public shouldn't be surprised if the White House and Pentagon obstructionists get involved in more disasters such as the April 1980 ''Desert One'' experience in Iran, the needless casualties in Grenada and the bumbling that encouraged the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut.