The British troops who died here by the thousands in three wars against Afghan tribesmen in the 19th and early 20th centuries called Afghanistan "The Grim."

The nickname still fits judging by the tales of torture, mutilliation, mass reprisal killings and indiscriminate bombings that are emerging from the nearly year-old conflict pitting insurgent Moslem tribesmen and urban guerrillas against the Soviet-backed army and ruling Khalqi (Masses) Party.

Due process has never been much in fashion in Afghanistan, even in less troubled times. Little mercy is given by either the islamic faithful who are leading a holy war against those deemed "Godless communists" or by the government forces intent on establishing a new Marxist order.

The favorite tactic of the Islamic tribesmen is to torture victims by first cutting off their noses, ears and genitals, then removing one slice of skin after another.

"It's a slow, very painful death," a diplomat noted.

Some of the government's Soviet advisers were among the victims killed during the mid-March uprising in the western city of Herat. Eyewitnesses said they were systematically hunted down by specially assigned insurgent assassination squads conducting house to house searches.

"My driver who was in Herat at the time saw a Russian flushed out from under a table in his house," a Kabul resident said. "He then tried to scramble over his garden wall before being caught, undressed and tortured to death. They stuffed his genitals in his mouth."

The squads went "berserk" and indulged in "wholesale slaughter" of Khalqi Party workers, he added. Conservative estimates put the Herat death toll at 5,000 including both those killed during the upraising and others killed in government reprisals in the city and nearby villages with artillery and air force strafing and boombing.

Soviet pilots were believed to be involved in the attacks based on Russian-language messages to air controllers heard by unimpeachable sources in Herat at the time.

Another victim said to have been skinned alive recently was the governor of a province northwest of the old capital of Ghazni. The government bombed the area in retaliation.

In the southern city of Kandahar, a senior Khalqi official and three deputies recently executed a man in the city center, according to diplomatic sources who said the executioners 'appeared to be enjoying themselves immensely."

The government theory seems to be "if you hit hard enough your enemies will recoil," a veteran resident said.

"The authorities appear more concerned with buying time than the consequences of growing resentment," he added.

Tens of thousands of Afghans are estimated to have been arrested in the past year since a revolution brought Nur Mohammed Taraki to power. Recently Taraki told a news conference on the first anniversary of the revolution, that he had pardoned 1,300 political prisoners but that 1,100 remained in jail.Two months ago, his right-hand man, Hafizullah Amin, told newsmen 1,300 political prisoners were in jail.

In any case, the statistics are considered problematical since few Afghans are known to have been released from jail during the past year.

Particularly hard hitting government reprisals have been reserved for mountain villages in such insurgent strongholds as Kunar and Paktia provinces in eastern Afghanistan.

The insurgents' favourite victims are Soviet advisers and their dependents, government and party officials and school teachers identified with the new order and with such suspect reforms as literacy courses for women.

Government reprisal policy appears less selective, and numerous accounts have filtered out about the indiscriminate use of napalm, high explosive bombs, artillery, helicopter gunships and killer punishment squads.

A young man named Masur, interviewed in Pakistan, recounted how as many as 300 fellow villagers were killed April 20 in Kerhali near the Kunar provincial capital of Asada-bad.

"The night before the Mujahideen (insurgents) had attacked an army base and killed three Russian advisers," he said. "So the next day they came with 200 soldiers, five Russian advisers and some Khalqi Party militia in civilian clothes.

"The soldiers knocked on the door and told the people to run for their lives. The unlucky ones were gathered in two mosques, then the women and children were told to go home."

"The men's hands were tied behind their back. Some of the men were soldiers on leave. They protested. They showed their army boots. Others produced Khalqi Party cards, to no avail. They were shot down with Kalashnikov submachine guns.

"Many soldiers were crying."

Tales like this one do little to endear the Soviets to the Afghans. All Soviet dependents were recalled from the provinces and sent home in the wake of the Herat uprising.

The Soviets remaining in Kabul rarely leave the heavily guarded 20-acre Soviet Embassy.

When they do, they move in groups of two and threes and tend to look nervously about them. Even on their weekly mass shopping expedition they are bussed around under guard.

It is perhaps a wise precaution.

Even the Khalqis in the cities are not safe, according to diplomats who report an occassional killing of party officials.

An Afghan acquaintance from pre-revolutionary times came up to a returning visitor and said, "We will cut off the heads of these lying bastards as soon as we can."

In Afghanistan, that does not pass for idle talk.