AT THE MOMENT, the towering feature of the Afghan scene is the resistance being mounted aganist the Soviet invasion.It is by all accounts awesome, especially when the mismatch in firepower is considered. It does no dishonor to Afghan patriots to observe that, by their efforts alone, they will have the greatest difficulty dislodging the Soviet occupation. Nor is it possible to imagine that external military aid would be of dimensions enabling them to achieve victory. That makes it necessary to think of how others can add a diplomatic thrust to the contribution to their liberation being made by the Afghans themselves.

The first idea on the table is neutralization, put there by Jimmy Carter, who was trying to get out in front of sentiment congealing among the allies. Though some of them would have no qualms about neutralizing, say, the Eastern Shore if they deemed it good for detente, neutralization in the Afghan context is not without its drawbacks. The Russians had all the supposed advantages of it before the process began that ended in their invasion. To put Humpty Dumpty back together again would require a measure of voluntary participation on the part of Afghans not easily flowing from the emotion of a costly resistance movement. Great-power consensus would be essential, but no concept suggesting, to Afghanistan or its neighbors, a central element of great-power imposition would soon get off the ground.

It is noteworthy, nonetheless, that the Soviet Union is now making a public display of the condition -- a full halt to all "outside interference" -- under which it might pull out its troops. The offer is a backhanded tribute both to the struggle put up by the Afghans and to the protests the invasion has elicited elsewhere. The United States, eager to make the point that any external activities cannot "justify" the invasion, has reacted brusquely to the Kremlin feelers. Down the road, however, the administration may have reason to come out from behind its cloak of discretion and to accept that American, Chinese and Pakistani "external activities" constitute a card to play against Soviet withdrawal. It is a tricky bargain to make. But it is the path to explore to get the Soviets off their opening negotiating position, which is that their withdrawal cannot begin until all "outside interference" ends.

The Soviet position is premised on the fiction that the Afghan resistance is sustained strictly by external aid. It is not. It is sustained spontaneously, and the only sure way for the Kremlin to quell it is to proceed expeditiously to return Afghanistan to the Afghans. But if the Russians, in negotiations, wish to pretend that external aid is responsible, Afghanistan's friends should be able to make something of it.