Each morning shortly after 7, the battle for control of the Kunar Valley begins anew.

Usually the starting signal is the low growl of Soviet helicopter gunships as they head from bases at Jalalabad to strike targets at the north end of the valley.

Later, delta-winged Mig fighters and larger propeller-driven Antonov planes, used for reconnaissance or directing artillery, appear overhead.

They are all part of the biggest Soviet military operation mounted against Moslem guerrillas in Afghanistan since the Russians invaded last December.

A variety of antigovernment forces have held sway here ever since they drove the Afghan Army out nearly a year ago. Now outmanned and outgunned, these guerrillas snipe, sabotage and ambush to resist their superior foe.

Earlier this week, Soviet helicopter gunships turned their attention on two clusters of mud and clay homes on the west bank of the Kunar River known as the villages of Chawki and Diwigal.

According to local rebel leaders, 20 Afghan government troops were killed there recently when their battalion was ambushed by insurgents, rebels from Diwagal joined the attack.

In many ways, the ambush and subsequest punitive air strike typify the struggle for control of the Kunar Valley. Rebel leaders say that such small villages are rarely attacked by government forces unless some rebel activity occurs first.

This strategy, similar to the one used by the Americans in Vietnam, is aimed at blunting popular support for the rebels by punishing the areas where they stage attacks.

So far, however, the Russians are learning one more Vietnam lesson the hard way. The Soviet attacks appear to have stiffened, rather than softened, resistance among the tough, independent Afghans who call this rugged valley home. In large part, this is because the rebels are predominantly local villagers.

Rather than a clash of ideologies, the battle for the Kunar Valley is one of local people against outsiders. For the people of the Kunar, fighting outsiders is nothing new. Their experience dates back to Alexander the Great, whom their ancestors harassed as he marched his army up the valley 2,300 years ago.

As I and Philip Cornford of the Sydney Australian watched from hills across the river, the shark-nosed gunships wheeled over the villages, dropping bombs and blanketing the area with deadly fire from machine guns capable of spewing 6,000 rounds a minute.

Despite the intensity of the 1 1/2-hour attack, only a faint column of smoke rose from the valley floor. Apparently, little in the villages was combustible.

Because their present foe has superior technology, local guerrilia leaders repeatedly demand weapons to deal with it.

"Give us rockets to deal with the helicopters and we will drive them [the Russians] out," almost all the Afghan rebel leaders say.

In the dimly lit houses that dot the banks of the Kunar there is little awe of Soviet military might, despite reports of large-scale killing of civilians and razing of villages. For many of these people, feuding and fighting is an elemental part of life. And against this world superpower, the fight has become an end in itself.

"If we are killed, it is shaheed (martyrdom), and if we succeed and live, we are ghazi (one who fights invaders)," said a 50-year-old shopkeeper, who left his business six months ago to join a Kunar-based rebel group.

The villages' residents are long on courage, but pitifully short of hardware and tactics.

One man entered the room proudly fondling a .22-caliber rifle and asked the two foreign reporters present if they thought the rifle might be able to bring down a helicopter gunship.

According to one village elder, the people of Kashkot banded together recently with those of five nearby villages to form a fighting unit with a pool of several hundred men. However, the group could muster only 52 rifles and one machine gun.

The machine gun, he said, had recently fired 250 of the 400 rounds of ammunition stored in the village. The remaining 150 rounds would last most armies less than a minute in any serious firefight.

"We have sent a delegation to Peshawar [in Pakistan] and hope to get more weapons and ammunition from rebel groups there," the elder said. At the top of the shopping list are rockets to bring down the Soviet helicopter gunships. Peshawar is headquarters for many of the rebel groups fighting the Soviets.

Meanwhile, the village unit took its 53 weapons a few miles south to fight Soviet troops who had moved across the Kabul River into the town of Cama.

"They can't do very much becasue the Russians are in tanks," the elder said. "They are now in defense."

The toughness of the people's is mirrored by the land in which they carve out their lives. A few miles from the river's west bank, peaks rise well above 9,000 feet, while the eastern approaches resemble a moonscape of barren hills and boulder-clogged creek beds.

It was into the hostile region that the Soviets chose to commit their forces nearly a month ago in an attempt to restore government control.

As part of a combined air and ground assault, the Russians punched an armored column up the valley to recapture a military post at Asmar that had been surrendered by the Afghan Army last August.

The Russians were successful in retaking Asmar, but their Afghan Army allies have been hard-pressed to carry out their assigned task of protecting the lone Soviet supply route, a paved road running along the Kunar's west bank.

While rebel groups generally accept government control of the road during the day, at sunset the area becomes a no-man's land where anyone can venture, but where no one is safe. Rebels wishing to cross the river usually hide in gullies waiting for dark and for the last Soviet helicopter gunship to disappear.

The last traces of light are still visible in the western sky when the rebels emerge from cover. Sometimes, they use the cover of darkness to carry supplies along the exposed dirt road on the river's eastern bank or cross the swiftly moving river on rickety rafts to infiltrate the narrow strip of territory held by the Afghan Army in the nearby mountains.

Afghan Army units appear to have little desire to prevent this movement. Instead they are consent to remain in their fortified positions during the night, firing occasional random bursts into the darkness.

Shortly after midnight, even this stops and there is silence until dawn, when the arrival of the first helicopter gunship signals the start of a new day's fighting.