The tide of Afghan refugees fleeing the fighting in their country and the continuing Soviet occupation is now approaching 1 million people, more than 7 percent of the population.
U.S. government officials, using statistics based on refugee registration in neighboring Pakistan, said yesterday that as of the beginning of this month about 737,000 Afghans had fled across the rugged 1,400-mile border to Pakistan. An additional 100,000 or so are now estimated to be just across the Iranian frontier to the south.
Adding probably 10 percent of those fleeing who are not counted, and those who have come across in the first half of May, brings the total to "close to 1 million people," the officials said, since the Soviets sent their troops in on Dec. 27.
The refugee exodus, however, was only part of a grim status report on the Afghanistan situation provided for journalists by officials who, under the ground rules, may not be identified.
As viewed here, the Soviets face a dangerous and probably long-lasting dilemma in Afghanistan, despite their obviously dominant position militarily. Perhaps more importantly for the world outside that beleaguered country, such a long-lasting dilemma also means, as one administration official put it, that U.S.-Soviet relations "are also going to be bad for a long time."
After almost five months, these officials conclude, the Soviets still have not achieved their objectives of pacifying the population, ending the armed resistance or developing popular support for the Moscow-installed government of Babrak Karmal.
The regime, they say, is weaker and less popular than it was when first installed, and the general political and economic situation is deteriorating.
A continuing feud among rival faction's of Babrak's People's Democratic Party is seen here as further paralyzing whatever semblance of government exists now in the capital of Kabul and thus strengthening resistance in the countryside to the Moscow-controlled regime.
Militarily, the Soviets have 85,000 troops inside Afghanistan and 30,000 just across the border in the Soviet Union.
"But the Soviets," an official said, "have no influence in Afghanistan that goes beyond the barrel of a gun."
In this view, the 85,000 troops are not enough to resolve the problem of continuing resistance by increasingly well-armed insurgents. Yet Moscow is deemed unlikely to bring in heavy reinforcements for a while, for two reasons.
One is that the Soviets, coming up on their first "good fighting season" this summer, will probably want to see how much better they can do with the existing troops that now have some experience in the country.
The second reason, officials believe, is Moscow's unwillingness to focus global awareness once again on its invasion by bringing in noticeably larger forces until after the Moscow Olympics in July.
This virtually assures the situation's continuing for several more months, and there is still other new signs of digging in for a long stay.
The Soviets are building up a big logistics base at Pol-e-Khomri, about 100 miles north of Kabul, including underground, concrete-covered storage facilities for ammunition and for fuel, which used to be kept above ground in rubber bladders.
Permanent bases for Soviet helicopter gunships are being built, sources say, at Ghazni, southwest of the capital, and at Jalalabad to the east, while maintenance facilities for those gunships are being expanded at the Kabul airport and at Bagram airfield north of the city.
The Tapi-Tajbek, or Afghan Palace, in Kabul, sources report, also is being renovated, apparently for use as permanent Soviet military command headquarters. This is where the previous ruler, Hafizullah Amin, was killed during the initial Soviet takeover. A second large, new military headquarters is also being built just north of the capital.
In reiterating charges that the Soviets "seem to be using" some kind of incapacitating gas, more dangerous than irritants such as tear gas but not clearly lethal, officials said they are getting reports of Soviet chemical decontamination equipment at artillery and gunship sites, indicating that Soviet soldiers there must be handling shells or ammunition loaded with such gas.
Though the Soviet presence in the capital is large enough to maintain a "facade" of order, U.S. officials say that "outside of Kabul the government hardly functions at all. Provincial governors are isolated in their capitals." The three other major cities -- Qandahar, Herat and Jalalabad -- are described as "really contested territory." Jalalabad, they say, "seems out of government control several hours a day most of the time."
But the Soviets won't leave, an official concludes, because they are a superpower and "the political costs of leaving are higher than staying." Thus, he reasons, they try to dilute the costs by "cosmetic" schemes of a settlement that divert attention from their military presence.
"We'd like them to get the idea in their head that it is costing them more than it's worth in terms of their relations with us, with Europe and the Islamic world," he says.
Unstated in the official status report given to reporters is the Carter administration's concern that the Afghanistan situation is fading from the public mind and with it the prospect of support here or elsewhere in the world for strong counteraction against Moscow.