The experts here are not sure exactly what Mikhail Gorbachev had in mind when he told Pakistan's president at the Chernenko funeral that continued collaboration with the rebels in Afghanistan would affect Soviet-Pakistani relations in "the most negative way." But when the Soviet news agency Tass is at pains to report such blunt language, American authorities take it seriously. One thing that is clear here is that Afghanistan is increasingly a high-priority Soviet concern.

Most of the costs of Afghanistan to the Soviets are obvious: the combat casualties; the weapons destroyed; the strain on Soviet resources; the open- endedness of it all. But one cost has gone largely unnoted, except by U.S. authorities who monitor such matters: the demoralizing effect the war is beginning to have on the Soviet public.

The evidence is in the way the tightly managed Soviet "press" has apparently been forced to face up to a growing man-on-the-street awareness that much more than a modest, peace-keeping mission is involved, with the Afghan government's army doing the fighting. The word is getting around there's a war on. The Soviet public is still not being told anything remotely close to the facts about the extent of the involvement.

But increasingly, over the past year, the Soviet press's war coverage has changed from articles on weapons-cleaning contests and daily life in the field bakery to celebrations of heroes and sacrifice and increasing analogies to the Great Patriotic War (World War II). "They are playing it recently much more as a long and glorious struggle against the Afghanistan counterrevolution," says one U.S. government analyst.

The reason is that even in a closed society, the wounds of war -- more precisely, the wounded -- can no longer be concealed or explained away. So great are their numbers that Soviet news managers have been obliged, in their own crude way, to develop a new public-relations approach.

With increasing frequency, Soviet newspaper readers are being treated to stirring vignettes about Soviet soldiers grievously maimed in performances of great gallantry. The accounts have simple, one word headings: "Courage," "Fidelity," "Duty." The language is almost childishly romantic.

Efforts to minimize the war's home-front impact are considerable. Soldiers rotated home from Afghanistan, I am told, are posted in remote and underpopulated parts of the country, away from the big cities, where they would come into contact with the most sophisticated segment of Soviet society. The killed-in-action are taken note of publicly with no reference to Afghanistan: "So-and-so died fulfilling his international duty for socialism." The next of kin must sign an oath, under penalties, not to disclose that their relatives died in Afghanistan.

But the demobilized amputees and paraplegics, appearing in growing numbers, cannot escape notice. That would be reason enough to present them in positive, patriotic terms. But the accompanying effort to identify them with the veterans of the Great Patriotic War suggests something else -- a way of preparing Soviet opinion for a protracted Soviet engagement in Afghanistan.