KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — ONCE the hottest spot of the cold war and an expensive target for United States covert activities, Afghanis-tan's capital has been ravaged by a 2-1/2-year siege that turned it into the deadliest city in the world. More than 20,000 people died last year.
But the siege of Kabul and the government of President Burhanuddin Rabbani by opposition forces loyal to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar is almost over.
A new military force, made up of several thousand Islamic youths from the largest Afghani ethnic group, the Pashtuns, has made a lightning advance to the edge of the city. The force is known as the Taliban, or seekers of truth in Persian.
Now, six years after Soviet troops withdrew and three years since a Communist regime fell, this war-torn nation is at a critical turning point, with high stakes for the other Islamic nations that lie in Central Asia between India and Russia.
The sudden appearance of the Taliban pushed Mr. Hekmatyar's forces away from the outskirts of Kabul, ending the siege. And the advance also spurred the United Nations to push harder for a peace settlement between warring Afghan groups by the end of March.
A key player in any UN solution, however, will be a famous, former anti-Soviet guerrilla leader, Ahmed Shah Masoud, who is currently the Army chief in Kabul.
He backs beleaguered President Rabbani, who the UN is urging to step down. The Rabbani government is dominated by ethnic Tajiks, the country's second-largest population group.
While the Taliban, with 2,000 to 3,000 fighters waiting just 10 miles south of the capital in Charasyab, certainly are a factor in the UN's plans, Special Envoy Mehmoud Mestiri was quick to point out last week that while ``the Taliban are a new force, we don't think that they should be represented on [a proposed interim governing council].''
In announcing the UN plan for such an interim council on Feb. 23, Mr. Mestiri named a former Afghan justice minister, Satar Sirat, as head of the working group charged with forming the council and deciding the structure of the security forces. In addition to Mr. Sirat, Mestiri named three other prominent Afghans who have been living in exile. Mr. Sirat is known to be close to Mr. Masoud, the Army chief.
When asked in a Monitor interview last week if he would support the UN plan, Masoud responded: ``We have promised the UN that we are willing to transfer power.''
Sources in the government say that Masoud, who like all the officers in his Army go only by the title of ``commander,'' is willing to see Mr. Rabbani leave, as long as his military forces are allowed to maintain the dominant position here in Kabul. ``Rabbani will hand over power unless Massoud tells him to wait,'' a senior officer close to Masoud said yesterday.
When asked about the Taliban, Masoud said, in conciliatory terms: ``We both have a common interest in keeping the roads open, taking out check posts, and fighting corruption. We believe that the problems of Afghanistan can best be solved through dialogue.''
Although still not much is known about the Taliban since they captured the southern city of Kandahar in November, ``dialogue'' is one thing the army of primarily uneducated, under 25-year-old fighters seems to have little time for.
Intent on wresting power from the former resistance leaders like Masoud, many young Taliban say that they won't stop until they have established their own government in Kabul.
The Taliban sprang up barely six months ago when students at Muslim religious schools in the refugee camps along the Afghani-Pakistani border banded together to rid the country of armed factions that had divided the nation into small fiefdoms and preyed on ordinary Afghans.
A key factor in their success has been the movement's sharp criticism of all former resistance groups, which they have labeled ``un-Islamic'' for their ruthless contest for power.
Ironically, the Taliban itself, much like the groups that they are eager to replace, is also led by a cadre of former anti-Soviet resistance commanders, leading people here to question how noble their intentions really are.
Their quick successes in capturing nine provincial capitals in the past five months have won them a lot of attention at this point, but it is widely believed in Kabul that these armed activists would not be successful if they attacked Masoud's battle-hardened troops.
``The Taliban have only faced one small fight in their lives,'' said one of Masoud's senior commanders. ``We are working very hard to prevent war, but if it comes, I suspect that most of them will turn around and head back to Kandahar.''
Masoud's youngest regiment commander at age 33, Brig. Gen. Gul Haidar was recently seen in energetic discussions with Taliban officers near Kabul. Riding back and forth across the front lines in a bright yellow taxicab, General Haidar seemed quite optimistic. ``The political situation is good, both sides want peace.''
When asked about the Taliban threat, General Haidar responded slowly, ``We have paid for this land with our own blood,'' and taking a deep breath, he finished, ``If we are attacked, we'll have no choice but to fight.''
Masoud seems eager to avoid a fight with the Taliban. He agreed to pull back his forces leaving a demilitarized ridge between his forces and the Taliban, and also started busing unarmed Taliban fighters into Kabul on shopping trips.
Sources here believe that if Masoud can at least postpone a fight with the Taliban until after Rabbani has stepped aside and an interim authority has been formed, it will benefit his efforts to legitimize his force's role in the national government.
For Masoud, who led the fight against Hekmatyar for 2-1/2 years, the Taliban's emergence has forced him to take a gamble. Over the past weeks as the Taliban closed in on Hekmatyar's headquarters, Masoud is said to have provided political and military support for the young army in its advance.
If true, Masoud's move would be in keeping with the Afghan maxim, that, ``the enemy of my enemy is my friend.'' Now that the Taliban has helped pushed Hekmatyar safely out of the way for now, the question is will the UN be able to bring peace to Afghanistan, or will the Taliban begin a new siege?