The official picks up a secret-police questionnaire from his desk. ``They want to know about our staff - ages, education, and also whether they are PDPA [the ruling People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan] members,'' he says. ``I know two of our staff are party members. But see, they've ticked a box on the form saying they are nonparty. They used to be proud of being in the PDPA. Now they're scared to admit it,'' he says, throwing the paper aside. ``This regime is finished.''
For many noncommunist Afghan intellectuals, the PDPA is a spent force.
From their offices and institutes they can see the party quietly receding from public life. Many welcome the change, and they look back at the last 11 years of PDPA rule as a bitter dead end in their country's development. But they are also deeply apprehensive. The collapse of the PDPA will leave a power vacuum, and they are not sure who will fill it.
Two senior lecturers at Kabul University, one trained in the United States, the other in the Soviet Union, discussed their views of the future. They asked for anonymity: ``We are still careful, cautious, and fearful,'' one said.
On campus things have begun to change for the better, both lecturers said.
``About a month ago, all political indoctrination courses here were stopped,'' said one. ``The professors who taught them are now out of a job. There are moves to put everything back the way it was before the revolution. We consider this a positive development. But the situation in the country as a whole is still very bad.''
Their friends and family members are still dying in the war. ``Last month two close relatives, boys aged 7 and 9, were killed by an incoming missile near here,'' one lecturer said. They have also heard of the destruction wrought by mujahideen guerrillas in towns they have captured. The guerrillas may have their own reasons for doing this, one lecturer said, ``but it does not fill us with optimism for the future.''
This does not, however, make the two men want Soviet troops to stay in Afghanistan. The last Soviet soldier is due to leave the country by next Feb. 15. ``The Russian pullout is of course something we all want,'' said one of them. ``We should try to settle our own problems. But it's still not clear whether we can solve them by ourselves.''
The only way to avoid prolonged internecine fighting, they said, would be for the United Nations to deploy peacekeeping forces until elections unaffected by men with guns can finally be held.
But the lecturers also spoke of more immediate troubles.
``People in Kabul are cold and hungry,'' said one, clutching a cup of tea to keep warm in his frigid office.
Another intellectual, Mahmud, Soviet-trained and married to a Russian, works on the other side of town in one of the city's most prestigious educational establishments. Unfriendly young gunslingers frisk visitors to the building. People who work here say the men are either with the secret police or the PDPA youth wing.
But here as well, the PDPA is withdrawing from the scene. More and more senior posts in his institute are being given to nonparty people, Mahmud says. He has three party members among his staff of 14. But they no longer seem very enthusiastic about their political affiliation, he notes.
Instead, he says, people in the streets are talking about a new ``national hero.''
``I don't know much about these names, but I keep hearing talk of Ahmed Shah Massoud and Turun Ismail Khan.'' Both are opposition guerrilla leaders. Mr. Massoud's troops are moving close to Kabul. Mr. Ismail Khan operates in Herat, in the far west of the country.
``The party began to lose touch with people long ago,'' Mahmud says. Nine lecturers, many of them Soviet-trained, disappeared forever from his institute during political purges during the early years of the revolution.
But Mahmud, like many others, sees tough times ahead. When the Soviets leave there will be a ``struggle for power.'' It's impossible to say who will win, Mahmud says: There are far too many armed groups in the country. ``I just hope that it's a quick struggle.'' His wife, however, is planning to leave for the Soviet Union in the next couple of weeks.
The present calm hanging over Kabul is deceptive, he says. ``The usual terrible things are happening in the rest of the country.'' Last week, he recalls, he returned to Kabul from a trip abroad.
``The person who met me at the airport told me that the son of one of my closest friends was killed by shrapnel as he was cycling down the street.''
Kabul has indeed been quiet in the last week, Mahmud says. ``I've only heard of one car bomb this week.'' But he adds, ``The situation in the capital right now is not really normal. It's just a brief lull in the fighting.''