BOUNDING into the room to meet diplomats and journalists, Afghanistan's President Najibullah sports a confident grin, giving the impression of a man firmly in control.
Yet the three security troops trailing him, brandishing automatic rifles, serves as a reminder that beneath the assured exterior, Najib (as he is known here) is a politician who feels far from secure.
He has lived on the edge ever since the Soviets installed him as president in 1986, but the short and burly Najibullah has so far proven politically immovable. Relying on his sharp intellect and iron will, he has tenaciously fought off attempts by the opposition mujahideen to oust his Soviet-backed Marxist regime during the Afghan civil war, soon to enter its 14th year. Indeed, he has survived for the nearly three years since the withdrawal of the Soviet Army in February 1989, when experts predicted he w ould be toppled in a matter of weeks.
Militarily the Afghan civil war is stalemated: Najibullah's forces control the big cities and the mujahideen control countryside. But now, officials say, a window of opportunity is open for finding a political settlement to end fighting that has cost more than 1 million lives.
A negotiated settlement poses a dilemma for the Afghan president: Most observers agree that a political solution can only be achieved through his departure from politics.
Thus, whether peace comes soon to Afghanistan depends largely on Najib's eventual willingness to surrender to the mujahideen at the negotiating table what they have not been able to win on the battlefield.
"The prospects for peace have never been better," says a United Nations diplomat in Kabul. "But a lot depends on Najibullah and whether there's an orderly transfer of power."
"The mujahideen and many others aren't willing to negotiate with the present government," says Mohammed Asghar, who served as justice minister under King Mohammed Zahir Shah, who was ousted in 1973 in a communist-led coup. "Many people hold the present government responsible for the tragedy of the last 14 years."
If negotiations are to begin in earnest, the mujahideen will have to deal with Najibullah, foreign political observers say. "You can like him or hate him, but he's a political reality," says a Soviet diplomat.
For his part, Najibullah repeatedly has says he would step down if it would help bring peace to the country. Yet at a recent news conference, the president made it clear he was not leaving any time soon.
"The demand for my resignation is coming from men who do not represent the people," Najib says in a soft, but determined tone, constantly waving his hand to punctuate his comments.
Although he sees obstacles, Najib insists Afghans are capable of solving their problems. To do so, however, all foreign governments must end their involvement in the Afghan civil war, he says. The president welcomes the US-Soviet commitment to halt arms supplies on Jan. 1 but says the embargo must also apply to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, the mujahideen's two main suppliers. A total weapons embargo needs to be in place before progress can be made in the peace process, he indicates.
Although observers say political jockeying could go on for years, both sides will eventually have no other option but negotiations. The biggest stumbling block then could be naming a leader of the transitional government.
Najib clearly considers himself the best qualified to head such a government, and some diplomats agree, adding that his premature departure from politics could create a power vacuum more damaging than his continued leadership.
"He's an extremely shrewd and capable politician and he's the only one now effectively in control of the power structure," says the Soviet diplomat. "If he left the scene now you would have nobody."
The diplomat says to expect the unexpected, but adds that he would not be surprised if Najibullah tried to stick it out to the end.
"He has the type of personality that could go to the end," he says. "In Afghanistan you can have ... crazy solutions that would not come to the mind of any foreigner."