TRAVELING down the Gardez Highway, south of Kabul, the devastation from Afghanistan's 14-year civil war is so thorough that the stark, brown terrain resembles a moonscape. Whole towns are destroyed and deserted, and no life is visible in the fields. Vehicles negotiate numerous bomb craters as they slalom down the road.
The extent of the ruin means the struggle to reconstruct the rural country will likely last much longer than the fighting between the government and the opposition mujahideen.
"Afghanistan was one of the poorest nations in the world before the war says Khalilullah Sediq, President of the National Bank of Afghanistan. "When a country like this one experiences war for almost 14 years, the damage will be extensive and it will not be able to easily rebuild."
Mr. Sediq estimates reconstruction will cost at least $10 billion, a sum Afghanistan can hardly afford. The country had an estimated Gross National Product of 918 billion afghanis, or about $706 million in 1990-1991, and its largely agricultural economy has been destroyed by the war. Cotton production has plunged more than 60 percent - from 80,000 to 30,000 tons.
Afghan President Najibullah and others are looking to the outside for aid. In particular, Najib wants the United States and the Soviet Union, the countries that introduced everything from Stinger missiles to Kalashnikov assault rifles to Afghanistan during the war, to pick up most of the cost of repairing the damage.
Such expectations may be too high, some foreign diplomats in Kabul say. The US is faced with burgeoning foreign aid responsibilities and is unlikely to make Afghanistan a priority, they say.
Likewise, one Soviet diplomat in Kabul says: "We have a certain moral responsibility because we brought a lot of grief to this country," referring to the Soviets' 1979 invasion. "We can't just throw them away."
"Unfortunately it's impossible to say what kind of aid the Soviet Union can provide," he says, given the recent breakup of the Union and economic chaos in its former republics.
With the prospects for foreign aid uncertain, the Afghan government is counting heavily on the private sector, which survived and even thrived during the communist era, says Sediq, the Afghan Bank president.
Currently private entrepreneurs bring in 56 percent of the country's imports, mainly food and fuel, he says.
Geographical reality means the former Soviet republics offer the brightest trade possibilities for Afghanistan.
Indeed, shops in Kabul are bursting with bananas, apples, and melons. Meat is widely available, with entire lamb carcasses dangling from hooks outside stores in the polluted city air. And the selection of imported goods includes German laundry detergent, Colgate toothpaste, even Kellogg's Corn Flakes. Crates of Coca-Cola, which is still bottled in Afghanistan, stand on sidewalks.
Although the goods are all around, they are beyond the reach of most Afghans, who earn the equivalent of just a few dollars a month. Many complain the prices are climbing so quickly, they can barely afford to feed themselves. A dozen eggs costs about a sixth of a month's salary.
Sediq admits inflation is a big problem, but says it was fueled by fear, not by the uncontrolled production of money. Afghanistan has virtually no foreign debt, he says, adding; "If peace comes to Afghanistan, prices will drop up to 40 percent."
Many merchants say the situation cannot improve until Najib leaves office.
But Najibullah's departure would concern many ethnic minorities, especially Sikhs, who are influential in the country's financial sector.
Their concern is that Najib would be replaced by radical mujahed leaders who would establish a fundamentalist Islamic government.
Such a scenario is highly unlikely because fundamentalism has little support among Afghans, says Prof. Mohammed Asghar, a leader of the moderate Afghan Salvation Society. "Islam will be involved in our future government, that's for sure," he says. "But human experience over the last 200 to 300 years has shown a democratic government is best."
The biggest threat to postwar stability could come from tribal and religious rivalries, foreign diplomats say. For centuries, Afghan politics was characterized by ethnic feuds. Pushtuns, who are divided into many branches, comprise the majority, but other ethnic groups, including Tajiks and Turkmens are numerous. Tension between adherents of the Suuni branch of Islam, who were in the majority, also fought minority Shiites.
A United Nations diplomat points to strong evidence of brewing ethnic tension. The key to rebuilding efforts, he stresses, is containing these ethnic feuds.
"There will always be conflicts on a local level," he says. "The aim is to reduce the level of violence to a much lower level."