SEVEN years ago, the Soviet invaders withdrew from Afghanistan; but the war never stopped. The mujahideen, the Islamic guerrillas who had defeated the Red Army, continued to fight against President Najibullah, the Kremlin's man. Even before he was overthrown, in 1992, they turned upon each other.
The flood of weapons to the guerrilla factions from outside hardly ebbed, although the United States ended its support Jan. 1, 1992. One new factor, the Taliban militia, emerged last year to seize a major role in the bloody struggle for power and especially for control of the symbolic ruin that is Kabul, the capital. Some 25,000 people have died in almost incessant rocketing, shelling, and bombing of the city since 1992. The population's lot remains death and devastation in yet another harsh and early winter.
Only one thing has clearly changed. The world, so long fascinated by the Afghan drama, has lost interest.
Today's struggle is a mix of coldblooded tactics and the surreal. Early last August, an Ilyushin-76 transport plane was forced to land in the city of Kandahar. It was a charter flight with a Russian crew, from the republic of Tatarstan in the Russian Federation, loaded with Albanian AK-47 assault rifles for the fighters of President Burhanuddin Rabbani in Kabul. It was forced down by the Taliban, who continue to hold the crew despite appeals from Russia, the United Nations General Assembly, and the UN Security Council.
Russia reportedly gives Mr. Rabbani massive help in a covert operation that has been run by Yevgeny Primakov, director of Russia's foreign intelligence service. Long known as a Middle East expert, Mr. Primakov is President Boris Yeltsin's nominee as foreign minister and is reputed to be a more ardent exponent of Russian interests than his predecessor, Andrei Kozyrev. These interests, the motor of Soviet intervention in 1979, continue to involve Afghanistan. Turmoil there has spilled over into the Central Asian republic of Tajikistan, where Russia has stationed more than one division of troops, worried that Islamic radicalism may spread to all of former-Soviet Central Asia.
Muslim groups and regional strategies
Iran and India also support the Rabbani government. Iran, with close ties to the large minority of Shiite muslims in western Afghanistan, fears for them and for its own influence if the fanatic Sunni come out on top. India's strategic calculus is based on Kashmir, its northernmost province. The rebellion of Kashmir's Muslim majority has poisoned India's relations with Pakistan from the beginning.
During the Afghan war against the Soviet invasion, Pakistan was the supply line to the mujahideen. Even retrospect staggers the imagination. The United States sent the mujahideen an estimated $5 billion in arms, ammunition, and supplies. For Washington, it was the last great confrontation of the cold war.
Saudi Arabia roughly matched the American contribution; but the Saudis, including wealthy princes and private donors, were primarily interested in the mujahideen as Islamic fighters.
Pakistan wanted a closely allied Islamic state to eliminate Soviet influence. It is now accused of bankrolling the Taliban not only with an eye on the Russians but also to dominate the trade routes to Central Asia - and to keep India from undercutting Pakistan in their unending struggle over Kashmir.
The role of the Taliban
Who are the Taliban? The name means ''student'' or ''searcher for the truth.'' Their leaders are said to have come from religious schools in the great Afghan refugee camps inside Pakistan. Like the old factions, they profess to want an Islamic state, but one cleansed of what they call the present criminal leadership. The Taliban are ultraconservative, relegating women to the dark ages and advocating the gruesome traditional punishments of flogging, stoning, and amputation. This has set the tone not only for uncompromising conflict but also for the further fragmentation and brutalization of society.
The Taliban have given no idea of what they mean by Islamic government and refuse to join in the UN's effort to find a political way to peace. They insist on a military decision.
Yet, in the chaos that reigns in Afghanistan, the Taliban could point the way to a solution. The group is split between the primitive Islamists and those with royalist leanings. Their center, Kandahar, was the seat of Pushtun kings (Pushtun is one of the two main ethnic and linguistic groups in Afghanistan).
Zahir Shah, the former monarch who was deposed in 1973, has been urged to return to his country as a transitional, national catalyst. He has been in Rome since he was overthrown and, now 81, shows little interest in the idea.
Meanwhile, Afghanistan jogs the memory of a world that would rather forget it. It has become the second-largest producer of opium, increasingly exported as heroin to the West via Russia.
Some 400 American Stinger hand-held antiaircraft missiles are thought to have gone to the mujahideen. They were not all used in the war. The ''Afghanis,'' non-Afghan Arabs in the main, who learned the roughest guerrilla trades there, are journeymen terrorists in the Arab world and beyond.
Those who can stifle their feelings about the human misery and the millions of unexploded land mines may still see reasons - in the opium, the ''Afghanis,'' the missing stingers, and the strategic dangers of this political tornado in the heart of Asia - to do whatever they can to bring peace to Afghanistan.