When night falls over this capital, Afghan soldiers, shabbily dressed but armed with Russian-made Kalashnikov rifles, stop automobiles at every city block.
Their jerky movements betray their nervousness.
At the airport across the city, an Afghan army general sees off a family on a flight to India.
A man standing nearby, who assumes it is the general's family, observes bitterly: "See, he's getting them out - he can afford to." *****
This is Kabul.
As the last days slip away before the Soviet army is due to leave Afghanistan by Feb. 15, a 10-year civil war rages on, nobody knows what will happen next, suspicion and fear are widespread, and no one looks like a winner.
Without the Soviets, the survival prospects of the pro-Marxist regime of President Najib are counted in months by most Western diplomats in Kabul.
The seven groups of Moslem rebels, whose commanders control great swaths of the countryside as warlords, are divided among themselves.
Hundreds of towns and villages are wrecked by Soviet and Afghan bombing raids, an estimated 1 million people have been killed in the conflict and 5 million - a third of the population - have fled to Pakistan and Iran.
The Soviet Union, whose costly military intervention began in 1979, stands condemned by the West and many Third World countries as an occupying superpower that met with gallant resistance from guerrilla fighters.
On the drab, icy streets of Kabul, the Soviets look like wearied colonial administrators in the dying days of an empire as they distribute airlifted emergency rations from armored vehicles to cold and hungry crowds who throng handout points, even though they say they're delighted the Red Army is going.
Soviet commanders, keen to publicize the handouts and coy about the withdrawal and whether promises of continued military assistance to Najib will include more bombing raids, grumble openly about Afghan inefficiency.
"The local administration did not give out the orders in time for when they needed to get food supplies," said Maj. Gen. Lev Sere-brov, No. 2 in the Soviet high command here, and the traders are hoarding to raise prices.
Still, he acknowledges that Moscow's Afghan adventure has gone wrong.
"We came here with a very honorable task, with open hearts . . . we are leaving, and we have a sense of not having accomplished our mission to the end," he told Western reporters.
The Kabul mayor, Afghan army Gen. Mo-hammad Hakim, says the city has a three-month stockpile of food and fuel to withstand any blockade by rebels - now entrenched on the outskirts - once the Soviets go.
But Western diplomats say reserves are virtually exhausted. U.N. officials warn that without more emergency supplies the capital of more than 2 million people, half of them war refugees from the provinces, faces disaster.
Despite the efforts of the Soviets, Najib's People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan and a 35,000-strong secret police, the Khad, the hold of Marxism appears as shaky as everything else.
The small group of Western journalists in Kabul are gathered at the Intercontinental Hotel, on a hillside overlooking the capital. It is the sole hotel in the city with a telex and the only one left with central heating.
Even there, power cuts are frequent.
The Foreign Ministry tries to keep a close watch on reporters, assigning them guides-interpreters with English ranging for the hesitant to the fluent.
The cars supplied by the state operate on near-empty tanks replenished a few gallons at a time on the black market by drivers who pay with sheafs of local currency they haul around in carrier bags.
Meanwhile, the quiet Soviet pullout continues.
Whatever happens, it is hard to find an Afghan who believes there will be peace.
"It's all been a big mistake, the war, the Soivets coming here," said airline mechanic Anargul Eshaqza, as he waited in a gasoline fuel line.
"Peace? Maybe in another 10 years."