KABUL, Afghanistan -- Najibullah, the Soviet-backed president of Afghanistan, appeared confident -- and on some issues, intransigent -- during an interview here last week, despite recent hints from the Soviets that his days in power may be numbered.

A tough-looking 41-year-old with a thick moustache, Najibullah sat at a long table in his office in the Central Committee building here, while a Russian official sat at the other end of the table intently taking notes. The Afghan president talked mostly in party slogans, repeating the official line. He claimed, for example, that his forces control all Afghan cities and provincial centers -- even though a visitor can hear gunfire in the streets of Kabul at night.

The Afghan president denied that he and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, who visited Kabul earlier this month, had any major differences. The main theme of their conversations, he said, was "the further consolidation of amicable relations between the Afghans and the Soviet people and the Soviet government."

Najibullah's confident talk belies what some western analysts believe is growing friction between him and his Soviet backers. Shevardnadze, for example, said during his recent visit that the Soviets would like to withdraw their troops from Afghanistan this year and endorsed a broad-based political dialogue about the future of the country. He warned that Afghan officials who refused to join in such a dialogue would be putting "personal considerations and aspirations above the interests of the nation."

Some hopeful western analysts interpreted Shevardnadze's statements as a sign that the Soviets no longer expected that the Afghan Communist Party (known as the PDPA) would necessarily dominate a coalition government after Soviet troop withdrawal. But skeptics note that Najibullah's party may simply be replaced by another pro-Soviet puppet government.

Although Moscow has hinted that it is ready to accept a transitional government in which the PDPA isn't a majority, Najibullah balks on this issue. Asked if his party would accept a minority position, he said: "We have so far proclaimed and declared vast concessions to the other side."

Najibullah indicated that he sees a role for exiled Afghan King Zahir Shah in a future coalition. He explained: "He can play a worthwhile role in the process of peace and national reconciliation. He would assume a worthwhile role."

During the 90-minute interview, Najibullah outlined two new conditions for withdrawal of Soviet troops:

The mujaheddin's training camps in Pakistan must be dismantled before the Soviets begin withdawal. Najibullah claimed that this requirement for dismantling training camps is one of the understandings that have been negotiated in the so-called "proximity talks" in Geneva between Afghanistan and Pakistan. (Two senior American officials, however, deny that the Geneva accords contain any such provision, and Pakistan officially continues to deny that the camps even exist.) The importance of the camps issue was stressed in a separate interview by Afghan Foreign Minister Abdul Wakil, who insisted that the "main thing to be emphasized is the dismantlement of the camps." The demand was also noted last week in Pravda.

The mujaheddin should extend to the Soviet-backed Afghan army the cease-fire that one key mujaheddin leader has already offered to Soviet troops once withdrawal begins. "We are actually looking for this objective," Najibullah said.

The timetable for Soviet withdrawal is the crucial remaining issue at the Geneva talks, which resume next month. Najibullah stuck to his previous statement that 12 months or less would be an acceptable timetable. However, one Asian diplomat who has close relations with the Najibullah regime said that the Afghan leader is willing to settle on 10 months. Pakistan has asked for an eight-month withdrawal period.

The Soviet negotiating tactic -- echoed by Najibullah -- has been to shift the blame from the Soviets, who invaded Afghanistan, to the Americans, who are aiding the Afghan resistance fighters. Thus Najibullah says that the only thing holding up withdrawal is what he calls "outside interference" -- which means U.S., Chinese and Saudi aid to the mujaheddin. "Should interference from abroad stop and guarantees be given for the non-recurrence of such interference . . . and the opposition respond to our cease-fire," then the withdrawal period could be shortened, Najibullah said.

In Washington, many experts believe that if Soviet troops were withdrawn from Afghanistan, there would be a bloodbath. The PDPA is divided into two rival factions that would probably start fighting each other, the experts say. Then the mujaheddin would settle scores with both factions. U.S. experts generally agree that Najibullah and his group could not last without Soviet troops.

"Let us join hands to salvage people from Western countries from imaginary things," Najibullah said when asked about the possibility of such a bloodbath. "Let us put it candidly," he said. "Should all the armed interference cease to continue, the armed forces of the Republic of Afghanistan are capable to defend the national sovereignty of their country."

With all the recent talk of Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, many western officials have begun to hope that after eight years of civil war, a neutral Afghanistan can emrge. But where will the neutrals come from? The local diplomatic community here is skeptical that the conditions for a settlement exist, and they are nearly united in the doubting that the Soviets will really withdraw.

One wise European diplomat here explains it this way: "The Soviets want you {America} by diplomatic means to help them stay in Afghanistan . . . . Here there is not one centimeter of change. Kabul is entirely ruled by Khad {the secret police} and the KGB. Beware of easy solutions -- false and easy. Beware of a kind of Munich. Imagine three years from now an Afghanistan that is Sovietized, trouble in Pakistan, with the mujaheddin discouraged but heavily armed. It would be another defeat {for the United States}. The world would laugh and cry."

Lally Weymouth writes regularly about foreign affairs for The Washington Post