KABUL

There's a case of bottled water in the back seat of my car, along with a giant plastic jug of kerosene for the generator. The embassies and ministries I drive past are surrounded by sandbags and soldiers. When the lights flicker and fail again, or the sound of gunfire crackles, people go right on sipping their tea.

In Kabul, the Afghan capital where I have lived for most of the past 14 months, war is a state of mind, a memory so recent and raw that no one dares abandon its habits. It's a permanent possibility despite the veneer of global civilization -- SUVs cruising the streets, Internet cafes opening -- that has spread since the defeat of the extremist Taliban regime in November 2001.

For the United States, intervention in this remote and rugged nation has turned out to be the easy part. It is staying the course that is much harder, but ultimately more productive.

Virtually everyone here is a Muslim, and Afghanistan remains one of the most conservative Islamic countries in the world. Many women still wear full-body veils when they go to market; every speech and newscast begins with a prayer to Allah. But there are no anti-Western harangues in the crowded mosques, no young men working up a poisonous passion for jihad -- at least for now.

Afghanistan already had its holy war -- an American-backed, decade-long struggle against the Soviet Union during the 1980s. The Afghan resistance to Moscow succeeded, but the war's aftermath was disastrous: ten more years of fratricidal fighting; a magnificent capital rocketed to rubble; a puritanical army that rose up to end chaos and brigandry -- and then replaced them with an inquisition.

Now the Taliban are gone, thanks to a massive U.S. military intervention in 2001, and the exhausted populace is grateful to the American and U.N. troops remained behind to keep order. Afghans protest when a tribal leader is arrested or a village is bombed by mistake, but, from what I've seen, they beg every Western soldier they meet not to leave. They are not afraid of us Westerners; they are afraid of other Afghans -- the still-powerful warlords and ethnic militias that tore the country apart in the 1990s, and the radical Islamic renegades who lurk along the borders, plotting revenge.

But the gratitude for today's helping hand is tempered by the memory of yesterday's cold shoulder. After Soviet military forces withdrew in 1989, the United States virtually abandoned Afghanistan to its fate. If the World Trade Center and the Pentagon had not been attacked, there would not be thousands of U.S. troops on Afghan soil or millions of U.S. aid dollars flowing into the country. Now, as Washington's sights swing toward Iraq, Afghans fear they will be abandoned again, with a war-ruined economy and a weak government that is ill-equipped to contain the warring cliques that destroyed their country once before.

When Afghan President Hamid Karzai visited the United States last year, it was to bask in the warm relations between Washington and Kabul. When he returned last week, it was to remind his preoccupied patrons that his country still needs them. "We are nearly at the end of the forest, not outside of it," Karzai told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday.

If the United States were to invade Iraq, I fear the collateral damage would extend far beyond its borders. In Afghanistan and next-door Pakistan, it could leave the war on terrorism unfinished and weakened, and hand Islamic fundamentalist groups a new cause to champion in their permanent jihad against the West. Afghans and Pakistanis have little love for Saddam Hussein, but a unilateral American attack -- widely opposed in both countries -- could convert him into a hero among Islamic groups.

When I visited Washington in January, my first extended stay after four years of immersion in South Asian societies, I was struck by the black-and-white, us-versus-them terms in which the Western struggle against Islamic tyranny and terrorism was being portrayed. My own experiences in Afghanistan and Pakistan have given me a somewhat different perspective.

As Benjamin Barber wrote in his book "Jihad vs. McWorld," the real threat to the West is not Islam, nor even Islamic violence per se, but the unresolved struggle within Muslim societies between the forces of modernism and tradition, nation and tribe, religious moderation and extremism.

Both Afghanistan and Pakistan are torn. Their people are grateful for U.S. support but mistrustful of our staying power. They are enamored of Western technology and comforts, but suspicious of Western immodesty and freedom. They are publicly opposed to terrorism, but they identify emotionally with someone who rises to defend the Muslim faith, which many of their religious leaders continually assert is under siege across the globe.

Mir Aimal Kasi, the Pakistani man who gunned down two CIA employees in Virginia in 1993, was mourned as a martyr when his body was brought home last November after he was put to death in a Virginia prison. Tens of thousands thronged his funeral in Quetta, a traditional city near the Afghan border. Speakers eulogized a "hero of Islam," and even Pakistan's parliament was halted for a prayer in the capital.

But next to the funeral report in Dawn, Pakistan's most influential daily newspaper, another item caught my eye. It was an ad for a bank, showing a happy, modern Pakistani family -- unveiled mother, unbearded father, two kids in jeans -- shopping for computers and planning how to "reach for their dreams" with borrowed money.

In this part of the world, the clash of civilizations is not a battle between nations, but within them. In Pakistan, the outcome could still go either way. Most Pakistanis are poor and illiterate, with little but their religion and its champions to inspire them. They dream of living as we do, but they are easily persuaded -- by fiery clerics who connect the dubious dots between U.S. policy in Israel and Bosnia, Kashmir and Iraq -- that we seek to destroy the Muslim world.

Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, is trying to unite and modernize a society of deep social inequities, religious dichotomies and centrifugal pressures. He took an enormous gamble when he sided with the West against the Taliban, and he has paid a high domestic price. Islamic terrorism has continued to plague his country, while renegade Taliban and al Qaeda fighters find safe haven in its tribal areas.

Four months ago Pakistan's Islamic parties, long dismissed as fringe extremists, scored stunning victories in regional elections. In one province bordering Afghanistan, they took political control and promptly imposed Taliban-style bans on music and movies. Now they are warning of violent protests if the U.S. invades Iraq, and Musharraf is being squeezed once more between domestic and international pressures.

In Afghanistan, bitter memories of the Taliban and strong public support for continued Western involvement would seem, on the surface, to make the country resistant to an Islamic fundamentalist revival. But here, too, the battle between radical and moderate visions of Islam is far from over. The government is weak, divided and limited in its geographic reach, while an array of anti-Western forces are actively seeking opportunities to regroup.

Karzai and his aides are trying to strengthen democratic institutions, but the country's tribal and religious values remain closer to those of the Taliban than to those extolled by de Tocqueville. The supreme court, headed by an elderly Muslim cleric, has banned cable TV as un-Islamic, and a gentler version of the Taliban's feared religious police has been reconstituted to promote Islamic behavior. In rural areas, daily life is bound by conservative traditions that have changed little in centuries. However unlikely a fundamentalist revival might be in Afghanistan as a whole, in regions dominated by the majority Pashtun ethnic group that spawned the Taliban, a fundamentalist comeback is not hard to imagine. If Osama bin Laden were discovered hiding in a Pashtun village, and a squad of American troops tried to hustle him into a Humvee, local residents might be less than cooperative.

As the Bush administration prepares for an invasion of Iraq, it is banking on the same kind of public gratitude and collaboration it received from the Afghans, and undoubtedly many Iraqis would welcome being liberated from the grip of a personality cult wrapped in state terror.

But even if intended to shore up democracy in one Muslim country, a U.S. invasion of Iraq -- one that took thousands of lives and led to a prolonged foreign occupation -- could have the opposite effect in others. It could turn moderate Muslim groups against the West, and make it even more difficult for pro-American leaders like Karzai and Musharraf to deal with their internal problems of Islamic extremism, tribalism and ethnic violence.

In the Afghanistan of today, I am constantly being invited into people's homes for tea and cookies. If I were to return here in the wake of a U.S. attack on Iraq, I wonder if the welcome would be as open-armed, or if it would be safe to go out for tea at all. Pamela Constable is on leave from her assignment as The Post's Kabul correspondent. Her book, "Fragments of Grace: Personal Journeys Through South Asia," will be published next year.

Worried, but wired: Kabul residents pass by one of three Internet cafes that have opened in the Afghan capital in the past three months. Below, returning to normal: One of the 12 Afghan women to take a driver's license test in Afghanistan in more than a decade.