Afghanistan

A eroquet match was in progress on the lawns of Her Britannic Majesty's embassy in Kabul last week when the tanks rolled in to town. The Soveit ambassador was knee-deep in a chilly trout stream in the foothills of the Hindu Kush.

And Mildred Duckworth, Vera Garner-Howe and two dozen more graying members of an "art treasures" vacation group were innocently making their way up the Khyber Pass.

Affairs of state, especially in these parts, can be infuriatingly fickle things, catching people quite unawares.

Only eight days ago news agencies were sending urgent reports of a "pro-Soviet" coup and grim-faced soldiers stood athwart the gates of embassies turning back the diplomats who wanted to venture out of assess the violence then under way. The foreigners retreated back to the upper floors of their chanceries to interpret the columns of smoke - and the bodies in the streets.

NOW THE TANKS have rumbled off and Kabul is beginning to return to normal. While ambassadors are still hard at work at their desks reporting on the mysteries of Premier Nur Mohammed Taraki and his new government, Miss Duckworth is happily off poking round the tombs and mosques that litter this region of Central Asia.

The streets are choked once more - coups always have the splendidly cleansing effect of removing all traffic for a couple of days - and the bazaars and camel markets and hippie centers for which Kabul is renowned are as busy as ever.

It has been a frustrating sort of event to cover, worse than most, say the inevitable clutch of journalistic coup-collectors who are here. The worst thing of all has been the telex office: bullet-headed men there seem to spend most of some days writing little notes to supplicating reporters.

"This will never pass," said one given to a crestfallen man from an American news agency.

"Regret that due to heavy transmission we cannot send this message for one week," said another.

What is most galling of all is to see the man from the Soveit agency, Tass, and the cigar-smoking reporter from Prensa Latina, Havana, march in with their reams of verbiage and have it telexed in seconds flat.

THEY TOOK THE manager of our hotel away yesterday. He was married to one of the former king's sisters, it seems, and a blue-suited man with a gun took him off for a little talk just after breakfast. He came back later to collect his bags - and his wife. The hotel staff lined up for a tearful farewell at the reception desk.

Then they went back to work, trying to figure out how best to arrange the 20 persons staying in a 400-bed palace. Things are very quiet just now, the new manager said.

THE NEW GOVERNMENT is playing rather hard to get. Up until now the only contact we have had has been by telehone from the guard-room at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with a man who says he is far too busy to talk, but says it about 20 times, as if that is the only duty he is busying himself with. Early yesterday, however, a typewritten note came up to the hotel:

Would everyone write his or her questions down on a piece of paper, hand it to the guard outside the ministry "and we shall see what can be done."

It may be a week before there is a press conference and Premier Taraki lifts the veils.

WERE THIS A less pleasant city, someone might be getting a little impatient.

Impatience, though, is not an Afghan quality - in politics as in everything else. Although a few do involve themselves in rather unpleasant violent sports. One involves throwing a beheaded goat around for half an afternoon, and is a great crowd-puller.

The predominant atmosphere is of practiced somnolence, of lazing gently in the Afghan sun, waiting idly for nothing in particular to happen.

It infects us all, and we can all quite understand why the British head of chancery, who a week ago was in a state of rare excitement, was yesterday pursuing a task much more suited to the daily round in Kabul. No telegrams, no codes, no furtive meetings with newly appointed ministers.

Instead he was mending his bicycle.

It is the ideal job to be doing when the next Afghan coup comes along, which, like this last, will be gently absorbed and forgotten in the sandy obscurity of this magnificently sleepy land.