"Too many Russians," a cab driver woefully said in broken English as his car slowly followed a truck full of Soviet soldiers. "Afghanistan finished. Part of Russia now."
But while the presence of the Soviet troops has fueled popular resentment against the government they installed, many Soviet soldiers seem unaware of the real reason they are here.
On the outskirts of Kabul, Soviet soldiers at a base camp told several reporters who managed to enter that they were on alert against an American invasion.
And despite continued reports of clashes in the northern provinces between Soviet troops and Moslem rebels and the efforts to tighten security after the slaying of 10 to 15 Soviet soldiers by angry Afghans in Kabul since the Dec. 27 coup, the guards at some key installations occupied by Soviets in the city seem somewhat lax and bewildered.
That some of the Soviet occupiers posted in Kabul have little to do now that the city is largely quiet was shown by an incident along a wide avenue next to a park. There a Soviet soldier, armed with his Kalashnikov rifle, was inexplicably climbing a tree as a companion on the ground grinned up at him. When a reporter approached to take a picture, the companion began visibly turning red with embarrassment and the soldier in the tree hastily began to climb down.
When he realized he was not going to make it down in time, he adopted a pose of standing watch in the tree as the camera clicked away.
At the People's House presidential palace, a Russian-speaking British journalist and I were able to enter the heavily guarded grounds unescorted after a brief conversation with Soviet soldiers at the main gate.
One Soviet guard, his rifle slung over his shoulder and wearing a Soviet Army winter greatcoat and shapka hat, stood casually outside the large iron gate trying to buy cigarettes from an Afghan street urchin.
Once inside, we walked down a long driveway past other Soviet soldiers and a light tank pointed toward the entrance. On the other side of an archway between two of the palace buildings several more light Soviet tanks and military vehicles were parked. Unarmed Afghan soliders walked around aimlessly, apparently with nothing to do.
Outside one arched entrance to a palace building sat a black, polished Chevrolet Nova evidently used as a limousine. Inside, up one flight of stairs, we ran into two Soviet soldiers standing guard on either side of a closed double door. They referred our inquiry about the time and place of a presidential press conference to another room down the hall.
In answer to our knock, the door opened to a roomful of men in Afghan Army uniforms sitting around drinking tea and smoking cigarettes. One of them apparently a Soviet adviser, told us in colloquial Russian that we had come to the wrong place and that the Afghan president was living elsewhere. He also wore an Afghan soldier's uniform and a battered Afghan Army cap.
An Afghan soldier then came out and directed us to the next flight up, where an Afghan major, apparently somewhat taken aback by our presence in the palace, politely told us in good English to take our inquiry to the president's residence at Chilsitoon, southwest of the city.
On our way out, one of two Soviet soldiers guarding a light tank stopped to chat about the camera my colleague was carrying, inquiring how much it cost and where one could buy film in Kabul. He said he had been in Afghanistan "half a month" and did not know when he would be leaving.
Another soldier at the gate said he arrived less than a week ago or sometime after last month's coup. Asked where he was from, he said, "I'm not supposed to tell you that." Like the other Soviet soldiers there and elsewhere in and around the city, he wore no visible insignial on his uniform except for a Soviet Army badge on his cap with a red star and hammer and sickle.
The Soviet guards included both European and Asian Soviets, most of them apparently about 18 to 20 years old. They seemed bored and willing to chat with anyone who happened along.
At the hilltop Bala Hissar fortress, security was somewhat more stringent.
Soviet guards at the entrance to a road leading up to the ancient fort refused to let us pass after consulting a superior.
"Our unit is up there," one explained.
Formerly held by the Afghan Army, the fort was the scene of a mutiny against the government in August. Soviet pilots flying rocket-firing MI24 helicopter gunships were called into action to put down the rebellion in a four-hour battle, according to diplomats here.
The Soviets disarmed Afghan artillery and air defense systems at the fort shortly before the coup and took it over afterward, the sources said.
"Welcome to the land of the new-model revolution," reads the sign at the Afghan border crossing on the road from Peshawar, Pakistan, To Kabul.
At the other end of the bus line another sign in the Afghan capital recalls a bygone era.
"Collie labour: 2 Afghanis [about 5 cents] per piece over 60 kilos," it says. The charge is for loading baggage onto the roof of the ramshackle bus that plies a breathtaking route between Kabul and Peshawar.
The efforts of this country's new Soviet-imposed rulers to transform Afghanistan into a communist state have run up against a more traditional way of doing things.
But except for the slogans and other trappings of a government dedicated to Soviet-style Marxism, there seems to have been little social change here since what is officially referred to as the "Great Saur Revolution" in April 1973 when the nonaligned leftist president Mohammed Daoud was toppled and slain by the first of a series of communist leaders. Saur refers to the Afghan month of the coup.
Camel caravans -- although smaller than they formerly were -- still plod along provincial roads to conduct trade between outlying villages. The bazaar in Kabul, its unpaved alleys thick with mud from melted snow, still bustles with the private enterprise of hundreds of decrepit hole-in-the-wall shops. Afghan men with craggy faces and wearing turbans and long striped chapan robes continue to eke out their livings from small-time trade or farming in the towns and villages. And many women still cloak themselves with veils that conceal their faces behind a closely woven grille-work of cloth.
For many Afghans, preserving these traditions has become a matter of independence and resistance to what they regard as foreign domination in the form of a Soviet-installed government.
The country the Soviets were sent to occupy contains some of the most rugged terrain in the world and some of the most spectacular scenery.
Kabul in some ways resembles an oriental version of Dodge City, Kan. in the 1880s. Most of the older buildings are squat one-or two-story structures made of sun-dried bricks and mud. An ugly hodgepodge of newer buildings -- the tallest is six stories high -- make the city look like an underdeveloped copy of Tehran, Iran, whose modernization was fueled by oil money.
Kabul sits in a basin nearly 5,800 feet above sea level and is surrounded on all sides by snow-capped mountains. A series of lower peaks divides the city, and mud houses built on their sides in the poor quarters at least have the advantage of affording nice views.
East of the capital, an American-built car winds through the Kabul Gorge, that cuts through a series of jagged, rocky peaks above a meandering tributary of the Kabul River. In places where the road has been etched into the mountainsides, there are sheer drops of hundreds of feet down the rockface that make the famed Khyber Pass on the Pakistan side of the border look like a gully.
Wrecked buses and cars left on the roadside stand as monuments to warn motorists against death-defying driving on the sharp, hairpin turns.
Farther down the road toward Pakistan, the scenery changes drastically. Lakes dot the sun-warmed valleys east of Kabul and villagers can be seen hard at work in rice fields.