KABUL, Afghanistan — It was a rare moment in international diplomacy. Farid Ahmad Mazdak, the third most powerful official in a nation that has been at virtual war with the United States for more than a decade, had invited two American journalists to an informal Friday lunch in the sitting room of his Kabul apartment.
His flat, a fourth floor walk-up, was vintage Stalinism, one of dozens of cubic-drab apartment blocks erected by the Soviets in the 1970s to house the thousands of advisers and Red Army commanders who ran this remote, South Asian nation as an occupied satellite for more than a decade.
And, at 34, Mazdak's political education was vintage Kremlin--Marx, Lenin and the world according to Moscow.
But at that extraordinary lunch--an Islamic holy day feast of kebabs, stuffed peppers and Pepsi-Cola--the subject was Hollywood and American movies.
" 'Rambo' is the most popular here, no doubt about it," Mazdak commented through an interpreter, to a chorus of agreement from the Afghan Foreign Ministry "guides" who must accompany Western journalists to such functions.
"Especially 'Rambo III'--the one that takes place here in Afghanistan," one guide chimed in. "It's the one where Sylvester Stallone kills all the Russians and blows up their tanks. It's a wonderful scene. Everyone here loves that one."
As the encounter in Mazdak's apartment suggests, perceptions of America are changing in Afghanistan despite 12 years of civil war in which billions of dollars in U.S. weaponry have been used trying to destroy the pro-Moscow government. Even in regime-held strongholds like Kabul, officials as well as ordinary people are increasingly looking not to Moscow but to America as their potential savior.
In dozens of interviews, Afghans ranging from teachers to pro-Soviet President Najibullah demonstrated a reservoir of goodwill and respect for the same Americans whose tax dollars continue to finance the moujahedeen rebel rockets that rain on the capital, killing scores of civilians each month.
"We are in favor of maintaining, ensuring, good relations with the United States as a great, civilized country of the world," Najibullah told The Times, when asked the future of U.S.-Afghan relations. "The U.S. financial, cultural and technical assistance can help our people in the rehabilitation of our war-stricken land.
"Now, it depends only on how the United States of America reacts toward us."
Throughout the interview, there was none of the fiery, anti-American rhetoric that once characterized Najibullah and his Homeland Party (formerly the People's Democratic Party). If anything, there was only the highest respect for what the president called "America's exalted values of democracy, freedom and human rights" and a major pitch for a new era of friendship based on the reforms he asserts are being made in his once-brutal regime.
In fact, much of the recent goodwill toward the United States in this fiercely independent mountain nation actually stems from its support for the regime's enemy, the moujahedeen, whose guerrilla war forced the Soviet army to withdraw a 110,000-man occupation force after nearly a decade of intervention.
Most Afghans, even at the highest official levels, now despise the Soviets for abuses that included the carpet bombing of their villages in an effort to "save" them. And this new-found respect is embodied in the very image of Rambo, charging into Soviet military camps in the rugged Afghan countryside, taking on Soviet MI-24 attack helicopters with his bare hands and liberating the Afghans from the clutches of the superpower to the north.
For most Afghans, the new view of America is far less official than Najibullah's and far more emotional. For some, it is an image predating the Soviet-backed Communist revolution that overthrew Afghanistan's long-ruling monarchy--a friendship dating back to the "good days of the '60s," when U.S. development aid flooded into Kabul, along with tens of thousands of freedom-seeking youth from Bakersfield to Boston who made Kabul a key destination on the Asian hippie trail.
For others, America is only an abstract--a distant land of peace where anything is possible under a concept called freedom that few Afghans actually can comprehend.
Four Star Gen. Mohammed Nabi Azimi, the regime's deputy defense minister and commander of the Kabul garrison, for example, beamed when a visiting American journalist recently asked him whether he was tired of fighting after 12 years of battle.
"Are you inviting me to America for a rest?" asked the general, laughing and explaining through a translator that he speaks fluent Russian, after two years at a Soviet war college, but only a few words of English.
"Well, I'm happy to go. I have never seen the United States of America. But I love the people of America. I'd like to learn English to understand more. It's a progressive country, and they have very kind people."