By Alistair Scrutton
KABUL (Reuters) - There are gun battles in the heart of Kabul, dithering about how to engage hardline Islamists, the looming withdrawal of a powerful foreign army, an unpopular president and shifting political alliances between factional leaders.
For many Afghans, the situation in the capital is a gloomy reminder of the turbulent years leading up to the Soviet retreat in 1989 and the chaotic, dirty civil war that followed.
They fear the buzzword on the lips of foreign diplomats and the military, "transition," is little more than a public relations tactic to cover a polite rush to the exit, that they have seen before.
"If we miss further opportunities in the coming few years there is a serious risk that Afghanistan could go back to the old days," said Abdullah Abdullah, a former anti-Taliban leader and foreign minister and now opposition figurehead whose life has spanned several dark decades of war in Afghanistan.
President Barack Obama announced last month a phased withdrawal of combat troops, tied in with a handover to Afghan security forces. Critics warn those forces are not ready, despite years of training and billions in foreign funding.
They also fear that efforts to reach out to the Taliban will be hasty, and any peace deal fragile and half-baked. At stake are the freedoms won since 2001, especially for women. If civil war returns, even more could be lost.
Abdullah, who was President Hamid Karzai's main opponent in the 2009 presidential election, boasts a grey-flecked beard he jokes will likely be entirely white by 2014.
"The PR part of it is very different from the real perception and belief, when you talk and engage diplomats who otherwise would endorse the process of reconciliation. In real terms they would admit the chances are very slim."
In Kabul, "transition" is the talking point for NATO officials and diplomats eager to show that billions of dollars poured into Afghanistan since 2001 have been well spent, and political change will be lasting.
"There is a lot of wishful thinking going around at the moment," said one senior diplomat, who asked not to be identified.
A raid this week on the Intercontinental Hotel, when nine Taliban suicide bombers breached one of Kabul's most heavily guarded sites, underscored worries Afghan security forces were still weak. Ending the battle required a NATO helicopter.
Politics are volatile, with Karzai accused of autocratic tendencies and former warlords forging an anti-Karzai alliance.
Regionally, neighbors are lining up for a repeat of the "Great Game," the Victorian-era power struggle over the area. Pakistan, Iran and Central Asian states that border Afghanistan have dealings with both Kabul and insurgents, and much at stake.
Even if security holds, the sheer problems of Afghanistan -- poverty, corruption and lack of basic governance and justice -- could be just too much for a government that will face a dramatic drop in funding from the West as soldiers depart.
There is also a risk that pessimism becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, strengthening the Taliban who know the United States is leaving and feeding political turmoil as leaders vie for power, and survival, in a brave, new post-2014 Afghan world.
"One thing is on the record," said Thomas Ruttig, co-director of the Kabul-based Afghanistan Analysts Network and one of the foremost experts on Afghanistan.
"I often hear off-the-record from diplomats and non-diplomats 'let's just go home and forget'. It's a rush to the exit doors."
"THE TALIBAN WILL RETURN"
Despite a surge in U.S. troops that has brought the number of foreign soldiers in Afghanistan to close to 150,000, and restored security to some of the most violence-racked parts of the country, many Afghans think the calm cannot last.
"We know that the Taliban will come back if the government and the foreigners will leave," said Haji Lalai, a shopkeeper in Kandahar, the southern heart of the surge effort.
"The Taliban are already back, in many areas the day belongs to the government and foreigners but the night belongs to Taliban. The announcement on withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan will give a morale boost to the Taliban."
Assassination figures for Kandahar city appear to bear out his fears. They accounted for over half of all such killings in Afghanistan in the last three months, a UN report said.
In Kabul, which has seen years of relative security and where the foreign military, diplomats and aid workers have flooded the economy with cash, those fears are also strong.
"We are scared this is all going to return to civil war," said 76-year-old Fazal Ahmad, who has sold quails in Kabul's old bird market to royalists, Russians, Taliban and now aid workers.
He lost a younger brother and nephew in a rocket attack in the 1990s civil war. "Nobody knows the future, except Allah."
(Additional reporting by Ismail Sameem; Editing by Emma Graham-Harrison and Robert Birsel)