KABUL UNIVERSITY mirrors much of the ideological warfare that convulses Afghanistan. Two decades ago, this cool, shaded campus was the hotbed for left-wing reform and the communist movement that triggered a chain of events: the 1978 Marxist coup; the Muslim uprising; and the Soviet military occupation at shoring up the communist government. Students who squared off in political agitations now lead the pro-Soviet Kabul regime as well as the mujahideen guerrillas fighting Kabul.
Foreign observers say that much of Afghanistan's 11-year conflict is rooted in the political vortex of Kabul University. Even before King Mohammed Zahir Shah was deposed in 1973, the Afghan communists, many of them teachers and professors, were building their movement in this intellectual island, set apart from the conservative Islamic mainstream.
Afghanistan observers agree that the communists exploited student agitations and discontent over feudal attitudes and widespread poverty to overthrow Gen. Sardar Mohammed Daoud in 1978. Just after the uprising, the crackdown at the university began. In the turmoil leading up to the Soviet invasion in December 1979, many faculty and students were arrested and imprisoned.
``I was thrown out nine days after the coup and replaced by a member of the party,'' recalls Abdul Azimi, the university's former president who now lives in exile in Peshawar, Pakistan. ``Within one and a half years, I had left the country.''
Today, like much of this Afghan capital, the university wears a calm that masks deep unease. As students and professors stroll the campus, many others are secretly fleeing the country, its harsh living conditions, and the possibility of being drafted into the Army.
For those who remain, there is only uncertainty. Pockets of dissidents await a guerrilla offensive and hope the Kabul government will collapse. Many have opted for the tough life in Kabul because they say life in Pakistan's refugee camps is bleaker and they could be forced to fight for fundamentalist guerrilla groups based there.
The university, founded in 1932, is a shadow of its former self. Hundreds of Afghan intellectuals have been killed, imprisoned, or fled abroad during the turmoil of the last decade, professors say. Students complain that teaching and grading standards have deteriorated, and admissions and faculty promotions politicized.
Since the final pullout of Soviet troops in February, the overt Russian bent of the curriculum has been dropped. And like President Najibullah, the academics from his ruling party who run the institution play down the Soviet influence and renew Western ties.
Still, renewal at Kabul University remains clouded by civil war.
``There's an inertia. No one knows what to do - professors, students, administrators - because of the economic situation and the security problems,'' says Wajid Adil, an agriculture lecturer who recently fled to Pakistan.
Today, there are 9,500 students, more than half of them women, and 580 teachers. That's two-thirds the size of the institution before the coup. Afghans in Peshawar say that 50 percent of the 950 faculty members in 1978 either disappeared or fled abroad.
``Unfortunately, we have been faced with the terrible phenomenon of lecturers fleeing,'' says Kamran Homayun, the university's chancellor, who was educated in the United States. ``When war breaks out in a country, the intelligentsia is more sensitive and the first part of the society to react.''
In the past two months, 15 top academics at the university secretly slipped away from Kabul to resurface in Pakistan. The exodus was apparently spawned less by political reasons than by the tough conditions in the Afghan capital and worries that the lecturers, who have a partial exemption from military duty, might be pressed into Army service.
``The situation was very tense in Kabul. It was no longer tolerable,'' says Hamidullah Amin, a British-trained professor and former dean of humanities. He left his family behind and took a grueling, circuitous route to avoid fighting and reach Peshawar.
However, Kabul intellectuals say that opting for exile in Pakistan is also an uncertain choice. Many are weary of the war and the police state. But they say they also are uneasy about powerful mujahideen fundamentalists who want to impose their own brand of extremism on Afghanistan.
Kabul University intellectuals head or work closely with the Afghan political parties in Peshawar. But others have gone overseas after being harassed by fundamentalists or lured by opportunities in the West.
Last year, Professor Sayyed Majrooh, director of the Afghan Information Center in Peshawar and a political moderate, was assassinated. Observers blamed the murder on extremist groups.
The pro-Moscow regime erred by trying to impose a foreign ideology on a conservative, hostile population, observers say. But some intellectuals warn that reshaping Afghan society according to the dictates of conservative Muslim leaders is equally foolish.
`SOME of the intellectuals scattered around the world would be willing to come back. But the question is to what kind of homeland should they return?'' says an Afghan intellectual who has been in Peshawar since 1980. ``Afghans are Muslims. No one should doubt that. But in Afghan society, it is very hard to impose a dictatorship, no matter what kind it is.''
Like President Najibullah, the regime-dominated administration at the university is holding out offers of reconciliation to intellectuals in exile.
The institution continues to send large numbers of lecturers to the Soviet Union and other socialist countries for special courses. But the Soviet faculty advisers are gone, and the Soviet curriculum, including Marxist history and economics, disappeared with the troops. University officials claim that promotions are now free from political interference and say they will step aside for a new administration chosen in elections.
``We are saying, `Come and join new elections,'''says Dr. Homayun, who is a member of the ruling party. ``But we will not tolerate our opponents and their supporters imposing something on us in advance.''
However, reflecting the mujahideen refusal to deal with the Najibullah government, academics in exile say they will not return as long as the present university hierarchy remains in power. And there are growing worries that many intellectuals, now resettled in the West, will not return at all.
``In the last 10 years, we've lost everything in education,'' says Dr. Azimi, the former university president. ``It will be extremely difficult to rebuild soon. It's not like construction of a building or a road. Those you can rebuild easily. But education takes time.''