Are countries such as the United States, which lavished billions of dollars on weapons and munitions for anti-Communist Muslim fighters in the Afghan war, ready now to pony up the money to pay for peace here?
The answer may determine whether a new, still-incomplete plan for ending 15 years of armed strife in Afghanistan, announced Wednesday by U.N. special envoy Mahmoud Mestiri, has a realistic chance of survival.
Two days after the deadline of a previous plan for the reorganization of civil authority in Afghanistan came and went with nothing happening, Mestiri announced that he had secured a firm pledge from beleaguered President Burhanuddin Rabbani to resign by March 21.
Mestiri, the former Tunisian foreign minister, told a news conference that he hoped that time would bring "a new mechanism for the transfer of power."
But Afghanistan's tumultuous, violent history and events this week prompted a great deal of skepticism, as did Mestiri's admission that details of the new civil order being proposed for Afghanistan under U.N. auspices remain to be worked out.
Meanwhile, a high-ranking foreign humanitarian official with contacts nationwide reported combatants on the move from east to west in the face of the threat of the Taliban, a new and mysterious force made up largely of Muslim students.
Ismail Kahn, the warlord who rules much of western Afghanistan, appears to be so concerned about the Taliban that he has transferred 2,000 troops to move on Kandahar, the group's stronghold in the southeast, if the Muslim students attempt to attack Kabul, the aid official said. In the eastern city of Jalalabad, the shura , or governing council, has mobilized 1,000 fighters, the official said.
Kabul was relatively quiet Wednesday, although the dull thud of rocket explosions could be heard as members of the Shiite Hezb-i-Wahdat militia, which occupies much of the city's southwest, dueled with pro-government forces.
Mestiri said he had received a verbal commitment for an informal cease-fire from commanders loyal to Rabbani as negotiations proceed. The Taliban also "promised not to obstruct," he said, suggesting that he had received a similar promise from them.
On Monday, Rabbani was supposed to relinquish the office to which he was elected for a two-year term in December, 1992, but he reneged on that promise.
U.N. sources said the former university theologian insisted that representatives of the Taliban, whose objectives in the Afghan conflict remain disputed and unclear, be part of the new interim council to which he was supposed to cede power.
But the Taliban flatly declined. The group denounced Rabbani and other leaders of the country and the nine warring Muslim militia as criminals who had betrayed the ideals of the victorious 12 1/2-year struggle against the Soviet-imposed rulers of this country.
The Taliban's intransigence, and the arrival of its white-turbaned fighters only 10 miles from the capital on Feb. 13, ensured the collapse of Mestiri's original peace proposal.
To attempt to iron out the remaining differences between Rabbani and the Taliban in the coming months, Mestiri appointed a four-member working group of Afghan exiles, chaired by former Justice Minister Abdul Sattar Siart, 58, a university professor of Islamic law in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.
"We are going to find a way to include the demands of the Taliban," Mestiri emphatically said. "That's why the working group is going to have hard work to do."
There appear to be two main, and possibly insoluble, problems. One involves putting together an acceptable "mechanism," as the U.N. envoy on an 11-month-old mediation mission in Kabul described it, that would assume authority from Rabbani and lay the groundwork for a new national government.
The other problem is creating a security force to protect the new regime in a land badly polarized by a decade and a half of warfare and where hundreds of thousands of young men know no trade but fighting and banditry.
The latter may be the crux of the matter, especially since the Taliban has demanded that a neutral force take over in the capital from the fighters of the Jamaat-i-Islami militia, which is loyal to Rabbani.
In a report to the U.N. General Assembly on Nov. 22, Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali proposed the creation of a neutral security force to assume control of heavy weaponry in Afghanistan.
He suggested a "trust fund" be created so foreign donor nations could bankroll the Afghan force.
U.N. officials in Kabul said they envision an army of 20,000 soldiers in place for four years; the force could cost $40 million to $50 million a year.
Whether the moujahedeen , an intense, warring group in the country's north that is headed by a former Communist general, could accept such a threat to their power remains unclear. And, if they were involved, the Taliban would certainly object.
Another member of the group of exiles, Sultan Mahmoud Ghazi, a cousin of the exiled Afghan king who now lives in Alexandria, Va., said the neutral force was vital to peace in Afghanistan.
"We need a security force to protect the government against any force from abroad," said Ghazi, 69. "I hope that friendly governments, those that really want peace in Afghanistan, help in creating the security force."
Charles Santos, Mestiri's political adviser, stressed the importance of securing foreign money for a venture that he said was unparalleled in U.N. history.
"There has to be some financial commitment to this new government or it is going to have problems," Santos said.
He acknowledged that his organization's peacekeeping operations, which spend about $5 billion a year, are becoming increasingly controversial.
But by asking for foreign money alone, and not troops, Santos said, Afghanistan would not become yet another burden on the United Nations' already overtaxed effort.