Only a few days ago the fierce gusts that regularly swirl up from Afghanistan, clouding the streets and air here with a gritty dust, suddenly vanished.

For Tajiks, that's the only good news lately from Afghanistan.

Otherwise the fighting has been a rapidly expanding nightmare for them. They worry that the war just south of them might rile their own Islamic militants and send thousands of Afghan refugees, fleeing hunger and mayhem, across their border.

Such possibilities especially worry them because they only recently have begun to emerge from a five-year civil war that left Tajikistan politically shaky, impoverished and facing a famine within months unless foreign donors come to the rescue.

"The war already is no good for Tajikistan," economist Abdul Nasser Mardonova said as he wandered through the sprawling Green Market in the heart of Dushanbe, Tajikistan's capital. "Look around, prices are going up daily," said the businessman, nodding toward hushed stalls with few buyers.

The disadvantages of war are many for this mountainous nation of about 6.5 million. Even as Tajik and American officials discuss a role for the Tajiks in the U.S. campaign against terrorism, they face doubts about the wisdom of it at all. So far the Tajiks have balked at housing U.S. troops, unlike neighboring Uzbekistan.

Poor and unstable

Since the Soviet Union's collapse a decade ago, Tajikistan has lumbered along as the poorest and probably the most politically unstable of the five independent states that rose up in Central Asia. More than four of five Tajiks today live under the poverty level, and the average per capita income is no more than $250 a year, according to the United Nations.

More than 50,000 died in the civil war waged between warlords, clan leaders, gangsters and Islamic radicals, among others. In the past decade, Tajikistan also became a major highway for drugs--mostly heroin--that have been pouring out of Afghanistan. Even with a cease-fire, banditry and lawlessness are rife. Political violence persists, often fed by regional rivalries and religious fervor.

Its 800-mile-long border with Afghanistan has made Tajikistan an escape route for Afghans. But the Tajiks have largely kept their doors shut, saying their economy cannot shoulder any more crises.

More than 10,000 Afghans who fled from the Taliban's control live in a cramped no-man's-land, where relief agencies fear to go because of the weapons there. Though perched on Tajikistan's border, the Afghans say they will return home only when peace reigns.

Heavy Russian troop presence

Tajikistan's insurance policy against the upheaval in Afghanistan has been the long-term deployment of about 25,000 Russian troops north of its border with Afghanistan. The responsibility falls upon the 201st Motor-Rifle Division, which saw heavy action during the Soviet Union's failed occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.

The deal that ended the civil war in 1997 saw political power divided among leaders reared in the Soviet school of secular politics and others rooted in Islamic issues. But the overriding differences came from the leaders' clan identities. And the peace seemed to still be holding with President Emomali Rakhmonov's overwhelming re-election in 1999.

But officials from the UN and other organizations worry that the political gains will be wiped aside if the already feeble economy suffers any more as a result of the fighting in Afghanistan.

"What this country needs is continued peace and security to get on with its changes," said Mathew Kahane, the UN representative for Tajikistan.

Unfortunately, the worst drought in 70 years seems likely to hurt the mostly agricultural economy and produce even more hardship.

"We think that 1 million people will be facing a serious food problem come January. A famine is looming," said Ardag Meghessian, head of the effort in Tajikistan for the World Food Program, a UN agency.

Not much of a public ruckus has been raised about the war in Afghanistan, and that is due mostly to the stiff clampdown the government uses to control the news media, religious groups and opposition politicians.