THE BAGHRAM FRONT, AFGHANISTAN — Their guns at their feet, the Islamic soldiers line up in single file on the dirt roof of their front-line bunker to pray for divine guidance and, of course, for victory.
The ritual finished, the men return to armored vehicles dug in behind earthen berms and 12.7-mm gun emplacements. A tank in a dirt pit revs its engines to shift positions, bathing the black-turbaned guerrillas of the Taliban movement in thick gray exhaust fumes.
These are the trenches in Afghanistan's long-running civil war. And it is here that the roots of the Taliban can be most clearly seen. The superstrict Islamist militia controls some 90 percent of the southwest Asian country that borders Pakistan, Iran, and former Soviet states Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan.
The twin pillars of Taliban rule - adherence to God through its version of Islamic law and a single-minded pursuit of winning the civil war - are evident. At these Spartan positions north of the capital, Kabul, the bunkers are made out of spent tank shells.
A rare visit by a Western journalist here, and to the movement's spiritual heartland to the south, Kandahar city, scene of the recent Indian Airlines hijacking by Kashmiri militants, provide a glimpse of the Taliban phenomenon.
A brutal offensive last summer against the opposition alliance led by Ahmed Shah Masoud, deemed at the time to be the Taliban's final push to take control of all Afghanistan, failed. But thick-bearded Taliban fighters here are undaunted.
"It is up to God, the merciful, but we are hopeful of victory," says Mullah Abdullah, a sharp-eyed local commander. "It depends upon Allah, but by the time you wink, they will be collapsed."
To their enemies, the Taliban are known as zoleman, or "oppressors and annoyers," after the messianic zeal with which they have sought to create a purely Islamic state. Tough dress codes and res-trictions on women working or studying above a certain level have resulted in notoriety in the West and among less religious Afghans. For refusing to hand over the alleged Saudi-born terrorist Osama bin Laden, indicted in New York for masterminding the twin bombings of US Embassies in East Africa in 1998, the United Nations imposed limited sanctions on the Taliban in November.
But since its fighters began their march to control the country in 1994, advancing from the dusty stronghold of Kandahar almost unopposed on a platform of ending the corruption and violence of local warlords, the Taliban have brought a degree of security unknown during the previous two decades of war.
"There were no rules before. Everywhere there was killing," says Habibullah Fouzi, a Taliban diplomat in Islamabad, Pakistan. "Now there is sharia [Islamic law] in all Afghanistan, and there is peace. We brought law and order. Why has there been no rebellion? It means people are happy with us."
Emerging from religious schools in Pakistan known as madrasas, the Taliban first had widespread support. Kandahar, a past imperial capital with a deep religious significance for many Afghans, was its natural base.
"The government that wants to rule through religion must emerge from Kandahar, and the Taliban did exactly that," says an Afghan scholar there, who asked not to be named. "I think the leaders of the Taliban have a very profound understanding of our society because they use this tool of Islam," he says. "Islam has a very effective hold on our people. Even if you are doing a bad deed, if you say it is Islamic, it is all right."
An Afghan spiritual leader freed Kandahar from Persia's Safavid rulers in 1711. The city's religious significance also revolves around a cloak purported to have belonged to the Muslim Prophet Muhammad. The icon has been on public display only three times - in each instance to legitimize rulers, including the Taliban.
The cloak normally rests inside a vault of streaked green and orange marble in an ornate building in the center of Kandahar. Afghan lore holds that only "true" leaders can turn the keys that open the several locked doors that lead to it.
The cloak was first brought to Kandahar from northern Afghanistan nearly 250 years ago, when the city was the capital of King Ahmed Shah Durani, whose empire stretched from parts of Persia to Kashmir - from today's Iran to northern Pakistan and India.
The cloak was brandished again in 1964 to help legitimize the rule of Zahir Shah, who built the elaborate, silver-doored Khergha Mobarak, or "Respectable Cloak Shrine."
It was the latest display, in 1994 by Taliban leader Mullah Omar, that still resonates in Afghanistan. Kandahar was one of the most notoriously lawless towns in the country until the Taliban arrived. At a rally, the one-eyed commander-cleric wore the cloak - "a gamble" says one UN official. If it had gone wrong, the Taliban leader could have been shot.
"The Taliban had a very ideological beginning and the support of the people, and their purity was the source of their legitimacy," says a Western relief worker with years of experience in Afghanistan. "But the sheen is wearing off. Restrictions have been imposed five years, and there are tribal divisions emerging."
The Taliban's advance from 1994 was accompanied by an aura of invincibility. In their wake was a trail of corrupt warlords, hanged from lampposts with money spilling out of their pockets. But local opposition commanders often were bought off, requiring little fighting. The practice has led to problems of loyalty.
"Traditionally, land was taken in deals, so the core Taliban movement had to take in people who ... went to their side, but really, in their heart, were not Taliban," says another Western relief official in Kabul. "Now, those deals must be redone, and there are divisions. There is a saying here: 'You can never buy an Afghan, only rent him.'"
Analysts say that the Taliban has "moved beyond" the cloak, and officials downplay its role. But many Afghans are tired of the continued hardship of the war when what they really want is for life to return to normal.
"When the Taliban came they promised security, and delivered. But if nothing follows, they lose slowly," the relief official adds.
"The problem for Afghans is they don't know any alternative. Let's be honest: Nobody wants Masoud back - his people destroyed Kabul, not the Taliban."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society