ITS members are young and dedicated, if not fanatical. And although the Islamic youth army known as the Taliban was recently forced to retreat from the outskirts of Kabul, its reputation remains high for being able to capture more of Afghanistan in nine months than the Soviet Army could in a decade.
Little has been known about this mysterious army, whose swift, sweeping advance across southern Afghanistan once threatened to rid this mountainous nation of its post-communist, three-year standoff between competing ethnic warlords.
To the outside world, especially the West, the Taliban appeared to be on the verge of converting another nation to hard-line Islamic rule through a jihad-like military juggernaut.
But the reality is something less than that, although Taliban may remain a force to contend with as United Nations officials try to put together a peace plan.
The reasons for the Taliban's failure to capture Kabul in February may lie in that fact that the movement is built more on religious rage of a few Islamic leaders than the military might of yet another Afghan tribal group.
Origins of group
Mullah Mohammad Ghraus, a founding and current ruling council member of Taliban, offered some insight into how the movement began. He was interviewed in the back of a Buick Skylark near Kabul.
Last July, a petty warlord allegedly raped and murdered three women in Kandahar, Afghanistan's second largest city. The event sparked local outrage. An Islamic preacher, Maulvi Mohammad Umar, who heard of the incident rounded up several dozen Taliban, or religious students, who executed the alleged perpetrator.
Residents cheered their action, though most expected the slain man's followers to retaliate. Instead, deferring to Maulvi Umar's religious status, the slain man's followers surrendered their weapons. As news of the incident spread, Taliban were soon called on to redress other injustices, which they responded to with similar success. Umar then organized a series of secret meetings with other preachers in Kandahar, including Mullah Ghraus, to institutionalize his movement.
''We met in the suburbs of Kandahar in different mud houses. We were afraid of being caught but knew that we had to do something for the people,'' Ghraus remembers. ''The situation in Kandahar was very bad at the time,'' the affable gray-bearded man remarked. ''Most of the [original] members had fought in the jihad [war with the occupying Soviet troops].''
As a result, the Taliban movement was born with the promise to rid Afghanistan of the resistance groups that had fought the Soviet occupation and later fought among themselves or turned to pillage and rape. Taliban also promised to bring ''genuine'' Islamic rule to Afghanistan.
The group's first operation took place sometime in September when they instructed a notorious commander along the Kandahar Road to abandon his checkpost at which he had been levying exorbitant tariffs. When the commander refused, about 100 Taliban attacked -- with all the fervor of religious purpose -- and killed several of his men.
In the month following, the Taliban were able to take over 25 to 30 more checkposts along the Kandahar road. This freed the major highway, which had long been under the anarchic grip of militia leaders.
Soon after, Ghraus admits that the Taliban were contacted by Pakistan's interior minister, Nasrullah Barbar. Mr. Naseerullah asked for help in freeing a waylaid Pakistani truck convoy headed for Turkmenistan, Ghraus claims.
Although Ghraus, like others in the movement, deny it, it was at this point that the youth army is said to have begun receiving significant financial backing from Pakistani intelligence forces.
''Who else but the Pakistanis could have given them such support?'' asks one knowledgeable European observer. ''They have tanks, they have artillery. The money must come from Pakistan,'' he concludes.
Many observers here believe that a faction in the Pakistani Army, frustrated about being cut off from the emerging markets in Central Asia due to the ongoing war in Afghanistan, decided to adopt Umar's fledgling movement as a means of opening the road from Pakistan.
Soon after that the Taliban, then numbering about 200 to 300, marched on Kandahar. ''Most parts of the city resisted, and had to be captured militarily,'' says Ghraus.
By November the Taliban had set up governments in Kandahar and soon extended control into neighboring Helmand, Zabul, and Urozgan provinces. ''Since 95 percent of the people were supporting us, it didn't take long to capture those provinces,'' Ghraus remembers.
As they settled down to governing, most observers thought the group would be fortunate if they could hold on to their captured territory. It was at this time that three factors came into play that transformed the Taliban from a regional movement into a national force.
r The decision by Afghan Defense Minister Ahmad Shah Massoud to give the group political and military support, in the hope they would help take on his nemesis and rival -- Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Mr. Hekmatyar is widely held responsible for the siege of Kabul since 1992 that has resulted in the deaths of about 20,000 people.
r The decision of many educated Afghani exiles, mainly in Pakistan, to join Umar's ''peace army.''
r An unprecedented fatwa, or Islamic verdict, issued by a Pakistani mullah authorizing the Taliban to declare war on anyone who ''blocked the roads or even bothered other Muslims.''
Energized by the infusion of new followers and the decree, Taliban forces numbering about 2,000 marched north, capturing Ghazni and Midonshar. The youth army was quickly picking up new recruits. The great majority were uneducated youths of the Pashtun tribe but some were former fighters against the Soviet occupation.
The group soon reached Hekmatyar's headquarters in Charosyab on the outskirts of the capital to find his forces had left. Once the group settled in and their rigid Islamic views became known, people wondered whether they were really the liberators they were once thought to be.
But fighting erupted soon after and Mr. Masoud's government forces succeeded in pushing back the Taliban away from the city.
Its future, at this point, remains clouded, even though it controls a sizeable portion of Afghanistan.