Afghanistan's mystery army is on the march again, having taken Jalalabad, the country's second-largest city, last week with hardly a shot being fired.
It took only a hundred soldiers of the Islamic student militia known as the Taliban, to take control of this strategic city.
As the unpopular warlords who had controlled the city fled before the Taliban advance, the people of Jalalabad threw flowers, food, and money at the militia, praying that peace might at last be restored. But the euphoria over their occupation of Jalalabad may be short lived. Many people are wary that the movement's Utopian ideals may transform the once-moderate country into a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism.
"We want to establish the first truly Islamic state and extend the jihad [holy war] from here," says Saifullah Khan, a young fighter with a distinctive black turban and a Russian-made Kalashnikov assault rifle slung casually across his shoulder.
"We will take back all the countries that were once Muslim - from Spain to India," Mr. Khan continues.
The Taliban, who appeared mysteriously on the Afghan political scene two years ago, say they want to turn their war-ravaged country into the world's most ultraorthodox Islamic state, where even music and the playing of games is prohibited. In the two-thirds of Afghanistan already under their control, girls are prevented from attending school, women cannot work, and anyone caught stealing has their arm amputated.
For the people of Jalalabad, however, peace - and not the preaching of the priests guiding the Taliban - is all that matters for now. "The first need is security, here and all over Afghanistan," says Izzah Tullah, a local aid worker. "Until [Taliban] came, every family was guarding their houses at night because of the looting by government soldiers. [Now] people can sleep peacefully."
Life in Jalalabad is returning to normal after government jets bombed the city last Sunday, killing 12 people and injuring scores more. Shops are slowly reopening, but not a single woman can be seen in the markets of what was once eastern Afghanistan's bustling commercial capital. In the former governor's office, Taliban commanders confer about the establishment of a new local council to run Jalalabad. The city's previous governor and his warlords fled before the takeover, leaving behind arms, ammunition, typewriters, and files.
"The people have welcomed us, they were clapping when we came," recalls Muhammad Issaq, a Taliban commander. "The people of Kabul will welcome us too," referring to the citizens of the capital.
The word Taliban means "seeker of religious knowledge." The movement's recruits came from the Islamic schools that served the Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan, which sprang up during the Soviet invasion. It was from these vast cities of mud brick and tarpaulin that the Taliban began its jihad against the warring factions who turned against each other after overthrowing the Russian-backed regime in 1992. With covert support from Pakistan, they quickly took over the southern provinces of Afghanistan. In March last year made their first unsuccessful assault against Kabul.
The Taliban says it is firmly committed to establishing an Islamic state based on the teachings of the Koran, Islam's holy book, and a strict interpretation of sharia, or Islamic holy law. "First, we have to take all of Afghanistan, and then we will decide on the basis of the Koran and the sharia how we will run the country," Mr. Issaq says.
The movement's leaders strongly deny allegations that they are receiving any outside assistance, especially from Pakistan. "No one helps the Taliban. Only Allah [God]," Isaaq says.
The group now controls 20 of Afghanistan's 29 provinces and is preparing for a final assault against the forces of President Burhanuddin Rabbani, who has complete control of only three provinces and the area around the capital. Most of the northern provinces are in the hands of another warlord - Gen. Rasheed Dostum.
But the Taliban will have to fight hard to dislodge President Rabbani. Made up largely of Pathans, the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, the Taliban has met little resistance in the Pathan-dominated south and east of the country.
Kabul, however, is dominated by the Tajiks, another ethnic group. The city's more educated population has little sympathy for their fundamentalist brand of Islam.
The city is also strongly defended by the army of Rabbani's closest ally, Comdr. Ahmad Shah Massoud and the soldiers of Premier Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
In recent weeks the Rabbani government has also tried to enlist the support of General Dostum. But on Wednesday a spokesman for Dostum said he wouldn't join forces with the Kabul government to fight the Taliban, fueling speculation that an alliance with the student militia might be in the offing.
Given the nature of Afghan politics, such a scenario cannot be ruled out, says Agha Murtaza Pooya, chairman of the Institute of Strategic Studies in Islamabad.
"Today's friends are tomorrow's enemies. Everybody is changing partners in a game of political [musical] chairs. You can't place bets on any relationship , adversarial or friendly, for that matter," he argues.
"Dostum is holding out. He might align with Kabul and make it difficult for the Taliban. Or ... tomorrow he could make a tactical alliance with the Taliban to oust Rabbani."
Even if the Taliban takes Kabul, Mr. Pooya says it must begin a political dialogue with all the major groups.
"If they don't, it would be a serious mistake. They wouldn't be able to unite the country or have a government of national consensus," Pooya says.
But compromise is an elusive commodity in faction-ridden Afghanistan, and time is running out for finding a way to avoid the bloodbath that would accompany the final battle for Kabul.
It is a scenario that this once proud and peaceful country can ill-afford. The killing fields of Afghanistan are already overflowing, and the country's complex social fabric is steadily being destroyed.
If such are the spoils of war, then even the Taliban may be the ultimate losers in the forgotten war that is Afghanistan.