In the translucent light of dawn, a convoy of soldiers of the Islamic Taliban army pauses to pray near Kabul, seeking God's blessings before departing for the front line - now just 37 miles north of the capital.
The 40-vehicle caravan of buses, trucks, and rusty old Russian taxis is carrying the latest recruits north. "Our Prophet will protect us, this is a holy war," says Amir Bilour, wearing the distinctive black turban that has become the Taliban's trademark.
But religious zeal and invoking Allah's name may not be enough to overcome the most severe setback ever suffered by the group in its 2-1/2-year campaign to impose a radical Islamic state in the whole of Afghanistan.
From its humble beginnings, the group - made up mainly of young religious students from Islamic seminaries in Pakistan - has systematically taken control of more than two-thirds of this mountainous Central Asian nation. Vowing to rid the country of its warring factions, it was initially welcomed for restoring security and peace.
Last week's anti-Taliban uprising in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, together with its subsequent battlefront losses against the ruling Northern Alliance, may have turned the tide against them. Seemingly unstoppable, the group is now on the defensive and is losing public support in the cities it controls.
"The Taliban have always preferred to take time, to negotiate with local commanders, disarm them, and merge them into the movement. They don't like to fight," says a Western analyst. "The revolt in Mazar is a major turning point in the war because their strategy is unlikely to work again. Now they will have to fight for every inch of territory," adds the analyst
Mazar-e-Sharif fell unexpectedly on May 24 after Gen. Abdul Malik, a former ally of the leader of the Northern Alliance, Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, switched sides and joined the Taliban. The alliance was made up of troops loyal to General Dostum and the former army of ousted President Burhanuddin Rabbani.
The defection was the breakthrough the Taliban had been waiting for, and was followed by the capitulation of dozens of local commanders in many of the eight northern provinces that had eluded capture. The group appeared so close to complete control that it won coveted diplomatic recognition from countries like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
But within hours of sending its senior officials to formally take over the city last Tuesday, the Taliban was driven out by the very same rebels who had welcomed it in. Hundreds of Taliban troops were killed and dozens of senior officials were captured in the revolt sparked by the Taliban's insistence that General Malik disarm his troops and surrender power.
"It was a breach of promise. The Taliban made the mistake of not paying attention to the needs of the people who had helped them," says a specialist on Afghan affairs in Peshawar, Pakistan.
As local commanders closed ranks behind the Alliance, the Taliban's myth of invincibility was suddenly shattered. "Unintentionally, Malik was the Taliban's Trojan Horse," says a UN official here. The setbacks following its retreat from Mazar-e-Sharif has seen the group pushed back to positions it held shortly after the fall of Kabul last September.
Compounding the military setbacks are the first indications that the religious schools scattered along the Pakistani border, which have traditionally been a source of manpower, may be running out of recruits. Last week, an unprecedented appeal calling for volunteers was issued in refugee camps around Peshawar.
With most of its soldiers deployed at the front lines and its administration in disarray, the Taliban is also looking increasingly vulnerable in cities under its control. The imposition of strict Islamic law, which bans women from working, girls from going to school, and forces men to grow beards and pray five times a day, has alienated many.
"The people of Kabul are seething with anger ... people are becoming more defiant," says William Maley, a specialist on Afghan politics from the Australian Defence Force Academy currently visiting Kabul.
Although many signs of dissent are ruthlessly suppressed, the detention of opposition activists in Kabul last month was an indication that a strong undercurrent of anti-Taliban activism exists in the city, a UN official says.