The Islamic Taliban fighters are easy to spot: They wear dark turbans, grow long thick beards, and roar through the Afghan capital, Kabul, in new-looking, four-wheel-drive vehicles.
These religious warriors, who control some 90 percent of Afghanistan, are almost exclusively adults, local United Nations and relief officials say.
The point is important, because tensions between the UN and Taliban have been running high. A single line in a report by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, which alleged last week that the strict Taliban regime uses child warriors under 14 years old, sparked a firestorm.
The rhetorical battle illustrates the world body's increasingly complex role in Afghanistan, as this nation struggles through its 20th year of war as one of the least developed in the world. For the past year, UN officials have engaged in peace negotiations that have borne little fruit. Last month, the UN Security Council imposed limited sanctions on Afghanistan's de facto rulers for refusing to hand over for trial suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden.
Yet in recent days, UN officials have been locked in a tricky effort to convince the Taliban to allow food and aid supplies across the front line to some 60,000 refugees cut off in "enemy" territory. UN aid is critical for the survival of many Afghans.
The Taliban agreed this weekend to the cross-line mission for convoys of both the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross. The first convoys were scheduled to move yesterday.
UN and relief workers say the child-warrior issue is a prime example of what the Taliban sees as confusing signals from the world body - and is further proof, to their minds, of outsiders too eager to believe sensational reports.
"There was a high level of anger and frustration from the authorities here," says Erick de Mul, the UN humanitarian coordinator for Afghanistan, who toured front-line Taliban positions north of Kabul to see for himself last week. He says he found no evidence of combatants younger than 21 years of age.
Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar issued an edict almost a year ago against the use of child soldiers, saying it was un-Islamic. Observers with long Afghanistan experience say they rarely see Taliban combatants under 17, and the movement has set up commissions to punish commanders who recruit youths.
A visit by this correspondent to a checkpoint near the front line north of Kabul - now calm, as it has been since heavy summer fighting - revealed only a Taliban soldier in his 30s, who guarded a multiple-rocket launcher.
The Taliban has imposed a strict version of Islamic law that has brought security to much of the country but also bans women from work and school. Mr. Annan has characterized the situation as "massive and systematic violations of human rights" that were turning the country into a "breeding ground for religious extremism" and "terrorism." A UN spokesman in New York said that Annan stuck by the report that includes the mention of child soldiers.
The use of foreign "volunteers" - mostly from Islamic seminaries in Pakistan - was "alarming and unacceptable," Annan said. Rumors of their presence months ago, UN sources say, was the likely source of Annan's comment.
Mullah Omar reacted sharply to the child-warrior claims, calling them a "pack of lies" in a statement from his southern base of Kandahar. He said the UN chief was either "doing this out of his animosity toward Islam, or he is allowing himself to be used as a tool by the Americans."
The issue, along with sanctions, threatens to curtail UN credibility on the ground. "We have been working very hard to create a climate of understanding, and it's not easy," Mr. De Mul said in an interview in Kabul, the Afghan capital. That investment, he says, paid off in the cross-front-line deal. But sanctions - imposed at the insistence of the US, to pressure the Taliban to hand over Mr. Bin Laden - have clouded the issue for Afghans.
"It is called 'UN sanctions,' so it is difficult to explain what humanitarian things the UN also does," De Mul says.
This is not the first time that politics has overshadowed UN-Taliban relations, which have been tense since 1996, when the Taliban captured Kabul and killed President Najibullah, who had been sheltering at a UN compound.
Although the Taliban now controls roughly 90 percent of the country, it has been denied Afghanistan's seat at the UN. Officials here - Afghan and Western alike - point to precedents in Uganda, Rwanda, and Zaire, in which "might makes right" wasn't questioned on the UN floor.
After US rocket attacks in August 1998 - on training bases said to be operated by bin Laden - one UN worker was killed and another wounded. The UN withdrew international staff for several months.
Against this backdrop came the issue of child soldiers. "I was in Liberia and Sierra Leone, where there really is a child-soldier problem, but I would never compare that to here," says Christophe Luedi, the deputy head of the International Red Cross delegation in Kabul. "If it is there, it is not visible."
Battles were critically important this summer, as the Taliban sought to turn their grip on 90 percent of the country into a complete victory over an opposition alliance in the north. Reports began to surface then of young students crossing the border to help the Taliban. But such volunteers are rarely put on the front lines, where their inexperience would make them more of a hazard than an asset.
"Afghanistan is no different from any country in war, and young people were involved long before the Taliban ever arrived," says Louis-Georges Arsenault, the UN Children's Fund representative for Afghanistan, in Kabul. "We also recognize that the Taliban are serious about doing something about it."
"The anecdotal evidence is that the Taliban has been good on this," says a senior relief worker in Islamabad, who has spent years on the Afghan case. "This is another non-issue being turned into an issue."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society