Armed with tanks, rocket-launchers and warplanes, as well as the Koran, the Taliban over the past 18 months have succeeded in capturing such key Afghan towns as Kandahar, Herat, Jalalabad and now Kabul with astonishing speed and relatively few casualties. Many Afghans, devastated by years of war, welcomed the Taliban as a movement which would at last restore peace.
As the Taliban entered Kabul yesterday, jubilant crowds greeted them. Run by a council of clergymen based in the southern city of Kandahar, the Taliban enforce a strict vision of Islam. In areas under their control, they have closed girls' schools, banned women from most jobs - they are not even allowed to go shopping without being accompanied by a male relative - and imposed harsh punishments on thieves such as executions and amputations.
Although the Taliban portrays itself as a movement which rises above the tribal rivalries which have doomed Afghan- istan to centuries of warfare, they have recruited heavily among the Pathan clans of the south and central regions of the country. As a result, they are distrusted by the Tajiks, in the north, who supported the deposed government of Burhan-uddin Rabbani. Afghanistan's minority Shia community are also wary of the Taliban's severe interpretation of the Koran.
Foes of the Taliban insist that the militia has covertly received arms and training from neighbouring Pakistan, as well as from several Gulf countries, but Islamabad has consistently denied this.
The militia's capture of Kabul has alarmed Iran and Russia, both of which backed Mr Rabbani's government.