To the American or British soldier who fights him on the southern battlefields of Afghanistan, the Talib fighter is an elusive, ghost-like foe. Sometimes his presence is given away by a flash of metal on the curve of a distant hill as he lies in wait, assault rifle at the ready for the next opportunity to ambush a patrol. But often he vanishes before being caught. To some Afghans, the Taliban are a rallying banner against nine years of broken promises, abuse and corruption by western governments and their Afghan proxies in Kabul.
To other Afghans, they are a terrorising force that takes control of an area and hangs a tribal elder in the village square as a warning of the punishment meted out to spies and government collaborators. Aspiring jihadists and some liberals in the west admire the Taliban as a symbol of Islamic resistance against American imperialism, while the rest of the world sees them as wild-eyed, bearded, turbaned woman-haters.
There is a debate under way in Kabul, London, Washington and Brussels on whether a predominantly military strategy is the best way to end the war. The answer is, increasingly, probably not, and that some kind of deal will have to be struck with the Taliban and their supporters to end the violence and allow foreign soldiers to leave by 2014, as outlined during an international conference in Kabul last week.
But who are the Taliban, and what do they want? Zabiullah Mujahid, a spokesman for Mullah Omar, the one-eyed leader of the Taliban, , said in an interview with CNN last year: "We ask from the beginning and we say once again: to enforce the sharia law and Islamic government in Afghanistan, to remove foreign forces from our country," said .
Mullah Omar is currently hiding in the Pakistani city of Quetta, directing strategy to an inner circle of 10 to 12 deputies from Kandahar, Helmand and Zabul provinces. His men pass on instructions to a ring of hardened commanders who lead forces that number anywhere from 10,000 to 40,000 fighters. Some are ideological soldiers, but the vast majority are marginalised, poor Pashtuns out for revenge because their relatives have been killed in Nato air strikes or because they are bullied by predatory government officials and police. In their bid to win control of the country, they blow up girls' schools and bridges, plant mines and explosives, and hit government buildings and aid organisations with suicide bombers.
All of this costs about US$70 million a year, estimates Thomas Ruttig, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, a policy research organisation. The money is raised by taxing the population, drug traffickers, and western military contractors, and through kidnap and ransom. Glossy magazines printed in Arabic are sent to the Middle East, to encourage wealthy Gulf patrons to pour money into their coffers.
The Taliban leadership may be gaining momentum because they have become adept at harnessing the population's legitimate anger and exploiting the government's many weaknesses. A survey of 400 men in Helmand and Kandahar by Icos, a think tank, suggested that 45 per cent were angry at foreign forces raiding their houses, while others were angry about innocent civilians being killed and lack of security.
Fewer than one in 10 expressed displeasure at the Taliban's suicide bombs. Never mind that a United Nations report submitted to the UN Security Council suggested that insurgent violence was the main cause of Afghan civilian deaths in the first four months of this year. On average, seven civilians are assassinated each week. The Taliban and their supporters have a permanent presence in fourmfifths of Afghanistan. The leadership has embraced the media age, remarkable considering that the regime banned television and music during its five-year rule. It is now waging a sophisticated propaganda campaign.
In some areas, American forces drop flyers by air encouraging residents to support the US forces and promising a better life if they do so. "A Taliban commander will arrive soon after, knocking on doors and asking residents what the Americans can do when they are not even brave enough to give flyers in person," said one Afghan media executive in Kabul.
Journalists and ordinary citizens are bombarded with photographs of American soldiers assaulting Afghan women, videos of police stations being blown up or young men going on "martyrdom" operations. There are more images of tanks exploding and "crusader" soldiers surrendering to the Taliban, all set to Quranic chants and against black screens. Much of it is fake. But the message is simple: the Taliban are always winning, the Kabul government and its foreign allies are on the verge of defeat and collapse.
It is a narrative as simple as their world view. The world is divided into believers and infidels. The Taliban claim jihad is the sixth pillar of Islam, Shia are heretics and anyone who does not agree with these views may be excommunicated and killed. Suicide bombings against foreigners are also justified by history, Mujahid told CNN. "This is from the history of Islam from the days of Prophet Mohammed. They sacrificed some people, friends of Mohammed, for the sake of Islam. This is part of the jihad and part of the fighting. We will fight them and we will target them."
Do such narrow views allow for power-sharing in a diverse society with other ethnic and linguistic groups? No one knows the answer to that question, because the Taliban's leadership has been virtually unapproachable. Michael Semple, a former deputy to the European Union special representative for Afghanistan, recently wrote: "You cannot walk into a Taliban office or approach their political wing - there are none. They practice a sort of iron curtain, ensuring that Taliban commanders keep their distance from anyone associated with government."
Mr Semple was expelled from the country by the Afghan president in 2008 for trying to reach out to elements in the Taliban. The movement's leadership is Afghan and the majority of its fighters are drawn from the country. Yet the Taliban are distinctly alien to the country. Afghans practise the Hanafi school of Islam, follow Sufi rituals and have prayed at saints' shrines for centuries. All of this is considered heretical by the Taliban leadership, schooled in Saudi Arabia's harsh strand of Salafism.
The power of the Taliban fighter is also a mark of how much the social order has been turned upside down in a class-bound society due to 30 years of war. Traditionally the mullah has been the butt end of jokes about gluttony. The new generation of leaders replacing commanders killed by Nato forces may be more hardened than the last, and less open to political dialogue, wrote Mr Ruttig wrote. The early anti-Soviet fighters in the 1980s could recite Persian literature and Pashto poetry.
The Taliban may control Ghazni province, but it is doubtful they will know about the 900 poets who flourished at the medieval court of Mahmoud of Ghazni, to whom the poet Ferdowsi dedicated his famous work The Book of Kings. The current crop have no knowledge about their country because they did not grow up in its towns or villages. They have no feeling for its past or history because they did not learn it.
The religious seminaries in which the Taliban foot soldiers grow up along the Pakistan border follow austere routines of rote memorisation of the Quran in all-male environments. It does not prepare them for the messy compromises of real life. In a sense, they are rootless, and their pole is the Taliban's stark white flag emblazoned with the Islamic declaration of faith in black calligraphy. Their identity is a narrative of victimhood and resistance. "Foreigners may have the watches, but we have the time" is a favourite Talib expression.
That expression perhaps best sums up their disdain for modernity and their willingness to wait until foreign forces tire of Afghan adventurism.