"Afghanistan is the most foreign country in the world," says William Wood, the American ambassador in Kabul. I ask if I may quote him on that. He hesitates, then says it's alright, then adds: "It's a ferociously foreign country."
Mountainous, landlocked and remote, populated by legendary warriors - Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek - historically rich but economically dirt poor, Afghanistan has been in a state of turmoil for almost 30 years, since the Soviet invasion of 1980. "People here are used to violence, Gen. David McKiernan, the U.S. Commander in Afghanistan, says. "But they also have been traumatized by violence."
By 1989, the Afghans had defeated the Soviet invaders - a great and consequential victory, achieved with assistance from the U.S. But once the Russians were gone, Americans and Europeans lost interest in Afghanistan. Warlords fought among themselves for land, power and wealth - mostly in the form of the poppies from which heroin is made.
In 1994, a group of provincial vigilantes led by Mullah Mohammed Omar, the administrator of a religious school, rose up against the chaos and corruption. He and his followers called themselves "the students" - the "Taliban" in the Pashto language.
The Taliban restored law and order. People welcomed that. The Taliban also had the support of Islamists entrenched in Pakistan's intelligence service. The Saudis approved as well.
Before long, the Taliban's ultra-radical agenda became apparent. Girls were no longer permitted to go to school. Women could not leave their homes unless covered from head to toe in a burqa and accompanied by a male. Singing, dancing, playing music, watching television, sports, even flying kites - an Afghan national pastime - were prohibited. Prayer five times a day became compulsory.
Those who transgressed were sentenced to amputations or executions - by the thousands, often in public. Traditional tribal leaders were murdered and replaced by fire-breathing mullahs who broke with Afghan tradition by combining religious and political power.
In March 2001, the Taliban dynamited the Buddhas of Bamiyan - giant statues, great works of religion and art, built in the sixth century. To the Taliban, these were pagan "idols" that deserved destruction - like all things not Islamic. "It is purely a religious issue," then-Afghan Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmad Mutawekel told a Japanese reporter.
The Taliban, wrote the Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, represented a new kind of Islamic fundamentalist: "aggressive, expansionist and uncompromising in its purist demands to turn Afghan society back to an imagined model of seventh-century Arabia at the time of the Prophet Mohammed."
At this same time, of course, the Taliban also was providing refuge to a Saudi exile by the name of Osama bin Laden. He was plotting another kind of assault against the despised infidels. In the wake of the slaughter of September 11, 2001, the Taliban remained loyal to bin Laden and al-Qaeda. The result was an American-led invasion of Afghanistan and the toppling of the Taliban.
Both bin Laden and Mullah Omar escaped, presumably to the wild reaches of western Pakistan.
Today, Taliban forces - bolstered by Arabs, Chechens, Pakistanis, and other "foreign fighters" - are attempting to retake Afghanistan, using the same terrorist tactics that al-Qaeda used in Iraq: assassinations, roadside bombs, and - while I was in Afghanistan earlier this month - throwing acid in the faces of young girls walking to school. A European diplomat in Kabul notes that this year 900 Afghan policemen have been killed - an improvement over the 1,200 killed in 2007. "The Taliban are not sentimental people," he says.
Like other militant Islamists groups - Hamas and Hezbollah, for example - the Taliban acts locally but thinks globally. "We want to eradicate Britain and America," Ay'atulah Mahsoud, the emir of the Pakistani Taliban, has said, "and to shatter the arrogance and tyranny of the infidels. We pray that Allah will enable us to destroy the White House, New York and London."
The available evidence suggests the vast majority of Afghans would not welcome the Taliban's return to power. Indeed, the Taliban has not managed to regain a single city. But they have been stepping up the violence.
In past years, fighting has slowed during Afghanistan's cold and snowy winter. This season, Gen. McKiernan plans to keep the pressure on. "If we allow enemy forces time to rest and relax over the winter," explains one of his commanders, "they will be back with a bang in the spring." The hope - one can't yet say the expectation - is that Pakistan also will move aggressively against Taliban fighters within is borders.
"Do it right," an American general in Kandahar says, "and we won't have to come back here years from now."