CHARASYAD, Afghanistan -- The legend says a poor, pious man who lost an eye fighting foreign invaders had a startling vision: The Prophet Mohammed appeared and told him to act to staunch the seemingly endless bloodshed in this nation.
Maulavi Mohammed Omar's revelation electrified boys and men studying in "madrassas," or religious schools, in the southeastern city of Kandahar. They were tired of 15 years of warfare and increasing lawlessness. In their first military engagement in August, they seized the Spinbolbak armory close to the Pakistani border.
Calling themselves the Taliban, or "seekers" -- from the name traditionally given to Muslim religious students -- the disciples of Mr. Mohammed Omar numbered as few as 200 at the start.
But weapons in hand, success followed success. They came to control several districts of Kandahar, the old royal capital 60 miles from the Pakistani frontier. After sharp battles in October, they took over the entire city.
Then what followed at first appears to be a military miracle. The Taliban began pushing northeastward on the road to Kabul, the Afghan capital 300 miles distant.
For a week now, they have been bivouacked on the wide, barren plain at Charasyad, just 10 miles from the capital, using a two-story, whitewashed hospital they seized without a fight from the mightiest opposition faction, Hezb-i-Islami, as their headquarters.
The Taliban, who want to bring an Islamic government, have only 2,000 men around Kabul, said Hajji Mullah Mohammed Rabbani, the group's chief leader at Charasyad. It was unclear how such a small force could hope to take Kabul from battled-tested troops. But other Afghan factions have learned to be wary of the Taliban.
The Taliban say their major tactical objective is to restore peace by disarming rival militias who betrayed the ideals of the holy war against the Communists. And yet their true goal is almost uniformly acknowledged to be mastery of the capital, with all the strategic advantages that would bring.
Most surprisingly, for a war-hardened country like Afghanistan, the Taliban seem to owe their lightning occupation of a third of the rugged, mountainous nation as much to persuasion as to military prowess. Their T-72 tanks and roadside checkpoints fly white banners -- the Islamic color of peace.
The young fighters, in turbans and long capes, carry rocket-propelled grenade launchers and Kalashnikov rifles. But as a force, they are largely untried, though many took part in the war against the Soviet occupation in the 1980s.
Many Afghans and outsiders credit the Taliban's stunning RTC successes to the badly eroded support of many of Afghanistan's nine warring "mujahedeen" factions, which have frittered away the legitimacy they won by combating the Soviet invasion.
"They're energetic, they're young, they believe in something, and that makes them superior to the [mujahedeen] commanders," said a Western diplomat who recently visited Kandahar to meet with Taliban leaders.
By opening the road that runs north from the Pakistani city of Quetta, they ended banditry by rival militias and allowed food and other products to flow freely.
"The way they were clearing the road was to send someone ahead to checkpoint to say, 'The Taliban is coming. If you're innocent, stay. If you're not, you'll be hanging from a tree tomorrow,' " said one veteran Western humanitarian worker.
The legend behind the spell-binding rise of the Taliban may be true or there may be much more than meets the eye. Some suspect that neighboring Pakistan, again trying to act as the puppet master in Afghanistan, has furnished money, weapons and logistical support.
Religious students and others among the estimated 1.5 million Afghan exiles in Pakistan have been coming to join.
The Taliban also was instrumental in freeing a Pakistani convoy of 30 trucks that had been halted last autumn by local warlords in southeastern Afghanistan who were hungry for tribute.
What this mysterious group wants for Afghanistan has come to be urgently relevant. Avowed puritans and strict orthodox Muslims, they believe women should stay at home, and they oppose both smoking and television as un-Islamic.
In opium-producing areas of Afghanistan, where it has taken power, Taliban followers reportedly have torched poppy fields and executed drug traffickers.