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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Mystery Rebel Group Shifts Afghan Balance

KABUL, Afghanistan -- A UN-brokered plan to transfer power in Afghanistan, due to take effect Monday, has been thrown into question by the extraordinary rise to power of an Islamic fundamentalist student militia that has marched halfway across the country and is now poised at the gates of the capital, Kabul.

The new force, the Taliban, has emerged virtually overnight to become one of the most powerful groups in Afghanistan, where rival factions are engaged in a three-year civil war that has claimed 20,000 lives.

The shift in the military balance, prompted by the arrival of this new force, is threatening to unravel the United Nations plan, which calls for a cease-fire among the warring mujahedin militias and for President Burhanuddin Rabbani to turn over control of the central government to a multi-party council of 30 leaders.

The Taliban was not a signatory to the agreement, and its leaders are refusing to join the interim council.

On Monday, a UN official met with leaders of the Taliban for two hours of talks on the southern outskirts of Kabul to try to resolve differences, but neither side announced any breakthroughs.

The Taliban is demanding that Kabul be disarmed and turned over to a neutral force. Three days ago, a spokesman for the group told Agence France-Presse news service that the neutral force it favored was itself.

The group has given no deadline, and it is unclear how long it is willing to remain outside the city, waiting for its demands to be met. At the same time, Rabbani, who in the past has been reluctant to leave office, has presented some new conditions for stepping down that probably will at least delay the turnover of power, if not derail it.

A spokesman said Rabbani believes the group should be part of the council. "What will happen a few days from now if the commission is formed without the Taliban, and then they decide to attack Kabul?" Aziz Murad asked.

The rise to power of the Taliban has been dramatic. Four months ago, the group numbered just 800 soldiers; now reports suggest it has around 25,000 armed followers massed 14 kilometers south of Kabul and controls the southern third of Afghanistan.

"The most interesting thing about the Talibans is that nobody knows where they came from, where they are going. We only see them moving," said Aabha Dixit, an expert on Afghanistan who lives in New Delhi. "People are just giving up, without even putting up a fight."

Chief among those is former Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, one of the country's most powerful warlords, who withdrew from his longtime headquarters south of Kabul last week rather than face the advancing Taliban force, which reportedly has as many as 200 tanks.

The genesis of the new faction is murky. It has no well-known leader and claims that it is a home-grown, indigenous uprising with no foreign backing, although may people say it has been funded and armed by Pakistan. Officials there deny any role in aiding the group.

Analysts attribute the rise of the Taliban to growing disgust among common Afghanis at the way power-hungry warlords have demolished the country and its capital.

The Taliban favors an Islamic government and disarmament of the militias, and is strong on law and order. Its members have stopped highway robberies in the provinces they control, and have reportedly executed drug dealers and burned thousands of acres of poppies.

Women in the areas they control are reportedly not allowed to work and must wear veils.

Most Taliban members are young Afghan refugees who were enrolled in religious schools in northern Pakistan, near the Afghanistan border. Many are ethnic Pashtoons from southern Afghanistan, which some analysts said helps explain why Hekmatyar, also a Pashtoon, did not fight against them.

The Taliban's ethnic identity, analysts said, also could contain the seeds for a more prolonged battle here in the capital, which is controlled by ethnic Tajik forces loyal to Rabbani.

The Taliban first emerged as a military organization in late October, when it captured the southern city of Kandahar after a four-day battle. It later struck south into the heart of Afghanistan's poppy-growing region, killing traffickers and burning fields.

Since then, in a distinctively Afghan tactic reminiscent of great Afghan battles of the 19th century, the group marched 300 miles from Kandahar to the outskirts of Kabul. There have actually been relatively few battles, as most potential rivals have retreated, surrendered or joined the Taliban. (WP, AP)