The world first became aware of the Taleban in 1994 when they were appointed by Islamabad to protect a convoy trying to open up a trade route between Pakistan and Central Asia.
The group – comprised of Afghans trained in religious schools in Pakistan along with former Islamic fighters or mujahedin – proved effective bodyguards, driving off other mujahedin groups who attacked and looted the convoy.
They went on to take the nearby city of Kandahar, beginning a remarkable advance which led to their capture of the capital, Kabul, in September 1996.
The Taleban’s popularity with many Afghans initially surprised the country’s warring mujahedin factions.
As ethnic Pashtuns, a large part of their support came from Afghanistan’s Pashtun community, disillusioned with existing ethnic Tajik and Uzbek leaders.
But it was not purely a question of ethnicity. Ordinary Afghans, weary of the prevailing lawlessness
in many parts of the country, were often delighted by Taleban successes in stamping out corruption, restoring peace and allowing commerce to flourish again.
Their refusal to deal with the existing warlords whose rivalries had caused so much killing and destruction also earned them respect.
The Taleban said their aim was to set up the world’s most pure Islamic state, banning frivolities like television, music and cinema.
Their attempts to eradicate crime have been reinforced by the introduction of Islamic law including public executions and amputations.
A flurry of regulations forbidding girls from going to school and women from working quickly brought them into conflict with the international community.
Such issues, along with restrictions on women’s access to health care, have also caused some resentment among ordinary Afghans.
The Taleban now control all but the far north of the country, which is the last stronghold of the ethnic Tajik commander Ahmed Shah Masood.
With 90% of the country under their control, the Taleban have continued to press claims for international recognition.
But the Afghan seat at the United Nations continues to be held by former President Burhanuddin Rabbani.
The UN sanctions which have now been imposed on the country make it even less likely that the Taleban will gain that recognition.
The sanctions are intended to force the Taleban to hand over the Saudi-born militant Osama Bin Laden, who is accused by the United States of plotting the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which killed more than 250 people.
The Taleban say that Osama Bin Laden is a guest in their country, and they will not take action against him.
Afghanistan has suffered 20 years of war, and this year has brought the worst drought in decades.
There is little sign that sanctions will change the Taleban’s policies, or weaken their position within the country.