KABUL – At once beautiful and barbaric, Afghanistan is a place out of time.
Timeless and massive works of art have been smashed out of sheer spite. The world's most notorious alleged terrorist, Usama bin Laden, and his support network are offered safe haven. Pricey heroin made from once-verdant fields of Afghan poppies are still hooking addicts worldwide. Bad economic conditions and drought are threatening millions with starvation.
Lorded over by the Taliban, a ragtag group of former students, Afghanistan's people are forced to follow the strictest code of Islamic law. Women must wear a full-length veil, or burqa, whenever they venture outside, and few are allowed to work or attend school.
Men, too, must toe the religious line. Beards must be a certain length and Islamic prayers cannot be missed. There are no movies, videos, television programs, or music unless it serves a religious purpose. Recently, all members of the Hindu minority were ordered to wear a Nazi era-style label on their clothing.
All of these rules are enforced by religious police who ride around the cities of Afghanistan in trademark double-cab pickup trucks. Punishment for offenders can be severe and is often public.
"All energies are focused on religion," said Kathy Gannon, Islamabad bureau chief for The Associated Press and a regular visitor to Afghanistan. "There is no life."
The Taliban come from southern Afghanistan, where many of the customs being imposed on the rest of the country have been practiced for centuries. Most of the young Taliban leaders studied in strict Islamic schools and were raised in a conservative, male-dominated environment.
After years of Soviet occupation followed by war among rebel factions, the young Taliban (a word meaning student) gained control of the capital, Kabul, in 1996 and forced out the government of then-President Burhannudin Rabbani.
Far from being reviled by all, however, the Taliban are respected by some in Afghanistan, especially older Afghans and those in the South.
"The Taliban are very good for us," Afghan farmer Mayi Nasrullah told Fox News in a recent interview. "They have brought security. They eliminated robbery."
But they are hated by many of the young people in the cities, like 18-year-old student and moneychanger Issa Gami. "It is a very hard life," Gami said. "Humans need freedom. They need to have a free spirit."
Opponents of the regime have found ways around some of the rules. Some women are starting to dress and act freer, letting colorful clothing show beneath their veils and wearing stylish shoes. A few are even pursuing higher education and employment at a women's teaching hospital in Kabul.
"The Taliban, after they have issued some of these rules, realize the impracticality of the rules," said Taliban expert Imtiaz Gul.
While standing firmly in the column of Taliban opponents on the world stage (only three countries have recognized the current government), there are signs that the Bush administration favors working more with them — at least in the humanitarian field.
"There seems to be a greater engagement of the U.S. with the Taliban," notes AP's Gannon, "in ways the U.S. can live with."
But with hard-liners firmly in charge and a host of complex problems facing them — including a continuing fight with opposition rebels inside the country — it remains to be seen whether the Taliban are up to the task of governing, with or without help.
About this series: Fox News Correspondent Greg Palkot traveled to Afghanistan in May for a first-hand look at a country shrouded in mystery after decades of war. This five-part series chronicles his trip. The remaining four parts will examine the drought currently debilitating much of the nation, the whereabouts of alleged terrorist Usama bin Laden and the state of the Taliban's war against opium production.
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Greg Palkot currently serves as a London-based senior foreign affairs correspondent for Fox News Channel (FNC). He joined the network in 1998 as a correspondent. Follow him on Twitter@GregPalkot.