They have threatened to beat any man who fails to grow a beard longer than a fist. Women, under the rule of the Taliban organization that controls most of Afghanistan, are barred from leaving their homes without covering themselves from head to toe.
But the radical Islamic revolutionaries who formed the Taliban were once allies of the United States.
As part of the Cold War against the Soviet Union, the United States in the 1980s supplied money and weapons to many of the leaders who now run Afghanistan.
The Taliban have since become estranged from Washington, in part because they shelter the Saudi millionaire Osama bin Laden, regarded by U.S. officials as a top suspect in this week's terrorism attacks against New York and Washington.
President Bush declared this week that the U.S. would strike back at those responsible for the terrorism, making no distinction between those who planned the hijackings and those sheltering the terrorists.
"That statement [by the president] would probably include the Taliban and Osama bin Laden, because he has already been indicted by the U.S." for the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998, said Stephen P. Cohen, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington, D.C.
The Taliban have said they had nothing to do with this week's violence. But if the United States concludes that bin Laden is responsible, Afghanistan might turn out to be the closest thing to an enemy state.
Whom would the United States be fighting?
"The Taliban is trying to take Afghanistan back to what they perceive as a pure Islamic state that may have existed somewhere in the Middle Ages," said Yossef Bodansky, author of Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America. "And they are willing to do this on the backs of their own people and foreigners, if necessary."
Born out of the poverty of refugee camps and the hatred of foreign powers that long sought to control Afghanistan, the Taliban leaders and their culture are about as far removed from American ways as can be imagined, author Ahmed Rashid wrote in his recent book, Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia.
The Taliban have their origins in wars that consumed Afghanistan for two decades. From 1979 to 1989, the Soviet Union poured the equivalent of $45 billion into a losing war that tried to subdue Afghan rebel groups, collectively called the Mujaheddin, which opposed a president installed by the Soviets.
The United States poured in between $4 billion and $5 billion, including deliveries of weapons, to help fight the Soviets.
Before the Soviet invasion of the country, Islamic radicals had little influence in Afghanistan, Rashid writes. But aided by money and arms supplied by the CIA, the Islamists gained influence.
When the Soviets withdrew in 1989, the country entered a vicious civil war. From this chaos, the Taliban movement rose in the mid-1990s, according to Rashid.
"Afghanistan was in a state of virtual disintegration just before the Taliban emerged at the end of 1994," Rashid writes. "The country was divided into warlord fiefdoms and all the warlords had fought, switched sides and fought again in a bewildering array of alliances, betrayals and bloodshed."
Left in rubble by Soviet bombs, the country was ruled by dozens of rival bandit groups and beset with rape and robbery.
In this lawless landscape, the future leaders of the Taliban promoted themselves as a force to promote the integrity and religious character of Afghanistan. Because many of those volunteering for the effort were young students of the Quran, they chose the name taliban, which means students.
Their goal was to create an ideal Islamic country, following their interpretation of the precepts of the prophet Muhammad.
They believe their current leader was selected by God because of his intense piety. He is Mullah Mohammad Omar, who lost an eye to a rocket blast during the Soviet war and who, according to Rashid, has never been photographed.
By the end of 1994, about 12,000 Afghan and Pakistani students had joined this new movement. Many were orphans of the Soviet war, raised in refugee camps and radicalized by violence and poverty. In an attempt to bring order, they adopted a puritanical code of conduct.
The organization was aided financially by neighboring Pakistan and the drug trade.
The Quran forbids Muslims from using drugs. When the Taliban first took over much of Afghanistan, their leaders announced that they would eliminate all drug production in the country.
But soon the leadership realized the government needed more revenues, and it responded by imposing a tax on all opium dealers.
The group rationalizes its profit from drug dealing by saying the drugs are used by corrupt Westerners, not Muslims, according to Rashid.