A popular information site on Afghanistan advertises the land-locked Asian nation as "The Friendliest Country in the World, Possibly the Universe."

Tell that to the 24 relief workers detained there since August 5 for allegedly teaching Christianity. Or even to the citizens of Afghanistan—a country ravaged by 23 years of war, plagued by disease, drought, and famine, and ruled with an iron fist by its self-declared leaders, the Taliban.

On August 5, Taliban authorities closed down the Kabul office of Shelter Now, a Germany-based aid group, and arrested eight foreigners and sixteen Afghan employees. All will remain in captivity until the Taliban conducts a full investigation into the extent of what they allege is a conspiracy by aid groups (including the U.N.'s World Food Program) to convert Muslims.

A continuous battlefield
The nation's population of 25 million is vastly diverse ethnically, and 34 different languages are spoken. But Islam unites Afghans: 84 percent of the nation is Sunni Muslim, and 15 percent is Shi'ite. Nevertheless, most of Afghanistan's past is marked by power struggles, war, and radical ideological shifts in governance.

For many years, conservative and liberal Islamic groups battled for control, culminating in the bloody 1978 coup by the communist People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA). According to Human Rights Watch, tens of thousands were arrested and executed while countless others—especially elites—faced repression. Uprisings against the PDPA became common.

The Soviet invasion
This unrest set the scene for the second phase of Afghanistan's recent violent history: 1979's Soviet invasion. Possibly both to protect its disintegrating southern border and to stabilize trade routes, the Soviet Union dropped thousands of troops into the capital city of Kabul.

But the Soviet answers to Afghanistan's ills weren't much more effective. The Soviets "sought to crush uprisings with mass arrests, torture, and executions of dissidents, and aerial bombardments, and executions in the countryside," according to Human Rights Watch.

Seeing the conflict as a Cold War battleground, the United States provided massive support to build an Islamic resistance against the Soviets. Adding to money and weapons donated by China, France, Saudi Arabia, and the United Kingdom, funding from the U.S. established religious schools (madrasas) on Afghan borders in Pakistan.

Mujahedin warlords
These Pakistani schools taught Afghan refugees fundamentalist interpretations of Islamic law and trained them to be Islamic soldiers (or mujahedin). These "freedom fighters" flooded Afghanistan and eventually drove the Soviets out in 1989.

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This solution only created the next problem. The fighting did not stop. After the Communists left, the mujahedin warlords roamed the country, killings and looting. Poverty, and unrest continued.

Against this backdrop, the Taliban arose. In Persian, Talib means "religious student." The Taliban, then, is one group of Afghans trained in the Pakistani madrasas.

According to the BBC, the Taliban militia emerged as bodyguards hired by the Pakistani government to protect a trade route between Pakistan and Central Asia from looters. But they had bigger aspirations than driving off other mujahedin groups: they wanted to establish the world's purest Islamic state.

In 1994, the student group took the southern city of Kandahar and began a sweep through the country, unseating local warlords along the way. The Taliban stormed Kabul in 1996 and declared itself ruler.

The rise of Taliban control
In many ways, the Taliban had an easy road to power. War-weary Afghans eager for an end to corruption and crime welcomed the Taliban's heavy hand. Many towns simply handed power over to the Taliban.

Currently, the militia controls between 90 and 95 percent of the country. The Taliban (or the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan as it calls itself) is opposed only by the National Islamic United Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan. The United Front was formed in 1996 as an alliance of other mujahedin, and led by minister of defense Ahmad Shah Massoud, but this Iran- and Russia-backed group does not stand a chance in their fight.

The Taliban is now pushing the international community for diplomatic recognition, but only Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates endorse it as Afghanistan's official government.

Strict laws and harsh punishments
To crush corruption and crime, the Taliban has enforced Islamic (or Shari'ah) law and added increasingly draconian rules. Shari'ah law, at least as interpreted by the Taliban, dictates that adulterous couples are stoned to death, prostitutes are hanged in public, and women in the company of men (who are not blood relatives) are executed. Earlier this month, four men convicted of bombing Kabul were hanged from steel cranes in the middle of the city. The Department for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice metes out most punishments in the sports stadium.

Over the years, the Taliban's supreme leader, Mullah Mohammad Omarhas, has added to a long list of innovations "against the Shari'ah." Seeking to avoid "frivolity," distraction from holy living, and graven images, the Taliban has thus far banned: television, music, cinema, fireworks, statues, lipstick, neckties, white socks, alcohol, chess, pictures of animals, greeting cards with photos of people, fashion catalogs, satellite TV dishes, musical instruments, caged birds, kites, cassettes, computer discs, pig fat products, the printing of verses from the Qur'an, and anything made of human hair.

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Women cannot go to work or school, must wear head-to-toe-coverings, and cannot go on picnics. Female aid workers have also been warned that driving is "against Afghan traditions." Male students must always wear turbans.

Making headlines and enemies
This week, officials pulled the plug on the Internet, allowing e-mail only in one government office in Kandahar. According to the BBC, the edict promises "the necessary Shari'ah punishment" to offenders.

Hours after the Web ban, the Taliban's own site was hacked.

Early this year, an edict declared that any pre-Islamic statues and objects in the country had to be destroyed. Since then, the Taliban has destroyed numerous statues in Kabul's National Museum of Afghanistan. What remains of the museum's collection is unknown; most of the artifacts were lost during years of bombing and looting.

The Taliban made new headlines and enemies in March for destroying two giant Buddhas (one reportedly the world's largest standing Buddha) carved into a mountainside in the fifth century. Taliban officials said it took 20 days to reduce the statues to rubble. Rocket launchers and explosives finally finished the job.

In May, the Taliban announced a plan to make Hindus wear yellow star badges in public. The Guardian reported that officials claim the measure is not persecution but mere prevention against "any 'disturbance' of non-Muslims who might otherwise be detained by police." After public outcry, this edict was reconsidered; Hindus now may only be required to carry special identification cards.

The Taliban claims that all of its regulations accord with the Islamic faith and Shari'ah law. However, some critics feel that when the Taliban pledged to create the world's most Islamic state, they should have placed an asterisk by "Islamic."

Iran's daily Tehran Times has expressed anger and frustration with the Taliban-brand of Islam: "No government could have damaged the image of Islam better than the Taliban. Hence, if they are looking for missionaries, they don't need to look far. The best way they can serve Islam is to dismantle themselves and get lost from Afghanistan. Otherwise they will serve as the main attraction towards Christianity or even paganism."