GHAZNI, AFGHANISTAN — The main highway is "enemy territory" for the Taliban, a busy two-lane road where U.S. troops race down the middle, trying to steer clear of suicide bombers. The guerrillas drive it like they own it.
Grinning with contempt at a convoy of Polish troops trying to plow its way through traffic the other day, three Taliban fighters with guns and long knives concealed under their heavy woolen cloaks calmly eased into the other lane and beat the jam.
When they reached the edge of this provincial capital just an hour and a half south of Kabul, the driver pulled onto a dirt track into the desert, coaxing the creaking old van over a speed bump and past a nervous-looking Afghan army sentry. The fighters flashed him a dirty look.
Just 30 yards from the American-built highway, we were entering Taliban country.
The speed bump presumably makes it easier for soldiers or police to stop vehicles and search them for guerrillas or weapons. But government troops usually stand back and look the other way as Taliban fighters move in and out of their vast desert stronghold.
"Police and soldiers can never come to our territory," said one of the fighters, a 28-year-old who identified himself only as Ahmadi. "If they do, they won't go back safe and sound."
Seven years after a U.S.-led invasion routed the Taliban regime, hard-line Islamic fighters who had scattered under massive bombardment to their villages and rear bases in Pakistan once again govern large swaths of Afghanistan. Although they are strongest in the south and east, they have launched attacks in all regions of the country -- and are well dug in across regions that surround Kabul, the capital.
The U.S. military says it may need up to 30,000 more troops in Afghanistan by summer, almost doubling the number of American forces there. Commanders say that the number of U.S. deaths, which rose by more than a third last year to 155, according to icasualties.org, is likely to rise.
Despite their increasing strength and confidence, Taliban fighters rarely welcome foreign journalists. The guerrillas are hyper-alert to potential spies.
And, among the Pashtun who dominate the Taliban, an ancient code of honor called pashtunwali demands that a host protect the life of a guest as if it were more important than his own. That's a tall order when the visitor is a foreigner traveling through countryside rife with kidnappers and competing militant factions during an escalating war.
Some Taliban commanders considered The Times' request for safe passage into their territory, only to reject a visit as too risky. But the Ghazni Talibs, eager to show the extent of their control, finally agreed.
With a bunch of plastic grapes and a Koranic verse as rearview mirror ornaments, the guerrillas' vehicle blended in with hundreds of minibus taxis that shuttle passengers through the Afghan countryside.
The Talibs, whose thick, black beards and large turbans are as much emblems of a proud Pashtun heritage as symbols of allegiance to the militant mullahs, said they make regular trips to and from Ghazni city, and up the highway to Kabul.
In Ghazni province, at least, the Taliban militants are not frightened fighters skulking in caves, sneaking out to ambush and then scurrying off to another mountain hide-out. They live comfortably in the farming villages where many of them were born, holding territory, recruiting and training new troops, reveling in what they see as God's gift of inevitable victory against heathen foreign occupiers.
"In the early days, there were many spies, so we had to move around in small groups," Ahmadi said. "But now we are in groups of 300 or 400. We have no problems."
During their downtime, they watch satellite TV and stay current with each day's news. Lately, they've seen a lot of bombing and corpses on Al Jazeera television coverage of the Israeli offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. The Ghazni guerrillas said the images made them more determined than ever to fight, and if necessary die, to expel U.S. troops and their allies, whom they consider Crusaders bent on destroying Islam.
"We are ready to give our blood for the freedom of our homeland, and also to end the oppression by the Americans," said Ahmadi, who masked his face with a black-and-white kaffiyeh, more commonly worn by Palestinian Arabs than his fellow Afghans.
"The Americans support Israel, and when they come all the way here, we must at least be ready to defend our land. Death in youth would be a matter of pride for us."
Satellite TV has also kept the Talibs up to date on preparations for the inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama, whom one dismissed as "just another infidel," and the impending U.S. troop buildup.
The Talibs say any increase would only give them more opportunities to kill non-Muslims in jihad, or holy war, just as U.S.-backed mujahedin did in almost a decade of war to drive Soviet forces from Afghanistan in the 1980s.