In early December, four bearded and turbaned Afghan clerics dressed in traditional baggy pants stepped from a helicopter onto an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico operated by Unocal Corp., a huge, California-based global energy company.

Representing the ultra-conservative Taliban Islamic militia that controls most of Afghanistan, the mullahs inspected the latest deep-water drilling technology, ate a meal prepared according to Islamic rules -- a gesture arranged by their corporate hosts -- and headed back to the mainland for further meetings with their new business associates from Unocal.

This improbable partnership between a modern American corporation and a militant religious group with social views often described as medieval has become entangled in U.S. strategic policy and domestic politics.

The Taliban and Unocal want to build a $4.5 billion pipeline network carrying Caspian Sea oil and gas across Afghanistan to the Indian subcontinent. The Clinton administration supports the route, which would help free the new nations of Central Asia from dependence on Russia, avoid alternate routes across Iran and bring needed energy to Pakistan and India.

Yet in a vivid illustration of the new political complexities of the global economy, that foreign policy vision has butted up against a domestic obstacle: the outrage of women's organizations over what they call "gender apartheid," the Taliban's barring of women and girls from schools, hospitals and public places.

Such groups as the Feminist Majority and the National Organization for Women have mobilized to prevent the Clinton administration from recognizing the Taliban government unless it radically changes its treatment of women. Without that recognition, international lending institutions are unlikely to finance the project and Unocal's plans will be stymied, according to State Department and company officials.

The impasse also reflects an emerging pattern in which U.S. policy toward Central Asia, site of the world's largest untapped oil and gas reserves outside the Middle East, must heed powerful grass-roots constituencies at home.

Armenian American organizations, for example, oppose U.S. assistance to Armenia's oil-rich enemy, Azerbaijan. Pro-Israeli groups lobby in Washington to prevent Central Asian oil and gas from passing through Iran, viewed by Israel as its most dangerous enemy. And human rights advocates in the United States have begun questioning U.S. support for autocratic regimes around the Caspian Sea.

But in the case of the lucrative trans-Afghan pipeline, it is activist American women repelled by the Taliban who may hold the key.

"I don't remember us organizing on an international issue like this before," said Eleanor Smeal, who heads the Feminist Majority, a nonprofit political action group with 30,000 members.

The efforts include organizing protests outside the embassies of Afghanistan and Pakistan, mobilizing women's groups across the United States to pass resolutions condemning the Taliban, lobbying Congress and the United Nations and meeting with State Department and White House officials.

U.S., Afghan and European women's groups also are working to make the Taliban treatment of Afghan females the focus of International Women's Day on March 8. And Unocal has been pressed to make room for Afghan women in pipeline construction training programs.

The passions aroused have created a political dilemma for the Clinton administration as it balances foreign policy interests against political considerations. Clinton and Vice President Gore campaigned aggressively on the issue of violence against women in 1996, and women have voted far more heavily than men for Democratic candidates in recent national and local elections.

Some conservative Republicans also have begun criticizing the Taliban in what some political analysts believe is an effort to polish the GOPs image with women alienated by the party's antiabortion position.

Both Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton have condemned the Taliban's policies toward women. In November, Albright deplored "their despicable treatment of women and children and their lack of respect for human dignity, in a way more reminiscent of the past than the future."

But administration officials have left the door open to working with the Taliban if certain conditions are met, including reconciliation with opposition factions still controlling the northern third of Afghanistan. "The Taliban will not change their spots, but we do believe they can modify their behavior and take into account certain international standards with respect to women's rights to education and employment," Karl F. Inderfurth, assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs, said in an interview.

Officials said a settlement does not appear near but added that the United States, Iran, Russia and Pakistan have been working together in recent months to end the stalemate, with some signs of progress.

Against this uncertainty, Unocal, a company with worldwide operations, has pressed ahead on several fronts. In late October it announced the formation of an international consortium to build a 790-mile gas line from Turkmenistan to Pakistan, which would cross Taliban-controlled territory in Afghanistan. Turkmenistan has approved Unocal's plan, and Pakistan wants to buy the gas.

In November, Unocal began training Afghans to build the line.

The Taliban stands to collect $50 million to $100 million a year in transit fees if the pipeline is built, according to Marty F. Miller, a Unocal vice president. The project also would provide thousands of jobs.

Unocal and its main partner, the private Saudi-owned oil company Delta, also have been involved in behind-the-scenes diplomatic efforts to make peace between the Taliban and its remaining opponents in northern Afghanistan, according to congressional and other sources. The goal, these sources say, is to create conditions for a broad-based government that could win formal recognition from the United States.

Saudi Arabia is one of only three countries to recognize the Taliban government, giving Delta some political access to the Taliban. Delta's American vice president, Charles Santos, who until recently was a U.N. peace negotiator in Afghanistan, has promoted reconciliation among the Afghan factions. Santos recently hired Paul Behrends, a former House legislative assistant, to lobby for Delta in Washington on the pipeline issue.

The Taliban's military takeover of the Afghan capital of Kabul in September 1996 initially was welcomed cautiously by the administration.

A senior Unocal executive pronounced the takeover a "very positive" development that would provide the fractured country with "a single government." The company subsequently stressed its intent to remain neutral in Afghan internal affairs.

Washington failed to follow Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in extending recognition because warfare continued, the Taliban failed to unify the country and mistreatment of Afghan women quickly became an international issue. Both the House and Senate passed resolutions last year denouncing Taliban gender policies.

The chief Taliban representative in this country, Abdul Hakim Mujahid, dismissed the furor in a recent interview. "Ninety-nine percent of Afghan women are supporting the Taliban policy toward women," he said, with resistance to that policy stemming from "only one percent of Afghan women tied to a communist style of liberation."

Unocal officials initially resisted requests last year from women's and human rights groups to discuss Afghan issues. "They were less than enthusiastic at first about meeting with us. It took them a little while to understand the constituency we represent," said Lea Browning, an official with The Working Group on the Human Rights of Women.

At a subsequent meeting in Washington with Unocal officials, delegates from the Working Group advocated including Afghan women in the company's training program. A Unocal official declined to comment on the meeting.

In mid-November, Unocal launched a $900,000 training program run by the University of Nebraska at Omaha to train 137 Afghan men in pipeline-building skills. The program managers hope to begin training women for clerical jobs and support services this year, according to Thomas E. Gouttierre, head of the university's Afghan studies center. Unocal also is financing several projects to train women as teachers in Taliban-controlled areas; the company said it intends to provide jobs to Afghan women as well as men. While Unocal maneuvers through the domestic political and foreign policy shoals, the company faces competition in Afghanistan from another consortium led by the Argentine oil company Bridas, sources said. Bridas, which had signed a deal to build a trans-Afghan pipeline with the previous government in Kabul, has indicated readiness to finance the project and start construction without formal Western or U.N. recognition of the Taliban government, according to oil industry analysts.

Bridas's main partner is a Saudi company associated with Prince Turki Faisal Saud, head of the Saudi intelligence service, a connection that reportedly gives Bridas impressive access to financing.

The Argentine company has filed a lawsuit in Houston charging that Unocal, in pursuing its proposed pipeline, disrupted agreements that Bridas had reached with the Turkmen and Afghan governments. Unocal has denied the charges.

"We will do the project with the company that starts the work earliest," Mawlawi Ahmad Jan, the Taliban's acting minister of mines and energy, said in an interview.