Driving to Taliban-controlled areas does not take much time. About 30 minutes from the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, past a large crater left by a roadside bomb, we meet our host, Haji Hekmat, the shadow mayor of the Taliban in the Balkh district.
In a fragrant, black turban, he was a veteran member of the group and first joined the militants in the 1990s when the militants dominated most of the country.
The Taliban arranged a display of power for us. Lined up on either side of the street are heavily armed men, one with a rocket-propellant grenade launcher and the other with an M4 assault rifle captured by the US military. Balkh was once one of the most stable regions of the country. It is now one of the most violent.
“Government forces are right next to the main markets, but you can’t leave the base. This territory belongs to the Mujahideen,” said Vallarai, a local military commander with a ferocious reputation.
This is a similar situation in many parts of Afghanistan. The government controls cities and large towns, but the Taliban surround them and are present in most of the countryside.
Radicals claim their authority through sporadic checkpoints along major roads. When Taliban members stopped and asked a passing car, Armir Sahib Azimal, the local head of the Taliban intelligence, said he was looking for people involved in the government.
“We arrest them and take them prisoners,” he says. “Then we hand them over to our court and they decide what will happen next.”
The Taliban believe that the victory belongs to them. While drinking green tea, Haji Hekmat declares, “We won the war and the United States lost.” US President Joe Biden’s decision to postpone the withdrawal of the rest of the U.S. military to September is from the Taliban’s political leadership in the sense that it will remain in the country beyond the May 1 deadline agreed last year. Caused a sharp reaction. Nevertheless, the momentum seems to be in the radical.
“We are all ready,” says Haji Hekmat. “We are completely ready for peace and we are completely ready for jihad.” The military commander sitting next to him said, “Jihad is an act of worship. No matter how much you do, you never get tired of it. “
Over the past year, there has been a clear contradiction in the Taliban’s “jihad.” They stopped attacking international forces after signing an agreement with the United States, but continued to fight the Afghan government. However, Haji Hekmat claims that there is no contradiction. “We want an Islamic government governed by Shariah. We will continue to jihad until they accept our request.”
Haji Hekmat follows the group’s political leadership in Qatar as to whether the Taliban are willing to share power with other Afghan political factions. “Whatever they decide we accept,” he reiterates.
The Taliban see themselves as a waiting government, not just rebels. They call themselves “Afghanistan Islamic Emirate”. This is the name used when he was in power from 1996 until he collapsed in the aftermath of the 9/11 attack.
Today, they have a sophisticated “shadow” structure and are responsible for overseeing the day-to-day services of the area they manage. Haji Hekmat, Mayor of the Taliban, will take us on a tour.
There is an elementary school full of boys and girls who are scribbling on textbooks donated by the United Nations. While in power in the 1990s, the Taliban banned women’s education, but they often denied it. There are still reports that older girls are not allowed to attend classes in other areas. But here we say at least the Taliban are actively encouraging it.
“As long as they wear hijabs, it’s important for them to study,” says Mawlawi Salahuddin, Taliban’s regional board of education. In secondary school, only female teachers are allowed and a veil is mandatory, he says. “If they follow Shariah, there is no problem.”
According to local sources, the Taliban removed the arts and citizenship classes from the curriculum and replaced them with Islamic subjects, but otherwise followed the national syllabus.
So will the Taliban send their own daughters to school? “My daughter is very young, but once she grows up, I’ll send her to school and madrassa as long as she implements hijab and sharia,” says Sarahhudin.
The government pays staff, but the Taliban is in charge. This is a hybrid system implemented nationwide.
The same is true at a nearby clinic run by a support agency. The Taliban allows female staff to work, but requires male chaperones at night, and male and female patients are isolated. Contraception and information about family planning is readily available.
The Taliban clearly wants us to see them in a more positive way. As we pass by a crowd of female students returning home, Haji Hekmat is excited to make gestures and is proud to disappoint us. However, concerns remain about the Taliban’s view of women’s rights. There were no female representatives in this group, which prevented women from working outside the home in the 1990s.
Driving through the villages of the Balkh district, there are many women, but not all of them are free to roam in comprehensive burqas. But there is nothing in the local bazaar. Haji Hekmat argues that they will not be banned, but in a conservative society they will generally not attend in any case, he says.
We are always accompanied by the Taliban, and all the few locals we speak are grateful for professing support for the group, improving safety and reducing crime. “When the government was in control, they imprisoned our people and demanded bribes to free them,” says one old man. “Our people have suffered a lot. Now we are happy with the situation.”
The Taliban’s ultra-conservative values are less likely to conflict with more rural values, but many, especially cities, are afraid to revive the brutal Islamic Emirate of the 1990s, and many 20 years that young people are undermining the freedom they grew up in the past.
One local resident later spoke to us on condition of anonymity and told us that the Taliban were far more demanding than they admitted in our interview. He explained that the villagers were slapped and beaten because they shaved their beards, and their stereos were broken to listen to music. “People have no choice but to do what they say. Even the small problems that make them physical. People are scared,” he told the BBC.
Haji Hekmat was part of the Taliban in the 1990s. The young fighters parading around us are happy to take pictures and selfies, but when he first looks at our camera, he moves to cover his face with a turban. After he said “old habit” with a smile, he allowed us to photograph his face. Under the old Taliban administration, photography was banned.
Did they make a mistake while in power, do I ask him? Will they behave the same again now?
“The old Taliban and the current Taliban are the same, so when you compare the time and the present, nothing has changed,” says Haji Hekmat. “But of course there are personnel changes. Some are tough and some are calm. That’s normal,” he added.
The Taliban deliberately seemed vague about what the “Islamic government” they wanted to create meant. Some analysts see it as a deliberate attempt to avoid internal friction between the hardline and the milder elements. Can they both deal with people with different views and not alienate their own foundations? Taking power may prove their greatest test.
When you eat a chicken and rice lunch, you’ll hear at least four separate airstrike calls in the distance. Haji Hekmat is not upset. “It’s far away, don’t worry,” he says.
Air power, especially provided by Americans, has been crucial for many years in blocking the Taliban’s advance. The United States has already significantly reduced its military operations since it signed an agreement with the Taliban last year, and many fear that the Taliban will begin a military takeover of the country after its withdrawal.
Haji Hekmat is ridiculing the Afghan government, or the “Kabul regime,” which the Taliban call it corrupt non-Islam. Unless it’s their own condition, it’s hard to see how a man like him reconciles with others in the country.
“This is jihad. It is worship. We do it not for power, but for Allah and his law. To bring Shariah to this country. Whoever opposes us Will fight, “he says.