Taxation, sometimes fair and often imposed on the rich but compulsory, can fall prey to rival taxpayers and lead to beatings and imprisonment for non-payment.
Justice is served in itinerant courts, with adulterers imprisoned or killed and some repeat thieves hanged in public. Bread, clothes, and even the occasional smartphone are gifts for fighters.
We are in 2021, in a Taliban stronghold: Musa Qala, a town in Helmand province where dozens of American, British and Afghan soldiers died fighting for nearly two decades.
It is now quite the kind of backward Islamist society the Taliban want. It’s a form of gross order after more than 30 years of chaos, locals say.
In interviews with six men from the city, CNN sought to establish what a Taliban-controlled society looked like to its citizens, given the growing influence of the militant group that ruled the country in the 1990s.
Negotiations between the United States and the Taliban are ongoing, with the Afghan government often left on the sidelines, and likely to pick up the pieces of any peace deal.
Musa Qala’s fate carries great symbolism for NATO’s presence in Afghanistan. This is where some of the fiercest fighting took place a decade ago, before US-led troops left Helmand and Afghan troops left the region by 2016.
Britain lost at least 23 soldiers in a skirmish around its verdant river bed, before the US Marines achieved greater firepower in 2010. At least four US soldiers have died in the city, as well. than many Afghan security forces. The absence of women’s rights and the complete absorption of society by the Taliban will raise questions about the ultimate goal of the sacrifice of NATO nations.
While Kabul and the center of most major cities remain mostly under government control, large swathes of rural Afghanistan are ruled by the fractional and varied units of the Taliban. For more than five years now in Musa Qala, they have imposed their rules although they are still in regular conflict with Afghan security forces further south in Helmand province.
“At the end of the day, the Taliban have the power,” said one resident. “It’s not really possible to go against their will.”
“They are everywhere,” added a second resident. “They have the power and the tribunal. They tell us what our Zakat, or tax, is.”
“They use it for expenses and weapons. They oppress those who don’t pay.”
Residents who spoke to CNN did so anonymously, fearing retaliation from the Taliban.
Men generally described the Taliban regime as an improvement over the past decade, marred by deeply backward treatment of women and times of brutality. The men said women were not allowed to work unless they were medical staff.
“When they [women] go out, they must dress according to Sharia law. So for them it is more important to take care of their home than to work outside, ”said a third resident.
The second man we interviewed said that women were prosecuted by the courts for leaving their homes.
“Women are not allowed to go out; you can’t find a lot of women coming out of their homes. There is no school for girls in Musa Qala ”.
The fourth man said, “No one can dare ask why. Since we can’t talk about it, people have accepted reality.”
Residents spoke of a confident militant group able to move freely on motorcycles, with a walkie-talkie alert system for Coalition attacks. They said US airstrikes had recently resumed, after a hiatus due to ongoing peace talks between the United States and the Taliban, accelerated by the Trump administration.
The Taliban “are now more careful than ever to avoid being found in large numbers,” the fourth man said.
They described a system of governance with appointed elders in charge and a regular court system, where the Taliban created an “Otaq,” or room, where grievances could be heard or resolved, and offenders tried and punished. Musa Qala’s hall was convened every Thursday and changed locations often, the men said, due to the threat of airstrikes.
“Many people in different villages who were taken to the Otaq Taliban,” said the third man, “locked there for a night or two, or were beaten”.
While some have described the justice system as efficient, the second man said it was rife with corruption and favored the wealthy. “If you are poor and weak, your chances of winning are very slim,” he said.
The punishments include death for theft, the first man said, citing the hanging of three thieves four years ago.
“They were arrested several times for theft, but they did not stop,” he said, adding that they had been suspended on the road between Musa Qala and Sangin “from the electricity poles of a bridge. , so that people can see ”. He added that a woman was jailed for adultery five years ago and her fate was unknown. The second resident said a prison was made from an abandoned house on the outskirts of town.
Tax accounts at Musa Qala varied. Some said he focused on the rich. The fifth resident said the Taliban forced residents to buy fighters’ clothes in the market during Ramadan and also levied a tax on opium production during harvest. Others described a more flexible system in which traders, farmers and businessmen were asked for a contribution. Residents were also encouraged to donate bread and clothing to Taliban militants.
The third man said competing groups among the Taliban often tried to collect their own taxes.
“The best way would be to give it to one authorized official, but each group is trying to put it in their own pocket,” he said.
Recruitment of the Taliban has been described as voluntary, with little training and relatively popular due to the lack of local work and academic indoctrination.
“The Taliban put a lot of emphasis on the importance of Jihad in madrasas,” or schools, said the third man.
The sixth added: “Schoolchildren are the most vulnerable, quickly brainwashed and recruited. I hope we will see a day when there is only one government and one rule of law in the country. then we can have peace. “
The economic challenges for the Taliban, if fighting eases across the country, were also evident.
Analysts believe the group is keen to strike a political deal with the central Afghan government to maintain some degree of international legitimacy and ensure that development aid can still flow into the country, keeping it afloat.
The fourth man said that in Musa Qala there were no development projects going on like when the central government was in control.
“They [the Taliban] are unable to create jobs, ”he said.
A moment of modernization stood out in the six interviews: the return of smartphones, called “big phones” or “WhatsApp phones” by the locals.
Aggressively banned by the Taliban for years, due to their use by the Coalition to track down Taliban fighters for airstrikes, they have since been slowly allowed to return.
Residents of Musa Qala said the Taliban, businessmen and the wealthiest locals value the best communications. Some terms and conditions still apply, they said.
“The Taliban would arrest anyone who uses the phone to shoot videos,” the first man said. “They have asked stores that run WhatsApp services not to register people who appear suspicious.”
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