After departing from the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif and driving about 30 minutes down a road full of craters left by bombs, we met our host: Haji Hikmat, the mayor of the Taliban (a position parallel to the official) in the district Balkh.
This well-scented man, with a black turban that adorns his head, is a veteran. He joined the militants in the 1990s when they controlled most of Afghanistan.
The same week that the Biden administration announced that it will complete the withdrawal of US troops that remain deployed in the country on September 11 – thus delaying the deadline agreed by his predecessor Donald Trump with the Taliban, on May 1 – the Taliban they have organized a show of might for us.
Several heavily armed men flank the street, one of them with a grenade launcher, another with an M4 assault rifle that belonged to an American soldier.
Balkh, once one of the most stable districts in the country, is now one of the most violent.
Baryalai, a local commander with a fierce reputation, points to the other side of the road: “The government forces are just there, near the central market, but they cannot leave their bases. This territory belongs to the Mujahideen.”Taliban’s show of Power
The picture is similar in much of Afghanistan: the government controls the main cities and towns, but the Taliban surrounds them, with a large presence in the countryside.
The militia group asserts its authority with sporadic checkpoints along key roads. As the Taliban detain and question motorists, Aamir Sahib Ajmal, the local leader of the Taliban intelligence service, tells us that they are looking for people with ties to the government.
“We arrest them and take them as prisoners,” he says. “Then we leave them in the hands of our courts and they decide what happens next.”
Sitting with a cup of green tea, Haji Hikmat proclaims: “We have won the war and America has lost.”
President Biden’s decision to delay the withdrawal of his forces to September, which means his stay in the country beyond the deadline agreed to last year, has provoked a strong reaction from the Taliban political leadership.
However, the situation seems to be on the side of the militiamen.
“We are ready for anything,” says Haji HIkmat. “We are fully prepared for peace and we are fully prepared for jihad.”
Sitting next to him, a military commander adds: “Jihad is an act of worship. Worship is something that, no matter how much you do it, you don’t get tired of it.”
Over the past year, there has been an apparent contradiction in the Taliban’s “jihad.”
They stopped attacks against international forces after signing an agreement with the US but continued to fight against the Afghan government.
However, Haji Hikmat insists that there is no contradiction: “We want an Islamic government centered on sharia law. We will continue our jihad until they accept our demands.”
On whether the Taliban would be willing to share power with other Afghan political factions, Haji Hikmat differs from the position of the group’s political leadership in Qatar. “Whatever they decide, we will accept,” he says repeatedly.
The Taliban do not see themselves as a simple rebel group but as the future government.
The militants refer to themselves as the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”, the name they used when they were in power from 1996 until they were deposed after the attacks of September 11, 2001.
Now, they have a sophisticated “shadow” structure, parallel to the official one, with officials in charge of overseeing day-to-day services in the regions they control. Haji Hikmat, the Taliban mayor, takes us on a tour.Girls can go to school in Afghanistan under the Taliban
They show us a primary school, with boys and girls writing in texts donated by the UN. When they were in power in the 1990s, the Taliban banned female education, although they have frequently denied it.
Even now, various reports indicate that in certain areas older girls are not allowed to attend classes. But at least here, the Taliban say they actively encourage it.
“As long as they wear the hijab, it is important that they study,” says Mawlawi Salahuddin, head of the Taliban’s local education commission.
In secondary schools, she says, only female teachers are allowed and the veil is mandatory. “If they follow sharia law, no problem.”
Local sources informed us that the Taliban canceled arts and civics classes, replacing them with Islamic subjects, but were otherwise following the national educational program.
So the Taliban send their own daughters to school?
“My daughter is very young, but when she grows up, I will send her to school and to the madrasa – Muslim center for higher studies – as long as hijab and sharia law are implemented,” says Salahuddin.
The government pays staff salaries, but the Taliban is in charge. It is a hybrid system that is applied throughout the country.
In a nearby health center, run by a humanitarian organization, the story is similar.
The Taliban allow female staff to work, but they have to have a male chaperone during the night, and patients are segregated according to sex.
Contraceptives and family planning information are available.
It is clear that the Taliban want us to see them with different, more positive eyes.
As we drive past a schoolgirl on the way home, Haji Hikmat starts gesturing animatedly, proud that he has contradicted our expectations.
However, the Taliban’s views on women’s rights continue to be of concern. The group has no female representation, and in the 1990s it prevented women from working outside the home.
As we passed through the villages of the Balkh district, we came across several women and not all of them were wearing burqas.
But in the local market, there is not a single one. Haji Hikmat insists that they do not have access banned, but explains that, in a conservative society, it is normal that they do not attend.Some say they obey out of fear of the Taliban
The militants are with us all the time and the few local residents we spoke to declare their support for the group and are grateful for the improved security and reduced crime.
“When the government was in control, they used to imprison our people and demand bribes to free them,” says an elder. “Our people suffered a lot. Now we are happy with the situation.”
The ultra-conservative values of the Taliban are less shocking in the more rural regions, but many, particularly in the cities, fear that the brutal Islamic Emirate of the 1990s will be resurrected and the freedoms with which many young people have grown up will be undermined. last two decades.
A local resident who spoke to us later, under anonymity, told us that the Taliban are much stricter than they acknowledged in our interviews.
The man said they slap and beat locals for shaving their beards, or smash their stereos for listening to music.
“People have no choice but to do what they say,” he told the BBC. “Even for minor issues, they become violent. People are afraid.”
Haji Hikmat was part of the Taliban in the 1990s.
While the younger fighters around us are happy to take photos and selfies, he tends to cover his face with his turban when he sees our camera.
“Old ways,” he says with a smile, before allowing us to film his face. Under the former Taliban regime, photography was banned.
I ask him if they made mistakes when they were in power. Would they behave the same way again?
“The Taliban from before and the Taliban from now are the same. So comparing that time and now … nothing has changed,” explains Haji Hikmat.Taliban want to implement Shariah, a rigid Islamic law in the country.
“Although naturally there are personnel changes,” he adds. “Some people are stiffer and some are calmer. That’s normal.”
The Taliban appear to be deliberately vague about what the “Islamic government” they want to create means.
Some analysts interpret it as an attempt to avoid internal friction between the hardliners and the more moderate members.
Will they be able to accommodate those with different points of view without alienating their own base? The takeover could be the litmus test.
During a chicken and rice lunch, we heard the roars of at least four airstrikes in the distance.
Haji Hikmat remains undaunted. “It’s too far, don’t worry,” he says.
The air force, particularly that supplied by the Americans, has been crucial over the years in stopping the advance of the Taliban.
The US has already drastically cut its military operations since it signed the agreement with the group last year.
And many fear that by the time US troops fully withdraw, the Taliban will already be poised for a military takeover of the country.
Haji Hikmat mocks the Afghan government or “Kabul administration” as the Taliban refers to it, calling it corrupt and non-Islamic.
It’s hard to imagine men like him reconciling with others unless it’s on their own terms.
“This is jihad,” he says. “It is worship. We do not do it for power but for Ala and it is his law. (To) Bring Sharia law to this country. We will fight against whoever opposes it.”