Driving to Taliban-controlled territory doesn’t take long. Around 30 minutes from the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, passing large craters left by roadside bombs, we meet our host: Haji Hekmat, the Taliban’s shadow mayor in the Balkh district.
Perfumed and in a black turban, he’s a veteran member of the group, having first joined the militants in the 1990s when they ruled over the majority of the country.
The Taliban have arranged a display of force for us. Lined abreast of either side of the road are heavily armed men, one carrying a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, another an M4 assault gun captured from US forces. Balkh was once one among the more stable parts of the country; now it’s become one among the foremost violent.
Baryalai, a local military commander with a ferocious reputation, points down the road, “the government forces are just there by the main market, but they can’t leave their bases. This territory belongs to the mujahideen”.
It’s a similar picture across much of Afghanistan: the government controls the cities and bigger towns, but the Taliban are encircling them, with a presence in large parts of the countryside.
The militants assert their authority through sporadic checkpoints along key roads. As Taliban members stop and question passing cars, Aamir Sahib Ajmal, the local head of the Taliban’s intelligence, tells us they’re checking out people linked to the govt.
“We will arrest them, and take them, prisoner,” he says. “Then we hand them over to our courts and they decide what will happen next.”
The Taliban believe victory is theirs. Sitting over a cup of tea, Haji Hekmat proclaims, “we have won the war and America has lost”. The decision by US President Joe Biden to delay the withdrawal of remaining US forces to September, meaning they will remain in the country past the 1 May deadline agreed last year, has sparked a pointy reaction from the Taliban’s political leadership. Nonetheless, momentum seems to be with the militants.
“We are ready for anything,” says Haji Hekmat. “We are 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, however much of it you do, you don’t get tired.”
For the past year, there has been an apparent contradiction in the Taliban’s “jihad”. They stopped attacks on international forces following the signing of an agreement with the US but continued to fight with the Afghan government. Haji Hekmat, though, insists there is no contradiction. “We want an Islamic government ruled by the Sharia. We will continue our jihad until they accept our demands.”
On whether or not the Taliban would be willing to share power with other Afghan political factions, Haji Hekmat defers to the group’s political leadership in Qatar. “Whatever they decide we will accept,” he repeatedly says.
The Taliban don’t see themselves as a mere rebel group but as a government-in-waiting. They ask themselves because the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” the name they used when in power from 1996 until being overthrown within the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
Now, they have a sophisticated “shadow” structure, with officials in charge of overseeing everyday services in the areas they control. Haji Hekmat, the Taliban mayor, takes us on a tour.
We’re shown a grade school, crammed with young boys and girls scribbling in UN-donated textbooks. While in power within the 1990s, the Taliban banned female education, though they often deny that. Even now, there are reports that in other areas older girls are not allowed to attend classes. But here a minimum of the Taliban says they’re actively encouraging it.
“As long as they wear hijab, it’s important for them to study,” says Mawlawi Salahuddin, in charge of the Taliban’s local education commission. In secondary schools, he says, only female teachers are allowed, and therefore the veil is mandatory. “If they follow the Sharia, there is no problem.”