The Taliban fighters we encountered are stationed just 30 minutes from one of Afghanistan’s largest cities, Mazar-i-Sharif, capital of Bactro province.
The “ghanimat,” or instruments of war, which they display includes a Humvee military utility vehicle, two pickup trucks and a series of powerful machine guns.
At the center of a heavily armed crowd is Ainuddin, a straight-faced religious school alumnus (madrassa) who is now a local military commander.
Insurgents have conquered new territory at what appears to be a daily rate, as international troops have all but withdrawn. In the middle is a terrified population.
Tens of thousands of ordinary Afghan citizens have had to flee their homes – hundreds have been killed or injured in recent weeks.
I ask Ainuddin how he can justify the violence, given the pain it inflicts on the people he claims to be fighting for. “It’s a fight, so people are dying,” he replied coldly, adding that the group is doing its best “not to harm civilians”.
Let me add that it was the Taliban who started the fight. “No,” he retorts. “We had a government and it was overthrown. They [os americanos] started the fight. “
Ainuddin and the rest of the Taliban believe they are on the verge of regaining their dominance after being overthrown by the US-led invasion in 2001.
“They are not giving up on Western culture … so we have to kill them,” he said of Kabul’s “puppet government”.
Right after we finished our conversation, we heard the sound of helicopters above us. The Humvee and Taliban fighters quickly disperse. It is a reminder of the continuing threat the Afghan Air Force poses to the insurgents and that the battle is far from over.
We are in Bactro, a city with ancient roots, considered the birthplace of one of Islam’s most famous mystical poets, Jalaluddin Rumi.
We had passed through here earlier this year, when it was still controlled by the government, but the remote villages were under Taliban control. It is now one of nearly 200 district centers captured by militants in this latest unprecedented offensive.
A senior Taliban official said the focus on the north was deliberate – not only because the region has traditionally seen strong anti-Taliban resistance, but also because it is more diverse.
Although its central leadership is heavily dominated by members of the Pashtun ethnic group, the member said the Taliban wanted to stress that they were incorporating other ethnicities as well.
Haji Hekmat, a local Taliban leader and member who welcomed us to Bactro, is eager to show us how everyday life is.
Young students take to the streets (although elsewhere there are reports of girls banned from school). The fair is always crowded, with men and women consuming.
Local sources told us that women can only attend with a male partner, but when we visited, this did not appear to be the case. Elsewhere, Taliban commanders have been much stricter.
All of the women we see, however, wear the burqa, covering their hair and face. Haji Hekmat insists that no one is “forced” and that the Taliban simply “preach” that this is how women should dress.
But I was told that taxi drivers were ordered not to take women into town unless they were fully covered.
The day after we left, reports surfaced of a young woman who was murdered for the way she dressed. Haji Hekmat, however, rejects claims that members of the Taliban were responsible.
Many market players express their support for the group and their gratitude for improving safety. However, with Taliban fighters following us all the time, it’s hard to know what the locals are really thinking.
The group’s harsh views are at times aligned with more conservative Afghans, but the Taliban are now pushing for control of several major cities.
In the shade of the Blue Mosque of Mazar-e-Sharif, men and women walked last week in a visibly more relaxed social environment.
The government still controls the city, and almost everyone I spoke to expressed concern about what the advancing Taliban would mean, especially for the “freedoms” that the younger generations have grown up with.
Back in Bactro district, the Taliban formalize their own rival government. They occupied all of the city’s official buildings, with the exception of a large police compound, which is now abandoned.
It was once the seat of a powerful rival, the local police chief, and was partially destroyed in a suicide bombing by militants fighting for control of the area.
Taliban District Governor Abdullah Manzoor’s face lights up with a broad smile as he talks about the operation, while his men laugh. The struggle here, as in so many places in Afghanistan, is deeply personal and ideological.
Some things haven’t changed since the Taliban takeover: Street cleaners dressed in orange still show up for work, as do some bureaucrats. They are overseen by a newly appointed Taliban mayor, seated at a large wooden table, with a small white flag of the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” placed in one corner.
Previously he was in charge of ammunition procurement, but now he takes care of taxes – and he proudly told me that the group charges businessmen less than the government did before.
However, the transition from military to civilian life is a work in progress. A Taliban member, still holding his weapon, who moves to pose behind the mayor during our interview, is jostled by other important personalities.
Elsewhere, however, the insurgents’ harsh interpretation of Islamic scriptures is more visible. At the local radio station, they played a mix of Islamic music and popular hits in general.
Now, it’s just religious songs. Haji Hekmat says they have banned songs that promote “vulgarity” from being played in public, but insists people can still listen to whatever they want.
I was told, however, that a local resident was caught listening to music in the market. To punish him, Taliban fighters made him walk barefoot under the scorching sun until he lost consciousness. Haji Hekmat says that did not happen.
As he leaves the station, he points to some of the young people who work there, noting that they do not have beards. “You see! We don’t force anyone,” he said with a smile.
Of course, the group wants to give a softer image to the world. But in other parts of the country, the Taliban behave much more rigidly. The differences may depend on the attitudes of local commanders.
With reports of revenge killings and other human rights abuses in some of the areas they captured, the Taliban have been warned by Western officials that they risk turning the country into a rogue state. they were trying to transform it by force.
What many associate most closely with the Taliban’s previous spell in power are the brutal punishments imposed under their interpretation of Sharia law.
Last month, in southern Helmand province, the group hanged two men accused of child abduction from a bridge on the grounds that they had been convicted.
In Bactro, the day we visited a Taliban court hearing, all of the cases were related to land disputes. While many fear its form of justice, for others it at least offers the possibility of a faster resolution than the notoriously corrupt system of government.
“I had to pay so many bribes,” complains one of the litigants as he talks about his previous attempts to solve the case.
Taliban judge Haji Badruddin said he had ordered no corporal punishment during his four-month tenure and stressed that the group has an appeals court system to review serious verdicts.
But he defends even the most severe penalties. “In our Sharia, of course, for those who have sex and are not married, whether they are a girl or a boy, the punishment is 100 lashes in public. But for those who are married, they must be stoned to death. . For those who steal: if it’s proven, his hand should be cut off. “
He refutes criticisms that punishments are incompatible with the modern world. “People’s children are kidnapped. Is it better ? Or is it better if a person’s hand is cut off and stability brought to the community? “
For now, despite the rapid advance of the Taliban, the government still controls the largest cities in Afghanistan. Over the next few months, the country is likely to experience protracted and increasingly deadly violence as both sides fight for control.
I ask Haji Hekmat if he is sure that the Taliban can win militarily. “Yes,” he replies. “If the peace negotiations don’t work, we will win, God willing.”
These negotiations have stalled, however, and the Taliban’s repeated demand for the creation of an “Islamic government” appears to amount to a call for surrender from its opponents. “We have conquered the foreigners,” Haji Hekmat says, “and now our internal enemies.”