Afghanistan: Peace at a price in the Taliban’s heartlands
By Secunder Kermani
BBC Pakistan & Afghanistan Correspondent
A year after the Taliban takeover, BBC correspondent Secunder Kermani visits the group's heartlands in southern Afghanistan to discover that peace comes at a price.
In a dusty patch of land next to the Helmand river, along what used to be one of the frontlines of the war, two teenage boys are locked in an embrace, trying to wrestle each other to the ground. Sitting in a wide circle, spectators look on eagerly as the early evening light begins to dim.
We're in Sangin district in southern Afghanistan, scene of some of the deadliest clashes of the past two decades. Much of the town is still rubble, though a number of houses are being rebuilt as residents return home, savouring their first taste of peace in years.
There are no women amongst the crowd: in this deeply conservative part of the country, they're largely kept behind closed doors. Many here supported the Taliban's insurgency against the former Afghan government and US-led forces that supported it, while others are simply relieved the violence that plagued their lives has finally come to an end.
"Life is very good now, people are happy," says Lalai, who has organised the wrestling match. "There's freedom and no problems," chimes in another man.
Everyone you speak to here has been affected by the war. "You won't find a single home in the district without at least two or three relatives martyred," Lalai tells us.
Many Afghans feel deeply despondent about the direction the country is being taken in by the Taliban. However, in rural areas, particularly in the south and east - dominated by the Pashtun ethnicity - there are many others who either support the Taliban or who feel life under their rule is preferable to life at war.
Reminders of the conflict are everywhere in Sangin: the debris of homes flattened by US or Afghan government airstrikes, as well as the scars on the road leading to Helmand's capital Lashkar Gah, left by Taliban bombs.
Inside Lashkar Gah, everyone we speak to praises improved security, but there's a new battle in Afghan cities, against hunger.
Foreign funding which used to prop up the previous government has been slashed and Afghanistan's bank reserves have been frozen ever since the Taliban took power last year. Now poverty and child malnutrition are on the rise.
"I go down to the roundabout at dawn to try and find work as a labourer," one elderly man tells us, "but if even one person arrives offering a job, 50 others swarm around him first."
A crowd gathers around us as we speak, all complaining of sharp rises to food prices and a lack of opportunities.
"Even when I'm saying my prayers, I keep thinking of my debts and how I'll pay them back," says Haji Baridad, a building contractor. Still, he adds, he's happy the war has ended. "I live just outside the city and couldn't travel at night, now I can… But I'm earning nothing."
The Taliban do have a degree of genuine grassroots support in Afghanistan, particularly in places like Helmand, although as they stridently oppose democratic elections, it's impossible to quantify it.
Helmand, however, is also one of the most tightly controlled provinces in the country. We've been told anyone publicly criticising the Taliban faces arrest or even worse.
In December 2021, Naveed Azimi, an English teacher, was detained by the Taliban in Helmand for having written a Facebook post criticising the lack of salaries for government employees. Not long after, his dead body was dumped by the river.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, another local critic of the Taliban told the BBC that about 20 people in total had been arrested for their social media activity.
"You can't say anything at all," he said, describing how some were simply threatened whilst others were kept in jail. "The Taliban have different types of torture for them, hitting them with cables and pipes, holding their heads under water."
From Helmand, we set off for Kandahar. The drive is just under three hours, but would have been unimaginable for us during the war. In the fields by the roadside, farmers are picking grapes, but it's another crop that this part of the country is best known for.
Opium grown in Afghanistan produces the vast majority of the world's heroin, and in the past, it's been a valuable source of income for both poor farmers and the Taliban.
Now the Taliban have banned its cultivation. A few fields of dried-up poppies are all that remain of the most recent crop. Shaista Gul, an elderly farmer with a wrinkled face, is worried. "Nothing else we plant can earn us enough money," he says.
Given the ban, however, he has no plans to try to plant opium again. The Taliban could be about to achieve what the US never could, substantially eradicating poppy production. Opium that has already been processed, though, is still being openly traded in markets.
"Some say rich people have stored up a lot of opium," Shaista Gul tells us, "waiting for the prices to rise even further. So they're happy."
We arrive in Kandahar, Afghanistan's second-largest city and spiritual home of the Taliban. It was at a shrine here that the founder of the Taliban, Mullah Omar, was declared "Leader of the Faithful" in 1996, as he stood in front of a crowd, holding out a cloak said to have belonged to the Prophet Muhammad.
"The Taliban were much stricter back then," one elderly witness to the event tells us. "Now they're not forcing people to grow their beard, for example."
Kandahar, however, is where the new supreme leader of the Taliban, the reclusive Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, still resides. He remains out of public sight, but he is believed to be behind the progressively hardening stance of the Taliban over the course of the year. The Taliban's government is based in Kabul, but it's Kandahar where the ultimate decisions are made.
The latest example of the Taliban's assertiveness is corporal punishment. So far, it hasn't been widely implemented, but last month, Taliban officials in Kandahar announced three people had been flogged for sex outside marriage and theft.
"It's our nation, our religion," the province's deputy governor, Maulvi Hayatullah Mubarak, responds defiantly when I question him about the incident, insisting a legal procedure would have been followed.
It's Afghan women who have been affected most by the Taliban's new laws. In Kandahar and southern Afghanistan, nearly all wore the burqa or covered their faces in public already. Female teachers and healthcare workers are among those who have been allowed to continue working. But others have been told to stay at home.
Negina Naseri was a radio presenter in Kandahar, but stopped work when fighting intensified. Now she would like to go back, but while female journalists in Kabul are still broadcasting, outlets in Kandahar have been told they can no longer employ them.
"Kandahar is a province where people don't often let women work," Negina tells me. "When I was out on the street I was hit, my scarf was pulled, people threw bottles or cigarette packets at me - even their phone numbers… despite all this I managed to achieve a professional position."
Now, stuck at home, she says she sometimes wishes she had never even bothered pursuing an education.
Kandahar might be where the Taliban first emerged, but it's also where they have faced some of the fiercest resistance. Just across the road from the shrine visited by Taliban founder Mullah Omar is an elaborate domed mausoleum commemorating one of the Taliban's most notorious opponents.
General Raziq was viewed as a hero by many in Afghanistan for helping hold back the Taliban advance, until he was assassinated in 2018. He was closely linked to the foreign military presence, but also accused of widespread human rights abuses.
In the town of Spin Boldak, south of Kandahar, bordering Pakistan, his men allegedly ran a secret prison. Faizullah Shakir, an imam at a nearby mosque, who says he has no links with the Taliban, was held there for nearly three years and gives us a tour of his former cell.
"They hung me from the ceiling and wrapped my arms around a pipe, while beating my legs with bayonets," he says. He describes being suspended like that for three days before being cut down, having his jaw broken and then being taken to a small, dark underground chamber where he lived with a group of other prisoners.
There wasn't even enough space for them each to lie down, he says.
The Taliban have committed countless atrocities in the course of the Afghan conflict and have been responsible for the majority of civilian deaths, but they, or those accused of links to them, have also been the victims of atrocities. The incidents were often simply just never highlighted in the same way.
It explains why some in the country see little difference between the "strongmen" of the previous government and the Taliban's forces now.
Driving along the fence separating Afghanistan from Pakistan, we reach an entirely abandoned village called Sharo Oba. Commander Haji Sailab, a veteran Taliban member, says he and other local members of his Noorzai tribe who lived there were forced out en masse by General Raziq, who belonged to a rival tribe.
"When I returned here for the first time last year with my family, they cried with happiness," Haji Sailab says.
Others suggest the inhabitants were forced to leave, not because of tribal rivalry, but because they were harbouring Taliban elements who had launched repeated attacks on government forces. But Haji Sailab says the incident helped the movement grow from a small to substantial presence in the area, capitalising on local anger.
After Spin Boldak fell to the Taliban, there were credible reports of revenge killings by members of the Noorzai tribe. Haji Sailab, however, denies that. He insists an amnesty announced by the Taliban leadership prevented violence.
"There would've been rivers of blood flowing," he says. "We know exactly who was responsible for the attacks on us."
The killing of dozens of former members of the Afghan security forces has been documented over the past year and there has been no sign of any accountability for their deaths from within the Taliban. Yet by the brutal standards of the Afghan conflict, their return to power has been less bloody than many had initially feared.
It's what the Taliban do now that matters most to Afghans. As we return to Kandahar, we take a detour, following an autorickshaw that has been converted into a mobile library.
The Pen Path charity works promoting education in remote villages. About 100 boys and girls gather excitedly in front of a mosque as a visiting teacher begins his lesson. Matiullah Wesa, founder of Pen Path, describes education as an "Islamic right", but the Taliban have kept most girls' secondary schools in the country closed.
In this village, as in other impoverished rural parts, no girls' secondary school even exists. Students often don't even have pens or notebooks, says Matiullah Wesa.
As the open-air class gets underway, older girls and women are nowhere to be seen. The Taliban cite these conservative values as the reason behind the continuing school closures. But watching over their younger daughters, fathers in the village are clear they want them to get an education.
"I want them to go to university," says one, "they can become doctors and serve the country." Another expresses support but outlines his conditions that "there should be a separate building for girls and a female teacher. They should wear the burqa on their way to school."
Even in this deeply conservative environment, there appears a consensus that girls should have the same right to education as boys. It's a telling moment.
Much attention has been devoted to asking whether or not the Taliban have changed since the last time they were in power in the 1990s. What's even more important, though, is how much Afghan society has changed in that time, even in the Taliban's heartlands.