The Taliban: What it's like to live in a town where everything is controlled by the Taliban

Taxation, sometimes fair and often compulsory for the rich but compulsory, can fall victim to rival tax officials and lead to beatings and imprisonment for failure to pay.

Justice is being distributed in mobile courts with adulterers who have been imprisoned or killed and some re-offensive thieves who have been hanged in public. Bread, clothes, and even the occasional smartphone are gifts for fighters.

This is the year 2021 in a Taliban stronghold: Musa Qala, a town in Helmand province where dozens of American, British and Afghan soldiers were killed in combat for nearly two decades.

It is now quite the kind of backward Islamist society that the Taliban want. After more than 30 years of chaos, it’s a crude form of order, say the locals.

In interviews with six male residents of the city, CNN sought to find out what a Taliban-controlled society looks like to its citizens, given the growing nationwide influence of the militant group that ruled the country in the 1990s.

On Wednesday, US President Joe Biden is expected to announce plans to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan by the twentieth anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks.

Negotiations between the US and the Taliban are ongoing, with the Afghan government often marginalized and likely to take up parts of a peace deal.

The view from a motorcycle through Musa Qala in the Afghan province of Helmand.

The fate of Musa Qala is a great symbol of NATO’s presence in Afghanistan. Some of the most violent fighting took place here a decade ago, before US-led forces left Helmand and Afghan troops left the area by 2016.

Britain lost at least 23 soldiers fighting for its green riverbed before the US Marines brought in greater firepower in 2010. At least four US soldiers died in the city along with many Afghan security forces. The lack of rights for women and the full takeover of society by the Taliban will raise questions about the ultimate purpose of the NATO nations’ sacrifice.

While Kabul and the center of most of the capital cities remain largely under state control, large parts of rural Afghanistan are ruled by the fragile and diverse units of the Taliban. For more than five years they have been imposing their rules in Musa Qala, 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 power,” said one resident. “It’s not really possible to go against her will.”

“They are everywhere,” added a second resident. “You have power and judgment. You tell us what our zakat or our tax is.”

“They use it for spending and weapons. They suppress those who don’t pay.”

Residents who spoke to CNN did so anonymously, fearing reprisals from the Taliban.

The men broadly described Taliban rule as an improvement over the past decade, marred by deeply backward treatment of women and moments of brutality. The men said women are only allowed to work if they are medical staff.

“If you [women] go out, they have to dress according to Sharia law. It is therefore more important for them to look after their houses than to work outside, “said a third resident.

The second man we interviewed said women had been prosecuted by the courts for leaving their homes.

“Women are not allowed to go out; you cannot find many women going out of their homes. There is no school for girls in Musa Qala.”

The fourth man said, “Nobody dares ask why. Since we cannot talk about it, people have accepted reality.”

Locals say that after decades of chaos, life in Musa Qala continues under raw rule.

Residents spoke of a confident militant group able to roam freely on motorcycles with an established walkie-talkie warning system for coalition attacks. They said the US air strikes had recently resumed after a pause due to the ongoing US-Taliban peace talks, which were hastened by the Trump administration.

The Taliban “are now more cautious than ever so as not to be gathered in large numbers,” said the fourth man.

They described a system of government with elders-designate and a regular court system in which the Taliban set up an “otaq” or room in which complaints could be heard or settled and criminals were brought to justice and punished. The room in Musa Qala was convened every Thursday and frequently changed venues due to the threat of air strikes, the men said.

“Many people in different villages who were brought to the Taliban Otaq,” said the third man, “were locked up there for a night or two or were beaten up.”

While some said the judicial system was efficient, the second man said it was a victim of corruption and favored the rich. “When you are poor and weak, your chance of winning is very slim,” he said.

Punishments included death for theft, the first man said, citing the hanging of three thieves four years ago.

“They were repeatedly arrested for robbery a few times, but they didn’t stop,” he said, adding that on the road between Musa Qala and Sangin, they were “hung from the power poles on a bridge for people to see. ” He added that a woman had been arrested for adultery five years ago and her fate was unknown. The second resident said an abandoned house on the outskirts of the city had been turned into a prison.

The tax accounts in Musa Qala were different. Some said it focused on the rich. The fifth resident said the Taliban forced residents to buy combatants’ clothing in the market during Ramadan and also imposed a tax on opium production at harvest. Others described a more relaxed system in which shopkeepers, farmers and business people were asked to contribute. Locals were also encouraged to give bread and clothes to Taliban militants.

The third man said competing groups under the Taliban often tried to collect their own taxes.

“The better way would be to give it to a single authorized officer, but each group tries to put it in their own pocket,” he said.

Recruitment to the Taliban has been described as voluntary, poorly trained, and relatively popular due to the lack of local work and schooling.

“The Taliban emphasize the importance of jihad in the madrasas,” said the third man.

The sixth man added, “Students are the most vulnerable, indoctrinated and recruited quickly. I hope we see a day when there is only one government and one rule of law in the country. Then we can have peace.”

The city of Musa Qala has been under Taliban control for more than five years.

The economic challenges for the Taliban as fighting eases nationwide were also evident.

Analysts believe the group is keen to find political shelter with the central Afghan government in order to maintain some level of international legitimacy and ensure that development aid can continue to flow into the country and keep it afloat.

The fourth man said that there were no development projects going on in Musa Qala as if the central government was in control.

“You [the Taliban] are unable to create jobs, “he said.

One moment of modernization stood out in the six interviews: the return of smartphones, which the locals refer to as “big phones” or “WhatsApp phones”.

For years aggressively banned by the Taliban because they were used by the coalition to persecute Taliban fighters for air strikes, they have since been allowed to return gently.

Musa Qala residents said the Taliban, businesspeople and wealthier locals value better communication. Some conditions still applied, they said.

“The Taliban would stop anyone who shoots videos on the phone,” said the first man. “You have instructed the businesses that operate WhatsApp services not to register anyone who looks suspicious.”