Afghans living under Taliban lament loss of freedoms

Work days for midwife Nooria Haya regularly included meetings and discussions with male doctors. They decided on treatments for locals and the priorities for the public clinic she works in. It’s in Ishkamish, a rural district with sparse amenities, in Takhar province on Afghanistan’s north-eastern border with Tajikistan.

But recently, the 29-year-old found out that meetings between male and female staff were prohibited. It was the first order the Taliban gave them when the group took control of the region, she says. She could only ask herself how else her life would change.

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Ishkamishsits in the Hindu Kush mountain range. It’s a key border area that the Taliban, emboldened by Nato’s withdrawal of nearly 10,000 troops at the start of May, has taken.

Igniting intense fighting with seemingly unprepared government forces in southern Helmand by the middle of the month, the fundamentalist Islamist group then took the northern Burka district at the mountains’ foothills.

Around the same time, US forces left Kandahar airbase – one of the largest in the nation, in a province containing the country’s second largest city, Kandahar. Locals were acutely aware of the Taliban’s progress.

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“Every individual was frightened,” says Jan Agha, 54, in Arghistan district, on the border with Pakistan, and a windy two-hour drive east of Kandahar city.

People locked themselves in their homes. But the Taliban took up positions in almost every village. Locals can’t escape them.

Armed fighters walk through the streets. In the morning and evening, they knock on people’s doors to collect food, which they’re given for fear of worse consequences.

“Each house now keeps three or four breads or dishes for them,” Jan, a fruit seller, says, no matter how poor the residents, in a chronically poor country. If the fighters want to stay in their homes too, they do.
Through June, the Taliban claimed the capture of several provinces in the north, including Takhar, Faryab and Badakhshan. They forced the army to strategically retreat, and with it democratic institutions. Most of the 2,500 US troops had left by this time, although a handful remain in the capital Kabul, as does its Air Force.

Afghans have criticised the international withdrawal as too hasty. Some argue that peace talks over the last two years between the Americans and the Taliban only enhanced the latter’s perceived legitimacy, recruitment and ambition.

An end to the conflict – which had been ongoing since the US-led invasion ended half a decade of Taliban rule almost 20 years ago – had never been close.

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As the Taliban reasserted itself in June, fighters sequestered more than food and lodging. Social and economic rights fought for with limited success over the last two decades were immediately withdrawn. Their privations on women descended on Nooria for the first time in her life.

“There are a lot of restrictions now. When I go out, I have to wear a burka as the Taliban orders us, and a male has to accompany me,” she says.

Travelling as a midwife across the district is especially difficult. Men are not allowed to shave their beards – the Taliban says this is against Islam. Barbers are prohibited from giving purportedly foreign-style short back and sides haircuts.

A group within the Taliban, called the Amri bil Marof (literally: order the good), particularly enforces the social rules. Its punishments brought the most terror to Afghans in the 1990s. Now, again, it’s imposing a two-strike rule. First a warning, second a punishment – public humiliations, prison, beatings, lashes.

“Suddenly most freedoms have been taken away from us,” Nooria says. “It is so hard. But we have no other option. They are brutal. We have to do whatever they say. They are using Islam for their own purposes. We are Muslims ourselves, but their beliefs are different.”

Difference has also arrived with some increased security from criminality, and from war – where the conflict has been pushed to other areas. Locals welcome such nuanced calm, as they would if the government were in control – even if they doubt its durability.

But other things have been driven away too. Afghans used to visit Takhar, famous among the country’s 34 provinces for its clean, crisp mountain air that blankets snowy mountains, green and verdant fields, and clear river waters.
In Farkhar district, taxi driver Asif Ahadi says he used to make 900 Afghanis ($11; £8) a day. But as the Taliban continued their march, tourists stopped their travels.

“Those visitors were my customers,” Asif, 35, says. “The money they paid me I used to feed my family. Now my best day will only earn me 150 Afghanis. It’s not even enough to cover the cost of my fuel, which has more than doubled now.”

And there’s been a deadening impact on social life. “People used to have parties every Friday night – listen to music and dance – have fun. All of these are completely banned now,” Asif says.

“Every business has suffered the same.”

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By 4 July, two days after US and Nato troops left Afghanistan’s biggest airbase at Bagram, the linchpin for all US-led operations for the last two decades, the Taliban seized Panjwai district, in Kandahar province – their birthplace and former bastion.

Less than a week later, they said they controlled the country’s biggest border crossing and trade route with Iran and major port, Islam Qala. By the third week of the month, the insurgency had already claimed to command 90% of Afghanistan’s borders and 85% of the country. The government disputed the figures – and they are impossible to independently verify – and it still held more populated urban areas.

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As the Taliban solidified their control, people started to come out of hiding at home, Asif says. Some had never seen the Taliban’s rapid dispensing of justice and methods of governing before.

“They make decisions very quickly on issues and matters like crime,” Asif says. “There’s no bureaucracy, no red tape – every sort of problem can be solved in days – and nobody can challenge any decision.”

They also collect “Taliban Usher” and Zakat, usually freely-given Islamic offerings to the poor, of about 10% of people’s harvest or a fraction of income, respectively. But the Taliban distorts them into essentially taxes for their own use.

It’s another financial pressure, alongside prices for “all goods that are hiked to sky”, Asif says, as external and internal trade is restricted, and the economy is squeezed. Public works have stopped.

“The people were already very poor, and there’s no opportunity for work, and no investment,” he adds.

Some have seen the Taliban’s system before, however.

“Their ideology and thinking are exactly as they were during their Emirate time. Nothing has changed at all,” says Jan. “The Taliban say they have sacrificed a lot to re-establish the Islamic Emirate, so it can’t be cast aside.”

He says the Taliban has shut all schools in his area. They’ve said any education should be according to their strict interpretation of Islamic Sharia law. It’s one of many worrying indicators for locals.
During their last rule from 1996 to 2001, the Taliban banned education and work for women and girls, and restricted their access to healthcare. Since they were forced from power, women retook places in public life, making up a quarter of parliament.

Numbers of girls in primary education went up to 50%, although by late secondary school the figure was around 20%. Women’s life expectancy grew from 57 to 66 years. The figures are comparatively poor, but improvements have been made. Yet now there are only fears that they will regress.

Progress is what the Taliban are making now. In August, they’ve attacked more urban centres – taking a third of the regional capitals, including Kunduz in the north and Taloqan in Takhar province. This week they took Herat in the west, and southern Kandahar and Lashkar Gah, strategically and symbolically important cities, where, together, well over one million people live.

The US Air Force has been supporting the Afghan military with strikes. But the last remaining foreign forces are expected to leave the country by 11 September. The date marks the 20th anniversary of al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks in the US. They spurred the US-led invasion of Afghanistan to remove the Taliban from power for harbouring Osama Bin Laden and other al-Qaeda figures.

The struggle takes its toll on human life. A thousand civilians were killed in the month up to the first week of August, the UN says. Hundreds of thousands of people have fled their homes.

Control of the country isn’t yet certain. But where the Taliban now rules, the change is clear.

“You have to bow your head to live your life,” Jan says. “You cannot dare oppose them. You cannot say things against them at all. If they say ‘yes’, you have to say ‘yes’. If they say ‘no’, you must say ‘no’.”

Such fear prevails, Nooria says. “Although it might seem like people looked relaxed, when you speak with them, you understand the serious worries they have. We sit together, praying for God to take them away from us.

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