WARDAK PROVINCE, Afghanistan — It’s just past 5 a.m. on a Friday morning in Kabul and we’re smuggling ourselves out of Afghanistan’s capital city in the backseat of a beat-up Toyota Corolla. Our local contact, sitting shotgun, turns back and scans our three-person crew to make sure we’re properly dressed for the two-day journey inside Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.
Our driver, a short and stocky Afghan with a white beard and an awkward sense of humor, eyes me through the rearview mirror and shouts “Kandhari!,” a reference to the Kandahar-style of clothes I’ve been told to wear as a disguise—a tan shalwar kameez, a green shawl, and a matching skullcap called a Sindhi.
The only woman in our crew, VICE News correspondent Hind Hassan, is told to wear a traditional blue Afghan burqa, a head-to-toe religious covering that the Taliban requires women to wear outside the home.
We’re headed to Wardak Province, a strategic area in central Afghanistan that’s the gateway to the country’s capital. To get there, we’re driving west along a battle-scarred stretch of roadway called National Highway 1 that connects Kabul to Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban movement. Up ahead, a small convey of Afghan National Army Humvees on a resupply mission to a nearby outpost slows to a crawl, and for the next hour, we’re given a terrifying glimpse into what life is like for an Afghan civilian living here, caught in the crossfire of a war they’re not fighting.
We’re told the Taliban is planning to attack the ANA, and the soldiers take cover by spreading themselves out across a long line of buses and taxis, including ours—a tactic perhaps taken directly from the Taliban’s playbook. As we inch forward, the soldiers exchange gunfire into a dense patch of greenery where the Taliban are known to hide.
“Everything past this last checkpoint is Taliban territory,” our local contact said. From here on out, we were reliant on a small group of Taliban fighters on motorbikes to guide us on our tour. No contact with our security team in Kabul was permitted, and tracking devices were strictly banned.
Less than a few kilometers off the main road is Arab Shah Khel, a small hilltop village with a sprawling cemetery that’s nearly filled to capacity, a glaring reminder of the true cost of America’s longest war—a war that’s claimed the lives of more than 47,000 Afghan civilians since 2001.
“The fighting takes place here on a daily basis. Bullets land in houses and create explosions while we are asleep,” said 25-year-old Amrullah Qani, standing over the grave of his sister Naseebah, who was killed by a stray mortar round inside her home. “My sister was a very kind and intelligent woman. Unfortunately, this is what happened to her.”
In nearby Mali Khel village, 28-year-old Safiullah is in tears as he recalled the moment an alleged airstrike destroyed a local mosque. “They [the Americans] have insulted our Quran, our mosque. It is like Mecca for us,” he added.
On the second floor of the mosque, the destruction is immense. Young children are being instructed by religious leaders to gather pieces of the Quran and other religious texts strewn among the rubble. “I can forgive anything, but this. This is my heart and what I believe in,” says Nematullah Nematullah, a village elder. “Do you see Taliban? Al Qaeda? No.”
Surrounded by a group of villagers, Safiullah remembers waking up in the middle of the night to the sound of drones buzzing overhead. A short time later, the mosque was hit. “This is not peace,” Safiullah says, pointing to a piece of shrapnel he recovered from the bomb blast. “It is terror.”
We contacted a weapons expert to analyze photographs of the bomb fragment, and according to Amnesty International, the metal fragment was a piece of the wing assembly of a GBU-12 laser-guided bomb, also called an MK82, used by both U.S. and Afghan aircraft. Markings indicate it was manufactured by U.S. weapons maker Raytheon in March of last year—one month after the U.S. signed an historic peace deal with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar.
In a statement to VICE News, a U.S. military official denied that U.S. forces carried out the strike in Mali Khel. The Afghan armed forces refused repeated requests for comment.
“It is all done by the Kabul ‘puppet’ administration,” said Commander Khadem, a representative of the Taliban’s Civil Casualties Prevention and Complaints Commission, commenting on the increase in violence in recent months. “The Kabul administration has increased their strikes without considering the existence of Taliban in the area.”
Khadem was our minder for the night, and because we were Western journalists in a hostile land, he was instructed to keep us far away from the more radical members of the group. We set off on an epic, four-hour drive through river beds and along cliff edges, culminating in a muddy hike to a remote mountain safehouse where we were invited to stay overnight.
The next morning we were taken to meet Commander Khatab, a military commander of the Band-e-chak district. Dressed in black and flanked by four fighters armed with Kalishnakovs, he appeared agitated by our presence and remained silent for much of the interview.
“We don't want the American democracy,” said Naweed, a Taliban subcommander in the district. “The principles of democracy that America has implemented here and imposed on people only guarantees nothing but harm to the people of Afghanistan.”
Now as American troops are set to leave Afghanistan within a month, many Afghans fear the Taliban will return to its old ways, restricting women’s rights and ruling society under extreme interpretations of Islamic Shariah law. When asked about this, Commander Khatab quickly evaded the question.
“Stop filming. Stop it,” Khatab said, laughing as he abruptly stopped the interview and told us to put away our cameras and return to Kabul.
Life under the Taliban
Six months later, on the eve of U.S. President Joe Biden’s inauguration, we were invited back to Wardak to spend three days with the Taliban, and it was clear the security situation had deteriorated. The insurgent group had escalated their nationwide campaign to take over large swaths of the country in an effort to take back power by force. It’s estimated that the group now controls or contests more than 50 percent of the country, with over 70 districts fully held by the group. And that number is only growing by the week.
“Each week, whatever convoys come by, we plant IEDs for them,” said Mojibulrahman, a Taliban fighter and bombmaker who bragged about killing Afghan soldiers while packing a soda bottle with explosives. “I blew pieces of them up in the air. It blew them sky-high.”
With peace talks between the Taliban and Afghan government at a stalemate, and American forces leaving the battlefield at an accelerated pace, it appears the Taliban may be closer than ever to returning to their old system of governance that once ruled the country before the group was removed from power in 2001 by the U.S.-led invasion.
“Afghanistan is run by the system [the Americans] built. That’s not acceptable at all,” said Commander Hamas, surrounded by a group of about 20 fighters, perched on a hilltop overlooking the Tangi Valley. “When they tell us that the Islamic system is going to rule the country, we are totally ready to lay down weapons and serve inside our Islamic system.”
The Taliban claims it’s not the same brutal group it once was, notorious for oppressing women, preventing girls from getting an education, punishing thieves by cutting off hands, publicly flogging people, and stoning to death women found guilty of adultery.
“Fact is, anyone living in Afghanistan, a Muslim, whether man or woman, they needn’t fear an Islamic system at all because the Islamic system is one for peace, togetherness, and prosperity,” Hamas claimed. “By will of Allah, the rights of all shall be totally safe, and very secure.”
Our Taliban handlers were keen to show us that the group has evolved. They took us to a village bazaar where young men could be seen smoking cigarettes and playing volleyball, activities that were once banned by the group but are now permitted in some areas.
But while this may have been what they wanted us to see, it was clear that many aspects of daily life haven’t changed. There were few women to be seen; television, music, and games are still banned; and social codes are strictly enforced by armed fighters who roam the village and continue to govern through fear, violence, and intimidation.
The cornerstone of the Taliban movement and its political goals has always been the creation of an Islamic state based on a fundamentalist interpretation of Shariah law, a type of Islamic law enforced by ad hoc courts.
“We have military duties and public duties,” Commander Tawakul explained. “When we hear about a crime, after we identify the thief, or a suspect, then we get their statements so he can confess himself, without force or coercion.”
Disputes here are settled by mobile justices and, in some cases, Taliban commanders who have the autonomy to carry out punishments as they see fit.
“After his own confession, then there's a trial,” Tawakul added. “Our court is like a council. Council judges comprise scholars like muftis and administrative people. They sit together. Their principled verdicts are based on books and provide punishments as per the Quran.”
On this day, we were given unprecedented access to observe the initial hearing of a man accused of stealing sheep from a local herder as well as other crimes. The accused had been arrested days before and since then had been sitting in a Taliban jail cell without legal representation.
Surrounded by a group of Taliban fighters, including a 27-year-old Taliban commander who is presiding over the case, he was forced to give a deposition to the commander’s cellphone camera.
“Say the true story or we will beat you! What sheep were you carrying, where did you carry it?” Tawakul said as he slapped the man across his face, sending his skullcap flying off his head. “You stole it?... Don’t say that way; say that you stole it.”
“I stole it,” the man replied.
“Other than this, how many such thefts have you committed?,” Tawakul asked, pointing his cell phone directly at the mans face.
“I haven’t committed [any thefts],” the man pleaded. “If proved, then chop my hand.”
With the initial hearing complete, the man’s on-camera confession would almost certainly seal his fate, and a mobile Taliban judge will now travel to Wardak to deliver the final sentencing, which in this case will be a lashing in the public square or his hand will be cut off.
“Everything we've learned, every action of ours, all our behavior, agrees and complies with the Quran and Shariah. There's nothing else to it,” Tawakul said.
While the judgement may seem brutal, this kind of swift justice does have some level of support among civilians here because it’s seen as less corrupt than the Afghan government's judicial system.
It’s clear that this form of justice is what the Taliban would like to see implemented in Kabul and across Afghanistan. The question now is whether the Taliban can force the Afghan government, and the rest of the nation, to follow suit.
“Until we reach an agreement with [the Afghan government],” Tawakul said, “the war continues.”
Correction: A prior version of this story misstated the number of civilians killed in Afghanistan since 2001. It is 47,000. VICE World News regrets the error.