Living with the Taleban (3): Local experiences in Dasht-e Archi district, Kunduz province

In our third study exploring Taleban rule in territories under their control, AAN looks at Dasht-e Archi district in Kunduz province. The intra-Afghan talks in Doha may presage an Afghan state with key positions held by the Taleban. At the very least, the pattern of the Taleban controlling particular localities is likely to continue. In this light, understanding what it is like to live under Taleban rule is important. AAN guest author Bilal Sediqi examines how their shadow ‘governance’ is structured and exercised. He finds that the district serves as a key organisational centre for the Taleban, with a busy primary court and a functioning committee structure tasked to run day-to-day governance functions. Encounters between residents and the Taleban are wide-ranging, including ‘taxation’ and at least implicit pressure to provide fighters with food, although not shelter and conscription. Generally, the Taleban are not accountable to the population. It is impossible to protest against them, although they sometimes address local concerns. Given the breadth and depth of the Taleban’s control over territory and population in the district, Dasht-e Archi offers important indications about what it is like to live under the Taleban.
An Afghan Local Police member stands guard in Dasht-e Archi District, Kunduz Province, in July 2013. Photo: US Army Photo by Sgt James Walker via DVIDS (2013).   

The ‘Living with the Taleban’ mini-series is a joint research project by the Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN) and the United States Institute of Peace (USIP). The first study in the series looked at Andar district in Ghazni province and the second study at Nad Ali district in Helmand province. The AAN series editor is Reza Kazemi.
Summary of findings

  • Kunduz province’s Dasht-e Archi district has changed hands between the government and the Taleban several times. As of late 2020, the Taleban controlled vast swathes of the district territory and population, with government control restricted to the centre and its immediate vicinity.
  • The Taleban governance system in Kunduz mirrors that of the government and is fully functioning in Dasht-e Archi district, which also serves as a major Taleban organisational hub. Senior Taleban officials up to the leadership council are involved in district appointments, a bustling Taleban primary court receives litigants from across the province and a Taleban ‘bureaucracy’ is functioning, with active components including military, judicial and finance committees. These are the same structures which are called ‘commissions’ elsewhere in the country, including in the districts featuring in our first two reports in this series in Ghazni and Helmand. To avoid being targeted by the government, Taleban authorities do not have fixed offices (except for the primary court that often, but not always, operates from a village mosque in Dasht-e Archi). There is no apparent military-civilian distinction among the Taleban.
  • Taleban primary, secondary and high courts have been operating in Kunduz since 2019. The Dasht-e Archi-based primary court adjudicates many cases, mostly land disputes, every week. Although the courts do not follow a systematic procedure to adjudicate cases, a meticulous process seems to have emerged in dealing with, at least, some land disputes. In contrast, civil cases, chiefly those involving family matters, are often referred for elder-led community resolution. While Taleban justice does provide solutions to local disputes and is considered less corrupt and faster than government justice, there have been allegations of undue influence speeding up or slowing down the proceedings, or not taking any action. This research was, however, unable to learn how criminal cases are adjudicated or how women experience Taleban justice.
  • The Taleban collect ‘taxes’ on most economic activities in Dasht-e Archi, including on agriculture, livestock, construction and other development projects and from shopkeepers, and business owners. Tax collections are not always regular or systematic, but when the Taleban reach people to collect taxes, they often issue receipts. Farmers with small landholdings and other poor people are exempt from taxation. While there is no overt pressure on them to do so, wealthier residents also make voluntary donations to the Taleban either in cash or in kind. Tax revenues are almost entirely spent on covering the Taleban’s expenses, making them more or less financially self-sufficient at the district level, in terms of not needing funding from the centre.
  • It is impossible for locals to avoid interacting with the Taleban. Assisted by local mosque leaders, Taleban commanders and fighters exert implicit pressure on the population to provide them with food and other essentials (eg firewood in the winter). However, residents are no longer under pressure to provide shelter, given the considerable reduction in government night raids and airstrike, nor are they expected to offer recruitment, as the Taleban can recruit fighters from madrassas (religious schools). The Taleban often use social occasions to incite the local population against the government by, for example, staging protests to condemn civilian casualties caused by the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF).
  • The Taleban are generally unaccountable to the people they rule in Dasht-e Archi. The Taleban’s military priorities are non-negotiable, but they sometimes accept suggestions from local communities on issues such as postponing military operations during the harvest, permitting high school education for girls – although only in a home setting – and allowing the implementation of development projects that they deem useful for themselves and the local population, but not for the government. It is impossible to protest openly against Taleban decisions or actions.

Methodology

This report is based on semi-structured interviews with six key informants carried out in October and November 2020 who live in Dasht-e Archi district: four live in Taleban-controlled areas and two in government-controlled areas. The key informants were all men with an age range of 40 to 73: a schoolteacher, a headteacher, a tribal leader, a member of a community development council (CDC), a civil society activist and a shopkeeper. All are aware of the social, political and military dynamics in Dasht-e Archi and have had interactions with the Taleban. The schoolteacher and the headteacher have met the head of the Taleban’s education committee to discuss the possibility of reopening a girls’ high school in a Taleban-controlled area. The tribal leader has, among other things, dealt with a family case referred by the Taleban primary court to community elders for mediation. The CDC member regularly meets local Taleban leaders to discuss development projects and the shopkeeper has been paying ‘taxes’ to the Taleban for several years. The civil society activist sometimes meets Taleban to discuss health and development projects.

In addition, AAN interviewed a local journalist, two local government officials – all from government-controlled areas in Dasht-e Archi district – and two residents of Khanabad district who had registered land dispute cases with the Taleban’s primary court in Dasht-e Archi. Finally, the author has also relied on his own observations during visits to Dasht-e Archi over several years and previous AAN reporting from Kunduz looking mainly at security. For stylistic reasons, the term ‘interviewee(s)’ refers to both key informants and these additional sources.

This report is organised as follows. First, it briefly describes the Taleban and the government’s geographic spheres of control in Dasht-e Archi district as of late 2020. Then, it focuses on how the Taleban governance system in Kunduz province is organised, with particular attention to Dasht-e Archi. What follows next are four sections on justice, taxation, encounters between residents and the Taleban and the Taleban’s accountability (or lack of it) to local communities, all of which give indications of how the Taleban’s shadow rule is exercised in various areas of public life in the district. A concluding section wraps up the discussion on living with the Taleban as de facto rulers in vast swathes of Dasht-e Archi.

Maps: Roger Helms for AAN.

The security situation in Dasht-e Archi as of late 2020

Kunduz province’s Dasht-e Archi district has changed hands between the government and the Taleban several times since 2015. As of late 2020, the Taleban controlled around 90 per cent of Dasht-e Archi territory, according to most interviewees. The government only controls the district centre and around ten of the district’s 160 villages within a radius of a few kilometres around it, covering about ten to 15 per cent of the district’s total population. (For a comprehensive background on Dasht-e Archi from its physical and human geography to history of conflict and insurgency-affected public service delivery, see AAN’s previous report of 26 February 2019.)

In mid-November 2020, the Taleban overran the district centre (read these media reports here and here), only to be pushed back by government security forces a few days later. According to most interviewees, government security forces only put up a brief resistance and then fled east to neighbouring Khwaja Ghar district in Takhar province. After a couple of days, our interviewees said, the government deployed forces from Kunduz city to retake the district centre. It took only a few hours to drive the Taleban out of the district centre. During the Taleban attack and their stay in the district centre, they did not cause damage to the local government offices, including that of the district governor. This was not the first time the district centre had fallen to the Taleban; in September 2019, the Taleban took control of the district centre for a month before government security forces recaptured it. (For the September 2019 contest over control of Dasht-e Archi, see these media reports here and here; for earlier instances, see AAN’s report cited above.)

Over the past six years, the Taleban have established a shadow ‘administration’ in Dasht-e Archi district and elsewhere in Kunduz province.

The Taleban governance system 

Provincial-level organisation in Kunduz

The Taleban governance system in Kunduz mirrors that of the government. The shadow provincial governor, a high-ranking official who leads the group in the province, is appointed by the rahbari shura (the Taleban leadership council, also known as the Quetta Shura). He is from Chahrdara district in Kunduz province.

Provincial governors are frequently rotated to prevent them building local networks and developing too much autonomy. However, in exceptional cases, a provincial governor can remain in position for several years, either because of his reputation in the military or political fields, or support from local Taleban commanders. For example, the late Mullah Salam Baryal served as provincial governor in Kunduz for four years before he was killed in a drone attack in February 2017.

The Kunduz provincial governor oversees all Taleban activities, takes part in decision-making and reports to the rahbari shura on military operations and other executive affairs such as finance and logistics. An administrative deputy supports the provincial governor.

The Taleban in Kunduz also have a provincial nezami masul (person responsible for military affairs) who, as the name suggests, deals with military issues such as tasking local commanders with specific operations, deploying Taleban fighters to the frontlines and overseeing the security situation in the province. There is also a welayati shura (provincial council) in Kunduz that consists of eight to ten influential local Taleban. Most members of the welayati shura are from Kunduz and have previously served as Taleban military or civilian officials. The welayati shura oversees the activities of the Taleban and plays an advisory role to the provincial governor and the nezami masul.

In addition to these provincial officials, there is a masul-e zun (person responsible for the zone/region), who plays a key coordinating role in the Taleban governance structure. The masul-e zun oversees military issues for the region, in this case the northeastern zone, which covers Baghlan, Kunduz, Takhar and Badakhshan provinces. The Taleban have divided the government’s northern region into two zones. The second one, the northwestern zone, includes Samangan, Balkh, Jawzjan, Sar-e Pul and Faryab provinces. In both zones, the rahbari shura appoints the masul-e zun.

The Taleban bureaucracy in Kunduz province also includes several committees such as education, health, development, finance, military, judicial and dawat au ershad (outreach and guidance). The judicial committee includes judges who preside over the primary, secondary and high courts. The Taleban’s provincial primary court is located in Dasht-e Archi and receives litigants from across the province. The secondary and high courts operate from changing and unknown locations in the province’s Taleban-controlled territory. The primary and secondary courts have been active in the province since 2014. Since mid-2019, a local branch of the Taleban’s countrywide high court has been operating in the province. The Taleban’s expanded presence in the province has made it possible to establish an administrative structure to mirror the one in Pakistan. Taleban officials now work in the province, and not remotely from other parts of Afghanistan or Pakistan as is the case in areas under weaker control.

The Taleban’s outreach and guidance committee has replaced the notorious vice and virtue (religious police) committee and is active in Kunduz. Its members hold regular meetings with the provincial ulama (religious scholars), schoolteachers, the youth and tribal elders, to attract them to their side and undermine local support for the government. The dawat aw ershad committee also organises religious and other gatherings where they spread pro-Taleban messages. The committee sometimes asks local elders to encourage specific government officials to quit their jobs.

Many of the Kunduz-based Taleban committees and officials operate from Dasht-e Archi, making the district the Taleban’s most important provincial organisational hub. However, they do not have fixed physical offices and are always on the move from one location to another, primarily to avoid being targeted in military attacks by the government. The Dasht-e Archi-based primary court is an exception because it is often, but not always, based in a mosque in the village of Mullah Quli. Taleban officials, including civilian officials, either carry weapons or are escorted by armed guards. There is no apparent military-civilian distinction among the Taleban; committee members and other civilian officials often take part in military offensives against government forces. A key informant said:

When Taleban judges attend court [proceedings], they are armed and escorted by armed Talebs. Members of the Taleban education committee also carry weapons when they visit schools.

District-level organisation in Dasht-e Archi

Given Dasht-e Archi’s importance as a major Taleban organisational hub in Kunduz province, the rahbari shura is often directly involved in making appointments in the district. For instance, the shadow district governor and his deputy are selected by the rahbari shura, often following suggestions by provincial Taleban officials. Given the Taleban’s lengthy and extensive presence in Kunduz, most officials at the district level are either from the same district or from other districts in the province.

The district governor oversees the Taleban’s daily activities in the district, takes part in security and other meetings and reports to the provincial governor. In addition, the Taleban bureaucracy is fully functional in Dasht-e Archi district, including three important components, namely the military, finance and judicial committees. (For a discussion on the workings of their education, health and NGO affairs committees, read the AAN report on service delivery referenced above.)

The military committee wields the most power in the district’s Taleban governance structure. The head of the committee is selected by the shadow provincial governor and approved by the rahbari shura. The committee is responsible for appointing and managing ground commanders and fighters, organising military offensives, deploying reinforcements and providing logistics. The committee holds regular meetings with the district governor, his deputy and Taleban commanders to discuss security issues.

The military committee oversees 15 delgais (military units), each with 20 to 80 fighters, depending on the unit’s base of operations and the area’s security significance. The exact number of Taleban fighters in the district is unclear because civilian members often take part in military operations. The delgais fight the government security forces and provide security for their district and for officials. Fighters are recruited mainly by the military committee or the delgai commanders from among the local population. During an offensive, each delgai has to deploy five to ten fighters to the frontline. When there is no active fighting, the Taleban fighters are posted to the frontlines to face ANSF positions.

When the Taleban plan a military operation, the military committee asks each delgai to provide five to ten fighters, depending on the scale of the operation. Additionally, a Taleban sra qeta (red unit, also called the Taleban special forces) operates in Dasht-e Archi and appears to be responsible for more strategic operations. (There are unconfirmed reports that another sra qeta is active in Chahardara district.) The red unit’s numeral strength, the location of its base and the identity of its fighters are kept secret. It is also unclear how fighters are recruited – from existing delgais or separately – and whether it operates under the command of the district or provincial military commissions or another Taleban structure.

The finance committee also plays an active role in the district. It is composed of ten to 15 members who are either introduced to the rahbari shura by district and provincial officials or directly appointed by provincial officials. The committee appoints representatives to villages or areas of several villages to collect taxes. There are 20-25 tax collectors in Dasht-e Archi. The committee keeps a record of taxes collected and sends the money along with revenue reports to the district governor.

The Dasht-e Archi-based Taleban primary court falls under the judicial committee, the third most active part of Taleban’s governance system in the district. Members of the primary court are religious scholars and, given this background, are more respected than many other Taleban district officials. According to the interviewees, Taleban judges are appointed by the rahbari shura. The Taleban’s primary court has five members: the head of the court, two muftis (Islamic jurists) and two moharer (note-takers or secretaries). Members of the court carry textbooks related to Afghanistan’s majority Sunni Hanafi school of Islamic jurisprudence on which they seem to rely when adjudicating cases. This is mainly to make sure that claimants and defendants are aware of the religious grounds for the court’s decisions and, more importantly, to make it difficult for them to appeal against those decisions.

The primary court usually, but not always, operates from a local mosque. Court officials change their location when they feel insecure or when they receive intelligence that they may become a target. According to most interviewees, the judges have two or three bodyguards. When in session, a group of ten to 15 armed Taleban fighters protect court officials and help regulate the flow of complainants and other visitors.

Afghan government forces during fighting in Dasht-e Archi 2016. Photo: Asif Khan via Twitter.

The court system

Many residents from across Kunduz province take their disputes to the Taleban primary court in Dasht-e Archi. This is yet another indication of the district serving as a governance hub for the Taleban. According to interviewees, the official Taleban litigation process is time-consuming because hundreds of plaintiffs appear before the court every week.

If litigants do not comply with the court’s decision, the Taleban district governors can get involved to make sure that judicial rulings are enforced. According to most interviewees, if there is a need to do so, the Taleban district governor instructs the commanders responsible for specific areas or villages to implement the verdict. This enforcement is seen, for instance, in the implementation of court decisions on land disputes, especially when the losing party does not comply with the ruling.

Many of the cases that go to the Taleban’s primary court in Dasht-e Archi are land disputes, followed by criminal cases. Civil cases, especially disputes among families, are often referred to community elders for mediation. Locals rarely register cases against women at the court. According to most interviewees, the presence of women in the court is regarded as “be-namusi” (dishonour), meaning that male family members address the court in cases involving women.

Below, we present four sample court cases followed by a brief analysis of Taleban-provided justice in the district.

Case one: disputed farmland and a pending decision

Yunus (not his real name), a key informant who lives in a Taleban-controlled area, told AAN about a family dispute over inherited farmland. He said he had lived in Pakistan for almost two decades. When Yunus returned to Afghanistan, his cousins refused to give him his share of the extended family’s farmland. He said they had already sold a part of his share and built houses on the remaining plot. According to him, his cousins withheld the document that proved his ownership claim. He told AAN that after his return to the village in 2017, he approached some local elders for a solution, but his cousins refused their mediation and cautioned the elders not to interfere. Because he lived in a Taleban-controlled area where the farmland is also located, he registered a case with the Taleban court. He said that if he had registered the case in a government court, he would have been marked as being ‘pro-government’. Moreover, his cousins are pro-Taleban and did not want to go to a government-controlled area to attend a court hearing.

In late 2017, he submitted his case to the Taleban court. At the time, he said, the court procedure was simple. He went to the court and explained the issue to the judges. The court summoned his cousins and asked both parties to present two witnesses, title deeds and written petitions.

After a few weeks, Yunus attended the court along with two witnesses and submitted a written petition to claim the land. However, he had no title deeds to substantiate his claim. The defendants (his cousins) provided title deeds but no witnesses. Over the decades of Afghanistan’s conflict, various administrations often issued contradictory documents for the same piece of land. “We both attended the court,” he said, “but none of us had enough documentation to prove our ownership of the land.”

After two months, the primary court decided that priority should be given to those who did not own a house in which to live. The court ruled in favour of his cousins because Yunus already had a house. “I refused the decision and registered the case with the [Taleban] secondary court,” he added. It took the secondary court one and a half years to make a ruling, also in favour of his cousins. He told AAN that he then appealed to the local branch of the Taleban high court. Nearly two years later, the case is still pending. “When I reach the [high] court to follow the case, they ask me to wait because there is a long queue,” he said. Yunus said he had noticed that good connections with the local Taleban could help speed up the proceedings and could even unduly influence judicial decisions.

Case two: dealing with a killing

Rahim (not his real name), an interviewee from a Taleban-controlled area, told AAN about the killing of his brother by a villager. He said that in 2016 his brother and a villager had a dispute over a water canal. Water distribution in most villages is rotation-based. On the night of the incident, Rahim’s brother opened the water canal to irrigate his farm without consulting a neighbour who had the right to use the water that day. The neighbour went to the water canal as soon as he found out, a fight broke out, and Rahim’s brother was accidentally killed. The killer fled. His whereabouts was unknown for three years.

Rahim approached the Taleban court to demand justice. The Taleban assured him that they would find the killer and prosecute him. Meanwhile, the elders started mediating between the two families.

In mid-2019, a villager who had returned from Iran told Rahim that he had seen his brother’s killer there. He told Rahim that he could provide him with a contact number for the killer. Two months later, the killer himself called Rahim, told him about the events of that night and asked for forgiveness. Rahim said that his family had already negotiated with the elders and, because it was an unintentional killing, asked for only 800,000 Afs (10,390 USD) in compensation.

In late 2019, the killer reappeared in the village, sought forgiveness and committed to paying the compensation, which he did in the presence of the elders. Rahim said his family forgave the man and, together with the elders, informed the Taleban court of their decision. The Taleban, nevertheless, arrested the man. It seems that the Taleban wanted to punish him for disrupting the social order. According to Rahim, the man’s fate is unknown.

Case three: addressing domestic violence

Another key informant, a local elder who lives in a Taleban-controlled area, told AAN about a family case that was referred by the Taleban court to local elders in Saratan (June/July) 2020. The case involved an abusive husband who regularly beat his wife and had banned her from going to her father’s home. One day, after her husband went out, she fled to her parents’ home and refused to return to her husband’s house. Her parents went to the Taleban primary court and registered a case against their son-in-law. The Taleban detained the husband. Afterwards, the husband’s family approached some local elders and asked them to play a mediation role. Five local elders, including our key informant, contacted the Taleban court and asked to be allowed to deal with the case. The court, he said, ordered the release of the husband and instructed the wife’s family to solve the matter ’at home’ and in consultation with the elders. He said:

The local elders, including me, approached the wife’s family and discussed the issue with them. We assured them that the husband would not beat his wife any more and would allow her to visit her family. We also decided that her husband had to provide for his wife, including food, clothes, medical treatment and [other expenses]. The wife’s family accepted our decision and sent her back to her husband’s house.

Apparently, the husband has kept his promises; the elder told AAN in November, that there had been no further complaints from the wife’s family.

Case four: an unresolved land dispute

Haji Sakhi (not his real name), another interviewee, told AAN that he had approached the Taleban court about a land dispute. He said his family, together with his brothers’ and cousins’ families, had left the district in the 1980s and lived outside the country for nearly four decades. While members of his family had visited Dasht-e Archi regularly, they had not done so in the past few years. He had hired a caretaker to look after the family farm. It covers hundreds of jeribs (dozens of hectares) and has many shareholders, including his cousins. In early 2020, Sakhi returned to the district and found that the cultivated land had been turned into pasture. Also, several houses had been built on the land. He said:

Our villagers and neighbours have livestock, and they use my land for grazing. Some other people have also built houses there. When I asked them why they have taken my land, they ignored me and said it was state property.

He said he hired workers to plough the land and make it ready for cultivation, but certain people from the Taleban prevented him from continuing. He also said the Taleban asked him to go to the court to solve the issue. He went to the Taleban primary court and presented title deeds, after which the court told him there was no legal issue and he could proceed with his work.

He resumed the work to make the land ready for cultivation, but the same people from the Taleban returned, claimed that the land was the villagers’ pasture and again stopped his work. They told our interviewee that the court had changed its ruling and had decided the land was a pasture: “I was disappointed that the court had revised its decision in my absence. I went there again and the court confirmed that it had revised its decision and decided the land should remain a pasture.”

Sakhi then found a way to contact a provincial Taleban official. His relatives introduced him to an official who helped him access a Taleban secondary court judge. This court provided him with an official letter asking the primary court to review its decision and solve the issue. He said:

When I brought the letter to the primary court, the judges felt bad. They said, “Why did you complain against us?” The court said I should wait until the [Taleban’s] emirate comes to power and then the land will be given to me.

“Is there a clear date for the Emirate to come to power,” he said he asked. In response, the judges told him to bring the other family members who also own shares in the land. He told AAN that they were abroad and were uncomfortable with the idea of coming to Dasht-e Archi.

According to him, most villagers who have been using the land are members of the Taleban and have been able to influence the primary court to prevent him from cultivating the land. He said that nepotism and connections with the Taleban played a role in the court’s decision. Sakhi has gone home to spend the winter with his family, but intends to return next year to follow the case.

A brief analysis

These four cases represent only a small sample of the many cases adjudicated by the Taleban primary court in Dasht-e Archi district. As stated above, the Taleban court is very active and receives hundreds of litigants and visitors not only from Dasht-e Archi, but also from across Kunduz province. The court has been so busy that judges and other court officials struggle to keep up with all the cases that come their way, making the process lengthy and time-consuming. Nevertheless, the Taleban court system seems to be an acceptable alternative for many residents to solve their issues through a procedure that is acceptable for them and less corrupt and faster than the government court system. For the Taleban, the rulings they provide strengthens their legitimacy as rulers in areas under their control.

Some conclusions can be drawn from the four cases described above. First, the Taleban courts do not follow a systematic adjudication procedure. While the courts decide some cases promptly, other cases remain unresolved for years as evidenced by two of the four cases, both of which are land disputes. In both cases, according to our interviewees, nepotism and connections with Taleban officials played a role in either revising the court’s decision or delaying the proceedings. In one case, one party is villagers who are members of the Taleban. In cases that involve major land disputes (case number four), a lengthy process is not unusual as such issues indeed take years to resolve.

Second, a meticulous procedure for registering and adjudicating seems to be emerging at the Taleban primary court, chiefly for resolving land disputes. Since 2019, the Taleban court only accepts typed petitions printed on their letterhead. To register a court case, a litigant must submit an official petition. Local computerkars (computer operators) usually write these petitions; they have soft copies of the Taleban’s letterhead called “de emarat rasmi pane” (the emirate’s official paper). There are many such computerkars, including in the district bazaar in the heart of the government’s limited area of control. They charge 70-100 afghanis (0.91-1.30 USD) per petition.

The litigants take their petitions to the Taleban district governor for his review and signature. The governor does not have an office,  but can be found relatively easily by asking any member of the Taleban. The governor reads the petition, signs it and sends it to the court.

The bustling Taleban primary court operates on Mondays and Thursdays. According to our interviewees, there are long queues of litigants and other visitors from across the province inside and around the building on the week’s two hearing days. The court examines the petitions and, if necessary, sends a jalb (summons) to the defendant(s), ordering them to attend a hearing on a specific date. On the appointed date, the claimant provides copies of his sorat-e dawa (detailed case description) to the judges and the defendant. The court studies the claimant’s sorat and asks the defendant to submit a sorat-e dawa detailing their response. Both sorats must be written by court-appointed ‘defence lawyers’, most of whom are pro-Taleban religious scholars. The court will not admit any sorat prepared by other people. They charge 3,000 to 6,000 afghanis (39 to 78 USD) – a significant amount for locals – per sorat-e dawa and can take several days to write one. Both parties are asked to bring at least two witnesses and any supporting documents to the next hearing.

In the next hearing, the litigants attend the court along with witnesses, sorat-e dawas and any other supporting documents. First, the claimant presents his case, followed by the defendant’s presentation. Finally, the court collects both  sorats and schedules a hearing to announce its decision. After the decision is given, the court asks both parties if they accept the ruling. If either party refuses to accept the primary court’s ruling, the case will be referred to the secondary court. However, most people are not interested in taking their claims to the secondary and high courts because they can take months – or even years – to hear cases. The interviewees who had approached the Taleban courts said that it had taken a few years for the secondary court to review their cases. Procedures at the high court are even more time-consuming.

The cost of pursuing a claim is also a barrier to seeking justice, as many claimants and defendants cannot afford to have detailed case descriptions written by the court-approved defence lawyers. Also, the lack of a permanent office, especially for the secondary and high courts, makes it difficult not only for complainants to have access to the courts and follow all procedures and for Taleban judges to record their verdicts systematically. The above four cases did not follow this procedure – two of the cases were registered before the process was introduced, one was referred to local elders and one is pending.

Third, in some cases, especially family disputes, the Taleban court relies on mediation by elders to reduce the judicial workload and bolster its local reach. But decisions reached by local elders are not always accepted by the court. In case number two, the Taleban court assigned local elders to resolve a domestic violence case and their decision was accepted by all parties, including the court. In case number three, however, while the elders were successful in resolving a dispute between two families, it seemed, at least initially, that the Taleban have not accepted the decision.

Finally, Taleban-provided justice is not without its shortcomings, some of which are serious and might even result in the maladministration of justice. As mentioned above, anecdotal evidence suggests that connections with Taleban officials can help speed up or delay court proceedings. More importantly, the court’s failure to act, in some cases at least, including those involving the Taleban themselves could erode public confidence in the court. For instance, a key informant referred to a rape case that allegedly implicated some Taleban fighters. He said that in mid-2020 a group of Taleban fighters sexually abused two girls in Chapka village of Khwaja Ghar district of Takhar province. The village borders Dasht-e Archi district and the fighters who had raped the girls were reportedly from Dasht-e Archi. He said locals demanded justice and reached out to Taleban leaders in Dasht-e Archi on several occasions. The Taleban, he said, promised to detain and prosecute the perpetrators but failed to deliver on their promise. Zabihullah Mujahed, the Taleban’s official spokesperson, however, told the media that the perpetrators had been arrested, but “were not affiliated with the Taleban.” He questioned the charges and said that “it was not true that the Taleban had attacked someone’s house and raped their daughter,” and added that “personal animosities” triggered the incident. Mujahed said that “such incidents would be prosecuted if they occur in a Taleban-controlled area.” He said the Taleban’s enemies were “lying in wait to conspire against them.”

Daftani Bazaar, built by the Taleban in 2015, five kilometres to the northwest of Dasht-e Archi district centre. Photo. AFP.

Taxation

If Taleban-provided justice gives some legitimacy to their rule, it is in ‘taxation’ that this rule is not only exercised, but also sustained in material terms. As mentioned above, the Taleban’s finance committee appoints 20 to 25 tax collectors to each district. These tax collectors are trustworthy Taleban who are introduced to the finance committee by local Taleban officials. According to most key informants, however, the Taleban are unable to collect taxes from the entire population systematically. First, they do not control all parts of the district all the time. Second, armed clashes between them and government forces often prevent them from collecting taxes even in the areas they rule. Where and when they collect taxes, they often provide receipts, however.

In Dasht-e Archi district, the Taleban collect four types of taxes. First, an agricultural tax known as ushr (literally ‘one-tenth’), which, according to interviewees, amounts to ten per cent of the harvest. Farming is more widespread than animal husbandry in the district and the most popular crops are rice, wheat, barley, mung beans and maize. In a good season, one jerib (2,000 square metres) yields 700 to 840 kg of rice, 700-1,050 kg of wheat, 140-160 kg of mung beans or 350 to 450 kg of corn. When the harvest is ready, a key informant said, a tax collector from the finance committee appears with a list, assesses the yield and takes ten per cent as tax.  There are exemptions for those with small landholdings. An interviewee who is a farmer in a Taleban-controlled area said:

Those with limited farmland and with a lower yield are exempt from paying taxes, but they need to be verified by villagers and tribal leaders. The Taleban do not collect taxes from those who cultivate vegetables, such as tomatoes, cucumbers, chilli peppers, okra, potatoes and onions. In fact, those who grow vegetables [only] have one or two jeribs of farmland.

Second, there is a tax on livestock. According to a key informant, farmers with livestock are under strict scrutiny by the Taleban finance committee. As a result, the Taleban tax collectors actively search for locals and nomads, both in the Uzbek and Pashtun-dominated areas of the district. All communities and ethnic groups are treated the same. The Taleban tax on livestock is straightforward: one sheep or goat from flocks of between 40 to 120 animals and two from larger ones; flocks with fewer than 40 animals are not taxed. The Taleban also levy a tax of one cow per 30 head of cattle. Another interviewee said that local livestock owners are not the only ones that have to pay taxes. Nomads who come to summer pastures in the district with their livestock are also taxed. He said: “This makes a lot of money for the Taleban.” The Taleban usually sell the animals in the livestock market.

Third, the tax paid by shopkeepers and business owners is collected annually. According to a shopkeeper who lives in a Taleban-controlled area and has paid tax for several years, it amounts to 2.5 per cent of assets held and investments made during the year. In practice, a shopkeeper pays taxes based on the value of the merchandise in his shop. He said tax collectors and business owners estimate the value of the assets and calculate the taxes. However, the shopkeeper said, many business owners negotiate with the Taleban tax collectors to reduce their tax bill. Landlords also pay 2.5 per cent in taxes on the rental income they receive. The rate of 2.5 per cent is significant. It is the same as the Islamic obligation to give 2.5 per cent of one’s wealth as alms – zakat – to the poor and needy.(1) The Taleban do not name the money they take from shopkeepers and businesspeople as zakat, but the rate, the method of calculating and what is taxed does map out onto how Islam organises alms-giving.

Fourth, private construction companies, including those who work on development projects, such as building schools or medical centres, are taxed ten per cent. This tax is calculated, based on the project’s total budget, according to a CDC member interviewed. For development projects, the tax is collected from implementing NGOs before they receive the go-ahead from the Taleban.

According to the interviewees, tax revenues are used to fund the Taleban’s military activities, pay salaries and operate madrassas. Taxes collected in Dasht-e Archi are not sufficient to finance the Taleban’s regional (zone) activities. They do, however, support the Taleban at the district-level, making them nearly self-reliant and with little need of financial support from the centre. Also, the local population’s obligation to provide the fighters with many essentials (see below) significantly reduces the Taleban central leadership’s burden to provide for their fighters. Most interviewees told AAN that only the local Taleban leaders knew exactly how much tax is collected annually. “It amounts to millions of afghanis each year,” estimated one interviewee. What is clear is that the Taleban do not spend these taxes on funding public services such as education, health and development, which are provided by the government and NGOs (for more on public service delivery in Dasht-e Archi district, see AAN’s previous report referred to above).

Encounters between residents and the Taleban

In Dasht-e Archi district, encounters between rulers and the ruled go far beyond the courts and taxation. The Taleban’s control of nearly the entire district has made it impossible for locals to avoid interactions, particularly as most fighters are local and there are Taleban checkpoints in villages across the district.

The Taleban’s implicit pressure on, if not direct order to the inhabitants to provide them with food results in one type of Taleban-population encounter. According to the interviewees, the pro-Taleban ulama describe the giving of food as a religious obligation. It is also customary to provide food for guests and mosafers (travellers), especially in rural areas; as Taleban fighters are often deployed to villages they do not originate from, they self-identify as guests to benefit from this custom. More specifically, local mosque leaders and Taleban commanders ask residents to feed the fighters who, they content are protecting the villages.

In the Qarluq area, according to an interviewee, villagers have a routine to feed the Taleban checkpoint staff in their area. Usually, a day in advance, the head of one household is asked to provide breakfast, another to give lunch and yet another to provide dinner for a group of Taleban fighters. According to some interviewees, it is the better-off households who are usually approached. The villagers take the food either to the local mosque for the Taleban to collect or deliver it to the checkpoint.

However, there is no pressure on poor households to provide food or other support for the Taleban. Similarly, there is not much pressure if a family declines to do so, but the head of the household must give a ‘convincing’ reason. One interviewee said that once he was unable to provide dinner for the Taleban because his wife was sick and could not cook. He spoke to the mosque leader and another villager was asked to provide the food that night. Some interviewees said that some people are not keen to give food to the Taleban, but do so because they have no other choice.

It is not only food, but also other logistics the residents are ‘asked’ to provide, especially in the winter when the Taleban ask locals to provide firewood for the checkpoints.

Traditionally, villagers take turns in sending food and firewood for the local mullahs to the mosque. The fact that the Taleban organise the provisioning of their fighters through the mosques blurs the line between religious duty and supporting the Taleban, making it difficult for the villagers to object. One interviewee said:

Usually, local mosque leaders ask villagers to support the Taleban. This support can vary and include things like [giving] food, shelter, firewood and other necessities. So it’s not just food. It’s also fuel for the Taleban’s motorbikes and clothes and shoes for their fighters.

Another interviewee said that once a year, some wealthy people make small voluntary monetary donations to the Taleban. He added that some people also donated jackets, shoes and socks for Taleban fighters. He thought that most donations are made as a means of establishing connections with the local Taleban officials that could prove useful in the future. (This is similar to what we have reported from Andar district in Ghazni where the Taleban approach more prosperous individuals for ‘donations’, see here.)

As for shelter, there is currently no Taleban demand for it. According to most key informants, the Taleban nowadays stay in mosques instead of private homes. This is, they said, mainly because of ever-growing local pressure on Taleban commanders to stop their fighters staying in private homes. They addressed this local demand after the danger of night raids and airstrikes has greatly reduced. In 2018, for instance, according to a key informant from a Taleban-controlled area, a group of fighters that had sheltered in a villager’s house overnight was targeted by a government airstrike. He said:

As a result, four members of the household were killed, along with five Talebs, and part of the house was destroyed. When villagers approached the local government and complained about the attack, the government warned that security forces would target the Taleban in any place. Therefore, villagers reached out to the Taleban commanders and asked them to keep [their] distance from people’s homes.

The Taleban do not need conscripts as they can recruit from the madrassas. According to a key informant who lives in a Taleban-controlled area, instead of forcing people to join them, the Taleban encourage villagers to send their children to madrassas for religious study. He said that all madrassa teachers are pro-Taleban and encourage students to join the cause. Another informant from a Taleban-controlled area confirmed this to AAN:

Mosque leaders are pro-Taleban, and in every Friday prayer they campaign for the Taleban cause. They also call on people to avoid serving the government because it is a puppet of the foreigners. They talk about the privileges of the Taleban in this world and the next.

There are other encounters between locals and the Taleban. Some take the form of social gatherings. According to most interviewees, the Taleban occasionally organise public gatherings in local mosques, for example, when ANSF operations cause civilian casualties. This was the case after the ANSF targeted a religious ceremony in a local mosque in Dasht-e Archi in April 2018  (read media reports here and here), when the Taleban held gatherings and incited locals to protest against the government.

Accountability

When it comes to their own actions, the Taleban do not consider themselves accountable to the people they govern in Dasht-e Archi district. Protesting against individual Talebs can be dangerous, let alone challenging their decisions and actions. In July 2020, for example, some people in Dasht-e Archi staged a protest against Taleban inaction related to the rape case mentioned above in neighbouring Khwaja Ghar district of Takhar province (see a media report here). According to a key informant, the Taleban had cautioned people against organising a protest, but they ignored the warning and staged an anti-Taleban rally in Dasht-e Archi. The Taleban opened fire, killing two protesters. The protest was crushed and its organisers fled to Khwaja Ghar district. The Taleban did not retaliate against their families in Dasht-e Archi.

For the Taleban in Dasht-e Archi, there are red lines that must be taken seriously and cannot be crossed, these include their military priorities and decisions. There is virtually no space for locals to challenge these red lines. However, the Taleban sometimes address local concerns and negotiate on other issues such as girls’ education, the implementation of some development projects, the role of elders in resolving local conflicts and delaying offensives at harvest time. This limited flexibility is to keep locals happy and, more importantly, casts the Taleban in the role of rulers who care about the concerns of the communities they rule. So far, locals have not complained to Taleban officials about the obligation to provide food to the fighters, and It is unclear how the Taleban would react to such a complaint.

The interviewees told AAN that local elders had successfully negotiated some flexibility on girls’ education with the Taleban. While they repeatedly rejected requests to reopen a girls’ high school that had operated in 2018, there was some limited compromise, reported one interviewee:

The Taleban closed the only girls’ high school [in the district] after they overran the Qarluq area in November 2018. Following mediation by the elders, the Taleban allowed girls to attend their final exams. In 2020, the elders reached out to the Taleban to allow girls to attend the high school, but the Taleban refused the suggestion. Later in the year, the elders again approached the Taleban and asked them to review their decision. In the end, the Taleban allowed girls [over the age of 13] to study in the homes of teachers instead of going to school.

These compromises show a greater –­ although still limited – degree of flexibility among present-day local Taleban leaders compared to the rule of their predecessors in Dasht-e Archi in the 1990s, which brought girls’ education to an abrupt end. It may also be a response to a greater desire for children’s education, including girls’, from parents in the district compared to two decades ago.

As a second example, the Taleban seem to be somewhat flexible in accepting requests from the local community to delay at least some of their military operations around harvest time. A local elder, for instance, said the Taleban had been planned to carry out military operations against the district centre in September 2020 but, because of local entreaties, postponed their plans. According to him, the military operation against the district centre in mid-November 2020 had initially been scheduled for August/September 2020. The Taleban decision to postpone the offensive, he also pointed out, allowed their finance committee to collect ‘taxes’ from the harvest ahead of the military operation.

Finally, when it comes to construction and other development projects, there was consensus among the interviewees that the Taleban only allow projects they deem useful for themselves and the local population, but not for the government. For example, the Taleban blocked the construction of the remaining 21 kilometres of the road linking Kunduz city and Dasht-e Archi district centre, against local wishes. According to most interviewees, elders have reached out to the Taleban several times to get this road built, but to no avail. According to interviewees, the Taleban believe the road would enable ANSF in the district to receive logistics and reinforcements from Kunduz city. According to a key informant who has met Taleban leaders on the issue several times, the Taleban have said the road would be more beneficial for the government security forces than it would be for the local population.

Government construction works on the still unpaved Kunduz-Dasht-e Archi road. Photo: Dasht-e Archi Facebook site (undated).

Conclusion

This study of living with the Taleban in Dasht-e Archi shows a growing sophistication in the Taleban’s subnational governance structure and its ability to influence local communities to comply with the wishes of their rulers. It points to a resourcefulness in how Taleban power is exercised, legitimised, managed and sustained. There is both implicit pressure on local people, if not the generation of outright fear, as well as, even if reluctantly, a degree of pragmatism, negotiation and compromise on the part of the Taleban.

The Taleban are de facto rulers in vast parts of Dasht-e Archi district in Kunduz province. The district has emerged as the most important Taleban organisational hub for the entire province. Senior Taleban officials up to the leadership council are involved in local appointments from the shadow district governor down to lower-ranking bureaucrats who run day-to-day governance functions. There is a well-functioning Taleban bureaucracy in Dasht-e Archi, as evidenced by the undertakings of three active components: the delgai (military units), the sra qeta (red unit) fighters and their commanders who make up the Taleban’s powerful military committee; the finance committee and its tax collectors who work to fund the movement and; the judicial committee whose staff, especially judges, run the Taleban court system.

To avoid being targeted by the government, Taleban authorities do not have fixed offices (except for the primary court that often, but not always, operates from a village mosque in Dasht-e Archi). There is no apparent civil-military distinction among the Taleban and committee members and other civilian officials often take part in Taleban military offensives against government forces. Most Taleban officials either carry weapons or are escorted by armed guards.

The Taleban exercise their rule over all areas of public life in the district. One area where this rule is not only exercised, but also held by the population to be largely legimate is the judicial sector. The Taleban’s Dasht-e Archi-based primary court hears many cases, mainly land disputes, from across Kunduz province. The primary court assigns civil cases, mostly those involving family matters, for elder-led community resolution. Most striking is the gradual emergence of a meticulous process to allow the court to adjudicate an increasing number of cases.

As part of this process, the court only accepts petitions written on its letterhead, these must be reviewed and signed by the district governor, court claims and counterclaims are detailed by court-appointed ‘defence lawyers’ who are mainly pro-Taleban religious scholars, and there is an appeals process to the secondary and high courts – the latter also has a branch in Kunduz province since 2019.

Taxation is a second area in which the Taleban not only exercise their rule over the population in Dasht-e Archi but also sustain the movement materially. The Taleban tax most economic activities from agriculture to development projects and more affluent residents often also make voluntary cash or in-kind donations, mostly to establish positive relations should the need for a Taleban contact arise in the future. Only farmers with small landholdings and the poor are exempt from Taleban taxation. Tax revenues are used to fund the Taleban’s military activities, pay salaries and operate madrassas. The Taleban do not use tax revenues to support public services in the district. These revenues, along with provisions of food and other essentials from the local population, mean that the Taleban in Dasht-e Archi are nearly self-reliant and have little need for financial support from the outside.

The Taleban’s interactions with residents are not limited to the court system and taxation. For those living deep in Taleban-controlled areas, including most of Dasht-e Archi district, interactions with the Taleban are unavoidable. Assisted by local mosque leaders, Taleban commanders and fighters exert implicit or direct pressure on the population to provide them with food and other ‘logistics’ (eg firewood in the winter). However, residents are no longer under pressure to provide shelter, given the considerable reduction in government night raids and airstrike nor are they expected to offer recruitment, as the madrassas offer a sufficiently large pool of young recruits. The Taleban often use social occasions as opportunities to incite the local population against the government by, for example, staging protests to condemn civilian casualties caused by the Afghan National Security Forces.

The Taleban are generally not accountable to the people they rule in Dasht-e Archi. Their military priorities are non-negotiable but they sometimes accept petitions from local communities on issues such as postponing military operations during the harvest, permitting high school education for girls, but only in a home setting, and allowing elder-led conflict resolution under their supervision. This small flexibility keeps locals happy and, more importantly, casts the Taleban in the role of munificent rulers who care about the concerns of the communities they rule.

Edited by Reza Kazemi, Thomas Ruttig and Roxanna Shapour


(1) Zakat is one of the five pillars of Islam and, as such, is a religious obligation. Zakat should be paid on any surplus wealth in one’s possession, including gold, silver, jewellery and ornaments, cash in the bank or at home, property that has been acquired for business purposes, and shares and stock. According to the Sunni Hanafi School of Islamic jurisprudence, zakat is 2.5 per cent of the wealth that has been in one’s possession for a lunar year. In some Muslims states, zakat is collected as a tax, but in others, it is left to individuals to give to the poor and needy, as they wish.

 

Living with the Taleban (3): Local experiences in Dasht-e Archi district, Kunduz province