By Anuj Chopra, AFP
QARA GHOILY, Afghanistan–Flanked by shaggy-haired gunmen, commander Ghulam Farooq peered out from a hilltop at the biggest military prize of his storied career as a warlord — a mud-walled Afghan village captured after five years of Taliban control. The village of Qara Ghoily in the remote northwestern badlands bordering Turkmenistan offers a rare glimpse into life under Taliban rule and encapsulates governance failures that have helped the Islamists gain ground against NATO-backed Afghan forces. When Farooq, a powerful anti-Taliban militia commander in Faryab province, wrested control of the village in August after a scorched-earth offensive, he found a population deeply disaffected with the government despite years of hard-line Taliban rule. “There,” said Farooq, pointing down to a patch of clay dirt surrounded by fields of wild grapevines and deserted village roads. “The Taliban had no prison. They didn’t need one. They beheaded all their prisoners over there.” They also kept a chokehold on social freedoms, a throwback to their 1996-2001 rule that made them international pariahs, including a ban on music, shaving of beards and hip Hollywood hairstyles.
But despite their austere vision of Islam, the Taliban shored up support by restoring a modicum of order in the village through an effective Sharia-inspired judicial system, filling a vacuum left by a Western-backed government seen as inept and corrupt. Unlike the official legal system, built with millions of dollars of foreign aid, the Taliban’s informal court dispensed swift justice on all matters, from adultery to robbery. And one thing in particular set them apart from government officials: they never demanded a bribe. “If you go to a city court, the judge will take your money, the clerk will take your clothes and the guards will take whatever is left,” remarked a village resident, requesting anonymity for fear of retribution. “People prefer to tolerate the cruelty of the Taliban than be robbed of justice and everything they own.” The testimony highlights the anguished choices faced by a population seemingly trapped between two evils and helps explain the insurgency’s stunning rise despite a decade of costly Western intervention. The Taliban remain largely unpopular in urban centers, but in many rural areas the puritanical movement has entrenched itself among alienated groups, competing directly with the government for public loyalty.
The Taliban now control more territory than in any year since they were toppled from power in a 2001 U.S.-led invasion, with the U.N. estimating that nearly half of all districts across Afghanistan are at risk of falling. NATO-backed Afghan security operations that claim to kill scores of militants on a daily basis are causing the “displacement of the insurgency, not its eradication,” a Western official in Kabul told AFP. The Afghan government has frequently lashed out at neighboring Pakistan for nurturing the Taliban, while ignoring their local support base, which the official stressed cannot be uprooted by military force alone.