The Taliban never managed to capture the mountainous northeastern province of Badakhshan when they swept Afghanistan in the 1990s.
Today, they control large parts of the remote region bordering Tajikistan, Pakistan, and China, and the hard-line Islamist movement has revived its harsh rule there. Now billing themselves as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, formal name of the Taliban, the movement still focuses on curtailing individual freedoms, imposing gender segregation, strict rules, and punishments in the name of Islamic Shari’a law.
As the United States attempts to negotiate peace with the Taliban, many Afghans see the insurgents’ worldview as largely unchanged after a quarter-century of fighting.
Minagul Osmani, a 24-year-old Afghan woman, first fled Taliban rule when the insurgents overran her village in Badakhshan’s Warduj district in 2015.
Now living in neighboring Baharak district, she told Radio Free Afghanistan that the Taliban’s first major change was to impose harsh rules for women. “They do not allow women to step outside without a male guardian,” she said.
Compared with the Afghan government, Osmani noted, the Taliban are unable to provide key services. “They closed the school and health clinic,” she said. “After the elders intervened, they reopened the school, but the clinic remains closed, which really affects pregnant women and mothers with young children.”
A farmer living in Warduj says he has seen the Taliban dole out harsh Islamic punishments. The Taliban follow a strict criminal code called Hudood, which ordains punishments such as amputating limbs for theft, stoning for adultery, and lashes for alcohol consumption.
“I have seen people stoned to death, hands amputated, and people flogged,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan, requesting his name be withheld due to possible Taliban reprisals. “Women are flogged if they go out without male guardians.”
The farmer says he has been beaten by the Taliban many times. He says the arrival of the Taliban has increased poverty in the region, where most people depend on subsistence farming and animal husbandry.
“There is a shortage of food, and people can often be seen begging at mosques,” he said. “Despite this, Taliban fighters often force people to feed them.”
He says he longs for a return to government control.
“It was much easier to talk to government officials. They sometimes listened,” he said. “The Taliban only expect us only to obey.”
In an apparent effort to appeal to more Afghans, the Taliban have tried to show flexibility on some of their harshest policies, stating that the movement is not seeking a monopoly over power and is open to compromise.
The movement recently announced it is “committed to all rights of women.” But the commitment comes with some major caveats.
“Islam and then Afghan tradition [are] two major values of the Afghan Mujahid nation, so Islamic Emirate is also committed to all rights of women within this framework,” the February 5 Taliban statement noted. “The policy of the Islamic Emirate is to protect the rights of women in a way that neither their legitimate rights are violated, nor their human dignity and Afghan values are threatened.”
A closer reading reveals that the primary aim is still to create a state and society that the movement considers Islamic, which is why it wants to replace the current Afghan Constitution, which incorporates international human rights conventions.
“Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan considers it necessary that constitution must be based on principles of Islamic religion, national interests, historical achievements and social justice,” the Taliban statement said. “It should be committed to human dignity, national values and human rights, and could guarantee territorial integrity of the country and all rights of all the citizens.”
Ashley Jackson, a research associate with the Overseas Development Institute in London, has studied Taliban governance in rural Afghan regions.
She told RFE/RL’s Gandhara website that the Taliban leadership has learned from the movement’s mistakes and the challenges it faced while in government. She says there’s a sense of continuity despite the Taliban embracing some pragmatism while fighting a complicated insurgency since losing power in late 2001.
“The degree to which their fighters on the ground have changed in outlook and ideology is questionable,” she said. “At their core, they remain a highly conservative, rural-based movement that is seeking to restore a pure form of Islamic government -- which entails many familiar elements from the 1990s.”
According to the Afghan Analyst Network (AAN), some Badakhshan clerics and locals have been part of the Taliban since the 1990s. Apart from one major battle in 1998, control of Jamiat-e Islami, a predominantly Tajik Islamist party, was never challenged in Badakhshan.
With the help of local Tajik commanders, most of whom were educated at Pakistani religious schools, the Taliban ramped up its recruitment drive in 2004. In 2012, they increased military activities and the recruitment of graduates from madrasahs in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Many fighters hail from strategically located Warduj, and the region provides the bulk of local Taliban leaders and cadres in Badakhshan, according to AAN.
After overrunning Warduj in October 2015, the Taliban took over neighboring Baharak. Out of the 28 Badakhshan districts, they have also sporadically controlled or made incursions into Yumgan, Jurm, Raghistan, and Kohistan. While the government reclaimed several lost territories, the Taliban still control Warduj and Yumgan, although the violence has turned Badakhshan into a contested territory.
Mohammad Daulat Khawar, district governor of Warduj, operates out of Baharak. He says the 1,300 families who fled the Taliban’s capture of Warduj now live in dire conditions in Baharak.
Khawar told Radio Free Afghanistan that some of the 19 schools in Warduj have reopened after two years. The eight girls’ schools in the district are allowed to offer elementary and middle grades.
“Overall, the standard of living has taken a turn for the worse,” he said. “They have lost services, projects, and any prospects of work. Poverty is rampant.”
Mawlawi Abdul Wahab Majdi, 38, a former teacher at Warduj's women’s teacher-training college, says the college remains shut since the Taliban takeover. He says its more than 100 female students have been deprived of their education.
However, he sees some change in the Taliban’s behavior.
“The first two years after they took over was a reign of terror,” he noted. “But since last year they have changed and are now more cautious in their dealings with people.”
Rahmuddin, 49, who goes by one name only, hopes to return to Warduj with his 12 family members if peace returns. He supports the ongoing efforts to make peace with the Taliban but expects protection.
“We support a peace where the rights of all people are protected,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “Otherwise our misery will not end, and there will be no peace.”