KUNDUZ, Afghanistan -- The sound of small arms fire sporadically rings out inside a mud walled compound in rural Kunduz, a province in northeastern Afghanistan bordering Central Asia.
Ostensibly the compound, close to the provincial capital also named Kunduz, is a madrasah. But it is an Islamic religious school in name only.
Afghan officials say the Taliban are using such madrasahs across Kunduz to train children and teenagers in an attempt to recapture the provincial capital, which the insurgents overran and controlled for nearly a week last September.
Mohammad Masoom Hashmi Safi, deputy provincial police chief, said they have uncovered such training camps in raids across the province.
“Most of the insurgents we arrested were teenagers,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “The Taliban actively recruit them because it is easy to influence young minds. The Taliban are abusing them in their war effort on a large scale.”
Another police commander, who requested anonymity, said the young fighters are so indoctrinated that they become some of the most diehard fighters Afghan forces encounter. Most, he said, are 15 to 18 years old.
“Even when they are fighting, the Taliban broadcast their fiery sermons through loudspeakers extolling the virtues of dying a martyr,” he said.
Another police commander, who also requested anonymity, said most Taliban training camps operate in Dasht-e Archi and Chardara -- two agricultural districts surrounding Kunduz city. They served as a launch pad for the Taliban’s foray into the provincial capital last year.
In seeking to turn young students into jihadist fighters, the Taliban are returning to their roots and key constituency. The term Taliban is plural for Talib, a Pashto derivative of the Arabic word for student, Talib-e Ilm. The Taliban first emerged as a student militia in southern Afghanistan in the mid-1990s.
Open Taliban recruitment and training also underscore the tenuous control that provincial authorities retain over the province.
Asadullah Omar Khel, the governor of Kunduz, said they have been monitoring one particular madrasah in Dasht-e Archi for months.
“There are up to 300 students. Most are very young and are being brainwashed into becoming suicide bombers and extremist fighters,” he said.
Provincial lawmaker Amruddin Wali said the government’s inability to control such schools further erodes its legitimacy and ability to reclaim lost territories.
“Some of the training schools have even moved closer to the center of Kunduz city,” he said.
Sultan Khan, a tribal leader from Kunduz’s Imam Sahib district, said the Taliban and allied foreign fighters are training a large number of young recruits in a nearby forest.
“We have been speaking out about the presence of such training camps and the threat they pose,” he said. “But no one has taken any action to address our concerns.”
The Taliban’s drive to train young fighters even goes against the Taliban rule book, which specifically forbids field commanders from recruiting fighters before their beards are fully grown, which usually happens between the 17 and 20 year of age.
Zabihullah Mujahid, a purported Taliban spokesman, rejected claims that the Taliban are recruiting teenagers. He said they do have training camps in the region but that they only admit fighters older than 20.
Civilians in Kunduz are bracing for more trouble as their hopes for peace fade.
Provincial lawmaker Safiullah Amiri wants the government to go after insurgents so Kunduz residents can get some respite from violence.
“People are suffering immensely because of the fighting and insecurity,” he said.
Abubakar Siddique wrote this report based on Ajmal Aryan’s reporting from Kunduz, Afghanistan.