KANDAHAR, Afghanistan: Ali Ahmad Alizai has no choice but to obey when the Taliban come knocking on his door demanding food, shelter or a slice of his hard-earned harvest to fund their insurgency.
“The Taliban run a dictatorship here. They have their own laws. We have some security, but no freedom,” the farmer told AFP by telephone from a militant-controlled district of Afghanistan’s southern Helmand province.
Alizai is one of millions living under Taliban rule in Afghanistan, where the group controls more territory than at any time since being toppled in 2001 by US-led forces.
As momentum for peace talks builds, with a fresh round of negotiations between the Taliban and Washington set to begin in Doha on Monday, testimonies from Afghans like him paint a picture of what life might be like should the militants return to power as the US exits its longest war.
In some ways Taliban governance appears to have evolved, with the insurgents open to some small compromises as Afghans refuse to part with their hard-won freedoms.
But zeal for the harsh brand of Islamic justice that defined their former regime is unwavering, and remains pivotal to enforcing obedience today in countryside under its influence.
Abdul Bari, who abandoned his home in an insurgent fiefdom in Uruzgan province three months ago, spoke darkly of life under the white flag of the Taliban.
“They would stage public executions from time to time,” the 66-year-old told AFP in Kandahar, where he fled with his family.
“Their fighters would decide the fate of people.”
Taliban courts preside over justice in huge swathes of the country — even areas ostensibly under government control, said Ashley Jackson, a research associate with the Overseas Development Institute.
Verdicts under their own strict interpretation of Sharia law are swift, and punishments severe, from limbs amputated for theft to condemned prisoners hung by roadsides as a warning.
“People are terrified of them,” said Sayed Omar, who escaped Taliban brutality in Uruzgan.
“They have not changed, they are the same as they were during their rule.”
Mohammad Qasem, a shopkeeper who spoke to AFP by phone from another Taliban bastion in Kandahar, said the militants had banned smartphones and confined women to the home — effectively reversing the clock to 1996, when they stormed to power.
But they were “a bit easier” on men having shorter beards — a floggable offense under their former regime.
The Taliban have told AFP they want to establish “an Islamic system” as opposed to the democracy built since 2001, but that they have modified their stance on some issues including dropping a ban on the education of women and girls.
AFP was unable to speak to any women currently living under Taliban rule.
Human Rights Watch senior researcher Heather Barr said in some areas the militants now allow girls to attend primary school, “if it was segregated by gender, the teachers were female, and the Taliban controlled the curriculum.”
However, it was “ridiculous and harmful” to suggest that proved the Taliban had softened their stance on women, she said.
“Limiting girls to primary education is an extreme form of misogyny ... Too many men are in a rush to argue that a Taliban deal will be fine for women. Women know better — but is anyone listening to them?“
Qasem said the restrictions were unpopular. Times have changed since the Taliban were deposed, he added.
“This time, if they don’t change, it might create a backlash,” he told AFP.
There are some signs the insurgents are listening.
Phone use is permitted during the day and televisions watched without fear of punishment, a far cry from the violent Taliban purges against technology in the past.
“What they say is don’t listen to music, listen to sermons and religious programs. But there is no smashing of TV sets anymore,” Thomas Ruttig, from the Afghanistan Analysts Network, told AFP.
The Taliban are also keen to show they can govern a modern nation.
In territory where control is split with the government, the militants ensure teachers and clinic staff show up for work and prod electricity providers to fix power outages.
Jackson said this Taliban “shadow government” exists partly to embarrass corrupt local politicians, but also to exert soft power and demonstrate competence.
“It’s both carrot and stick. I think they realize they have to provide... some tangible benefit,” Jackson said.
Mullah Rauf, a former Taliban commander, said the insurgents had evolved.
“They can’t have a hard-line government anymore. Nowhere in the world do such governments exist,” he told AFP by telephone from Panjwaee, a Taliban district in Kandahar.
As America pushes for a peace deal, many Afghans want to know the Taliban’s intentions once foreign troops leave.
The militants say they do not want to rule by force, but share power with other parties.
Taliban justice is one area “where compromise will be the hardest,” Jackson said.
Ruttig said the militants had not abandoned their ideology, but know “they cannot rule against the population,” and therefore might be open to some compromise.
“But whether that’s good enough for most Afghans — who now have tasted completely different freedoms than what they had under the Taliban — that will be up to the Afghan population,” Ruttig said.