RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
American forces and their allies are expected to be out of Afghanistan by September 11 of this year. So what kind of country do they leave behind? As NPR's Diaa Hadid reports, the Taliban are stronger than they have been at any point in the past two decades.
DIAA HADID, BYLINE: At a dusty Kabul bus station, ticket sellers call for passengers going to Kandahar.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).
HADID: One driver on that route is Jan Mohammad. He's chubby, bearded and confident his bus will fill up soon. He says the journey is the safest it's been in years because the Taliban now control key parts of the 300-mile highway that leads to Kandahar. He speaks to NPR producer Fazelminallah Qazizai.
JAN MOHAMMAD: (Through interpreter) We are at ease now 'cause the police don't harass us for bribes. Highway robbers can't even spend five minutes on the road 'cause the Taliban zip over on their motorbikes whenever they hear of a problem.
HADID: The Taliban reportedly man multiple spots on this highway, where they flash green laser pointers at vehicles to stop and search them. They've got a customs clearing house, where truck drivers pay a poll tax. The drivers even get a receipt so they don't have to pay the tax again down the road. The Taliban also hunt for rivals. Driver Jan Mohammad again.
MOHAMMAD: (Through interpreter) They check the IDs of passengers. If you are with the Afghan military, they take you off the bus.
HADID: Activists and rights groups say some of those personnel have been detained; others have been shot dead. This echoes what the Taliban did in the '90s, when they seized power after a brutal civil war. They wrested order from chaos, even as they imposed their own harsh rules on ordinary Afghans. Another driver, Sharif Omeri, says the insurgents search passengers' smartphones for music and racy material
SHARIF OMERI: (Through interpreter) One time they found a guy who had some pornography on his phone. They told him to delete it and not watch porn again.
HADID: Many of these inroads by the Taliban appear to have taken place after they signed a deal with the United States in February last year that will see foreign forces leave Afghanistan.
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HADID: At a gas station on the outskirts of Kabul, one Taliban commander says that deal swelled their morale.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Through interpreter) Even the smallest mujahid feels like we defeated a superpower and all the world combined.
HADID: The commander, who's second in charge of military operations in a Kabul district, requested anonymity so he can't be identified by government forces. He says the Taliban eventually plan on seizing Kabul.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Through interpreter) When we arrive in Kabul, we will arrive as conquerors.
HADID: The commander's opinions jar with what the Taliban leadership says, which is that they're serious about peace talks with the Afghan government. Those talks are meant to find a way to share political power. They've been stalled for months. The commander is in his mid-30s with a scraggly beard. And in his opinion, the Taliban will rule Afghanistan according to their version of Islamic law.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Through interpreter) Women will be able to study and work and move freely, but they'll cover their faces. They'll be segregated. We won't have democracy. We'll have an Islamic regime.
HADID: The first time the Taliban ruled, girls couldn't study. Women couldn't leave their homes. So this is a softer version of what the Taliban originally imposed on Afghans. But it's still harsh and represents an enormous step backwards for many Afghans, particularly women. The commander insists it will be utopia. But he warns...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Through interpreter) We will punish those who do not pledge allegiance to us.
HADID: Some believe the Taliban are already punishing those who might be critical of their future rule. Weeda Mehran is a lecturer on conflict, security and development at Britain's University of Exeter.
WEEDA MEHRAN: This deal has actually emboldened the Taliban to assassinate people and try to get rid of people who would be a problem.
HADID: Mehran is referring to the killings of dozens of Afghan journalists, activists, clerics and other influential people. Those killings began escalating in September last year. The U.S. accuses the Taliban of many of those murders. They deny the charge. But it's clear the insurgents are eyeing power, and they've been making military gains on the ground since the U.S.-Taliban deal.
JONATHAN SCHRODEN: Things have gotten notably worse over the last year.
HADID: Jonathan Schroden is the director of Countering Threats and Challenges Program at the Center for Naval Analysis in Arlington.
SCHRODEN: What you're seeing the Taliban do now is taking rural areas that are increasingly closer to - and effectively surrounding them and also cutting the roads that connect them.
HADID: He says the Taliban have effectively surrounded nearly half of Afghanistan's 34 provincial capitals. Another military expert on the Taliban, Bill Roggio of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, says the insurgents have also doubled the amount of territory they've held since 2018.
BILL ROGGIO: And keep in mind, this was happening as U.S. forces were there.
HADID: He anticipates the Taliban will seize large parts of southern and eastern Afghanistan when foreign forces leave.
ROGGIO: I think that we're going to see the real offensive come in the next several months.
HADID: An arms dealer agrees. He sits in a cafe by a river in the eastern city of Jalalabad. He asks only to use his nickname, Haji, and his aide answers on his behalf so nobody can hear his voice.
HAJI: (Through interpreter) Ever since the Americans agreed to withdraw from Afghanistan, the Taliban have been buying more.
HADID: He says they're buying heavier weapons.
HAJI: (Through interpreter) They're buying rockets, mortars, surface-to-air missiles. They even pay for them in advance. They pay in cash.
HADID: Haji, the weapons dealer, says the Taliban possess three dozen Russian-made surface-to-air missiles. We can't independently verify those claims, but if the Taliban were to start using those weapons, it would blunt a key advantage of the Afghan military - air superiority. Regardless, the question analysts are now asking is not whether the Taliban will wrest more territory once foreign forces leave but whether they can hold their ground and, just as importantly, govern the people who will fall under their rule.
Diaa Hadid, NPR News.
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