CNN goes exclusively behind Taliban lines as the US prepares to pull its troops after 17 years of war in Afghanistan

On the outskirts of a dusty village in northern Afghanistan, a mass of Taliban fighters is gathered along the side of the dirt road. They are carrying AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades and waving the militant group’s flag. They stand in stoic silence, staring at us intently. There is no trace of emotion in their eyes.

It’s an eerie scene, not least because large Taliban gatherings are a prime target for airstrikes.

The commander appears unfazed. He has been fighting since he was old enough to carry a gun.

“We are ready for any sacrifice. We are not scared of being hit,” he tells us. “This is our holy path, we continue our jihad.”

36 hours with the Taliban 12:26

It’s not often as a western journalist that you find yourself on the opposing side of America’s war. Since the invasion of Afghanistan by US-led forces 17 years ago, the Taliban’s world has been shrouded in secrecy and largely inaccessible to outsiders — until now.

After months of negotiations, the Taliban’s leadership granted extremely rare access and protection in an area under its control to Afghan filmmaker Najibullah Quraishi and a female CNN team.

Our 36 hours with them provided an extraordinary window into a desolate world frozen in time. We found few indications that the militant group’s insular and austere ideology has changed. At times, as foreign women, our presence was incredibly uncomfortable. But, as peace talks in Qatar with the US gather momentum, the Taliban believes that victory is within its grasp and, perhaps as a result, there are signs the group is showing greater pragmatism.

Our journey begins in Mazar-e Sharif, the country’s fourth-largest city. The Taliban was forced to withdraw from the city after a bitter battle in 2001. Now, they are just miles away. We are heading to Chimtal district, which the Taliban took over 18 months ago. The government still has a small base in the main town but the surrounding villages are all controlled by the Taliban.

Between 60% and 70% of Afghanistan is now contested or under the control of the Taliban.

We cross a small river on a hand-pulled ferry. The US government has poured billions of dollars into building up Afghanistan’s infrastructure, but little of that has trickled down to rural areas like this one.

Our escorts are waiting on the other side. They greet Quraishi, the only male member of our team, warmly. As women, we are ignored, seemingly invisible under the full facial veil that is mandatory in public.

The Taliban has invited us to its territory because it wants to show that it is able to govern effectively. Our first stop is a medical clinic in the village of Pashma Qala. A worn plaque at the door shows the building was originally a gift from the US in 2006.

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Taliban fighters stand outside the Pashma Qala Medical Clinic in Balkh province, which has been run by the extremist group for over two years.

Moments after we arrive, a motorcycle hits a little girl in front of the clinic. There is a moment of pure horror as her shrieks fill the air. The Taliban fighter driving the motorcycle stops his bike and looks back. Slowly, he slings his gun over his shoulder and wanders toward the girl nonchalantly, then when he sees she isn’t seriously hurt he simply turns around and rides off.

The girl is carried into the clinic, her frantic mother following behind. The doctor, Haji Said Isaq, barely examines her before handing her mother some painkillers and moving on. After years of fighting in this area, he has seen much worse and he has dozens more patients to tend to.

Isaq explains that while the Taliban runs the day-to-day operations at the clinic, the government pays the salaries and provides medicine. This sort of ad hoc cooperation between the government and the Taliban is becoming more and more common in hospitals and schools in contested areas.

Under the Taliban in the late 1990s, women were not able to get medical care from a male doctor, work most jobs or even leave the house without a male guardian. So we are surprised to see several female employees at the clinic. 22-year-old midwife Fazila doesn’t cover her face when she is talking to us, even though our camera operator is male.

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Midwife Fazila, 24, at the Pashma Qala Medical Clinic in Balkh province.

On the wall of her office, a family planning poster lists different types of contraception, including condoms and the pill. It’s the last thing we expected to see in Taliban territory, where any talk about sex is taboo.

Fazila, who declined to give her last name, says the Taliban hasn’t changed anything since it took over the clinic from the government 18 months ago. She says women can still be treated by male doctors.

“The Taliban never interferes in our work as women,” Fazila said. “They never block us from coming to the clinic. They don’t interrupt us.”

As with all the places we are taken, it is difficult to know how much has been staged by the Taliban for our consumption. But analysts say that the group does appear to be taking a more accommodating approach to governance these days, co-opting institutions in territory they take over, rather than destroying or changing them.

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A family planning information board at the Pashma Qala Medical Clinic lists contraception available, such as condoms and birth control pills.

In the waiting area of the clinic, a woman cradling a disabled boy in her arms describes the bleakness of life here. “There are no jobs here. Our youngsters left, some were killed, some didn’t return,” she says.

When we ask whether life under the Taliban has changed from how it was in the late 90’s, an older woman standing nearby shakes her head emphatically. “No,” she answers. “We are trapped in the middle and we can’t do anything.”

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Women await medical care in a Taliban-run clinic.

It’s getting late as we leave the clinic and we need to get to our accommodations. The Taliban shuts off all cell phone service at night and airstrikes are most common after dark.

Our host for the evening is an Islamic teacher. He wears a white shalwar kameez, a traditional long tunic over baggy pants, and is one of the few men we meet who is friendly and smiles at us.

In keeping with the Taliban’s strict rules on gender segregation, we are to sleep in the women’s part of the house. But our host does come and sit with us for a while. Speaking in classical Arabic — our only common language — he admits that he’s never seen an outside journalist, and never imagined he would.

The women and children in his family are equally intrigued. After the host leaves, they pepper us with questions in Dari that we can’t understand. We share our candy bars with them as the mothers giggle at us. Later, we learn that they have never seen foreigners before.

The next day we set off early to visit the local madrasa, a religious school.

Madrasas have a reputation for teaching a harsh, fundamentalist Islam. Under Taliban rule in the late 1990s, girls were excluded from education.

But here we see dozens of children — boys and girls — poring over their Qurans, reciting verses as they rock back and forth.

Most of the girls are between 8 and 10, and several tell us they can read. With pen and paper, they proudly demonstrate writing their own names. One of the girls says she wants to be a doctor when she grows up. Another says her favorite subject is math.

Their teacher is Yar Mohammed, who splits his time between the frontlines and the classroom. His AK-47 never leaves his side, even as he sits with the children going over verses from the Quran.

He tells us that that the Taliban now encourages the education of girls. He adds: “The Emirate has instructed education departments to allow education [for girls] of religious studies, modern studies, science and math.”

It doesn’t take long for this carefully crafted illusion of gender equality to be shattered. Mohammed adds that once the girls hit puberty, they can no longer be educated in the same school as boys, because there might be contact between the sexes.

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Girls study at the local madrasa.

That means there need to be separate schools for the girls. So far, those don’t exist. It’s the same excuse that the Taliban used two decades ago to deprive millions of girls of education.

Most of these girls will leave school by the time they are 14. But the sad reality is that female education is simply not a priority in poor, rural areas. And that goes for government-controlled areas as well.

In an effort to show they can provide basic services, the Taliban has started appointing “shadow” governors who compete with the Afghan government for influence and support.

In Chimtal district, Mawlavi Khaksar is one such governor. With his heavy black cloak and startling green eyes staring out from beneath a black turban, he cuts an intimidating figure.

Khaksar sits across from us, flanked by four bodyguards, his AK-47 resting on his lap. One of the guards is hunched over a two-way radio, listening for security updates.

We have been instructed not to ask questions about the peace talks with the US. Any time the conversation veers into the overtly political, Khaksar tells us to consult the Taliban’s political spokesperson for comment.

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Mawlawi Khaksar, Taliban shadow governor of Balkh province.

Still, Khaksar does reveal some of the apparent contradictions in the Taliban’s evolving image. While he has a smartphone and uses Facebook to get his news, he is also adamant that men and women found guilty of adultery should still be stoned to death.

“We implement the sharia, we follow sharia instruction, and the sharia allows stoning to death,” Khaksar says.

When asked about US concerns that the Taliban will once again provide safe haven to terrorists if it retakes the country, he replies: “Once we are ruling Afghanistan no foreigners will be allowed in the country … whether it’s the Americans or ISIS.”

The previous Taliban governor was captured by Afghan government forces in a raid in January. To avoid meeting the same fate, Khaksar doesn’t have a fixed office, instead moving from place to place.


Taliban control in Afghanistan

Who controls what

Government

35.7% of districts

Control of one district is unconfirmable

By population

15,911,541

14,143,996

Population of the one unconfirmable district: 43,003

Mazar-e Sharif

Government control

Taliban control

Unconfirmable

Source: Foundation for Defense of Democracies Long War

Journal, as of Feb. 15, 2019. District boundaries are as of 2014.

Taliban control in Afghanistan

Who controls what

Government

35.7% of districts

Control of one district is unconfirmable

By population

15,911,541

14,143,996

Population of the one unconfirmable district: 43,003

Mazar-e Sharif

Government control

Taliban control

Unconfirmable

Source: Foundation for Defense of Democracies Long War

Journal, as of Feb. 15, 2019. District boundaries are as of 2014.

Taliban control in Afghanistan

Who controls what

Government

35.7% of districts

1 district is unconfirmable

By population

15,911,541

14,143,996

Population of the one unconfirmable district: 43,003

Government control

TAJIKISTAN

Taliban control

Unconfirmable

Mazar-e Sharif

Source: Foundation for Defense of Democracies Long War Journal, as of February 15, 2019. District boundaries are as of 2014.

Taliban control in Afghanistan

Who controls what

Government

35.7% of districts

1 district is unconfirmable

By population

15,911,541

14,143,996

Population of the one unconfirmable district: 43,003

Government control

TAJIKISTAN

Taliban control

Unconfirmable

TURKMENISTAN

Mazar-e Sharif

Source: Foundation for Defense of Democracies Long War Journal, as of February 15, 2019. District boundaries are as of 2014.

When locals hear that Khaksar is in the village, a group of men quickly arrives outside the house he is visiting to raise their issues.

They carry white pieces of paper with details of their disputes. Most are about money and property. The governor invites them to come in and sit with him.

One man explains: “I sold a car to someone and that person is in a government-controlled area and won’t pay me the money. I tried my best but no one in the government heard my voice.”

The man complains that the government officers have demanded bribes from him. Khaksar takes his petition and tells him it will be dealt with tomorrow. The Taliban has a reputation for administering harsh but quick justice — earning them the support of many in these areas.

To many Afghans, however, the Taliban is better known for civilian casualties than civilian governance. The group’s vicious tactics and indiscriminate attacks have left many thousands dead. Last year was a record for civilian casualties, with 3,804 innocent lives lost — including 927 children — according to a United Nations report published this week. The Taliban was responsible for roughly 35% of those deaths, the report said.

The Taliban has previously acknowledged the issue by establishing a largely symbolic commission in 2010 to investigate civilian deaths. Still, Khaksar insists that America is the worst perpetrator.

“Those responsible for civilian casualties are ones who came with their aircrafts, artillery, B-52s and heavy weaponry,” he says. “In reality, they are responsible for killing civilians, not the Islamic Emirate. Because the Emirate doesn’t have possession of weapons that can cause mass casualties like those foreigners who have attacked Afghanistan.”

In reality, there were 536 civilian deaths caused by aerial operations during the same period in 2018, of which 73% were attributed to international military forces, according to the UN mission in Afghanistan.

As we walk out of the house with Khaksar after our interview, the Taliban’s military commander for the district, Mubariz Mujahid, arrives, and a dispute breaks out about us. He is upset about our request to get a shot of the governor and I walking outside. He doesn’t want any member of the Taliban appearing on the street with a woman.

He asks if the governor can walk down the street with our male colleague, Quraishi, instead. Quraishi explains that I am the presenter, not him. The men appear to find this confusing.

“They should have brought a man,” a companion of the commander grumbles.

Eventually, we agree to hang back and follow the men at a distance, something I have never had to do in my career.

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Balkh province Taliban fighters.

After almost two decades of war, 2,372 American troops lost and more than a trillion dollars of US taxpayer money spent, the Taliban is stronger and controls more territory than at any point since the conflict began. This fact has the Afghan government on edge as the Trump administration prepares to withdraw thousands of troops.

As we drive out of Taliban territory, we pass a group of women working on the land. An icy wind whips across the bleak landscape. Time and time again, we have been reminded how tough life is here.

To large parts of the country, the prospect of a Taliban resurgence is a terrifying thought. But the reality is that for many Afghans, it doesn’t really make a difference who is in charge. Their quality of life has not improved. And after decades of war and hardship, they’ll turn to anyone who promises peace.