KABUL, Afghanistan — At a dusty bus station on this city's outskirts, ticket hawkers call out for passengers to the southern city of Kandahar. It's a 300-mile route — and the Taliban control key parts of the highway.
There are gun battles along the route, and the Taliban undertake violent ambushes of Afghan forces.
But for bus driver Jan Mohammad, the highway seems to be the safest it has been in years because of the Taliban. "We are at ease now because the police don't harass us for bribes," says Jan Mohammad, 32, who like many Afghans, does not have a family name. Talibs even issue receipts for customs duties they collect so that drivers don't have to pay again, he says. And there's less highway robbery, he adds: "Robbers can't even spend five minutes on the road, because the Talibs zip over on their motorbikes whenever they hear of a problem."
Yet he acknowledges it's not safe for everyone. "They check the IDs of passengers," he says. "If you are with the Afghan military, they take you off the bus." Rights groups say the Taliban have detained and sometimes killed those suspected of working with government security forces.
Another driver, Sharif Omeri, says the insurgents search passengers' cellphones for music or material forbidden under the Taliban's strict version of Islam forbid. "One time they found a guy who had some pornography on his phone," he says. "They told him to delete it and not watch porn again."
Across Afghanistan, there are echoes of what the Taliban did in the 1990s when they seized power after a brutal civil war. The Taliban wrested order out of chaos, imposing harsh rules on Afghan society until they were toppled in the U.S. invasion in 2001.
In the two decades since, the Taliban have fought the Afghan government and its international allies to regain land and power. Analysts say the insurgents have been growing stronger for years. Now, as American and NATO troops withdraw, the Taliban appear even more emboldened and are wresting more territory from the U.S.-backed Afghan government.
"Even the smallest mujahid feels like we defeated a superpower, and all the world combined," says a Taliban commander, who is second in charge of military operations in a Kabul district. He requested anonymity to speak to NPR so he couldn't be identified by Afghan or foreign forces.
The Taliban have been accelerating a years-old trend of seizing districts since the U.S. scaled back its airstrikes in support of Afghan forces following the deal the Trump administration struck with the Taliban in February last year, according to Jonathan Schroden, an expert at the Center for Naval Analyses in Arlington, Va.
The agreement included the departure of foreign forces from Afghanistan, largely in exchange for the insurgents refraining from attacks and from harboring terrorist groups like al-Qaida.
"Things have gotten notably worse over the last year," Schroden says. "What you're seeing the Taliban do now is not just taking rural areas, but taking rural areas that are increasingly closer to significant cities, provincial capitals, for example, and effectively surrounding them and also cutting the roads that connect to them."
A recent quarterly inspector general report to Congress said, as of February, the Taliban had surrounded five provincial capitals, including Kandahar, Afghanistan's second largest city. The insurgents have doubled their territory since 2018, according to Bill Roggio, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, who closely follows Taliban military gains. "And keep in mind: That was when U.S. forces were there," he says.
Since President Biden announced U.S. and allied forces will leave by the symbolic date of Sept. 11, U.S. defense officials have reportedly said they intend to complete the withdrawal as early as July. A month into the process, U.S. Central Command said this week the military was "30-44%" of the way there.
As foreign forces leave, Roggio anticipates the Taliban will seize swaths of southern and eastern Afghanistan. "I think that we are going to see the real offensive come in the next several months," he says.
"Buying rockets, mortars, surface-to-air missiles"
A weapons dealer in the eastern city of Jalalabad says the Taliban are acquiring heavier weapons than usual. "Ever since the Americans agreed to withdraw from Afghanistan, the Taliban have been buying more," he says.
He asks NPR only use his nickname, Haji, to avoid being identified. He is in his 60s, and says he has sold weapons to the Taliban and other militants for much of the past four decades of Afghanistan's near-continuous conflict.
"They're buying rockets, mortars, surface-to-air missiles," he says, noting that these were not their usual light weapons purchases, like automatic rifles and ammunition. He says he has knowledge that as many as 35 surface-to-air missiles, made in Russia, were purchased for the Taliban for $70,000 each.
NPR could not independently verify the dealer's claims.
The analyst Schroden, who has provided assessments of Afghanistan's security situation to Congress, says the assertions are plausible.
"Dominance of the air is one of the [Afghan national defense and security forces'] few critical advantages," he says. If the Taliban "got air defense capabilities, it would be a game-changer in terms of military balance."
"We will arrive as conquerors"
At a gas station on the outskirts of Kabul, the Taliban commander says the group has its eyes fixed firmly on the capital. "When we arrive in Kabul, we will arrive as conquerors," he tells NPR.
Taliban leaders say publicly, however, they are serious about peace talks with the Afghan government, which were among the terms of the U.S.-Taliban deal. The negotiations are meant to reach a power-sharing agreement between the Taliban and other Afghan parties, but the talks have sputtered since starting in September.
Speaking to NPR, the commander indicates the Taliban intend to rule Afghanistan according to their harsh version of Islamic law, rolling back some of the gains women have made since the insurgents last ruled from Kabul. "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."
He claims it will be utopia, but he warns: "We will punish those who do not pledge allegiance to us."
Some analysts believe the Taliban are already punishing prominent critics in advance of their planned future rule.
"This deal has actually emboldened the Taliban," says Weeda Mehran, a lecturer on conflict, security and development at Britain's University of Exeter, "to assassinate people and try to get rid of people who would be a problem."
Mehran's referring to killings of dozens of Afghan journalists, activists, clerics and other influential members of society.
The killings escalated after talks began between Afghan government negotiators and Taliban representatives. The U.S. accuses the Taliban of many of the killings. The Taliban deny responsibility. "This is a false propaganda of the enemy," said a spokesman, who uses the name Zabihullah Mujahid. He blamed Afghan government intelligence officials for the murders.
Afghan government defense officials say their forces can protect the country from the Taliban and, even after the withdrawal, could call in international air support as needed. But in recent weeks, the insurgents have overrun four districts, in some incidents reportedly sending Afghan forces fleeing without a fight.
On a recent journey down the Kabul-Kandahar highway in a passenger bus, sounds of clashes were audible between Taliban fighters and government forces in Wardak province, which is adjacent to Kabul.
The bus was flagged down at one of the highway's four Taliban checkpoints. A fighter donned a black turban and a camouflage jacket, that appeared to have been taken from government forces, over his traditional long shirt and baggy pants and wore fingerless gloves. He held a rifle in one hand, and in the other, a green laser pointer to aim at vehicles for searches.
He climbed onto the bus, calling out the traditional Muslim greeting: "As-salaam alaikum!"
He flashed his light at the passengers before landing on one young man. "What is your job?" he asked. "I work in a hotel," the passenger responded.
The Talib walked back to the door of the bus. "Forgive us for the hassle," he apologized. "Please pray for us."
Fazelminallah Qazizai reported from Kabul and Jalalabad; Diaa Hadid from Canberra, Australia.
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.
(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC AMBIENCE)
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.
(SOUNDBITE OF HOMAYUN SAKHI'S "RAGA YAMAN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.