Kabul, Afghanistan – Late in May, 26-year-old truck driver Bilal Hakim was travelling along his regular route through Afghanistan’s northern province of Baghlan to Kunduz.
He had taken the journey with the same cargo – a 50-tonne tanker of oil – several times in his five-year career.
Oil tankers enter Afghanistan at Hairatan port in Balkh and carry fuel to Mazar, Samangan, Baghlan, Kunduz, Takhar and Badakhshan provinces.
“Somewhere in Baghlan-e-Markazi district, I was stopped along with a few other trucks at a makeshift checkpost manned by gunmen,” said Hakim*, who did not want to use his real name for security reasons.
Before he pulled over, Hakim had an idea of what was happening.
He had heard about temporary posts popping up close to main motorways when the local Taliban felt emboldened.
“They asked me to stop and then they demanded I pay them 25,000 Afghanis ($350) as ‘malia’,” he told Al Jazeera, using the Dari word for tax.
“I didn’t know what I was supposed to do,” he said.
Hakim said his employers had received threats of extortion from local Taliban groups before, but this was his first incident of this nature with the armed group.
“The tanker owners had refused to pay so far, but when they held us captive, we had no choice,” Hakim said, adding that tax rate for smaller trucks was $70.
The Taliban’s “Department of Tax and Revenue” issued the drivers a receipt before releasing them.
We have sent tribal elders and religious leaders to negotiate with the Taliban since we can not afford $350 for every vehicle. It will not only affect our business but will also impact the rate of oil in the region.
Haji Shafiq, union member
Representatives of the Baghlan Oil Tankers’ Union and Kunduz Tankers’ Unions confirmed several instances of the Taliban taxing drivers on northern trade routes.
Haji Farid, a union member and oil tanker company owner from Kunduz, said his drivers have been affected.
“The Taliban stopped about 25 trucks three months ago, which included several of oil tankers in Baghlan, and asked them to pay $350 for each truck. Our drivers negotiated the rate down to $210,” he said. “The Taliban told us that they were formally collecting taxes from the entire north and northeastern region and were planning on expanding closer to Kabul as well.”
Afghan officials are aware of the “tax”.
In June, provincial Baghlan governor Abdul Hai Nemati told Al Jazeera the Taliban was collecting “ransom at gunpoint”, adding he had ordered a security patrol to observe and secure all motorways passing through the province.
Meanwhile, truck owners have taken matters into their own hands by attempting to negotiate with the local fighters.
“We (the union members) have sent tribal elders and religious leaders to negotiate with the Taliban since we can not afford $350 for every vehicle. It will not only affect our business but will also impact the rate of oil in the region,” Haji Shafiq, a union member from Baghlan, told Al Jazeera.
Union members have not considered avoiding the tax entirely, out of fear the Taliban would set tankers alight.
“The Taliban are sometimes as far as 50 metres away from the main road and can shoot at our oil tankers, even if we travel with police escort,” Shafiq explained.
He estimates that between 150 to 200 oil tankers pass through the northern highway each day, many of them carrying fuel for foreign troops.
‘Taxes that Muslims must pay for their community’
Collecting funds is not limited to the road “tax”.
The Taliban’s “Ministry of Finance” has expanded its activities in the region in an apparent effort at state-building.
Farmers in Baghlan-e-Markazi have reported the Taliban demanding “zakat”, or charity, that is often paid in kind – such as portions of the harvest.
However, the Taliban have little use for agricultural produce and force farmers to buy back “donated” produce at market rates, issuing them similar attested receipts for payments.
Local Taliban commander Maulawi Abdul Rahman said tax collection was legal and in accordance with Islamic law.
“What we collect is oshr and zakat, Islamic taxes that all Muslims must pay for their community,” he told Al Jazeera, speaking from Dahna-e-Ghori, a district that remains largely under Taliban control.
According to the Taliban, the group uses this money to improve local services.
Social media posts by groups associated with Taliban show them engaging in public services such as building roads, bridges and religious schools.
— Abdulqahar Balkhi (@balkhi_01) March 14, 2017
“Fund-raising and state-building go hand in hand; you can’t establish yourself as a system of state without money,” explained Ahmad Shuja Jamal, Afghan political analyst and editor of the Georgetown Public Policy Review.
“You have to be able to show the public projects, you have to show that you – as a state – are able to benefit people in the areas you control. It is a way for them to establish themselves as a viable potential state,” he told Al Jazeera, adding that this approach differed from when the Taliban controlled the Afghan government in the late 1990s.
— Abdulqahar Balkhi (@balkhi_01) March 9, 2017
“All they offered was a draconian system of moral policing; that was the state. Grow your beard, wear your turban, wear your chadori (a headscarf worn by women), don’t get out of the house – that was literally what they offered.
“But what they are trying to do now is offer all of that and then some more. Their harsh approach to law and order was not popular, so they learned from it,” Jamal told Al Jazeera.
A report in June by Overseas Development Institute (ODI), “Life Under The Taliban Shadow Government”, explores the lives of millions of Afghans living under the group’s influence.
“Taliban governance is more coherent than ever before; high-level commissions govern sectors such as finance, health, education, justice and taxation, with clear chains of command and policies from the leadership based in Pakistan down to villages in Afghanistan,” the report says, while noting how Taliban taxes “co-opt Islamic finance concepts, such as oshr and zakat, or mimic official state systems.”
The report adds: “[Apart from] reviving and restarting parts of their government, such as justice, the Taliban had to invent other systems through trial and error. Much of the process appears to be bottom-up and demand-led, and influenced by local experience.
The Taliban has attempted to “correct” some of its flaws that undermined its rule in the 1990s, including the ban on girls’ education.
“Though most Taliban officials insist no ban existed in the first place, and the Taliban have publicly stated that all women should have access to education,” says the report, authored by ODI’s Ashley Jackson.
Taliban’s ‘swift’ justice
The Taliban are also building a parallel, but small-scale, justice system within areas they control.
“The Taliban have it in their DNA to be a draconian type of moral purifying force using their brand of religious interpretation, which they are using to dispense arbitration in local disputes,” said Jamal, the political analyst.
Some citizens appreciate the Taliban’s speed in ending legal rows in a society where such disputes can linger for decades.
Mohammad, not his real name, is from Baghlan province and owns about a hectare of agricultural land.
“For several years, our family land was controlled by a tribal elder. I reported the matter to the governmental officials and approached various departments of the Afghan government to try and get our land back, but no one was willing to help us because the perpetrator was an influential tribal leader,” he told Al Jazeera.
Years later in January 2018, a friend introduced him to the local Taliban district judge.
“With nothing more to lose, I shared my problem with the Taliban judge. After reviewing my problem and having shared documents proving I inherited the land in question from my grandfather, the judge sent out their fighters to find the man occupying my land,” he said.
The accused was presented in a Taliban “court” the next day and asked to produce evidence, but said his documents were lost amid the country’s conflicts.
“The Taliban judge ruled that the land belonged to my family and told the elder to only return if he can find documents to counterclaim,” Elham said, as he lauded the group’s “swift justice”.
However, Jamal warned against interpreting the Taliban’s justice system as fair.
“I would call it an attempt at fast, perhaps hasty, resolution of local disputes,” he said. “A lot of what they do doesn’t conform to international norms, which is why they are able to do this quickly.
“It doesn’t conform to Afghan, global, or Muslim standards of what justice should be – fair and equitable … The Taliban engage in a lot of extrajudicial killing after summary trials.”
The Afghan government, he said, should be concerned.
“It is the constitutional duty of the Afghan government to offer public services, justice and fair representation. And they should be more worried that in their absence, an armed opposition group is trying to fill the void.”
However, the shift in the Taliban’s strategy to present itself as a viable government hasn’t necessarily won them significant support.
“For the Taliban, control of people – rather than control of territory or popular support – is the priority,” the ODI’s Jackson says in her report. “They seek to control the population, mainly to prevent people from informing upon them or acting against them.”
With additional reporting by Ajmal Omari in Kabul.