Smartphone bans, unnerving surveillance: Afghans reveal life under spreading Taliban rule

MAZAR-E SHARIF, Afghanistan - The Taliban’s eyes and ears are everywhere, the teachers learned last month, when the militants issued a threat against women using smartphones.

One teacher lifted her burqa on a warm morning and bared her face for just a moment, said Mah Jan, an educator in the northern Balkh province, where the Taliban has made significant inroads in recent months. Soon after, another colleague glanced at her phone.

Then came a message from the Taliban, delivered through a local elder. If they committed the same infractions again, the militants warned, “we will take you away and nobody can save you,” Mah Jan recalled.

Mah Jan, who declined to provide a last name out of fear of retribution, said a constant hum of dread has compelled her to say a final farewell to her family every morning before school, just in case she is killed in clashes between home and her ever-shrinking classroom.

As the Taliban’s territory grows across Afghanistan, so does the number of civilians colliding with their harsh and violent will. In interviews with more than a dozen Afghans in northern provinces - some behind Taliban lines, others who fled to displacement camps, civilians reported shuttered girls’ schools, poor families forced to cook food for ravenous fighters, and young men pressured to join the ranks of the militants. Several people reported threats of violence from new arrivals to their villages.

Taken together, they paint a grim picture of how life already has changed since U.S. forces began the final phase of their withdrawal from Afghanistan, in what might be a harbinger of the country’s future if the Taliban regains control of the country.

A Taliban spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.


Some of the restrictions the militants are imposing - burqas for women, long beards for men, forced attendance at mosques - hark back to their rule of the late 1990s. But new restrictions are intended to rein in 21st century technology and advances in women’s rights.

Mah Jan, who taught under Taliban rule, said militants monitored teachers and their relationships with aid groups before they were toppled in the 2001 U.S. invasion, but they weren’t coercive. Now, she said, “the Taliban have grown very brutal.”

The restrictions have intruded into the most private moments. Ansari, a young woman in Balkh province, said smartphones have been banned outright, severely limiting communication with family outside the country and restricting the ability of students to connect with teachers during pandemic restrictions. The surveillance gives way to paranoia, she said, as if everyone is being watched from far.

“If single girls are found using smartphones, they are questioned over the possibility of having a relationship with a boy,” said Ansari, who declined to provide her last name out of fear of retribution. “If boys listen to songs, their memory cards are smashed by the Taliban.”

Afghanistan analysts say the Taliban’s treatment of civilians varies across provinces and districts as autonomous local commanders tailor their approach to ethnic ties and local politics.

Some communities, particularly those in rural provinces, might already have conservative restrictions that mirror some Taliban hallmarks, such as discouraging girls from attending school, said Patricia Gossman, the associate Asia director at Human Rights Watch. Some communities welcome the Taliban out of fear, she said, while others do so out of frustration with corrupt police and abusive militias.

The Taliban’s gains, and intense fighting with Afghan forces drawing nearer to population centers, has deepened the country’s humanitarian catastrophe. Nearly 360,000 have been internally displaced this year, according to the International Organization for Migration.

More than 2,000 displaced Afghan families have taken refuge in Mazar-e Sharif, the provincial capital of Balkh province and the nation’s fourth-largest city, according to IOM. Many are now living in plastic tarp shanties on the fringes of the vital economic hub now encircled by the Taliban.

On a scorching August morning, as children played in the dust-choked camp outside his tent, police officer Naimat Samadi recounted how the difference between life and death in a March battle was a Humvee door.

His unit was ordered to rescue colleagues who were being overrun in an outpost in the Almar district of Faryab, a northwestern province that borders Turkmenistan. The unit was ambushed by Taliban soldiers, he said, and absorbed a barrage of rocket-propelled grenades.

The Taliban dumped rocks into the road, blocking avenues of retreat and forcing their vehicles to a standstill, Samadi said. A commander who got out of his vehicle was shot by a sniper. Samadi dragged his wounded friend into the Humvee, closed the door and waited for rescue the next morning by Afghan soldiers.

Many of his fellow officers were killed, he said. A few days after, Almar fell to the Taliban.

Samadi fled to Mazar-e Sharif after the Taliban overtook his village, fearing retribution for his work as a police officer. The Taliban ordered civilians to use hand tools to destroy the walls of police and military outposts, he said.

“The Taliban destroyed my house because I have fought against them,” Samadi said.

Several displaced people reported Taliban demands to keep their ranks full: Hand over young sons or forfeit the equivalent of a fighter’s wages. The amount of pressure varies from place to place. Some join willingly; others face pressure from family members to comply to avoid further consequences, said Thomas Ruttig, the co-founder and co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network.

Yar Mohammad Beg, a 65-year-old with an aching laborer’s body, sat on a floor stitched together from cement bags and described his own experience with Taliban recruitment.

One son has fled into Iran, Beg said; his other son is in hiding after he was pursued for conscription. His son is disabled after he fell off a roof years ago, but that hasn’t stopped the effort by militants to place a rifle in his hands.


Beg fears going back to his village in Khwaja Sabz Posh in Faryab, out of concern militants will hunt for his son. But he also can’t make much of his new life outside Mazar, where he is turned away for jobs by people looking for younger hands.

“In the morning, I go to the bazaar for work. I often come back hungry,” he said. “For the rest of the day, I just sit in the shadows.”

In a tent held up by a mud wall, Nader Nabizada, a father of four children, balanced his infant daughter on a knee. His wife stepped out of the tent on word that aid workers were giving out rice. She returned empty-handed.

Nabizada and his family fled the verdant Khwaja Sabz Posh district of Faryab in June following a battle over the district center, he said. Insurgents commandeered civilians’ homes, drawing fire from Afghan forces that destroyed some of them.

Corpses baked in the summer sun for days. The Taliban fighters forbid anyone from touching or burying them, he said, a grave violation of Islamic burial code.

The episode left a dark impression on Nabizada’s 3-year old son, he said. Before he even attends school, the boy fantasizes about becoming a war machine and continuing the cycle of violence that has tormented Afghanistan for decades.

“He told me: ‘If I become a tank, I will kill the Taliban,’” Nabizada said.