KABUL — For those who imagine that Taliban control in some regions of Afghanistan consists mainly of men being beaten for failing to pray and girls being forced to stay home from school, a new report based on scores of interviews in those areas paints a very different portrait, but one that in some ways may be equally disturbing.

Life Under the Taliban Shadow Government,” a detailed study published Thursday by the Overseas Development Institute, describes a “sophisticated system of parallel governance,” with commissions for each area of service, such as health, justice and finance, operating in numerous districts fully or partly controlled by the insurgents. The study surveyed 20 such districts across seven provinces.

The main conclusions of the report, written and primarily researched by Ashley Jackson, are that the Taliban sets the rules in “vast swaths” of Afghan territory but is far more concerned with influencing people. It has largely shifted from outright coercion to “creeping influence” over Afghans through services and state activities, it is often part of the local “social fabric,” and it views itself as preparing to govern the country, not just to participate in political life, whenever the 16-year conflict ends, the report says.

In many areas, the report finds, Taliban representatives interact almost routinely with local government officials, aid agencies and other groups, negotiating terms in a hybrid system to deliver health care, education and other services. Taliban bureaucrats collect taxes and electric bills, and their judges hear civil and criminal cases — some traveling by motorbike between hearings.

Although the first Taliban shadow governments were established more than a decade ago, the report documents how widely they have spread, despite years of Afghan and foreign military resistance. It also shows how they have evolved from using force and intimidation against local populations to building carefully run, accountable systems that address people’s needs, which some residents say they find more honest and effective than government control.

The report says Afghan and foreign officials are “worryingly unaware” of how assiduously the Taliban has worked to exert local control, make bargains and influence services. Today, its leaders view themselves not as insurgents but as a “government in waiting,” the report says.

At a time of growing national hopes for a negotiated peace, the consolidation of Taliban administrative control in numerous areas seems to challenge the official argument that the insurgents might accept a role as just another political force in exchange for giving up arms and settling the war.

Dozens of armed Taliban militants entered the Afghan city of Ghazni on June 16 to celebrate an unprecedented ceasefire, marking the end of Ramadan. (Reuters)

Over time, the study found, Taliban policies in areas of control shifted from repressive violence to cooperation and public relations. By 2011, Taliban leaders had signed agreements with 28 aid organizations, including permission to conduct polio vaccination drives. As NATO forces withdrew, Taliban professionalism grew.

“We could be less warlike,” one Taliban member said. Unlike the amateur Taliban rulers of 1996 to 2001, the insurgents now have a seasoned, “quasi-professional core of individuals” to run things, the report says.

One of the most dramatic areas of evolution in Taliban attitudes has been toward education. In areas under its control, there is better teacher and pupil attendance, less theft and more order, although the Taliban vetoes texts on modern topics and may forbid English from being taught. On the whole, a majority of people interviewed “felt that the Taliban had improved” how public education was run.

The issue of girls’ education has remained thorny. Officially, the Taliban policy is now not to attack schools or ban female education, but in practice, many of its strict requirements for segregated buildings and all-female teachers have been hard to meet. The researchers could not find a single secondary school for girls open in areas of heavy Taliban influence. Yet the report also describes a broader societal and official reluctance to educate girls as dovetailing with Taliban wishes and pressure.

In health care, the report found a similar situation of professional interaction with government and private aid facilities, and it noted that among health workers in Taliban-controlled districts, most described government interference, corruption and theft from clinics as “more problematic” than Taliban interference.

The delivery of swift and fair justice has always been a selling point for the Taliban in a country where official justice is chronically slow and corrupt. In areas of Taliban control, the report described a complex, multilevel shadow justice system dealing with areas ranging from peace talks to common crime. Its most popular feature is resolving disputes, a common problem in rural areas.

The report found that Taliban judges were well trained and drew on cultural norms and common sense, not just Islamic precepts. But it also cited complaints of arbitrary or extreme rulings and noted that Taliban religious rules remain similar to those in the past Taliban regime: mandatory beards, no music, no TV, no women in public without a male escort.

One chilling aspect of living under the insurgents was what the residents described to the researchers as an ominous, “creeping quality to Taliban authority” that allowed them to prepare themselves to obey strict rules by gradually changing their behavior or decide to leave the area.

One of the most visible ways the Taliban creates the sense of being a government is by collecting taxes. The report says the group has developed a comprehensive system of tax and revenue collection, in areas including mining, electricity, agricultural production and customs. It also collects religious taxes for charity, as well as taxes on opium production, an especially lucrative source of income.

But the report suggested that the insurgents’ reported income from drugs may be exaggerated and that they encourage opium poppy growing because it helps the poor survive and makes them more compliant with Taliban control.

Read more