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How the Taliban wins over Afghans without firing a shot

By addressing social injustices — like the price of marriage — the Taliban has no trouble winning hearts and minds.

MAIDAN WARDAK, Afghanistan — A letter nailed to the doors and walls of mosques notified people in Maidan Wardak province of the Taliban’s latest decree. When word spread, the insurgents had gained more supporters without firing a shot.

The order addressed an issue that residents increasingly viewed as a threat to Afghan and Islamic culture: the rising cost of marriage.

Throughout the country it is customary to wed at a relatively young age and for the groom’s family to pay the bill. But ever since the US-led invasion, prices had been rising, forcing men to remain single, pile up debts or seek work in Iran and Pakistan.

Now, in areas under the militants’ control, anyone in the province caught demanding too much money on behalf of the bride risked being physically beaten and heavily fined. This was justice Taliban-style and many villagers were delighted that something had been done.

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The only complaint Mohammad Yousef Khoshal had is that his brother became engaged before the law was introduced and the insurgents refused to apply it retroactively. He has, however, attended the weddings of three relatives in the district of Chak that were held under the new rules.

“We are very happy because after this all the boys and girls will not have problems marrying each other,” he said. “Families will not have to send their children outside [Afghanistan] for work.”

Known nationally for producing more than its fair share of highly educated intellectuals and professionals, Maidan Wardak lies just to the southwest of Kabul. Most people who do not leave in search of a better life elsewhere depend on farming for an income.

Intense fighting has occurred here during recent years. In late February President Hamid Karzai ordered US Special Forces to leave the province within a fortnight after allegations that Afghans serving alongside them had committed kidnap and murder. His demand has still not been met and on March 11 two American troops were among those killed in an insider attack here.

Amidst all this, the rebels run a shadow government — winning over a population that might not necessarily be swayed by a simple call to arms.

Habibullah is a Taliban commander in the district of Sayed Abad. He told GlobalPost how the wedding decree came into existence. After noticing a large number of young men were unable to marry, he said the insurgents convened a meeting with local elders more than two years ago to discuss the problem.

Plans for a new law were rejected until a second meeting was held soon afterwards, this time with the Taliban’s “Emir” for the province in attendance. It was eventually decided that a fee amounting to the equivalent of about $6,000 could be paid to a bride’s family. A further $1,000 could be spent on the wedding.

Habibullah explained that the law then spread gradually before reaching the stage where it is now implemented across vast swathes of Maidan Wardak — a claim backed up in separate interviews with residents.

“I have been to a lot of weddings with other members of the Taliban and the people were all praying for us,” he said. “People are very poor and they were not able to marry before but now they are getting married easily. This is great news for us and a great way to fight against moral corruption and related crimes.”

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Habibullah went on to explain what happened to those who disobeyed the law. One old man was fined $4,000 and told to admit his regret in the hope this would be enough of a deterrent to others.

But when a second man named Qalamuddin was caught he was beaten “very badly” and fined. The money earned by the insurgents in all cases goes toward funding “the jihad.”

While these measures might appear to support the image of the Taliban as an authoritarian, brutal movement, the view on the ground is mixed. The rebels’ actions are often seen as being in strict accordance with Islam and have won them admirers.

Mohammad Omar, an elder in Sayed Abad, told GlobalPost that the local reaction varied from place to place.

“Some people have broken this law in the Taliban areas and it shows they are not happy,” he said. “But some who do not have money are happy with the Taliban.”

Complaints over the rising cost of marriage exist across Afghanistan, not just the more impoverished villages. Wedding halls are a prominent feature of the landscape in Kabul and the lavish parties held in them have attracted criticism from mainstream religious scholars.

The government has in the past sought to address some of the concerns, but that has not stopped the issue from becoming part of the wider military and cultural war being fought in the country.

Mohammad Hazrat Janan, the deputy leader for Maidan Wardak’s provincial council, told GlobalPost that insurgents had first introduced the marriage law in the Tangi valley area of Sayed Abad. He said the elders and imams in the districts of Jalrez and Nirkh took it upon themselves to impose a similar set of rules.

“It is the duty of the government to solve such problems but now we are seeing that this is done half by the Taliban and half by the elders,” he said.

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“I still don’t think the government is to blame because when it cannot bring peace and security to a place how can it provide services and solve social problems?”

Fazelminallah Qazizai reported from Maidan Wardak and Kabul. Chris Sands reported from Kabul.