By Jessica Donati and Feroz Sultani
KUNDUZ CITY Afghanistan (Reuters) - Sardar, a 23-year-old working in his brother's barber shop in the northern Afghan province of Kunduz, said local officials had asked for bribes to resolve a long-running family dispute over land.
When the backhanders failed to have their desired effect, he turned to the Taliban, the austere Islamist movement that has been fighting foreign forces since it was ousted from power 13 years ago.
"They came to our home in Chahar Darah and took two days to solve the problem," he said.
The case of Sardar and others like him may prove sobering reading for U.S., NATO and Afghan governments who spent billions of dollars, and thousands of lives, to overcome the Taliban insurgency and turn a war-torn nation into a peaceful democracy before foreign combat troops leave at the end of the year.
According to local officials, the Taliban controls virtually all of two out of seven districts in Kunduz - Chahar Darah and Dasht-i-Archi. It is gaining influence elsewhere, and residents say it has been able to because what little state authority exists is viewed with deep mistrust.
On a national level, the Taliban takeover of two districts is a worrying harbinger more than a strategic shift, and U.S.-led forces believe that Taliban advances will be temporary.
"The Taliban may take over a district center or something, but only temporarily," General John Campbell, commander of the coalition forces in Afghanistan, told reporters this month.
"There's nowhere that we have Afghan security forces that the Taliban can get the terrain and hold the terrain."
Yet the gains, and efforts by the Taliban to win over locals with a somewhat softer form of rule than their previous hardline regime, come as foreign combat troops prepare to withdraw and hand over to relatively inexperienced Afghan forces and an inefficient government.
People in Chahar Darah speak of a drive by insurgents to impose the rule of law, allow some freedoms like television and Western clothes, and, significantly, let girls attend school - something unthinkable when they were in government.
That said, extensive classroom restrictions apply.
"When they check the subjects being taught at school and see they are in accordance with sharia (Islamic law), they trust the system," said Badal Bibi, chief of women's affairs in Kunduz.
"The Taliban are (even) sending their girls to school to learn and to monitor classes. But they have removed English as a subject," she said, adding that classes had an increasingly religious focus and no male teachers were allowed after girls had reach puberty.
Interpretations of sharia vary widely, but for the Taliban it requires teaching religious subjects, strictly segregating classes and females wearing all-covering clothes.
The Taliban is seeking to distinguish itself from unpopular local authorities through a network of informal "courts" that focus on Afghanistan's backlog of land disputes.
One Taliban judge interviewed by Reuters in Kunduz said mobile "special justice commissions" had been deployed across Afghanistan to fill gaps left by the chaotic and sometimes corrupt legal framework.
For now, they avoid establishing a permanent presence for fear of U.S. airstrikes, and set up in mosques or people's homes instead.
Calling himself Mullah Abdul Bakhi, the judge said he had been in Kunduz province for six months, having previously been deployed elsewhere in the country since joining the insurgency three years ago.
"People tell us about their problem and we go to their area to resolve the dispute according to sharia law," said Mullah Bakhi, adding that he deals with one or two cases a day.
"Most people refer their cases to us because we have a good system, there is no corruption. We just follow the rules in accordance to the Koran."
Rows over land ownership are widespread in Afghanistan because millions of refugees returning since the Taliban fell found their land or homes occupied with no means of recourse.
Few can afford bribes demanded by some officials and disputes have been left to fester for years as a result.
The governor of Kunduz, Ghulam Sakhi Baghlani, conceded that there was a problem with corruption, but said not everyone was involved. When cases were brought to the attention of authorities, they dealt with them appropriately, he added.
Baghlani also criticized the central government for releasing prisoners, including those known to have joined the insurgency in Kunduz.
But doubts over the probity of local officials are common.
"Of course, if the government was able to solve our problems, everyone would be happy," said a shopkeeper in Kunduz city, who said he had a long-standing dispute with a neighbor resolved by the Taliban after he was unable to pay a $2,000 bribe demanded by a government official.
He asked not to be named, fearing reprisal from the authorities, and said the official had asked for the money during prayers.
"Is that the behavior of a Muslim?" the shopkeeper asked.
"TALIBAN LIKE A ROBBER"
Weak governance in Kunduz and elsewhere has coincided with prolonged political paralysis in Kabul, where two rivals for the presidency fought a bitter feud before eventually agreeing on a power-sharing arrangement.
Mir Ghousuddin, an elder representing 52 villages in Chahar Darah, said Taliban insurgents had successfully filled a power vacuum across most of his district and imposed greater security, albeit by using sometimes ruthless methods.
"They take 10 percent of earnings from agriculture and other business, like a tax," he said.
"One thing is clear: the Taliban is like a robber. If the government was there it would be better, but there is no alternative because the government is so weak now."
The local police force, recruited and armed by Western forces, had stopped trying to fight the Taliban altogether, he told Reuters, and was helping it.
"The Taliban did not used to be well-armed, but now they have a lot of arms because they took guns and Rangers (vehicles) from the police," said Ghousuddin.
Kunduz governor Baghlani agreed that there was a crisis of confidence in the government on a local and national level.
"My suggestion for the new president is good governance," he said, referring to Ashraf Ghani, who was finally sworn in at the end of September. "This will convince people to support the government."
The lack of trust has echoes of the mid-1990s, when Afghans weary of a civil war waged by rival warlords turned to the Taliban to restore order.
It managed to do that across most of the country, although a rule marked by public executions, beatings and severe restrictions on women's rights saw its popularity evaporate.
"BOOST YOUR SUPPORT"
In a recent message marking the Muslim holiday of Eid, the reclusive Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, urged followers to engage in a political campaign as well as a military one.
"Behave properly with the common people; show them compassion and keep good relations with them," wrote Mullah Omar, who is believed to be in hiding in Pakistan near the Afghan border. "This is to boost your support among the masses."
While Mullah Omar is still considered the guiding voice of the movement, its leadership structure has shifted to give greater power to local commanders, said Alex Strick van Linschoten, a Taliban expert who spent years in Afghanistan and has written a book on the movement.
"From 2003 onward, they had to rebuild the organization from the ground up in quite a different way.
"Access to health care, access to education - these are all things which they saw people were demanding post-2001, and they realized that it could help them win people over," he said, adding that the Taliban's popularity was still limited.
"I don't think we can talk about the Taliban having widespread support in Afghanistan at the moment."
Hand-in-hand with a push to win popular support, the Taliban has ramped up attacks on foreign and Afghan forces, fighting in unusually large numbers and seeking to seize territory.
The movement, which once banned almost all media, has set up a website featuring a hotline for Afghans to call if they want to report civilian deaths or abuse by its commanders.
When Reuters tried to call the number, it did not work.
(Additional reporting by Kay Johnson and Mirwais Harooni; Editing by Mike Collett-White and Kay Johnson)