KABUL — When the body of a petty thief was found riddled with bullets near the Afghan town of Muqur, the victim of rough justice by the Taliban's shadow government, the locals were happy, Fazal Haq said.
"This Anwarai was 35 years old and he would take up position by the road and then rob people coming back from the town with their shopping," Haq, a resident of Muqur, in southern Afghanistan's Ghazni province, told AFP by telephone.
Then four months ago, Anwarai stole a motorbike from a Taliban militant. His punishment was two bullets to the chest and one in the head, his corpse left by the side of the road.
"In the past, the Taliban used to deliver justice far from the town and they hid themselves. Now they are less than three kilometres (two miles) from Muqur and the locals go to them for help resolving their problems," Haq said.
The United States and NATO are swelling the number of foreign troops in Afghanistan this year to about 150,000 in a bid to turn the tide in an eight-year-long war.
The Taliban's jurisdiction, however, is growing as their insurgency gains force and Afghans tire of President Hamid Karzai's ineffective and corrupt government.
Karzai and his foreign backers are meeting in London on Thursday to hammer out possible peace plans and a timeline under which NATO troops can eventually hand control to locals.
But in most provinces, the Taliban have their own parallel network of power, with a governor, judges and heads of police intervening in everything from theft to neighbours' disputes and badly arranged marriages.
"In 33 out of 34 provinces, the Taliban has a shadow government," said a senior official with NATO's military intelligence in Kabul.
At a national level, their leader Mullah Omar has a government-in-waiting, ready for the day Karzai's administration falls, the official said.
"We have governors, district heads, a military court for each province and a civil court for dealing with everyday problems," Taliban spokesman Yousuf Ahmadi told AFP by telephone from an undisclosed location.
Khalid Pashtun, a member of parliament for Kandahar province, a Taliban stronghold, conceded that people are now turning to the insurgents, whose hardline Islamist government was toppled by US-led forces in late 2001.
"Their governors were part of the Taliban regime before it fell... They are young, dynamic, determined and influential. And people go to them because their justice is quick and seen as more effective than normal justice," Pashtun, a Karzai supporter, told AFP.
"Our government is undermined by its corruption and doesn't do the job, people are turning away from them and asking the Taliban to arbitrate."
In an example of the Taliban's reach into everyday life, Ghulam Rasool told AFP they had solved a long-running dispute between two families over arranged marriages between their sons and daughters.
The quarrel, which had been running for three years in Gurtafa district, in the northern province of Kunduz, was resolved in a few hours by a Taliban committee that ordered the reluctant father to agree to his daughter's marriage.
A Taliban official in the district of Archi, also in Kunduz, said the insurgents had not had to cut off thieves' hands or stone adulterers, as typically demanded by strict Islamic Sharia law, because of a decline in serious crime.
"Those who have to be punished are beaten up or put in detention in the tribal chiefs' homes," he said.
Even as the insurgents extend their influence, NATO is planning to train up more Afghan police and army recruits to prepare for when US troops begin to withdraw in mid-2011.
Kabul will ask world leaders in London to fund an increase from about 190,000 security forces to more than 300,000 by the middle of next year.
Karzai also wants to secure backing for a scheme to get Taliban and other insurgent foot-soldiers to lay down their weapons in exchange for money and jobs.
With a record number of foreign troops killed in the conflict last year and Karzai's failure to rein in corruption, the Taliban may feel confident enough of their power over the Afghan people to spurn a reconciliation.
Another Kandahar resident, Mohammad Khan, says people have no choice but to obey their rule.
"People are scared of Taliban reprisals if they ask for the help of the police or the legal system. The Taliban control the region and one can't do anything about them," he said.
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