MARAWARA — In talks in Doha and in Kabul, the Taliban’s leaders have struck a conciliatory tone: Issues of human rights, democracy and power sharing are open for discussion, they said, and will be worked out during peace talks with the Afghan government.

But here, in one of the militant group’s long-held districts in eastern Afghanistan, Taliban commanders and fighters speak not of peace but of toppling the Afghan government in Kabul. They boast of a hard-fought “military victory” over American forces in the country.

“We will only accept 100% of power in Afghanistan,” said Yaser, 26, a Taliban fighter from the Marawara district whose comments were echoed by his commander and others in the area. Yaser, like many Afghans, goes by a single name.

The competing visions of a postwar Afghanistan within the Taliban’s ranks reveal the difficult task facing the group’s leaders as they seek to rally support for an agreement with the government in Kabul ahead of long-awaited formal talks. Many fear that even with a peace deal, a fractured Taliban could lead Afghanistan back to a period of perpetual violence.

Taliban fighters parade their weapons in Marawara district, Afghanistan, on July 6, 2020 (Photo: LorenzoTugnoli//WashingtonPost)

It’s difficult to discern how widespread the views expressed by these Taliban fighters are in other parts of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan because access to those areas is severely restricted. Washington Post reporters traveled into the Taliban district in eastern Afghanistan with the permission of the militant group this month. Taliban fighters escorted Post journalists in the district to interview civilians and to visit a school and a clinic.

Throughout the trip, Taliban fighters and supporters emphasized the importance of continuing the fight against the Afghan government to assume full control of the country. But even in the relatively small district of Marawara, which largely has been under Taliban control for more than nine years, the group had little to show in the way of governance. Key services such as education and health care in Marawara are funded by the Afghan government even though the district lies beyond government control.

The Marawara district, in Konar province, is wedged between the government-held town of Asadabad and the border with Pakistan. It is entirely rural and deeply impoverished. Most young men here seek work as day laborers in nearby government-held towns and cities, and the families who stay in Marawara subsist by farming small plots of land and raising livestock.

Along the side of the district’s main road — a dirt-and-rubble track running along a steep mountain — a cluster of Taliban fighters in mismatched fatigues gathered to pose with automatic weapons and white flags. They chanted “death to the American slaves,” referring to the Afghan government, and “death to Ashraf Ghani,” the Afghan president.

As the U.S. draws down its forces, the fighters said it is only a matter of time before they take full control of the country. One of the district’s commanders described the signing of the peace deal in February as the fulfillment of “a dream” to defeat “the infidels.” Yaser, the fighter, stood among the group, clutching a modern American M4 rifle outfitted with a thermal scope. He said he captured the weapon during an attack on an American base in Kandahar or Helmand. The U.S. military command in Kabul and the Afghan military did not respond to questions about weapons taken by militants from coalition bases. The group’s “military victory” over U.S. forces, Yaser said, was just one reason the Taliban deserved to control the country.

“It’s unacceptable to divide power,” he said, “and it’s not possible to have a divided Islamic government.” He said that if Taliban leadership in Qatar agrees to share power, he and his men will break from the movement and take up arms independently.

Amanullah Arabii, 30, a Taliban commander from Marawara, agreed, and said he believes the goal of direct talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government is the “complete destruction” of the government so an Islamic country can take its place. Throughout more than a decade of informal and later formal talks with the U.S., the Taliban maintained command and control of fighters on the ground by refusing to yield on issues that would risk the group’s internal cohesion. But a political settlement with the Afghan government probably will require more controversial concessions, such as explicitly defining human rights, civil liberties and democracy.

Taliban leadership has “a mammoth undertaking up ahead in terms of getting the rank and file on board with what a political negotiated settlement means,” said Andrew Watkins, a senior Afghanistan analyst for International Crisis Group. Building that consensus “will require a huge amount of persuasion and explanation … and it’s intentional that they haven’t done any of that yet,” he said.

Taliban leaders feared that beginning conversations about political compromise too early would risk having more of the group’s 50,000 to 100,000 fighters break away to join other militant organizations that pledge to continue violent resistance regardless of a peace deal, Watkins said. Civilians living in Marawara point to the question of violence and insecurity as one of the reasons they’ve remained in Taliban territory: They trust the militants to provide better security than the Afghan military. But what they’re lacking — and what they say they hope to see in a postwar era — is improved services like paved roads, health care and education.

Like most territory held by the Taliban, Marawara relies on the Afghan government and aid groups for health and education services. But insecurity often delays the delivery of essential goods such as medicine and salary payments to doctors and teachers. Staff members at the district’s only clinic in Taliban-controlled territory report that they have not received their government salaries in more than eight months.

Inside the small, mud-brick clinic, four women, all in their 20s, waited for the doctor to arrive from a nearby government-held town. No doctor lives in Marawara district, so one travels into Taliban-controlled territory for a few hours per day to see patients. For months, the clinic has been unable to find a surgeon to do the same. With the doorway covered by a thick blanket and without electricity, the room was dark. Most of the women cradled crying infants, one nursing between sobs.