The Taliban fighters we met were stationed in Mazar-i-Sharif, one of the largest cities in Afghanistan, just 30 minutes away.
The “Ghanimat” or trophies on display included a Hummer, two pickup trucks and many powerful machine guns. Ainuddin is an expressionless former madrassa (religious school) student, now a local military commander, standing in the midst of a heavily armed crowd.
With international troops almost in retreat, the insurgents seem to be occupying uncharted territory every day. A crowd of scared people is trapped in the middle.
Tens of thousands of ordinary Afghans have had to flee their homes; Hundreds of people have been killed or injured in the past few weeks.
Displaced people who want to bring Kabul to safety
I asked Ainuddin how he would justify violence, considering how much suffering violence inflicted on those he fought for.
“This is a struggle, so people are dying,” he replied calmly, adding that the organization was doing everything in its power to “not harm civilians”.
I pointed out that the Taliban were the ones who started the fight.
“No,” he replied. “We had a government, but it was overthrown. They (the Americans) started fighting.”
Ainuddin and the other Taliban feel the momentum is with them, and after being overthrown by the US-led invasion in 2001, they are on the verge of regaining dominance.
“They haven’t renounced western culture … so we have to kill them,” he said of the “puppet government” in Kabul.
Shortly after we finished speaking, we heard the sound of the helicopter above us. The Hummer and Taliban fighters quickly dispersed. This is a reminder of the constant threat the Afghan Air Force poses to insurgents, and the fighting is far from over.
We are in Balkh, a small town with ancient roots that is believed to be the birthplace of Jalaluddin Rumi, one of the most famous and mysterious poets in Islam.
We got through here earlier this year when it was under state control, but the surrounding towns were controlled by the Taliban. It is now one of around 200 regional centers occupied by militants in this latest unprecedented offensive.
A senior Taliban official said the focus on the north is intentional, not only because the region has had strong opposition to the Taliban in the past, but also because it is more diverse.
Although the main leadership is dominated by Pashtuns, the Taliban wanted to emphasize that they also included other races.
Haji Hekmat, the local Taliban leader and our host in Balkh, wants to show us what our daily life is like.
Young female students flocked to the streets (although there are reports elsewhere that girls are banned from visiting). The bazaar is still very busy with both male and female shoppers.
Local sources told us that women can only participate with male partners, but this did not appear to be the case when we visited. Elsewhere, Taliban commanders are reportedly much stricter.
However, all of the women we saw wore an all-encompassing burqa that covered their hair and face.
Haji Hekmat insists that no one is “obliged” and that the Taliban simply “proclaim” that women should dress like this.
But someone told me that the taxi driver was instructed not to bring women into town unless it is fully covered.
The day after we left, there were reports that a young woman was killed for wearing clothes. However, Haji Hekmat refused to accept the allegations that those responsible were members of the Taliban.
Many people in the bazaar expressed their support for the organization and thanked them for improving security. But since the Taliban fighters are with us all the time, it is difficult to know the real thoughts of the residents.
The organization’s harsh views sometimes coincide with those of more conservative Afghans, but the Taliban are now pushing for control of some large cities.
The government still controls the city, and almost everyone I have spoken to has expressed concern about what the Taliban’s resurgence means, especially the “freedom” of the younger generation.
But in the Balkh area, the Taliban are formalizing their own hostile government. They confiscated all official buildings in the city, with the exception of a now-abandoned police compound.
Once a deadly enemy, the headquarters of the local police chief, partially destroyed in a suicide bombing when militants battled for control of the area.
Taliban Governor Abdullah Manzoor spoke of the operation with a beaming smile and his subordinates laughed lightly. The struggle here, as in many parts of Afghanistan, is both personal and ideological.
Some things have not changed since the Taliban came to power; the orange-clad street cleaners are still working, as are some bureaucrats. They are supervised by a newly appointed Taliban mayor who is sitting at a wide wooden table and a white flag of the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” hangs in one corner.
It used to be responsible for the ammunition supply, and now it is taxes; He proudly told me that the organization charged entrepreneurs less than in the past.
However, the transition from military life to civilian life is still under way. A Taliban soldier who posed behind the mayor during our interview, still with his gun, was abducted by a senior person.
Elsewhere, however, the insurgents’ harsh interpretation of Islamic scriptures is more evident. On local radio stations, they played a mix of Islamic music and popular songs.
Now there are only religious hymns. Haji Hekmat said they banned music that promotes “vulgarity” in public, but insisted that people can still hear what they want.
However, someone told me that they caught a local listening to music in the market. To punish him, Taliban fighters are said to let him run barefoot in the scorching sun until he passes out.
Haji Hekmat insists that nothing like this has ever happened before. As we left the station, he pointed to some of the young men who worked there and indicated that they had no beards.
“Look! We didn’t force anyone,”he said with a smile.
Obviously, the group really wants to paint a softer picture of the world. In other parts of the country, however, the Taliban’s behavior is said to be much stricter. The difference may depend on the attitude of the local commanding officer.
The Taliban reportedly committed extrajudicial retaliatory killings and other human rights violations in some of the territories they occupied. Western officials have warned that the Taliban could turn the country into a pariah state if they try to take it by force.
Many people are more closely associated with the former Taliban power because of the cruel sentences imposed for their interpretation of Islamic law.
Last month, in southern Helmand Province, the organization hanged two men accused of kidnapping children from a bridge on the grounds that the men had been convicted.
In Balkh, on the day we visited the Taliban court, all cases were related to territorial disputes. Although many people fear their form of justice, for others it at least provides an opportunity to solve problems faster than the notoriously corrupt system of government.
“I have to pay so many bribes,” complained one of the litigants as he tried to resolve the case before discussing it.
Taliban judge Haji Badruddin said he had not ordered corporal punishment in the four months after he took office, stressing that the organization has an appellate court system to review major judgments.
But he defended even the harshest punishment. “Our Islamic law clearly states that anyone who has sex and is not married, whether a girl or a boy, will be whipped 100 times in public.
“But whoever is married must be stoned … For those who steal: If it is proven, their hand must be cut off.”
He turns against the criticism that punishment is incompatible with the modern world.
“Is it better if you kidnap someone’s child? Or is it better to cut off their hand and give stability to society?”
Despite the rapid advance of the Taliban, the government still controls the largest city in Afghanistan. As the two sides struggle for control, persistent and increasingly deadly violence may emerge in the months ahead.
I asked Haji Hekmat if he was sure the Taliban could win the army. “Yes,” he replied. “If the peace talks are unsuccessful, we will win, God bless.”
However, these negotiations have stalled, and so have the Taliban’s repeated demands for the formation of an “Islamic government.”