KANDAHAR -- Ali Ahmad Alizai has no choice but to obey when the Taliban come knocking on his door demanding food, shelter or a slice of his hard-earned harvest to fund their insurgency.
"The Taliban run a dictatorship here," the farmer told AFP by telephone from a militant-controlled district of Helmand Province. "They have their own laws. We have some security but no freedom."
As momentum for peace talks builds, with a fresh round of negotiations between the Taliban and Washington set to begin in Doha Monday (February 25), testimonies from Afghans like him paint a picture of what life might be like should the militants return to power.
Zeal for the harsh brand of Islamic justice that defined the former Taliban regime is unwavering and remains pivotal to enforcing obedience today in countryside under their influence.
Abdul Bari, who abandoned his home in a Taliban-controlled area of Uruzgan Province three months ago, spoke darkly of life under the white flag of the Taliban.
"They would stage public executions from time to time," the 66-year-old told AFP in Kandahar, where he fled with his family.
"Their fighters would decide others' fate."
Taliban 'have not changed'
Taliban courts preside over justice in huge swathes of the country -- even areas ostensibly under government control, said Ashley Jackson, a research associate with the London-based Overseas Development Institute.
Verdicts under their own strict interpretation of Sharia law are swift, and punishments severe, from limbs amputated for theft to condemned prisoners hanged by roadsides as a warning.
Civilians are "terrified of them", said Sayed Omar, who escaped Taliban brutality in Uruzgan.
"They have not changed; they are the same as they were during their rule," he said.
The militants have banned smartphones and confined women to their homes -- effectively reversing the clock to 1996, when they stormed to power, said Mohammad Qasem, a shopkeeper who spoke to AFP by phone from another Taliban bastion in Kandahar.
But they were "a bit easier" on men having shorter beards -- a floggable offence under their former regime.
The Taliban have told AFP they want to establish "an Islamic system" as opposed to the democracy built since 2001 but that they have modified their stance on some issues.
Restrictions on daily life, women
In some areas the militants allow girls to attend primary school, "if it was segregated by gender, the teachers were female and the Taliban controlled the curriculum", said Human Rights Watch senior researcher Heather Barr.
However, it is "ridiculous and harmful" to suggest that it proved the Taliban had softened their stance on women, she said.
"Limiting girls to primary education is an extreme form of misogyny," she said. "Too many men are in a rush to argue that a Taliban deal will be fine for women. Women know better -- but is anyone listening to them?"
The restrictions were unpopular, said Qasem. Times have changed since the Taliban were deposed, he added.
"This time, if they don't change, it might create a backlash," he told AFP.
The insurgents have evolved, said Mullah Rauf, a former Taliban commander.
"They can't have a hardline government anymore. Nowhere in the world do such governments exist," he told AFP by telephone from Panjwai, a Taliban-controlled district in Kandahar.
The militants have not abandoned their ideology but know "they cannot rule against the population" and therefore might be open to some compromise, said Thomas Ruttig of Afghanistan Analysts Network.
"But whether that's good enough for most Afghans -- who now have tasted completely different freedoms from what they had under the Taliban -- that will be up to the Afghan population," he told AFP.