In the villages that once bore the brunt of Afghanistan’s frontline fighting, the Taliban victory has broken a cycle of air strikes, gun battles and funerals.
The hardliners’ takeover of Kabul and the sudden collapse in August of the US-backed regime shocked the world and upended the freedoms of Afghans, which were particularly enjoyed by the urban middle class.
But away from major cities, where little of the international aid worth billions of dollars ever reached, many believe the Islamist movement’s rule could bring a stop to the fighting and the hope for an end to corruption.
“I would give everything for the Taliban,” said 72-year-old Maky as she prepared cotton fibre in her hardened hands with a group of other women in Dashtan, a remote farming settlement in northern Balkh province.
“Now there is no sound of shooting,” she told AFP. “The war is over and we are happy with the Taliban.”
– ‘No infidels’ –
Desperately poor, the villagers are preparing for winter by drying animal dung to use as fuel.
A bitter breeze whips up dust in the central cemetery, where the graves of Taliban fighters are now decorated with colourful trinkets and flags.
In one of the well-tended plots lies the son of 82-year-old village elder Hajifat Khan, who celebrated the Islamists’ victory.
“The men and women of this village are Taliban supporters, young and old,” he said, cross-legged in a neighbour’s home.
“Now I’m satisfied. Now there are no infidels,” he told AFP, adding that he had been beaten by a local pro-government militia just before the takeover.
He said Dashtan — about 30 kilometres (20 miles) north of Balkh town — used to be a thriving community with more than 60 families.
After many fled the fighting and poverty, now only a handful of families remain among the eroded foundations, collapsed domed roofs and empty dwellings.
– Caught in crossfire –
A US-led invasion ousted the brutal, repressive Taliban regime in 2001, after which two decades of military intervention by NATO forces followed.
A democratic government was restored, women were once again allowed to work and study, and a vocal civil society was rebuilt.
But corruption and vote-rigging allegations plagued government institutions, justice was slow and ineffective, and foreign troops were tainted by accusations of colluding with warlords, abusing Afghans and disrespecting local customs.
Thousands of civilians were killed or injured each year in attacks by Taliban insurgents and air strikes by US-led forces, with progress largely limited to cities as the worst of the war raged in rural areas.
Mohammad Nasir earns 200 to 300 Afghanis (two to three US dollars) a day at a cotton field on the outskirts of historic town of Balkh, yards from the 9th-century Noh Gonbad Mosque, believed to be Afghanistan’s earliest Islamic building.
He weighs the white crop from a scale hanging on a tree, before stuffing it into huge orange bags, ready for collection.
Nasir said he did not support either side in the conflict that raged through most of his life.
“I was against both of them because I wanted peace,” the 24-year-old from nearby Zawlakai village told AFP. “I didn’t want to fight.”
At another plantation nearby, 26-year-old Farima is among dozens of women and children harvesting cotton in the sunshine, wrapped up warmly against the wind.
During the war, she avoided leaving her home, afraid of being injured.
With the cotton-picking season ending, she is now working on the land each day with her daughters Asma, 10, and Husna, 9, and son Barktula, aged just three.
The pickers in the fields in Dawlatabad district are paid about 10 Afghanis (11 cents of a US dollar) per kilogram, each making 200 to 300 Afghanis.
Wearing pink rubber gloves to protect her hands from the sharp bolls of the cotton plants, Farima told AFP it was hard work.
“But what else can I do?” she said.
For her, life since the Taliban takeover remains unstable and exhausting.
While the end of the conflict is a relief, hardship and insecurity endure.
“What change has come? We are still hungry and there are no jobs,” she says.
– Food prices soaring –
A looming economic disaster means the Taliban’s window for holding on to loyalty may be short.
Essentials like cooking oil, rice and tomato paste now cost a lot more after the national currency, the Afghani, depreciated and the country’s reserves were frozen abroad.
Afghanistan is now home to one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, with more than half of Afghans expected to suffer “acute food insecurity” this winter, as a severe drought devastates the country.
In neighbouring Samangan province, where 93 percent of the 440,000-strong population live in the countryside, Noor Mohammad Sedaqat grows onions, carrots, okra, tomatoes and pumpkins.
In the months before the takeover, he was caught in the crossfire of heavy fighting between government forces to the west and the Taliban to the east.
On one occasion a group of farmers was mistaken for Taliban by a local militia, and narrowly avoided being killed, he said.
Sedaqat’s situation on the frontline meant he dared not show allegiance to either the Taliban or the government.
“If we went to one side, the other side would beat us, and vice versa,” he said.
The 28-year-old father of nine, who works a plot of land in Yakatut village, about 20 kilometres from the provincial capital Aybak, says the new government has cut crime and corruption.
But his earnings are plummeting.
He hitches a ride to Aybak every one to two weeks to sell his produce at the bazaar, and hopes to make 6,000 to 7,000 Afghanis per trip.
But on the morning he spoke to AFP, he made just 3,000 Afghanis for 10 to 12 days’ work.
“If it goes on like this, we can’t be happy with the Taliban,” he told AFP, as his children snacked on sunflower seeds.
“What can we do? How can we survive?”
Sixteen members of Sedaqat’s family sleep in a one-room hut made of stone and mud measuring six metres by three metres (20 feet by 10 feet).
He hopes the Taliban will gain international recognition and trade with Afghanistan’s neighbours will grow.
“If they look after the poor people we will be satisfied, but not if they trample on us,” he said.