KABUL, Afghanistan – When the truck driver drives past this mountain police outpost in southern Afghanistan every week, he knows exactly what to do. The officers tossed a box tied to a rope, and like all drivers, the trucker puts 5,000 Afghans – about $ 65 – in the box, which the officers then rewind to their outpost.

The officials do not dare to collect such bribes personally, said trucker Dawlat Khan, “because the highway is controlled by the Taliban and the police are afraid to come out.”

Since the United States signed a troop withdrawal agreement with the Taliban in February, the militants have set up new checkpoints along key highways, taken control of long stretches of road, extorted millions of dollars a month from truckers and travelers, and even suppressed the police’s own efforts to extort bribes .

Truckers and bus drivers say government troops have stayed at their bases and have almost given control of many roads to Taliban fighters. The drivers say that the militants not only collect “taxes” but also search vehicles for soldiers or government employees and sometimes execute them on the spot.

The lucrative highway bully helps fund the Taliban’s war effort, but it also has a strategic purpose: the militants are using their control of many highways to launch attacks on beleaguered government forces and strengthen their negotiating position in the stalled peace talks in Doha, Qatar .

The Taliban’s takeover of stretches of road is changing the dynamics of the war, now in its nineteenth year, by making it difficult for the government to resupply increasingly isolated garrisons and checkpoints. Truckers and local government officials say militants now control more stretches of freeway than ever since the United States and NATO began withdrawing forces almost a decade ago.

At the same time, the blackmail of ordinary Afghans increases the widespread opposition to a government that cannot protect its people. By strengthening the Taliban’s so-called shadow government, the elaborate highway tax system is a forerunner of what the militants hope for a future Taliban government.

In doing so, the Taliban have curtailed the lucrative system of bribery that the police have long imposed on drivers. The militants even issue stamped receipts as evidence of “tax payment” – documents accepted at Taliban checkpoints across Afghanistan, drivers say.

“The Taliban’s principle is that once you pay the tax, your receipt will work across the country and you will no longer be asked to pay the tax,” said Ahmad Sayid Azimyan, deputy head of the Chamber of Commerce in Herat province. Police officers, on the other hand, do not issue receipts for the bribes they extort.

On sections of the strategically important Kabul-Herat highway, which crosses much of the country, the Taliban earn between $ 155,000 and $ 195,000 in taxes a day, Azimyan said.

Abdul Yaqin Ahadi, a district governor in Samangan Province, said the taxes there are funding insurgent attacks across northern Afghanistan. In his region alone, the Taliban earn about $ 26,000 a day from taxes levied on hundreds of trucks hauling coal from a local mine.

With the February accord essentially incapacitating the U.S. military, the Taliban now seldom worry about American air strikes on their highway positions. American commanders have stated that they only provide air support to government troops in critical situations. For example, American planes went on strike after Taliban fighters besieged the provincial capital of Helmand Province earlier this month.

Tariq Arian, spokesman for the interior ministry that oversees the police, said the Taliban’s presence on highways was “dispersed” and “unsustainable”. He said the government had “the upper hand in controlling highways” and any police officers who took bribes were fined.

But drivers and even local government officials paint a different picture. The government ceded control of large stretches of road and opened the door to the Taliban to commit a highway robbery. The militants are demanding heavy penalties for truckers who evade checkpoints. If a driver is caught without a Taliban tax certificate, their truck will likely be stolen or burned, the drivers said.

“Nobody dares to escape the Taliban without paying the tax,” said Zia-ul-Haq Ziaee, who owns a building materials company in Kunduz province in northern Afghanistan.

Militants operate a checkpoint in Baghlan Province in northern Afghanistan, where customs duties ranging from US $ 400 to US $ 660 per duty are levied on goods imported from Central Asian countries. These fees are collected after truckers have already paid government fees at the official customs office at the border.

The Taliban can make $ 200,000 a day on such fees, said Nasir Ahmad Qasimi, chairman of the Balkh Chamber of Commerce. He said double taxation has driven up the prices of commercial and consumer goods such as gas, oil, building materials, flour and produce.

“In the past, the Taliban did not go to collect customs because they feared the security forces,” said Ziaee, the owner of the construction company. “Now they are on their way and collecting customs.”

Many drivers said the Taliban-controlled highways were largely crime-free as the militants did not allow the bandits to operate on their territory. But police and soldiers are so afraid to leave their garrisons and outposts that thieves often rob drivers and passengers in many government-controlled areas.

“There are a lot of robberies on every part of the highway that is under state control,” said Mohammad Khalid, who has driven a bus between Kabul and Herat for the past eight years. “There are no robberies in the Taliban areas.”

The militants also intervened when police tried to extort bribes too close to Taliban areas. Samir Khan, a tanker truck driver on the Kabul-Herat highway, said he recently watched Taliban fighters attack two police officers who were demanding a bribe from a trucker.

“The Taliban killed one of the policemen and the other fled,” he said.

Amir Mohammad, who drives minivans between Herat and Ghor provinces in northwest Afghanistan, said navigating this road has never been more dangerous in the four years he has driven the highway.

“There’s the Taliban, there are robberies, there are illegal armed men – everyone is trying to get money from us,” he said.

The Taliban had put temporary roadblocks in place for years to escape when attacked by the government or American forces. But now, the drivers say, the checkpoints have become all but permanent, bringing in millions of dollars from trucks, fuel tankers, minibuses, and taxis.

“There is only one government troop outpost on the entire highway,” said Mohammad. “There used to be others, but recently they have all fallen to the Taliban.”

Khan Wali, a resident of Logar province in eastern Afghanistan, said the Taliban had previously only blocked the road once a week. “But now it’s daily – they have checkpoints and are looking for vehicles and passengers,” he said.

This has left some government outposts in precarious positions and increased the risk of street violence.

“A police outpost in Zabul province stopped the drivers and asked them to bring food to the outpost because they were so afraid of the Taliban,” said Mohammad Eisa, a bus driver.

A stretch of road in the Paktia province in eastern Afghanistan has been considered relatively safe for years.

“But now the Taliban have set up a checkpoint to search for targets, so clashes and attacks occur almost every day,” said taxi driver Afsar Khan between the militants and government forces. .

Ajmal, a single name resident of Khost province in eastern Afghanistan, said government officials were recently kidnapped and murdered by the Taliban on the highway between Kabul and the city of Khost.

“We used to drive this road without fear, but now we don’t know whether we will reach Kabul or whether the Taliban will kill us on the road,” said Ajmal.

The reporting was written by Najim Rahim in Kabul, Taimoor Shah in Kandahar, Asadullah Timory in Herat, Zabihullah Ghazi in Jalalabad and Farooq Jan Mangal in Khost.