Since the takeover of the Taliban, much of Afghanistan’s rural areas have seen a major decline in violence after 20 years of fighting. “It’s been a long time now that a bullet hit our homes.”
Chak-e Wardak, Afghanistan – Sixty bone-rattling miles southwest of Kabul, the remains of America’s longest war abound. Pillared checkpoints straddle the hilltops, and the skeletons of charred police pickup trucks and Humvees litter the road passing through the valleys in between.
The walls of an American-built local government building in Chak-e-Wardak, a district in Wardak province, are hit by the effects of recently fired bullets and rockets. The walls have been pierced for shooting positions, and only a few glass windows remain intact.
But the one-time cycle of rifle fire is no more.
In recent years, an exit from Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, would spark fears of Taliban checkpoints where young fighters pulled passengers out of cars in search of government employees or members of security forces. It was always a risk to get caught up in the sudden crossfire between the two warring sides.
But since the Taliban takeover in mid-August, much of Afghanistan’s rural areas have seen a sharp decline in violence. Where airstrikes and fierce fighting would be common, guns have gone silent. The checkpoints have mostly disappeared.
In their place are a developing humanitarian crisis and a new Taliban government that at times seems as used to ruling as many Afghans are to a period without fighting.
UN officials say millions of Afghans are facing food shortages, with one million children at risk of starvation in the absence of immediate international relief efforts.
Adding to the misery, prices for basic foods have risen sharply, and many Afghan families are being forced to work with rice and beans instead of chicken and other meats.
For now, however, in Chak-i-Wardak district, a patchwork of apple orchards and villages, as in many other regions of the country, there is widespread respite at the end of the fighting and some return to normal life.
On the second floor of the sabotage district administrative center, Qari Assad, the Taliban police chief, sits in an old chair. On his table, there is an even older Kalashnikov and a floating Taliban flag, with the text of the Islamic oath “Kalima Shahada” in the center.
Mr. Asad, a black bearded and turbaned man, recently started on his second glass of green tea on Thursday, when two brothers from neighboring Syedabad district arrived with a complaint.
“The man who married my daughter didn’t tell us that he already had a wife,” said Talab Deen, brushing his gray beard. “My daughter told me to let it be, she said she was happy with him. But now he has beaten her and stabbed her in the leg. We are here to settle this dispute!” Having held talks with the Taliban in the past, he has shown no fear of the police chief.
“We will deal with this issue immediately,” Mr. Assad assured the father.
Long before their outright takeover, the Taliban were already ruling many regions and providing speedy justice, often through their own court system. Chak-e-Wardak, along with many parts of rural Afghanistan, has been under their de facto control for two years.
But the question is whether this movement, which has ruthlessly protested in urban areas against its rule, can soon move towards a cohesive governance structure to deal with the problems of the nation’s accumulating humanitarian crisis.
Outside the local government building, Fazal ur-Rehman, 55, was accommodating the load of his small truck, which was loaded with hay. “Previously, the security here was very poor, we were suffering at the hands of the army,” he said, referring to the Afghan army. “They were beating people, they were asking people to carry water and food to their posts.”
He said the situation had improved in recent weeks under the leadership of the Taliban and people could return to work safely. “Earlier, people couldn’t go anywhere at night, they would have been in danger of being shot,” he said. “It’s been a long time now that a bullet hit our homes.”
Further west of the valley, another Taliban flag was hoisted over the country’s oldest hydroelectric dam. Make In 1938, its turbines once provided electricity for parts around Vardak, as well as Ghazni Province and even parts of Kabul Province, but poor maintenance rendered it inoperable.
When a nomadic woman led her sheep across the dam, the Afghan boys took turns jumping into the water below, relieved from the scorching sun.
Atop the hill from the dam’s basin is the home of the Ayubi family, who had moved to another village two years earlier as fighting intensified. In early August, after the fighting ended, the family returned, surrounded by a lush garden full of pumpkins planted by a caretaker.
During lunch, rice, tomatoes and maize, the eldest son Abdullah Ayubi talked about the atrocities in the valley. “There is no doubt that the Taliban are also corrupt, but it doesn’t compare to the kind of military,” he said. “Not only did they take money from vans and trucks, if anyone had a big beard, they used to say they were Taliban and hurt them.”
Mr Ayubi said his brother Assad was in ninth grade when Afghan and US forces came to the district looking for a Taliban commander who went by the same name. they caught him Instead the brother said, and took him to Bagram Jail, notorious for its harsh treatment of prisoners, where he was tortured.
“It took us four months to meet him,” said Mr. Ayubi. “When we went to meet him in Bagram, he shouted at me with chains on his feet and handcuffs on his wrists.”
After 18 months, Assad was released. Mr. Ayubi said how angry he was, so he joined a local Taliban commander named Ghulam Ali. He became an expert in shooting Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenades. On his phone, Mr. Ayubi has a grainy image taken from a video. It depicts an unfamiliar person surrounded by fire, smoke and dust.
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“At this moment, my brother shot down a tank with a rocket,” he said, although the vehicle appears to be an Afghan Army Humvee.
In 2019, Assad was killed during a fight with Afghan soldiers far from the family home. He had been a fighter for five years. “We buried him near the house,” said Mr. Ayubi.
In this now sleepy valley, the main landmark is a hospital founded in 1989 by a German woman, Carla Schefter. Today, the hospital is supported by the Committee for Medical and Humanitarian Assistance in Afghanistan, which relies on private donations.
Faridulla Rahimi, a doctor at the facility, said that in his 22 years, this was the first time there were no patients with conflict-related injuries.
“People from across the chak come here for treatment,” said Dr. Rahimi, standing in the verandah of the hospital. “We dealt with civilians, government soldiers and Taliban fighters, and there was never a problem.”
For now, the doctor said, the hospital had enough medical supplies, but with most banks closed, he had no money to buy more or pay them salaries.
Still, Dr. Rahimi said, the hospital will continue to operate as best it can. “We’ve seen governance come and go, but the hospital will remain.”
Of the 65 hospital staff, 14 are women. The Taliban have said they will continue to work in women’s health care to treat female patients.
The 28-year-old midwife, who works at the hospital and uses only one name, said members of the Taliban had visited the facility and spoken to it. “I’ve been working here for eight years,” she said. “For us, there is no threat from the Islamic Emirate.”
Near the entrance to the hospital, a Russian tank from a previous war was almost completely submerged in sand – a stark reminder of how long the region has seen war.
Back at Ayubi home, Abdullah spoke softly, his 2-year-old son, draped in the corner under a scarf. Perhaps he would have been part of the generation in Afghanistan that grew up without knowing the war.
“Assad, in my brother’s name,” said Mr. Ayubi, pointing to the child. “It didn’t have to be this way.”