In many ways, Charkh seems like a typical rural Afghan district. With little development or industry to speak of, its population of 48,000 ekes out a living mostly from farming. Poverty is common; those who can find better jobs elsewhere leave and send money back to support their families. But a closer look at Charkh reveals a divergence from what one may expect of an average Afghan district. Administrators there are widely seen as fair and honest, making them outliers in a country consistently ranked among the world’s most corrupt. Locals say there is remarkably little crime. Disputes among neighbors or families are rare, and when they arise, the district governor or judge quickly settles them. A health official regularly monitors clinics to make sure that doctors and nurses are present and that medicines are stocked. Across the district’s schools, government teachers actually show up, and student attendance is high—an anomaly in a state system where absenteeism is rife.
On paper, Charkh’s surprising success could be interpreted as evidence of how the U.S.-backed administration of President Ashraf Ghani has finally extended a semblance of good governance beyond the capital of Kabul. But in fact the Afghan government deserves no credit for Charkh; the district is currently governed by the Taliban. The de facto local authorities, from the mayor to the town’s only judge, come from the Taliban’s ranks, and ordinary bureaucrats, such as teachers and health officials, have been vetted and selected by the insurgency—even though Kabul still pays their salaries.
Despite the near doubling of U.S. troop levels and a spike in airstrikes over the past year, the Taliban retain significant influence in vast swaths of rural Afghanistan and are working assiduously to out-govern Ghani’s internationally recognized National Unity Government. The idea that the Taliban are now striving to provide good governance might strain credulity, given the draconian cruelty of their rule from 1996 to 2001. During those years, they banned women from school and work and executed young lovers in sports stadiums. Since the group’s overthrow in 2001, its brutal attacks have killed tens of thousands of Afghans. As recently as 2009, the Taliban were still killing teachers, burning schools, and attacking aid workers.