CHAK-E WARDAK, Afghanistan – 60 kilometers southwest of Kabul, the remnants of America’s longest war abound. Looted outposts dot the hilltops, and skeletons of burnt-out police vans and Humvees litter the road that winds through the valleys in between.
The walls of an American-built local government building in Chak-e Wardak, a district of Wardak province, are riddled with the impacts of recently fired bullets and rockets. Holes were dug in the walls for the firing positions, and only a few glass windows remain intact.
But the once constant volley of rifle fire is gone.
In recent years, driving out of Kabul, the Afghan capital, raised fears of pop-up Taliban checkpoints where young fighters were emerging from cars, looking for officials or members of the security forces. Getting caught up in an impromptu shootout between the warring sides was always a risk.
But since the Taliban took power in mid-August, most of the Afghan countryside has seen a substantial drop in violence. Where airstrikes and pitched battles would be commonplace, the guns fell silent. Most of the checkpoints have disappeared.
In their place is a growing humanitarian crisis and a new Taliban government that at times seems as unaccustomed to governing as many Afghans are to living in a period without a fight.
Millions of Afghans face a winter of food shortage, with up to a million children at risk of starvation in the absence of an immediate international relief effort, UN officials say.
Adding to the misery, the prices of basic foodstuffs have risen sharply and many Afghan families are forced to settle for rice and beans instead of chicken and other meats.
For now, however, in Chak-e Wardak district, a patchwork of apple orchards and villages, as in many other parts of the country, there is widespread relief at the end of the fighting and the return to something like a normal life.
On the second floor of the ransacked district administrative center, the new Taliban police chief, Qari Assad, sits on an old chair. On his desk rests an even older Kalashnikov and a makeshift Taliban flag with a hand-drawn “Kalima Shahada”, the text of the Islamic oath, in its center.
Mr. Assad with the black beard and turban had just started his second glass of green tea on a recent Thursday when two brothers from the neighboring district of Sayedabad arrived with a complaint.
“The man who married my daughter didn’t tell us he already had a wife,” said Talab Din, his fingers brushing his graying beard. “My daughter told me to let it go, she said she was happy with him. But now he has beaten her and stabbed her in the leg. We came here to settle this dispute! He showed no fear of the new police chief, having had contact with the Taliban in the past.
“We will deal with this problem immediately,” Assad assured the father.
Long before their full takeover, the Taliban already ruled and delivered swift justice in many areas, often through their own justice system. Chak-e Wardak, as well as many rural parts of Afghanistan, has been under their de facto control for two years.
But the question remains whether the movement, which has brutally suppressed protests in urban areas against its regime, can shift to a strong governance structure soon enough to address the issues underlying the country’s growing humanitarian crisis.
Outside the local government building, Fazl Ur-Rahman, 55, was adjusting the load of his small truck, filled with hay. “Before, the security here was very bad, we were suffering at the hands of the military,” he said, referring to the Afghan army. “They beat people, they asked people to bring food and water to their checkpoints.”
The situation had improved under the Taliban in recent weeks, he said, and people could return to work safely. “Before, people couldn’t go anywhere at night, they risked getting shot,” he said. “It’s been a long time since a bullet hit our homes. “
Further west in the valley, another Taliban flag fluttered atop the country’s oldest hydroelectric dam. Built in 1938, its turbines once provided electricity to surrounding parts of Wardak, as well as to Ghazni province and even parts of Kabul province, but poor maintenance made it unusable.
As a nomadic woman guided her sheep through the dam, the Afghan boys took turns leaping into the water below, a welcome relief from the scorching sun.
At the top of the dam basin hill is the home of the Ayoubi family, which had been moved to another village two years ago as the fighting escalated. In early August, the family returned after the fighting had ended to a house flanked by a lush garden filled with pumpkins planted by a caretaker.
Over a lunch of rice, tomatoes and corn, Abdullah Ayoubi, the eldest son, spoke of the atrocities that had occurred in the valley. “There is no doubt that the Taliban are also corrupt, but that does not compare to what the military was,” he said. “Not only did they take money from vans and trucks, but if anyone had a big beard they would say they are Taliban and harm them.”
Mr Ayoubi said his brother Assad was in the ninth grade when the Afghan and US armies arrived in the district in search of a Taliban commander of the same name. They caught her brother instead, he said, and took him to Bagram prison, known for its harsh treatment of prisoners, where he was tortured.
“It took us four months to find him,” Ayoubi said. “When we went to visit him in Bagram, he yelled at me with shackles on his legs and handcuffs.
After 18 months, Assad was released. Due to his anger, Ayoubi said, he joined a local Taliban commander named Ghulam Ali. He became an expert in shooting Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenades. On his phone, Mr. Ayoubi has a grainy image from a video. It showed an unrecognizable man shrouded in fire, smoke and dust.
Understanding the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan
Who are the Taliban? The Taliban emerged in 1994 amid unrest following the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989. They used brutal public punishments, including flogging, amputations and mass executions, to enforce their rules. Here’s more on their origin story and their record as leaders.
“At that point, my brother fired a rocket at a tank,” he said, although the vehicle appeared to be an Afghan Army Humvee.
In 2019, Assad was killed in a battle with Afghan soldiers not far from the family home. He had been a fighter for five years. “We buried him near the house,” Ayoubi said.
In this now sleepy valley, the main landmark is a hospital founded in 1989 by a German woman, Karla Schefter. Today, the hospital is supported by the Afghanistan Medical and Humanitarian Aid Committee, which relies on private donations.
Faridullah Rahimi, a doctor at the facility, said in his 22 years there, it was the first time that there had been no patient with conflict-related injuries.
“People from far beyond Chak come here for treatment,” said Dr Rahimi, standing in the green courtyard of the hospital. “We were treating civilians, government soldiers and Taliban fighters, and we never had a problem. “
So far, the doctor said, the hospital had enough medical supplies, but with most banks closed, it had no money to buy more or pay them their salaries.
Still, Dr Rahimi said, the hospital would continue to operate as best it could. “We’ve seen diets come and go, but the hospital will stay.”
Of the 65 hospital staff, 14 are women. The Taliban said they would allow women to continue working in health care in order to treat female patients.
Malalai, 28, a midwife who works at the hospital and uses only one name, said members of the Taliban visited the facility and spoke to her. “I’ve been working here for eight years,” she says. “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 the sand – a stark reminder of the length of the war in this region.
Back at the Ayoubi’s home, Abdullah spoke quietly as his 2-year-old son took a nap in a corner, hidden under a scarf. Perhaps he would be part of a generation in Afghanistan that grew up never knowing war.
“Assad, named after my brother,” Ayoubi said, pointing to the child. “It didn’t have to be that way.