The matter of who governs the district of Obeh in the east of Herat province is complicated: control of the district is divided between the Afghan government and the Taleban, and shifts in unpredictable ways. The inhabitants of the district, usually via the mediation of elders, have had to learn how to deal with both sides. The dual nature of authority in Obeh is exemplified by public service delivery; it is always financed through and administered by the Afghan state but, in areas under Taleban control, it is the insurgents who supervise and monitor delivery. In this, the first of a series of case studies looking at the delivery of services in districts over which the Taleban have control or influence, AAN researcher Said Reza Kazemi investigates the provision of governance and security, education, health, electricity, telecommunications and development projects, and unpacks a dual form of governance.
Service Delivery in Insurgent-Affected Areas is a joint research project by the Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN) and the United States Institute of Peace (USIP).
For the methodology and literature review, see here.
Obeh district: the context
- Approximately 100 km to the east of Herat city, linked by mainly non-asphalted roads; mountainous, cut through by fertile Harirud River valley
- Population 90,000-180,000 people based on available data; mixed Pashtun and Tajik
- Control of district split and influence of government and Taleban not well demarcated; not actively contested; surrounded by insurgency-plagued districts
Obeh: Service delivery
- Education: boys and girls schools, including high schools, open; no taxation by Taleban, but strict supervision, including of staff hiring, curriculum and girls’ education
- Health: no interference, but medical workers forced to prioritise Taleban sick and wounded, no female doctor working in district
- Electricity, media and telecommunications: no public electricity; no mobile phone coverage at night; mobile phone companies taxed; social networking and Turkish soap operas popular (for those with smartphones, dish antennas and electricity)
- Other services: Taleban courts open and busy; development projects need to be authorised by the Taleban who also ‘tax’ them
Introducing Obeh district
Obeh’s name says much about its geography and the impact this has had on life there. Obeh means ‘water’ in Pashto and through this mountainous district, with an area of about 2,600 km2, flows and meanders the Harirud – one of the main rivers in Afghanistan, which feeds the gigantic Salma hydropower dam to the east in neighbouring Chesht-e Sharif district. The river is obviously agriculturally significant for cultivated lands and orchards that, in turn, produce gorgeous scenery on both banks and neighbouring areas across Obeh district. (For a map of the district, see page 15 of this atlas). Most of the habitable areas of Obeh are thus in the Harirud valley.
In terms of human geography, the available information on the population of Obeh district is starkly contradictory. According to the Independent Directorate of Local Governance (IDLG) profile of Obeh, the district has an estimated population of 180,000 people (110,000 men and 70,000 women). A recent report by the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) puts the population at almost half of that: 94,805 people (see page 223 here). As elsewhere in the country, young people comprise a major segment of the district population – about 70 per cent are under 18. The population live in about 230 villages, mostly near the river, but also in scattered settlements in the more mountainous parts of the district.
The major ethnic groups in Obeh are Pashtuns and Tajiks. The IDLG profile says Pashtuns constitute about 60 per cent of the district population and Tajiks the remaining 40 per cent. However, this is disputed by some Tajiks, at least the ones who spoke to AAN, who claim they make up a larger proportion of the district population. The figures obviously have implications for the ethnic balance of power in the district.
On a provincial level, the population living in Obeh comprise 4.5 per cent of the total population of Herat (this excludes the three districts of Gulran, Shindand and Farsi where Afghanistan’s Central Statistics Organisation (CSO) was not able to conduct its Socio-Demographic and Economic Survey (SDES) due to what it called “security problems”) (see pages 1 and 7 of this report).) Using Afghanistan’s national average household size of 7.7 persons (see page 22 of this survey), Obeh would have 23,377 households (according to IDLG data) and 12,338 households (based on SIGAR information).
Obeh is a centre of Sufism in Afghanistan. The three Sufi tariqas(orders) in the district are Naqshbandiya, Qadiriya and Cheshtiya – the latter because of its adjacency to the epicentre of the Cheshtiya Sufi order in Chesht-e Sharif district. There are families and individuals who are the followers (murids) of Sufi leaders (pirsor murshids). The Sufi leaders are usually large landowners and thus well-off. A famous example is Agha Saheb Mohiuddin who, following his death, was replaced by his sons, the best-known being Agha Saheb Nuruddin. Sufi get-togethers are held in mosques, including the Grand Mosque in the district centre. In addition, Sufi spiritual retreats have continued taking place in khanqahs (places for Sufi gathering and worship) in the district. They are on good terms both with the government and Taleban.
Obeh is nearly 100 kilometres east of the provincial capital, Herat city. It is bordered by restive districts on all sides but one (for a map of Obeh district neighbourhood, see page 2 of this atlas): Qades district of Badghis province to the north, Chesht-e Sharif district of Herat to the east (currently a safer neighbouring side due to a heavy presence of Afghan government security forces), Farsi district to the south and Pashtun Zarghun and Karukh districts to the west. Given the difficult travelling conditions – not just insurgency but a lack of asphalted roads – Obeh can be described as an ‘outlying district’ of Herat province. A local merchant who runs a business transporting passengers and goods between Obeh and Herat city through Injil and Karukh districts told AAN that vehicles are only able to travel between 14 and 30 kilometres an hour:
The road is in a very poor condition and very uncomfortable. It takes three hours to get to Obeh from Herat city by saracha [a Toyota Corolla-type vehicle], three and a half hours by falankoch[a Toyota HiAce Van-type vehicle] and six to seven hours by freight lorry.
The road leading to Obeh through Karukh continues eastwards on to Ghor province, Hazarajat (the central highlands region) and then on to the capital Kabul. A second road links Obeh to Herat city through Pashtun Zarghun, Guzara and Injil districts. About 130 kilometres long, this road is not asphalted from Obeh to the centre of Pashtun Zarghun district, but its remainder is asphalted. It takes almost the same amount of time travelling on this road between Obeh and Herat city, but it is currently safer than the route through Karukh district, so an increasing number of people are travelling this road, even though parts of it are bumpy.
These factors – rugged terrain, mixed population, far-flung location with low connectivity to the provincial centre and troubled neighbourhood – have contributed, in varying degrees, to growing insecurity in Obeh over the years. Afghan government forces and Taleban insurgents tussle for control, inflicting costs on each other and civilians and hampering the delivery of public services.
Conflict and security
Taleban in Obeh are not a new phenomenon. Their presence dates back to 1995 when the movement took Herat. As elsewhere across the province that year, officials from the mujahedin government fled the approaching Taleban – some to the mountainous parts of the district – and Obeh fell with little to no resistance. A then low-ranking government employee, now in his seventies, told AAN what happened when the Taleban came to power in his district:
The Taleban announced they would be coming to Obeh a day before [they arrived]. Local figures of influence and, of course, government employees like me were afraid of what they would do to us upon their arrival. We took refuge in the khanqahof Agha Saheb Mohiuddin, the pirof Obeh. The Taleban did not ill-treat us. They just came and took control of the government by introducing their district governor and police chief and dismissing the previous government’s employees like me.
Some of the Taleban who ruled Obeh for the next five years or so were locals. However, many, especially the influential ones, hailed from other districts of Herat such as Pashtun Zarghun and Shindand, neighbouring provinces such as Farah, and from further afield, for example, Helmand province. According to a long-time Obeh resident, who is in his sixties and has lived through the past several decades in the district, the key Taleban figures were Mullah Khodadad (their first district governor), Mullah Nik Muhammad (their first police chief), Mullah Esmat and Mullah Qaffar.
The 2001 US military intervention brought the mujahedin back to power in Obeh. The major local Taleban figures in Obeh did not surrender in 2001 and, as a result, several were killed by the mujahedin on the road from Obeh to Pashtun Zarghun district. Their corpses lay on the ground for a couple of days until some local elders stepped in to mediate and arranged for the handover of the bodies for burial to members of the Taleban who came from Shindand. Other local Taleban did surrender and returned to normal civilian life and integrated back into local life in Obeh where they remain till this very day. Others retreated to the mountainous sections of the district.
So, those mujahedin who had sought refuge from the Taleban in the mountains in 1995 suddenly re-gained power in Obeh with the help of the US military. According to the same long-term Obeh resident quoted above, the key local mujahedin figures were: Haji Muhammad Askar (killed in conflict), Mullah Sarwar (worked as a security official for the Afghan government in Badghis province in the post-2001 period, now retired) and Haji Gulbuddin Khan (now retired). They played an important role in picking the first district governor and police chief in post-2001 Obeh, Haji Muhammad Khan (father to the current Obeh police chief, Sher Agha Alokozay) and Haji Muhammad Ghaus (brother to Haji Gulbuddin Khan). These local mujahedin leaders were initially linked to the self-declared ‘amirof the south-western region,’ Ismail Khan, (1) and later to Mawlawi Khodadad Saleh, the local strongman in Obeh. Mawlawi Saleh is currently the influential head of the council of ulama(religious scholars/leaders) in the western region of Afghanistan and leader of the Ghiasiya Seminary – the most important centre of Sunni Islam in Herat and the broader western region. Mawlawi Saleh has been affiliated to and enjoyed the support of both Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani in post-2001 Afghanistan.
The number and activities of the Taleban in Obeh went down significantly for a few years after 2001 only to rise again, particularly during the later years of the second Karzai government and the current National Unity Government. In some isolated, mountainous areas in Obeh, the post-2001 government never had a presence, which left a vacuum for the Taleban to exploit. Those Taleban who took refuge in the mountains began regrouping, initially from their family, kinship and affinity ties and later reconnecting to old and new Taleban allies in other districts of Herat, neighbouring provinces, further away in southern Afghanistan and even beyond, in Pakistan (see the literature review for this research series here). Led especially by Mullah Esmat, they began winning some support among the disgruntled, retaking some areas and challenging the Afghan government. The sentiment of some Obeh residents’ dissatisfaction and disillusionment with the Afghan government is echoed by this respondent:
People are not happy with the government because the government failed to deliver the promises it made to the people. The government promised to disarm irresponsible armed groups, build Herat-Obeh-Chesht-e Sharif road, supply electricity and end corruption. None of these things happened. People are really angry about the unfulfilled promises made by both the Karzai and Ghani governments. So people were and are attracted to the messages sent by the Taleban. The Taleban tell the people that our country has been occupied and colonised by foreign invaders… They tell the people about divisions inside the government and rampant corruption within it.
As the Taleban expanded their presence and influence beyond the mountains into villages and to roads within the district by establishing temporary and even more permanent checkpoints particularly since 2014, they clashed with Afghan government forces (for example, in May 2018; see also here). The overall result has been mounting insecurity for civilians living in the district and using the roads, especially the two linking Obeh and Herat city, although the district is not actively contested in terms of there being active fronts or ground fighting, as least for the time being. Nevertheless, control is divided and influence not well demarcated. (2)
The Taleban strategy is aimed at expanding their control as close as they can to the district centre. They try to do this by incapacitating the Afghan government through targeting senior district officials such as a former police chief (see here) and shutting down roads with the ultimate aim of capturing the district centre. They have launched an increasing number of attacks on government checkpoints. The last major attack they carried out was on a government checkpoint in Karashk village near Obeh’s border with Pashtun Zarghun district during the night of 9 October 2018. In this attack, the Taleban killed seven police officers, injured three others and captured another four; they also burned down the checkpoint. Attacks that have ended up killing ‘ordinary people’ have provoked some Obeh residents to protest against the Taleban perpetrators. In August 2011, for instance, some Obeh elders demanded the Taleban to hand over their members alleged of conducting two deadly mine attacks that led to the killing and injuring of dozens of civilians (see here and here).
The growing insecurity in Obeh finally made Herat provincial governor, Muhammad Asif Rahimi, visit the district in September 2018; it was his first visit since getting appointed as governor in late 2014. Accompanied by provincial and regional civilian and military authorities including General Nurullah Qaderi, the top government military official for the western region, he flew to Obeh by helicopter, voiced his concern about the district security and listened to demands for boosting Afghan security forces to prevent further Taleban attacks and the fall of the district. Earlier, Obeh district governor, Rahmuddin Sarwarzai, had even called for aerial operations against the Taleban in ‘their’ areas in the district (watch his interview with Ariana TV here).
Governance and security provision
At present, the exercise of control over Obeh district is not static. It changes daily. According to all respondents except one, who is a current Afghan government employee based in Herat city, the Taleban insurgents govern more territory and wield more influence in the district than the Afghan government does. This evaluation somewhat differs from Resolute Support’s most recent assessment, as published by SIGAR. It described Obeh as being under ‘government influence’ (see page 223 here) (one of five categories: under insurgent control, under insurgent influence, neutral/at risk, under government influence and under government control. (3) Although the Afghan state has an administration including a district governor in the centre of Obeh, its adjacent villages and villages in which the state has checkpoints, the rest of the district is either contested by or under the influence or even the control of the insurgents, putting the district somewhere in-between ‘under government influence’ and ‘neutral/at risk’ categories. This indicates some deterioration in governance and security conditions in the district. One interviewee described the fluid, precarious state of who governs Obeh in words that represent the overwhelming majority of respondents:
I cannot definitively say how much of the district is controlled by the government and how much by the Taleban. At night, I can say that 80-90 per cent of the district is in the hands of the Taleban, not the district bazaar or government checkpoints. During the day, it is 50-50, half controlled by the government and half by the Taleban as they move away from the valley to the mountains.
In a very practical sense, there are thus two governments in Obeh district, one representing the de jure Afghan government and the other a de facto administration made up of the Taleban insurgents. For a list of Afghan government and Taleban officials, see footnote 2.
On the side of the Afghan government, all current major district officials such as the governor, police chief, mayor, education director and public health director are ethnic Pashtuns and linked by patron-client ties to Mawlawi Saleh, who himself has enjoyed good relations with both Karzai and Ghani, as referred to above.
According to the IDLG profile of Obeh district and AAN’s interview with the district governor, the Afghan government security forces are about 310-strong and most are Afghan Local Police (ALP):
- Afghan National Army (ANA): 40
- Afghan National Police (ANP): 50
- ALP: 220
- Number of security checkpoints in which they are deployed: 40
Several respondents said there is currently the same number of Taleban operatives in the district (about 300 members). About one-sixth (50 Taleban or so) are from Obeh, with the famous ones being Mullah Esmat (with roots in Gulran district), Mullah Hassan (with roots in Pashtun Zarghun district) and Mullah Zar Alam. The latter two are Eshaqzai Pashtuns who have lived in Obeh for about two and a half decades and are linked by kinship ties to Mullah Nik Muhammad, another Eshaqzai Pashtun, who was the first Taleban district police chief in Obeh in the mid-1990s and has also served as a member of Herat Provincial Council in the post-2001 period.
Most Taleban insurgents operating in Obeh, however, are from outside the district: from Farsi, Pashtun Zarghun and Shindand districts of Herat, neighbouring Badghis province (eg Qades district), Ghor (Chaghcharan) and Farah and even further afield such as Helmand and Kandahar provinces. There is also an estimated 100-strong Taleban ‘Red Unit’ in the district – distinguished, said a respondent, by their red caps (kolah surkha). As for ethnicity, there are more Pashtuns than Tajiks among the Taleban presently operating in the district. In terms of their structure, several respondents said they appear highly disciplined and under hierarchical control. This is how one interviewee described them:
The Taleban members have their own organisational structure. They report to their superiors in the Taleban provincial administration in Shindand district where their provincial governor is based, further up to Helmand and even further up to the Quetta Shura in Pakistan. They report their activities to them and receive instructions, salaries and weapons from there.
The Taleban in Obeh also draw on local financial sources to sustain their operations. They levy ushr (a ten per cent) tax on productive land, commercial activities such as telecommunications, trade in marble and other types of stone in Obeh and Chesht-e Sharif and development projects such as the construction of roads, bridges and so on. They also collect zakat tax – an obligatory tax required of Muslims on a yearly basis (for details, read here). Another important revenue-generating activity is taxing poppy farmers and traders in areas ruled by the Taleban such as Haftkala and Tagabyari villages, according to a long-time and informed resident of Obeh who spoke to AAN. (4) The Taleban also prevent locals from paying tax to the Afghan government and sending their adult sons to join its security forces. Some respondents – among them provincial and district government officials – also alleged that the Iranian government is supporting the Taleban in Obeh and other districts to undermine the Salma hydroelectric dam in Chesht-e Sharif district, which captures some of the water from the River Harirud which would flow downstream into Iran. Although some hostile Iranian interference cannot be ruled out, some scepticism is merited given the overall tendency, especially among Afghan government officials, to put the blame for worsening governance and security on neighbouring countries rather than to shoulder responsibility for failures themselves.
In areas under their control, the Taleban are in daily contact with the local population, especially the arbabs (local representatives that deal with the authorities whoever they are) and other elders. Their key meeting place is the mosque where the Taleban lead daily prayers and deliver speeches about what one interviewee described as “their jihad against a puppet government.” They also hold meetings to discuss local issues such as water-sharing from the Harirud and local conflicts with a view to finding solutions for them. Several interviewees spoke about the speed at which the Taleban address legal cases such as land disputes, as well as about the good security in areas under their control.
Few, however, went into detail about how fair the Taleban verdicts were or how free individuals felt, deep-down, in Taleban-secured areas. One said, “People refer to the Taleban because they are disillusioned with the government,” suggesting that the Afghan government could improve its legitimacy by reforming the way it administers the district, the broader province and the country. Another stated, “People are afraid that, if and when the Taleban come to power again, they will again meddle in [people’s] private affairs such as growing beards and moustaches and using smartphones and the internet.” The Taleban are already dictating how people, especially women, dress in public such as on the roads between Obeh and Herat city and what they should follow on the TV and internet.
Providing security for the two key roads interconnecting the district and provincial centre is also contested by the Afghan government and Taleban insurgents. On the road from Obeh to Herat city through Karukh and Injil districts, the Taleban regularly set up checkpoints where they control the movement of people and goods. Government officials such as the district governor and police chief have to be escorted by heavily armed military convoys while going on this way. The second route – from Obeh to Pashtun Zarghun district and then on to Guzara and Injil districts and ultimately Herat city – is also insecure to a lesser extent, although it is partly asphalted and thus easier to travel. One interviewee reported that, on the road between Obeh and Herat city through Karukh and Injil, “The Taleban stopped a saracha car, opened the door and machine-gunned a man who was an army soldier.” Another interviewee also described Taleban activity at their checkpoints:
“They search [male] passengers and check passengers’ IDs and luggage including those of women passengers…. [T]hey stop women passengers who are not clad in a burqaand beat their men for failing to veil their women properly. So they are punished for not respecting hijab. They also check the mobile phones of passengers to see if there are any photos showing they work for the government, particularly the security forces. They do whatever they decide to do with these people. They even kill. If a man is not dressed in traditional piran tomban[shalwar kameez] and is shaved, they will make it plain that he should get dressed in proper clothes and let his moustache and beard grow. A recent group of Taleban who have come to Obeh from Helmand province even interfere with people’s moustaches and beards and hair. They are stricter than the previous ones.”
The elders and other figures of influence in the district often mediate between the Afghan government and Taleban in various areas of life. In several cases, for example, their mediation has led to the release of people such as ordinary government employees taken by the Taleban.
The conflict between the Afghan government and Taleban over control of the district also hinders the delivery of public services such as education, health, electricity supply, telecommunications and development projects. These are discussed, one by one, below.
According to the IDLG profile of Obeh district, there are 42 schools in the district: 17 primary (grades 1-6), 14 intermediate (grades 7-9) and 11 high schools (grades 10-12). 501 male and 139 female teachers teach some 26,000 pupils, including both boys and girls in these schools. There are also two teacher training institutes, one public and one private.
Additionally, there are many religious schools or madrasas. The major one is Imam Muhammad Ghazali Madrasa located in the district centre and opened about five years ago. This madrasa is affiliated to and acts as the district branch of the Ghiasiya Seminary.
The provision of education is focused on the district centre and adjacent villages. Services diminish the further one goes from these areas, with many schools lacking textbooks, chairs and tables, teaching materials and even compounds. Many also lack good teachers. In remote areas of the district, pupils study in dilapidated tents even in the heat of summer. The richer a family is, the greater the likelihood they send their children, both boys and girls, for education to the district centre, Herat city or even abroad, especially to neighbouring Iran. In particular, those that can afford it send their children to study in Herat city to prepare for the nationwide university entrance test known as Kankur (from the French word concours, meaning contest).
Officials at the Directorate of Education based in Herat city have been frank about their inability to supervise and monitor schools in areas controlled or contested by the Taleban including in Obeh district (see here). They said that of all 969 schools in the province, 750 are supervised by the government and the remaining 219 by the Taliban, meaning that around 23 per cent of all schools are monitored by the Taleban.
Local observers told AAN that the work of the provincial-level Directorate of Education, based in Herat city, has been undermined by heated tensions between its Tajik director, Abdul Razaq Ahmadi, and the Pashtun head of Herat Provincial Council, Haji Kamran Alizai. A previous manager of the Ahmad Shah Massud Foundation in Herat, Ahmadi is a Jamiat party member with ties to Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah while Alizai is seen as affiliated to the Pashtun circle around President Ashraf Ghani. Problems between the two government leaders have been reproduced at the provincial level. Tensions have apparently now been reduced after Ahmadi was replaced by Rohullah Azhad in September 2018. Although also Jamiati and linked to Abdullah, Azhad is regarded by local observers as more pliable and workable than his predecessor.
According to several respondents, the Afghan government’s delivery of education to the district’s children is highly corrupt and therefore weak, low-quality or even non-existent in parts of Obeh district. School materials are often sold while they should be free for the pupils, they said. Even worse, the proliferation of ghost schools and ghost teachers in Obeh has allowed, as one interviewee bluntly put it, resources and salaries to be “plundered by corrupt government officials, local arbabs and elders, and the Taleban.” A provincial IDLG official who goes on monitoring visits to the districts of Herat described his experience of coming across one ghost school in Obeh:
In an official visit to Obeh, we noticed there was no school and no teachers in an area, but on paper there was a school and a number of teachers there. We sat down for a while and the local arbabtold us that the teacher would come after some time. A person came who was introduced as a teacher by the arbaband they showed us a place without any building or even a tent as the school. They also gathered some children without any textbooks as the pupils. They also brought a blackboard to show us that this was a school.
To overcome the key corruption challenge of ghost teachers and through it ghost schools, the Afghan government began paying teacher salaries through the banking system about a year ago, changing over from the previous system which transferred salaries via mutameds or trusted persons. Although the new procedure has prevented the embezzlement of millions of Afghanis every month by provincial and district kleptocrats and other figures of influence, including the Taleban insurgents, local teachers and non-teaching school staff are still facing a huge headache because there is no bank in Obeh capable of issuing their salaries:
For a year or so, teacher salaries have been paid via the bank. This is a major problem for teachers. The road is not good or safe. It takes time. The monthly salary is about Afs 6,300-7,000 [US$ 84-93.33, if Afs 75 is exchanged for US$ 1] and a teacher spends about Afs 500 [US$ 6.66] to get their salary from the bank in Herat city on transport alone… [And] the teacher has to leave their job for some days [to do this].
As for the Taleban, most respondents said they do not levy a tax on teachers’ salaries. However, they have been engaged in supervising the delivery of education services in parts of Obeh district as far back as the second Karzai administration (2009 to 2014) and particularly during the current National Unity Government. Given the vast areas physically under Taleban rule or contested between state and insurgents, contacts have grown up between the Taleban and government officials, often mediated by local elders, over education service delivery, including staffing and planning.
In specific terms, several respondents including a high school teacher told AAN, that the Afghan government has often agreed to the appointment of those district education officials and teachers who are from Obeh and who, more importantly, can work with the Taleban insurgents in one way or another, according to several respondents including a high school teacher in Obeh. Before appointing teachers, the Afghan government ascertains whether they would be able to work with the Taleban, especially in areas governed by them. There are also Taleban members such as their mawlawis who work as Afghan government-paid teachers in parts of Obeh district, especially in areas fully governed by them. They are usually tasked with teaching religious subjects in schools.
The key Afghan government education official in the district, Abdul Malek Heidari, is widely seen as the man able to work and deal with the Taleban in order to keep schools open and education continued in the district. According to several interviewees, he was sacked by the provincial Directorate of Education for alleged involvement in massive corruption in the district education sector. Not only was he not prosecuted but he was, in fact, reappointed as the district education director because of his ability to work with the Taleban and keep schools running.
The Taleban also monitor education service delivery in other ways. A key concern for them has been the education of girls, which they do allow, but about which they have set strict requirements. A major condition is that only women teachers are allowed to work and teach in girls’ schools. In various parts of Obeh, “many girls schools,” AAN was told (without an exact figure given) lacked women teachers and the Taleban closed these down a couple of years ago. However, they were reopened after local elders intervened and solved the problem by recruiting recent female high school graduates to teach.
In spite of this, as a local teacher from Obeh said, “There are still areas that do not have women teachers, and girls are deprived of education for this reason.” Even in areas in which there are women teachers, they might not be able to work because, as another interviewee stated, “Their men do not often allow them to work [fearing they might] socialise with other men outside the home.” In some places, it is insecurity that makes it impossible for both boys and girls to attend school. Additionally, there are some families, regarded by some as traditional and conservative, which do not want their girls to study beyond primary school. There are also areas in the district in which the Taleban have allowed old men, often religious scholars, to teach at girls’ schools. However, as a long-time resident of Obeh said light-heartedly, but with all seriousness, “Old men can be as lustful as younger ones!”
A second requirement set by the Taleban is that girls and women as students, teachers and non-teaching staff should strictly follow the Islamic hijab (veil) at school. Schoolgirls are therefore dressed in manto (long-sleeved, long-bodied coats) and maqnaa (headscarves). For women, hijab generally means wearing the burqa (a long, loose garment covering the whole body from head to feet) or the chador (a large piece of cloth that is wrapped around the head and upper body leaving only the face exposed). For schoolboys, it is piran tomban, the usual Afghan dress for boys and men. This requirement on clothing has been easy to fulfil because it is a generally-accepted local practice for girls and women to observe hijab in the public domain (including at school) and for boys and men to wear the traditional piran tomban.
Another key Taleban interest in the education sphere is the teaching of religious subjects and their scheduling at school. Although they are generally fine in Obeh district with the school curriculum as prepared by the Ministry of Education, which includes studying the Quran, there are some areas in the district particularly those falling under their full control where they have introduced new subjects such as talim ul-islam (Islamic education), hadith (the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad), tafsir (exegesis) and fiqh (jurisprudence). They also emphasise the teaching of religious subjects at the beginning of the school day before subjects like mathematics, physics, chemistry and English that they view as “the current sciences of the day.” In some places, they have banned the teaching of English at school and instead insisted on the study of Arabic and more Pashto.
To exercise their supervision of the district education sector, the Taleban have formed a specific education department or office led by a specific person (mirroring the government structure). It seems the Taleban are more active than the Afghan government in monitoring the delivery of education services such as the operation of schools, attendance by pupils as well as teaching and non-teaching school staff, types of subjects in the school curriculum, as well as learning. They do have a greater access to more parts of the district. They are also stricter and harder-line in implementing their educational instructions.
The Afghan government is operating several health facilities in Obeh district through a non-governmental organisation (Bakhtar Development Network) contracted by the Ministry of Public Health. There is a Comprehensive Health Centre (CHC) in the district centre that receives clients not only from Obeh but also from Chesht-e Sharif further to the east. The Directorate of Public Health, based in Herat, plans to develop the CHC in Obeh into a District Hospital. In addition, there are also Basic Health Centres (BHCs) in some villages such as Sirwan and Tagabyari. The Directorate of Public Health also plans to increase the number of BHCs in Obeh district. There are also several health posts across the district. (For details on the health system up to the district level including health posts, basic health centres, comprehensive health centres and district hospitals, see Afghanistan’s Basic Package of Health Services (BPHS) here; see also here). Furthermore, there are a number of private health facilities mostly in the district centre.
The delivery of health services in general in the district suffers from serious shortcomings. Most current health personnel in the district are not well-trained or professional. Besides, the health facilities, at least the government-run ones, are not adequately or timely equipped and supplied. As for the privately-administered health facilities, the services they provide are better, but too costly for many inhabitants in Obeh. The good thing about the public health facilities is, as one interviewee said, “They work 24/7 while private clinics work like shops, from 8 am to 4 pm.”
A major part of the inadequacies in health service delivery arise from the growing insecurity in most parts of Obeh district. Insecurity has particularly affected female health workers. The CHC in Obeh used to have a female doctor (an obstetrician-gynaecologist), about two years ago, but currently lacks such a physician. In fact, presently there is no female doctor throughout the whole district. This does not mean that Obeh has produced no women doctors but, as a respondent whose father has worked in the medical field in Obeh for the past several decades said, “They prefer to work outside Obeh such as in Herat city or abroad such as in neighbouring Iran.” This is because, as one respondent bluntly put it, “The area is insecure and the salary is not attractive.”
There are, however, some other female health personnel. There are midwives and nurses in the CHC, BHCs and health posts in many parts of the district. However, they have faced greater problems carrying out their work as the security situation deteriorated in the district. Many dare not go and work in areas under Taleban rule or influence. There is also less communication between them and the better-trained male and female health personnel who are based in the provincial centre. One doctor from Obeh said:
In the past, health personnel, especially female ones, used to go from the city of Herat to provide nursing and midwifery training in far-flung villages in Obeh, but this has decreased significantly during the past several years because of the worsening security situation. They no longer dare go and do this work in those areas.
The Taleban insurgents have not directly stymied the delivery of health services in Obeh. One reason is that they too need these services and for this, they have in fact made life for many of the district health personnel hectic. They use the Afghan government-run health services for their own ends as illustrated by the doctor from Obeh who was interviewed for this research:
The Taleban do not interfere in health services. My friends who work as health personnel in Obeh tell me they are very busy and have lots of things to do at night. The Taleban come to them on their motorbikes at night. They make them go with them to treat their injured and sick members. They have to go and fulfil their requests. The Taleban can come anytime at night. So they go, do their work and come back. They cannot say no to the Taleban. They cannot continue their work if they say no to these requests.
During the day, as needs arise, the Taleban members call health centre directors, asking them to send physicians and other health staff to treat their injured and sick. The health personnel have to take all available, necessary medical equipment with them. They also approach the health centres in person and are usually given priority treatment. The Taleban generally behave well with the medical staff and pay the fees of private health providers. In serious cases, the Taleban in Obeh reportedly transfer their injured members to Pakistan.
The Taleban’s privileged use of health personnel does have knock-on effects, not only on health personnel, but also on ‘ordinary’ patients. Many health personnel struggle to work efficiently and effectively during the day as they have been up all night. In many cases, the civilian sick and injured have to wait for long periods of time for health personnel to come back from Taleban areas, or they return home having had no access to health services on particular days.
As for the use of health services by women residents in areas under Taleban control in Obeh, the Taleban seem to be fine with women being treated by male physicians, given that there is currently no female doctor in the district. However, female clients of health services need to be accompanied by a relative, either a male or an old female.
Similarly, the Taleban have not undermined the implementation of vaccination campaigns in Obeh. However, any vaccination campaign needs to be coordinated with the Taleban leaders in advance through the mediation of local elders. The last polio and measles vaccination campaigns were carried out around half a year ago in Obeh district. The vaccinators were able to move around freely and conduct their business.
However, in some remote parts of the district, some people hold negative views about vaccination, seeing it, in the words of a Herat Directorate of Public Health staff member who is from Obeh, as “part of a foreign agenda to do certain bad things to the Muslims,” for example, make them infertile. These views often arise from local beliefs, but could also be politically motivated. One respondent was also worried that the Taleban who have recently come to Obeh from Helmand province could make problems for the implementation of vaccination campaigns in the time to come.
Electricity, media and telecommunication
In August 2017, Da Afghanistan Breshna Sherkat (DABS), the country’s power utility, signed contracts with three companies (two Iranian and one Afghan-Indian firm) for extending the Herat electricity grid to the four eastern districts of the province – Karukh, Pashtun Zarghun, Obeh, and Chesht-e Sharif (see here). DABS said it was a 16 million USD power supply project that would take 18 months to complete and would benefit some 16,000 families in the four districts. 15 months later (as of November 2018), there has been no implementation at all.
Many cite insecurity as the reason why the DABS project has failed to take off. This is largely true. However, a provincial IDLG official also said those involved in the project wanted “to get more lucrative contracts by presenting security, especially threats from the Taleban as a pretext.” This is because, at least in Obeh district, from where the quoted IDLG official comes, the Taleban have thus far allowed the implementation of publicly-useful projects such as road-building and bridge construction, after their agreement has been secured and, of course, their ‘tax’ paid. Some sample projects will be discussed in the next section, Other Services Available.
Consequently, there is no public power supply in Obeh district. As an alternative, many people have installed equipment to use solar power to at least light their homes at night, charge batteries and mobile phones, watch TV and listen to the radio. Another alternative for some is to generate hydropower. Overall, more residents have access to solar than hydropower. There are also some people, especially the well-off, who have diesel generators to ensure their access to electricity when needed. Others, especially the socioeconomically poor and those residing in faraway mountainous parts of the district, cannot afford to access electricity on a regular, stable basis.
Many Obeh residents who do have access to electricity have TVs at home that are connected to dish antennas on their rooftops. Normal antennas do not work in the district, given its mountainous nature. This means there are no local TV stations in Obeh, and TV stations based in Herat city but not broadcasting through satellites cannot be received in this district. People usually watch countrywide TV stations such as Tolo and Ariana, following the news, roundtable discussions on current affairs in Afghanistan and beyond, as well as soap operas, especially the Turkish ones.
As for the radio, there are no local radio stations in Obeh either. In fact, fewer people listen to the radio nowadays, compared to TV watchers. Those who do generally listen to foreign radio stations such as the American Radio Azadi (the Afghan branch of the US government’s Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, RFE/RL), the British BBC and the Iranian Radio Dari.
Since there are no local TV or radio stations, there is a jarchi (town crier) in the district centre who moves from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, informing people about developments in the district, such as visits of provincial officials from Herat city or the initiation of public projects. Mosque loudspeakers are also used to inform people of public events throughout Obeh.
Many people continue to have access to TV and radio in at least some areas under Taleban rule. In fact, many Taleban members, themselves, watch TV and listen to the radio. However, they tell people not to watch TV programmes particularly soap operas which they regard as immoral and promiscuous and therefore contrary to what they see as ‘authentic’ Afghan religion and culture. They also tell people not to listen to music on the radio. However, as a journalist from Obeh said, “It is difficult to enforce these orders in practice because it is mostly a private affair taking place at people’s homes.” Some respondents said that in some areas of the district the Taleban have banned watching TV and listening to the music on radio and in other ways such as on the phone. They have instead exhorted the local population to read the Quran and listen to its recitation.
This brings us to a discussion of the state of telecommunications in Obeh district. There are presently three active mobile network operators in the district – the Afghan Roshan, the Emirati Etisalat and the South African MTN. The Afghan public Salaam Network and the private Afghan Wireless Communication Company (AWCC) do not operate in the district, despite requests by some Obeh activists for Salaam to begin offering services, given the cheapness and (perceived) speed of its services. One reason why Salaam has not entered Obeh might be a greater fear of the Taleban, for it is a public mobile phone company with links to the Afghan government.
Many residents in Obeh have smartphones, through which they are connected to the internet. Although the internet is slow and weak across the district, especially the farther you go from the district centre, a large number of people particularly the youth are busy communicating and sharing news, information, opinions and pictures on social networking sites, primarily Facebook. Being connected to the internet is also a necessity for those residents of Obeh that have family members and friends in neighbouring Iran and further afield in Turkey and Europe. They keep in touch with their relatives abroad through a variety of applications including Viber, WhatsApp, Imo, Line, Telegram and, of course, Facebook.
Obeh inhabitants also have to live with no mobile phone coverage during the night from about 5 pm to around 5 am the following day. For the last five years, these have been cut throughout the district at the behest of the Taleban insurgents. Only on two most important Islamic festivals of the year, Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, do the Taleban let mobile network operators deliver their services during the night as well. The Taleban also sometimes order the mobile phone companies to turn on their services for a specific duration on a specific night.
The mobile network operators rigorously comply with the Taleban orders because otherwise, as one respondent said, “The Taleban will destroy their antennas, hit them or set them on fire.” It seems telecommunication services are severed centrally, for an interviewee knew from a relative of his who worked for a mobile phone company in Obeh that the companies do not turn off their equipment at night; it is only that reception in the district is stopped.
For the Taleban, it is safer not to have night-time mobile coverage. Most Taleban attacks on Afghan government checkpoints in Obeh are carried out at night. It is at night also that the insurgents often coordinate their forces, take care of logistics and move freely not just in the mountainous areas under their rule but also in the main inhabited valley in the district. With the mobile coverage off, they can do this without the risk of residents reporting them to the government especially the security authorities. On the side of the Afghan government, it usually retreats to the district centre and its checkpoints at night, keeping hold of these positions. Both the Afghan government and Taleban insurgents have provided walkie-talkies for some of their forces to communicate at night.
Additionally, the Taleban insurgents have been taxing mobile network operators for the past several years. None of the respondents knew how much the mobile phone companies are paying the Taleban to have their telecommunication services running at least during the daylight. However, all agreed that the companies and Taleban were in touch bilaterally for the security and continuation of their telecommunication services in Obeh. The Taleban have not yet taxed the local population for using telecommunication services.
The Taleban insurgents and mobile network operators are collaborating in other ways, too. According to one respondent, at least one mobile phone company has paid money to the Taleban to guard its staff, antennas and stations against extortion and threats by (other) malicious elements such as armed criminal groups. Also, some companies have been hit by a ‘protection racket’ by some Taleban; the companies provide them with electricity from thermal or solar power from their local stations at night in return for the Taleban ‘ensuring’ the security of their staff, antennas and stations in areas under their control.
Other services available
Two types of other services available in the district stand out. First are the justice services offered by the Taleban in areas under their domination. Several people said the Taleban out-govern the Afghan administration in addressing disputes among the local people. As elsewhere across the country, many Obeh inhabitants have become disillusioned with the rampant corruption in the official district justice system. So they take many of their cases to the Taleban courts where they are adjudicated much faster. This has made some residents happy with the justice services provided by the Taleban.
At the same time, there are many residents who are forced to approach the Taleban courts to get their cases dealt with because the Taleban are, in practice, the only authority in their area. They have no other option.
In either case, verdicts issued by the Taleban courts are enforced much more effectively than those issued by the government courts. The key reason is the fear of Taleban retribution not just for non-enforcement of their court rulings but for all their orders and instructions. The severity of Taleban punishment depends on the ‘offence’ committed. For instance, AAN was told, adultery allegations, at least in some cases, have resulted in the stoning of the alleged perpetrators to death. Teachers and doctors who say ‘no’ to Taleban requests are beaten or dismissed. Mobile network operators have to comply with Taleban restrictions for the very safety of their employees, antennas and stations. So Taleban orders are respected, for everyone knows the harsh consequences of non-compliance.
The second type of other services available in Obeh district are the development projects that have been implemented or are being implemented under the government’s National Solidarity Programme (NSP) and its successor the Citizens’ Charter as well as by other development agencies. According to all respondents, for any of these public projects to take off, it is imperative to meet two key criteria: (1) the project should be publicly useful and (2) the Taleban need to agree to it and their tax (in most cases, ushr or ten per cent) paid in advance. This is normally taken care of by local elders who mediate between the Taleban and the government, and the NGOs.
The most famous post-2001 development project: a 150 metres long, seven metres wide, 200,000 USD costing bridge connects Murqcha and Musaferan villages to the north and south of the River Harirud. It was only built after the Taleban authorised it, following mediation by elders, and the payment of a ten per cent ‘tax’. One user said he thanks God every time he crosses the bridge, “It is such a comfort for the local people.” Photo: Pajhwok, 2017
In Obeh district, there are a number of noteworthy projects. First is the flagship development project in the post 2001-era, a bridge, about 150 metres long and seven metres wide, which has been built at a cost of about 200,000 USD and connects Murqcha and Musaferan villages in the north and south of the district over the River Harirud. The construction of this bridge was only made possible after local elders pleaded with the Taleban and managed to win their go-ahead. The Taleban’s tax was also paid. This has been the most publicly-beneficial project carried out in Obeh in the post-2001 period, as a trader from the district described:
It has ended the cut-off of any link between people on the two sides of the river especially in the wet season when the river is flooded. For instance, people can take sick relatives to the clinic in the district centre. And people can take fruit from their orchards to sell in the district centre and from there to Herat city. I myself own an orchard, and this bridge has helped me a lot. Each time I cross the bridge in my car I say, ‘In the Name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful’ and feel very happy. It is such a comfort for the local people.
A second notable project is a road, about 17 kilometres long, that is being built linking Bidak and Sirwan villages on the southern bank of the River Harirud, not far from Obeh district centre. The contract for constructing the road has been awarded to the family of Rahima Jami, a sitting parliamentarian from Herat province who ran for another term in the recent elections. This project could also only take off after the local elders mediated and bargained with the Taleban to let it go ahead. The Taleban gave their approval, again after their tax was paid.
Another important project that is under way is the construction of a canal, around 10 kilometres long, from Bagal to Deh Daraz villages also on the southern bank of the river in the west of the district. The canal will be made of concrete with paved roads on either side. For this project too, the Taleban consent was won after the elders mediated and their tax was paid.
Currently, there are also various Citizens’ Charter projects that are due to be implemented in different parts of Obeh district. These projects will make specific sums of money available to the local population and mainly focus on the provision of amenities such as water and power supply. In some villages, for instance, the village elders have decided to spend the Citizens’ Charter money on digging deep wells, piping water to their villages and providing safe potable water for the residents. Others want to pave roads in their villages. There are also projects focused on the development of local agriculture such as grapes and pistachios, livestock and small-scale fisheries. For most of these projects too, it has been imperative to get Taleban approval and pay their tax.
The Taleban interfere directly in most of services. In education, they are directly engaged in a supervisory role, keeping an eye on teacher appointments, having some of their members employed as teachers especially for teaching religious subjects, dictating the conditions of girls’ education (although this is allowed) and organising the curriculum so that there is a greater emphasis on some subjects, especially religious ones, and less or no emphasis on other subjects they see as ‘foreign’ or ‘secular.’ They have imposed strict restrictions on telecommunication services, enforcing a cut-off of coverage during the night and taxing the mobile phone companies. The Taleban have also indirectly obstructed the electrification of four eastern districts of Herat including Obeh. As for other projects of a public utility nature, Taleban approval has to be sought and their ten per cent tax paid for these projects to take off. Their orders and criteria are generally met, either just to get things done or to avoid harsh retribution.
It is only with respect to health services that the Taleban do not interfere directly. Both men and women are free to work and seek health care. This is partly because the Taleban need these services, too. However, they do insist on getting priority care for themselves, keeping district health personnel busy both during the day and at night by bringing in sick and injured Taleban or forcibly taking the medical personnel off to treat Taleban patients. This privileged use by the Taleban of health facilities has had knock-on effects on ordinary people who have to wait to see medical personnel and many medical workers themselves who struggle to work effectively during the day as they have been up all night.
The district of Obeh faces uncertain, unpredictable times. Security-wise, the Afghan government and Taleban forces are in a mutually-hurting stalemate, though the district is not actively contested, at least for now. In terms of public service delivery, what has emerged in Obeh in recent years is an unstable, hybrid form of governance. The two parties are rivals, but also, out of necessity, in contact: the government administers and finances services, while the Taleban control and monitor some of them, in areas under their domination.
Both parties extract ‘rent’ from public services. Respondents spoke about some government officials skimming off money intended for education, for example, or from project contracts, something that results in inefficiency and low-quality or no services. The insurgents also take ‘rent’ out of some services such as telecommunications and development projects, insisting on being given a ten per cent tax of project costs. Despite this corruption by both sides and the fact that the Taleban do not fund anything, they still pose a formidable challenge to the authority of the Afghan government in Obeh. The Taleban, largely disciplined and obeying orders, for the moment at least, seem to be ‘out-governing’ the Afghan government in several areas in many parts of the district. Their control is more effective and their monitoring more active.
For the local population, options are limited. They have had no alternative but to learn how to work and deal with both parties, usually via the mediation of elders and other figures of influence. It is risky and difficult navigating the complex, fluid governance and security environment of Obeh.
Edited by Sari Kouvo, Thomas Ruttig, Kate Clark and Jelena Bjelica
(1) Ismael Khan rose from a captain in the government army (from which he defected in 1979 to join an anti-communist uprising) to mujahedin commander to governor of Herat and self-declared ‘amir’ of what historically was called the south-western region (1992 to 1994 and again, 2002 to 2004) to the Minister of Energy and Water to a vice-presidential candidate in the hugely disputed 2014 presidential elections. He continues to be an influential member of the Jamiat party.
(2) The following are the key governance figures in Obeh district:
- District governor: Rahmuddin Sarwarzai (aka Rahmuddin Khan), from Obeh
- District police chief: Sher Agha Alokozay (aka Sher Agha Khan), from Obeh, said to be severely anti-Taleban and widely regarded locally as the pillar of state security in the district
- District mayor: Najibullah Ahmadi, from Obeh
- District education director: Abdul Malek Heidari, from Obeh, was replaced for a while by Juma Gul Khan Ayoubi, has been re-appointed in the district education director position
- District public health director: Nazir Ahmad Tukhi, from Obeh, son to Abdul Malek Heidari
- District governor: reportedly Mullah Hamidullah Mubarez (aka Mubarez Helmandi)
- District commander: Mullah Esmatullah (aka Mullah Esmat), from Obeh and with roots in Gulran district of Herat province
- District education director: Mullah Wazir, replaced Agha Abdul Wali (aka Agha Wali)
- No district public health director on the Taleban side
- Influential members in Obeh: Mullah Hassan Marabadi (aka Mullah Hassan) who is from Obeh with roots in Pashtun Zarghun district and served as a former Taleban district governor, Mullah Zar Alam and Mullah Amir Jan. The latter (Mullah Amir Jan) was reportedly killed by the Afghan government security forces around mid-October 2018.
- Deputy provincial governor operating in/from Obeh: reportedly Mullah Abdul Manan Liwanai (‘liwanai’ is a Pashto word, meaning ‘crazy’) whom the Afghan government reported as dead after he was injured in a clash with its security forces in Obeh around mid-October 2018
(3) Resolute Support’s method considers such issues as who governs, who gets taxes, who controls infrastructure and who controls ‘messaging’ in a district (see page 5 of this report for further explanation).
(4) Our information contradicts the assessment of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Its 2017 Opium Survey (see page 66 here) said there has been no poppy cultivation in Obeh since 2005.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020