Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Economy, Development, Environment

One Land, Two Rules (6): Delivering public services in insurgency-affected Nad Ali district of Helmand province

Ali Mohammad Sabawoon 32 min

In opium-rich Nad Ali district, public service provision is poor. The district is roughly divided between the government and the Taleban and they continue to clash over control of population, territory and roads. Although only the government and NGOs fund public services, the Taleban exert considerable control over what is delivered in their areas, determining what is taught in schools, prioritising Taleban patients in health facilities, banning mobile phone companies and collecting taxes from development projects. Local residents, as disaffected from the government as they are from the Taleban, have no choice but to learn to navigate this dual rule, cooperating with or tolerating whoever has power. In this case study, AAN researcher Ali Mohammad Sabawoon (with input from Said Reza Kazemi and Christian Bleuer) unpacks the provision of governance and security, education, health, electricity, telecommunications and development projects in Nad Ali.

The main intersection in Shin Kalay village half an hour's drive east of Lashkargah Photo: Andrew Quilty, 2018.The main intersection in Shin Kalay village half an hour's drive east of Lashkargah Photo: Andrew Quilty, 2018.

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).

Previous publications in this series are: methodology and literature review; a case study on Obeh district in western Herat province; a case study on Dasht-e Archi district in northern Kunduz province; a case study on Achin district in eastern Nangarhar province; and a case study on polio vaccination.

Nad Ali district: context

  • About 17 km to the west of Lashkargah city, to which it is connected by an asphalt road; mainly agricultural land watered by the Boghra Canal from the Helmand River; one of the top opium poppy-cultivating districts in the country;
  • Credible population estimates range between 95,000 and 180,000 (with an outlier of 450,000; sources below); 95 per cent Pashtun from various tribal groups and the remaining five per cent Baloch, Uzbeks and Hazaras, as estimated by key informants;
  • After suffering predatory rule by the US and Kabul-backed local commanders after 2001, the insurgency swiftly gained ground from 2006 onwards. The district remains unstable, currently roughly divided between the government and Taleban-held areas, with continuing sporadic clashes over control of territory, population and roads.

Nad Ali district: service delivery

  • Education: schools, including high schools, open (except in frontline areas); girls traditionally study only until grade 6, the end of primary education, and the Taleban accept this; Taleban control school staffing, curriculum and day-to-day management in areas under their rule; Taleban and government coordinate to keep education going;
  • Health: health services are available but are substandard and inadequate; there are no female doctors or nurses in the district and only a few midwives; Taleban interfere in the staffing of health services, and currently allow vaccination campaigns to be administered only from mosques, ie not door-to-door; they demand priority treatment for their own sick and wounded in areas under their control;
  • Electricity, media and telecommunications: no public electricity, but solar power is widely used; diverse media followed on TV, radio and smartphones by those who can afford it and secretly in Taleban-ruled areas; the Taleban’s total ban on mobile phone operators has been evaded by a public telecommunication company that operates from inside the compound of the district government and a private company that operates from the vicinity of a major military base in neighbouring Washir district;
  • Other services: some water supply and road-building projects; development projects, particularly those in or crossing Taleban territory need to be authorised and are ‘taxed’

Introducing Nad Ali district

Nad Ali district owes its origins to the agricultural and settlement development projects in Helmand Valley that began in the first decade of the twentieth century. Launched around 1910 and lasting for about seven decades until the Soviet invasion in 1979, the Helmand Valley Development Project was a massive and complex effort to control and utilise water resources from the Helmand River for irrigation and settlement purposes. Successive Afghan governments pursued the project in collaboration with, first, the Germans and Japanese, and after World War 2, the Americans (partly to balance Soviet development assistance delivered elsewhere in the country). (1) Nad Ali, along with Nawa Barakzai and Nahr-e Seraj districts, received a large share of United States’ financial aid in the 1950s and 1960s. (2)

The area now known as Nad Ali district was the first to receive settled nomads in 1951. The Helmand Valley project led to the creation of Helmand province with Lashkargah as its capital in 1964 (initially the newly-established province was called Gereshk after it had been divided from Farah province in 1960). (3) Despite serious technical flaws (eg the deterioration of agricultural lands due to waterlogging and soil salinization), the Boghra Canal did gradually transform desert into fertile land; “establishing irrigation works, giving land and assistance to settle [mostly Pashtun] nomads, and creating ‘villages’” led to the creation of Nad Ali as a district (page 10 of this 1983 report). The Boghra Canal remains the largest-capacity canal in the Helmand River basin and irrigates the largest area of land. (4)

The main intention of the then-Afghan government was to settle and govern ‘unruly’ Pashtun Kuchis (nomads), who, in its view, had created problems for the country’s various governments (for example, by participating in the overthrow of King Amanullah in 1929). However, members of several other ethnic groups also settled in Nad Ali, turning it into a socially-heterogeneous area (page 8 of this 1980 paper). Despite initial challenges (including the difficulty of changing the nomadic Kuchi lifestyle to a settled, agriculturalist one) and the poor quality of the land, which had initially driven many settlers out of the area, Nad Ali emerged, by the mid-1960s, as an agrarian district with rudimentary community-based health and education facilities. (5)

Nad Ali covers an area of 3,168 km2and is located nearly 17 km to the west of Lashkargah city to which it is connected by an asphalt road (for a map of Helmand province, see page 2 of this atlas). It borders Washir district to the north, Kajaki to the northeast, Lashkargah and Nawa Barakzai to the east, Marja to the south and Khashrod district of Nimruz province to the west (for a map of Nad Ali district, see page 9 of this atlas). According to the Independent Directorate of Local Governance (IDLG) 2017 district profile of Nad Ali, it has 240 villages, many of which are situated in central Nad Ali, with the district government compound right in the middle. (6) The greenness of this central area is represented in the names of some of the villages; in Pashto, shin and zarghun are different shades of green, kalay is village and simi is area, so here we find the villages of Shin Kalay to the west of the district government compound and Zarghun Kalay in the northeast, while the whole area is called Shnai Simi. The other part of the district is called Dashti Simi, Pashto for ‘desert area’ – although since the recent advent of tube wells and solar panels, much of this rocky, barren area has also been ‘greened’ and is now under cultivation (see below).


Opium poppy cultivation dominates agriculture in Helmand. Other crops, such as wheat and maize, are negligible. Those districts of Helmand with a warm climate, such as Nad Ali, are perfect for growing poppy as it can be cultivated there in all four seasons. The most fruitful harvesting season is between April and May. Around mid-April, seasonal workers from other provinces like Ghazni, Zabul, Wardak, Paktia and Paktika come to Helmand for the harvest. This author has observed Afghan refugees and even Pakistanis coming to Helmand, including Nad Ali, in this particular period to labour in the poppy fields.

During the mid to late 1990s, Nad Ali district frequently ranked as either the top or second highest opium poppy cultivating district in the country. During the 2000s, poppy cultivation decreased. The Helmand Food Zone project, that began in 2008, aimed to replace poppy with licit crops. The programme’s incentives were primarily the provision of wheat seed and fertiliser, given in return for a farmer’s commitment not to grow opium poppy; there was also the disincentive of the threat of eradication. (7) This project initially contributed to a dramatic fall in opium poppy cultivation in Helmand from 2008 to 2011 (details here), although, as pointed out by opium expert David Mansfield, soaring wheat prices and declining opium prices at the time played a strong role in farmers’ decisions to make what turned out to be a temporary switch away from opium poppy. (8) Moreover, opium cultivation in the province began to soar again in about 2013, partly driven by new cultivation north of the Boghra Canal, facilitated by ‘new technology’ – tube wells and solar panels – and as an unintended consequence of the Helmand Food Zone Project which had driven tenant and sharecropping farmers hit by the poppy ban north to cultivate the desert. Cultivation hit a historic high in 2017 with 144,018 hectares of land under cultivation (details here). This increase was, in the words of Mansfield “truly unprecedented”. Although there was a slight decrease of 7,220 hectares (5 per cent) in 2018, Helmand overall remains Afghanistan’s leading opium poppy cultivating province, accounting for 52 per cent of the total area under such cultivation in the country (page 17 of this survey). In 2018, Nad Ali was again the top opium-cultivating district in the county with 21,396 of a total countrywide estimated 263,000 hectares.

Opium poppy provides the main income for large numbers of families and individuals in Nad Ali. This has also made them vulnerable to the adverse consequences of government-led eradication efforts and happy with the fact that the Taleban have opposed such efforts. At the same time, opium poppy cultivation has been a fundamental driver of the protracted conflict in the district and wider province. The rivalry over this crop has fractured district and provincial élites as they have clashed over who controls its production, processing and trafficking. Various actors in the conflict have used opium to make money or build prestige and patronage and it has contributed to rampant corruption in the government.


There is no reliable data on the population of Nad Ali district – as is the case elsewhere around the country. IDLG in a district profile of Nad Ali dated 28 July 2017 estimated a population of 450,000 people (250,000 men, 200,000 women). This is, however, far higher than all other sources, including:

1. Central Statistics Office (CSO) population estimates for the solar year 1397 (2018/19): 180,535 people (93,116 men, 87,419 women) (page 36 here);

2. US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), reporting based on information provided by NATO Resolute Support mission in October 2018: 71,271 people –not disaggregated by sex (page 222 here); and

3. United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) dataset for 2016/17: 94,649 people (48,422 men, 46,227 women).

The UNOCHA dataset is possibly considered the most accurate because of its data triangulation with various government sources, but it does not include Kuchi populations (as there have been no updated statistics on this since 1979). According to the UNOCHA figures, Nad Ali is the fourth most-populated district in Helmand following Nahr-e Seraj (122,067), Lashkargah (108,174) and Nawa Barakzai (96,479 people). All are located in or around the provincial centre, an area densely-populated (for visual representation, see page 67 of the Afghanistan Provincial Profile 2018 ). According to INOCHA figures, Nad Ali comprises 10.58 per cent of Helmand’s overall population of 894,805 people (the CSO puts Nad Ali as the second most-populated district, comprising around 13% of the overall population). Drawing on Helmand’s average household size of 10.7 (page 68 of Afghanistan Provincial Profile 2018), the UNOCHA figures suggest there are about 8,846 households in Nad Ali.

In terms of ethnicity, key informants estimated that 95 per cent of Nad Ali’s inhabitants are Pashtuns. According to the respondents, the remaining five per cent of residents include members of other ethnicities such as the Baloch, Uzbeks and Hazaras. Hazaras mostly live in a village by the name of Sayed Abad. The most politically-relevant diversity is, however, within the Pashtun community. They belong to various tribes such as the Kharoti, Sulaimankhel, Nasar, Daftani, Laghmani, Barakzai and Andar. In addition, there are Pashtun Kuchis from the Nurzai and Alizai tribes. The various government settlement programmes in the 1950s to 1970s gave this district a diverse population, with families originally hailing from a variety of regions and tribal groups and a divided leadership. Central Helmand’s social fragmentation has been greatly exacerbated by 40 years of war, resulting, in Mansfield’s words, “in a rural elite that is fragmented, competitive and limited in its geographical sphere of influence.” Along with the opium poppy driven rivalry, this has complicated efforts – by the Afghan government, the Taleban, the US government and international forces – to secure local agreements without angering one group or another. (9)

Conflict and security

Given Helmand’s adjacency to Kandahar where the Taleban first emerged as a movement in the 1990s, it is not surprising that the Taleban took power in Helmand early on; their presence goes back to at least December 1994/January 1995. They did this by successfully infiltrating the provincial political scene after splitting the already factionalised and warring mujahedin commanders through forming alliances with some against others. (10) Their success came about also because they managed to put an end to the mujahedin anarchy.

Boys cool off in the canal running through Nad Ali district centre: from mid-2015 to 2017, it marked an impassable frontline. Photo: Andrew Quilty, 2018.

Boys cool off in the canal running through Nad Ali district centre: from mid-2015 to 2017, it marked an impassable frontline. Photo: Andrew Quilty, 2018.

To avoid being captured by the Taleban, some mujahedin commanders fled Helmand to join Ismail Khan in Herat, and, when they were unable to regain Helmand or even keep Herat from Taleban advances, fled to Iran. Others left for Pakistan. However, many among the mujahedin rank and file stayed and were disarmed by the Taleban or joined the new group, which enjoyed some among parts of the population in Helmand in the 1990s. Many young men joined the Taleban as fighters during their rule (1995-2001), some voluntarily, others forcibly.

The Taleban had several district governors in Nad Ali district during this period, the last being Mullah Saifullah. As former member of the British-led PRT Mike Martin has described, (11) the district was used as a resting place for Taleban members returning from the fight against the Northern Alliance (formed of some mujahedin and other groups which banded together to fight the Taleban after 1996 and officially known as the United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan). The Taleban military conscripted young local men to boost their fighting force, using the mirabs (water distribution managers) to facilitate conscription, although many evaded being enlisted by escaping from the area or buying their way out. One man from Nad Ali, now a tribal elder, whom AAN interviewed for this study, recollected the situation in the 1990s:

After the Taleban came to Nad Ali for the first time, the mirab of our village came to me and told me that the Taleban had called me to go to Gereshk district the following day. I didn’t sleep that night because I knew they wanted to send me to fight against other Afghans in Kunduz. The Taleban were forcefully collecting people from the community to fight for them. The following day I approached my nephew who was a commander in Kandahar. He gave me a letter and then the Taleban didn’t send me to Kunduz for fighting.

As elsewhere around the country, the Taleban enforced their rule across Helmand from 1995 to 2001 and delegated de facto responsibility for public service delivery to NGOs. The Taleban constructed no schools or clinics, but built and ran many madrassas where thousands of talebs (religious pupils) studied. They checked people’s appearance to make sure it conformed to their Taleban’s standards and ensured people did not have televisions or listened to music. They severely punished people for offences such as theft and not saying namaz (daily prayer). However, it was their “detailed knowledge of the local political context,” said Martin, which “enabled the Taleban” to calm the area initially, providing some degree of stability, after their disarmament of the feuding mujahedin commanders, and then “to exert social control.” (12) This short era was arguably the only multi-year period of stability in Nad Ali and the greater Helmand province during the forty years of war from 1978 to this very day.

The US-led military intervention abruptly terminated Taleban rule in Nad Ali and in Helmand in late 2001. Realising they could not resist for long, many Taleban members, especially senior officials and commanders, fled to Pakistan, giving space to the mujahedin commanders to return to power. (13) Those returning seized the various offices of state, with the backing of the then leader of the interim administration, Hamed Karzai. The main new commanders-turned-provincial officials were: Sher Muhammad Akhundzada, provincial governor; Abdul Rahman Jan, provincial police chief; Dad Muhammad Khan, provincial National Directorate of Security (NDS) head and; Mualem Mir Wali, commander of the 93rd Army Division. They gained access to power and money through their positions and massive US funds and were able to reactivate and greatly expand their patronage networks by distributing civilian and military government positions to loyalists and allies. They created the post-2001 political order in Helmand and its districts – and also paved the way for the return of the Taleban. As elsewhere, it was the abusive rule of these local élites that drove rebellion, insurgency and the Taleban’s re-emergence (see the detailing of this in Helmand as a whole by Theo Farrell and Antonio Giustozzi).

In Nad Ali, police chief Abdul Rahman Jan (2001 to 2005) had appointed district governors and formed the district police force out of local militiamen loyal to himself. (14) Like the three other key strongmen in the province, he grabbed government land, purportedly 20,000 jeribs (4,000 hectares), not just in Nad Ali but also elsewhere, including Marjah and Nawzad districts. (15) He then settled members of his clan on this land, where they grew opium poppy, ran heroin-processing labs and controlled opium transport, all under the control and protection of his police.

Foreign troops, US Special Forces, in particular, were implicated in the establishment of this rule. (16) Generally lacking an understanding of the local environment, (17) in the early years after 2001, the US military and the CIA offered rewards for ‘intelligence’ on Taleban and especially al-Qaeda members. Informants reported others as ‘Taleban’ or ‘al-Qaeda’, either for money or to manipulate the US military into taking action against their rivals, with considerable success. Helmand’s post-2001 élites targeted not only individuals, but whole communities, either by exploiting ill-informed foreign forces or directly ordering militias under their command to do so.

They also competed among themselves for power and the control of lucrative smuggling routes, including in Nad Ali, resulting in clashes between their militias. In some cases, their struggle for control over drug routes almost turned into all-out war, as was the case with a gun battle between Sher Muhammad Akhundzada and Abdul Rahman Jan’s militias over the transport of a drug convoy in 2005. (18) Drug eradication efforts were also, in many cases, manipulated to target the opium poppy cultivation of rivals or non-aligned, unconnected farmers (see, for example, this article). Coupled with an abusive rule, the inter-élite rivalry over power contributed to the loss of legitimacy of the post-2001 US-backed Afghan government in the eyes of large parts of the local population in Helmand. The misrule and impunity of the 2001-2006 period, in practice, facilitated the Taleban’s early resurgence. In Nad Ali, for instance, they reactivated their networks and attracted to their ranks those who had been harmed by or were disgruntled with the post-2001 abusive, corrupt and exclusionary governance.

The British, who arrived to set up a PRT in Helmand in early 2006, recognised that as this RUSI article says, the campaign in Helmand needed to focus on “security first, governance foremost” and that it would only be won through better governance and development. They insisted Karzai’s ally, provincial governor Sher Muhammad Akhundzada (who had been found with nine tons of opium in his compound in 2005), should go. Yet, Helmand was already lost. The British and their allies poured military and civilian resources into the province, including into  Nad Ali, especially after 2008, as Mansfield has described (see this AREU 2018 paper):

Between 2008 and 2012, Helmand province was a focal point for just such a population-centred counterinsurgency effort. It was estimated that between 2009 and 2011, more than US$648 million was spent in the province in tandem with an inflow of over 20,000 US Marines, as well as UK, Danish, and Afghan military forces. As early as late 2009, the district of Nawa Barakzai, just south of the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah, became an emblem of counter-insurgency efforts and cited as an exemplar of the merits of “putting the population first.” The approach was then replicated in the neighbouring districts of Nad e Ali and Marjah when over 3,000 US Marines, 1,200 soldiers from the UK and 4,400 Afghan forces deployed under Operation Moshtarak in February 2010, while millions of dollars were spent on physical and social infrastructure.

This did not have the hoped-for effect and soon after the withdrawal of foreign troops in 2014, there was a resurgence of Taleban in the province (see AAN’s detailed reporting on this from March 2016 here and here). By 2016, the Taleban had captured and were in control of large swathes of territory in Helmand, including most of Nad Ali. In that year, the Taleban blocked the Helmand-Kandahar road for almost two months. They also closed roads leading from the districts to Lashkargah city.

In 2016, the Taleban captured all of Nad Ali district except for the district centre and a small area around. The Taleban warned government employees, particularly those working in security departments, to leave their jobs. They told policemen and soldiers that if they abandoned their duties they would not be killed, harmed or imprisoned. Key informants told AAN that some of the militaries quit, while others left the district and continued their jobs elsewhere in the province. Those who obeyed Taleban orders were not harmed, according to these informants. The Taleban thus showed greater leniency towards those affiliated with the government than they had when they were fighting when they often killed or imprisoned government officials. However, those who had left their jobs were not allowed to go to the provincial capital unless with written permission from the Taleban. The Taleban feared they might join the government again and work in other parts of the province.

The central government responded to the Taleban’s expansion by sending troops from Kandahar and Zabul provinces. They managed to reopen the Helmand-Kandahar road. In early 2017, the Taleban briefly blocked the road again but ceased their blockade soon afterwards. The government then tried to regain control of Nad Ali in April 2017. According to Mansfield, fighting was so intense that many farmers abandoned their crops:

That winter cropping season, more land was abandoned following government incursions into Nad e Ali in April 2017 and an attempt to wrest back control of the area around the district centre. The fighting was such that farmers around the military base in Shawqat near Luy Bagh left over 400 hectares of poppy crop unharvested rather than risk going to the field.

Fighting continued throughout 2017, characterised, according to Mansfield, by allegiances that were fluid and pragmatic. “There is no difference to me,” one farmer told him, “between the Taleban and the government. But if we have just one of them in the area it is better; if we have both, there is fighting.

The April 2017 government offensive failed to take back any significant territory from the Taleban in the district. In the run-up to the Wolesi Jirga elections in 2018, the government still controlled only a very limited area around the district centre. In a bid to get votes cast, the government carried out operations during the election campaign, carrying on their efforts after the poll. They did manage to push the Taleban out of most of the Shnai Simi area and from some areas of Dashti Simi. This has resulted in an ‘active stalemate’, in which the government still struggles to clear the Taleban from the district and the Taleban continues to occasionally attack government forces, which continues to this day.

Contrary to elsewhere around the country, the Taleban did not leave space in Helmand for other militant groups such as the Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISKP) to operate. Their shadow provincial governor, Mullah Abdul Rahim, also known as Mullah Manan (killed by the US in 2018), stood against ISKP activity in Helmand province.

Governance and security provision

Nad Ali district is separated into two halves by the Boghra Canal, which, according to key informants, also roughly delineates the current power division between the Taleban and government: areas located towards the district centre and to the south of the Boghra are largely with the government, while areas located to the north of the Boghra are largely under the control of the Taleban. This translates into most of Dashti Simi (the previously completely desert area) being under the control of the Taleban and most of the Shnai Simi area (the central, green area) being under the control of the government.

The district governor of Nad Ali, Muhammad Gul Hashemi, claimed to AAN that the government-controlled 80 per cent of the district’s territory. Shnai Simi, however, makes up about half of the area of Nad Ali district. Interviewees said that Zarghun Kalay, Shin Kalay, Naqil Abad, Sayed Abad and Khushal Kalay of the Shnai Simi were under the control of the government, but also that some villages in Shnai Simi, for example, Abadallah Qulf, as well as three out of 13 villages in the 31 Gharbi area, are controlled by the Taleban. This suggests, contrary to the claim of the district governor, that the area under government control is about 45 per cent of Nad Ali’s territory. The government is currently largely in control of the roads, particularly the road leading from Lashkargah to Nad Ali’s district centre. However, the Taleban continue to attack government officials that travel on the roads. There was, for instance, a Taleban ambush on a government convoy on the Chanjir road that interlinks Lashkargah and Gereshk through Nad Ali, in May 2019.

The majority of low-level Taleban in Nad Ali are from the district, although insurgents from other districts of Helmand as well as from other provinces and even from among the Afghan refugees in Pakistan are also present among them. The Taleban commanders tend to be from other provinces, such as Kandahar, Zabul and Uruzgan. Commanders are often transferred from one district to another. The reason for that, one key informant told AAN, was that the Taleban do not want their commanders to be too familiar to the local community. Because commanders are often transferred after spending only a short period of time in a specific area, the key informants said they often do not know them by name. In terms of the government’s security presence, district governor Hashemi told AAN there was a battalion of 900 Afghan National Army soldiers, 450 Afghan National Police and 300 Afghan Local Police present in the district. On the other side, a respondent told AAN the Taleban might number 250-300 in the district.

The very many Nad Ali farmers who rely on opium poppy as their main source of income see little difference between the Taleban and the government, reports Mansfield:

Farmers recognize the relationships between the insurgency and opium in much the same way they see the government’s involvement with the drugs trade. The rural population of Helmand has direct experience with the taxes that they are expected to pay on the opium crop to the local Taleban commanders, but it is nothing like the figures cited by officials or in the media. They are also aware of taxes on the transit of opium through the area and on heroin production, but the rates are broadly in line with those that are also imposed on wheat production and diesel fuel, at around 1 per cent of value. Farmers are also accustomed to the Afghan local police taxing opium when they hold sway over an area. For example, after Koshal Kalay and Shin Kalay fell to the government following its operation in the first few months of 2018, farmers paid around a tax of Pakistani Rs 2,000 per jerib(the equivalent of US$16) of opium to the police, a rate commensurate with what the Taleban charged.

The Taleban, in order to sustain their control economically, collect taxes from residents in areas under their control, as they do in other parts of the country. They call this tax ushr, an Arabic word used in Islamic jurisprudence, meaning ‘one-tenth’ which refers to the one-tenth of all crops that are grown in the fields and watered by running water (natural sources) that should be given to the poor and needy. The first Islamic government collected this as a tax, as do the Taleban now in areas under their rule although they rarely, if ever, pass it on to the poor. One-twentieth of the harvest is taken from fields for which the water has to be purchased or money spent on fuel, electricity or other mechanical irrigation. Some key informants said that the Taleban also collect taxes from shops and tube-wells, which are dug for irrigating the fields, and from development projects.


According to Daud Shah Safari, head of the Department of Education in Helmand province, there are27 schools in Nad Ali district: 13 primary schools for boys (grades 1-6), one primary school for girls, six intermediate schools (grades 6-9) and seven high schools (grades 10-12). Safari said that there are 11,135 boys and 1,424 girls attending school in the district, taught by 153 male and four female teachers. ‌Safari said that after Nad Ali district fell to the Taleban, the Ministry of Education shifted its tashkil of female teacher positions to other provinces, mostly to the north of the country. Those women teachers still working in Nad Ali are all on short-term contracts (ajir).

Boys at the government school in Shin Kalay village. Younger girls also attend the school, but not beyond primary classes. Photo: Andrew Quilty, 2018.

Boys at the government school in Shin Kalay village. Younger girls also attend the school, but not beyond primary classes. Photo: Andrew Quilty, 2018.

Our key informants said girls are traditionally allowed to study to grade 6, the end of primary level education, in Nad Ali. The district’s one girl’s primary school is located in the largely Hazara Sayed Abad village near the district centre. Some girls also attend boys’ schools, although only up to grade four, five or six, after which their parents prefer to keep them at home. There are also some adolescent girls are studying in Muhammad Khan Kharoti High School in Shin Kalay in separate classrooms. For higher education, male pupils go to universities in the provincial capital or to Kandahar province.

There are a variety of problems facing pupils and teachers in Nad Ali. For example, all respondents said there is a shortage of textbooks, particularly from grades one to eight. Each set of classroom textbooks only lasts three years. Those pupils who can afford books buy them in the local market, although they tend to be low-quality copies. The head of the Department of Education in Helmand told AAN they lack 30 to 35 per cent of books required for pupils. He also said the department faces a shortage of permanent teachers which they are filling with temporarily-contracted teachers, who are given a contract for one educational year (nine months).

As for corruption, the same respondent said there were no ‘ghost schools’ in the district, ie schools which appears on the tashkil and are allocated resources, but in practice, the school is dysfunctional or non-existent, leaving the allocated funds to be pocketed by corrupt officials. He did say ‘ghost teachers’ were a problem, but also that if this phenomenon did not exist, the principals benefitting would probably leave their jobs, as theirs was a highly risky duty. “The ghost teachers,” he said, “are either the relatives or close family members of the principals.” According to another interviewee, the Taleban have diverted at least some educational resources, such as WFP-provided food aid, away from schools to madrassas. Both interviewees said the Taleban also benefit from ghost teacher salaries, with one saying school principles give them a ‘share’.

Security is a serious problem for both teachers and pupils. All respondents said the areas on the frontlines were dangerous for both teachers and pupils. In these areas, teachers do not attempt to teach and parents dare not send their children to school. The number of closed schools changes from one week to the next as frontlines shift, so respondents were unable to provide AAN with definite figures, but one respondent, a high school teacher in the district, said:

Sometimes the teachers are threatened by the Taleban. The Taleban arrested me when they first came to Nad Ali district in 2016. Although they did not beat me, they did threaten me. The Taleban were deducting 500 hundred afghanis from each teacher as their tax. The teachers who had to attend training in Lashkargah also had to pay some money because the Taleban knew they were compensated for transportation and other costs.

Both education department officials and the district governor admitted these problems had existed from 2016 to the beginning of 2017, but that after that, they had received no complaints. A key informant said that the Global Partnership for Education (GPE), a global fund dedicated to education in developing countries including Afghanistan since 2011, had helped coordinate a meeting between the Taleban and the education department, in a Taleban-controlled area. He said they had come to an agreement that education department employees would not be harmed in Taleban-controlled areas while they monitored schools, provided they coordinated with and secured the approval of the Taleban first. He also said the agreement also included the provision that the Taleban would help the education department monitoring when required and that teachers would not be taxed from their salaries. Since then, the interviewee said, this agreement has largely been kept.

Nearly all the key informants said government monitoring of schools started in the first term of the Karzai government but had increased in the Ashraf Ghani era. In Nad Ali, the education department has its own monitoring officers based in the district. According to many respondents, the education department has a plan for monitoring schools but does not monitor regularly. When they do monitor, they usually check the attendance of teachers and students. They meet the local people and ask them about the conditions of schools and the attendance of teachers. They ask community elders for any complaints. They sometimes put questions to the students regarding their lessons.

After the Taleban captured Nad Ali district in 2016, they did not close the schools, but instead, according to nearly all key informants, imposed their own strict conditions. They told male teachers to grow their beards and wear turbans. The Taleban instructed the boys to wear white prayer hats and not to grow their hair long. Furthermore, the Taleban hired teachers mostly from among their own members for religious education classes that the education department paid for. The pupils had to come an hour early and arrive carrying the Taleban white flag. The new teachers instructed them on Islamic education using a Taleban-approved curriculum for an hour prior to the start of regular school. As for girls’ education, the Taleban have followed local traditions by letting girls study up to grades 4, 5, or 6, depending on the area.

The Taleban banned some subjects, such as social studies, life skills and culture, but have not pushed any particular curriculum, neither for girls or boys. Rather, they teach books that are commonly taught in mosques and madrassas. (19) Taleban teachers also preach to boys in high schools and intermediate schools, encouraging them to take a role in the ‘jihad’ against foreign troops and the ‘puppet’ government; one key informant who is a teacher in Nad Ali district said that some of his former pupils had joined the Taleban and some had risen to become commanders. In areas under Taleban rule in Nad Ali, teachers can only take the national holidays the Taleban agree with, such as the Eids and Independence Day. They cannot start exams early or delay them based on announcements by the government, such as for elections or voter registration. The situation in schools in areas recaptured by the government in 2018 changed back to how it had been previously, but in areas still under Taleban control, it remains the same.

The Taleban monitor the schools under their control and much more strictly than the government’s monitoring. Taleban members dedicated to the supervision of schools or who are hired as teachers are paid by the Department of Education. Eight out of ten key informants additionally said that the Education Department government monitors can monitor schools in areas under Taleban control as long as they coordinate their visits with the Taleban. There is thus a pragmatic relationship between the government and the Taleban in the education sector in Nad Ali.


Nad Ali residents have five health facilities: one Comprehensive Health Centre (CHC), three Basic Health Centres (BHCs) and one Sub-Health Centre (SHC). The BHCs are located in the villages of Zarghun Kalay, Naqil Abad and Chanjir, the SHC is located in Khushal Kalay and the CHC provides services in Nad Ali district centre. A non-governmental organisation, the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC), under contract to the Ministry of Public Health, provides health services in the district, including running all five health facilities. They are all located in government-controlled areas. Additionally, there are many private clinics, both in Taleban and government-held areas in the district. They are not registered with the Public Health Department of Helmand province, according to the provincial public health director who spoke to AAN.

The provincial Public Health Department said the five health centres employ 43 staff, a quarter of whom are guards. The professional staff comprise, on the female side, six midwives and on the male, two doctors, four community health supervisors, eight nurses, nine vaccinators, one laboratory worker and one pharmacist. (There is also one administrative officer and 11 guards.) The lack of female medical staff limits the care of female patients in the district can expect. However, given most parents’ desires to limit their daughters’ education to the primary, the paucity of professional female medical staff is unsurprising. Key informants also said that most district health personnel were not professionals and lacked professional training. They said the five health centres are poorly equipped and lack medicine and ambulances.

The insurgents are generally more lenient towards health personnel who travel into areas under their control than towards other people. Many of the key informants said the Taleban do not control health workers’ appearance; for example, they do not punish doctors for shaving their beards or growing their hair in the way they do the teachers and pupils. According to one key informant, the main reason for this is that the Taleban need them for the treatment of their wounded or sick fighters. This is the case, in particular in Dashti Simi, where mobile medical teams go to Taleban-controlled areas to see patients. This sometimes causes problems for others, if they need urgent care, but doctors have to prioritise Taleban patients. Given the Taleban’s track record of harsh behaviour against government employees and NGO workers, it is quite difficult for doctors and other medical personnel to stand up to the Taleban demanding priority or preferential treatment.

The Public Health Department of Helmand province monitors the health facilities in Nad Ali district and they are managed by BRAC. Some of the key informants said the Taleban receive a percentage of funds from BRAC, just as they get from NGOs in other sectors, and from development projects. None of the interviewees knew the exact percentage of the Taleban’s tax in this regard. Some of the key informants also stated that BRAC, in order to carry out its activities, sometimes hires staff that have been introduced and recommended by the Taleban, for example, this person said:

As the health facilities are implemented by the NGO [sic], the NGO gives salaries to the staff […] The NGO wants their projects to be successfully implemented. So they listen to the Taleban – there is a Taleban health officer in the district. The Taleban interfere in health facilities. They recommend staff [health workers] to the NGOs and the NGOs recruit staff according to the will of the Taleban. Health facilities are useful for the community, but when there’s fighting, the health facilities mostly focus on dealing with the wounded fighters of the Taleban.

Child vaccination programmes have been implemented with mixed results in the Taleban-controlled areas of the district. The latest polio campaign in Nad Ali was carried out in December 2018, after the Taleban finally lifted a ban following negotiations with locals and the government, and allowed vaccinations to be administered in mosques, rather than, as previously, people’s homes. This resulted in lower coverage (for details, see AAN’s polio vaccination case study). For the vaccination drive, too, the Taleban recommended some of their members as vaccinators, who were then hired by the Public Health Department.

Electricity, media and telecommunications

At the moment, Nad Ali is not connected to any national electricity grid. According to some key informants, during the reign of King Muhammad Zahir Shah, the Chanjir area of Nad Ali district received electricity from the Kajaki dam, which is located to the north-east in neighbouring Kajaki district. The Kajaki dam has the potential to generate 54 megawatts of electricity, but for the time being it generates only 34 megawatts, providing electricity solely to Lashkargah city. Previously, people on the Boghra Canal generated hydroelectricity privately for nearly 150 families, enabling them to light their homes.

Many residents of both parts of the district – Shnai Simi and Dashti Simi – now have access to power through private solar panels. Many residents of Shnai Simi use this power to light their houses, watch TV, listen to the radio and charge their batteries and mobile phones. They do not need to use this power to irrigate their crops. As the residents of Dashti Simi do not have access to the Boghra Canal’s irrigation water, many of them use solar power to irrigate their agricultural fields from tube-wells.

In the areas under Taleban control, watching TV and listening to music is banned. People are also not allowed to have smartphones (to prevent them from watching films or listening to music). However, people find ways, despite the ban. For example, in Dashti Simi, which is largely under Taleban control, people still secretly watch TV and listen to the radio. As Nad Ali district is not far from the provincial capital, Lashkargah, and there are no barriers that interfere with transmission, people can watch TV easily with a simple antenna. The district does not have its own TV channel or radio station, but in the provincial centre, there are five or six private TV stations and the same number of radio stations. People usually watch the news, Turkish and other soap operas, cricket and some religious programmes. They watch Shamshad TV, Zwandun TV, Lemar TV and their provincial TV channels. As for mobile phones, parts of the population, young people, in particular, use smartphones to receive whatever telecommunication services are locally available, which in Nad Ali is limited.

A key informant working as a security manager for Roshan, a private mobile phone company, told AAN that the Taleban started restricting mobile phone companies in order to extract money from them from 2011 onwards. This meant the Taleban enforced shutdown of telecommunication services between 4 pm and 7 am. If the companies did not obey their orders, the Taleban would destroy their antennas. Then in mid-2016 when the Taleban captured most of Nad Ali district, they imposed a full ban on all mobile phone networks. At the time, five mobile networks (AWCC, Roshan, Etisalat, MTN and Salaam) were operating in the district. This full ban was enforced because the Taleban were afraid the government and foreign troops had spies in the community who would pass on information about their presence and activities via mobile phone, thereby exposing them to attacks, aerial bombings in particular.

Since then, although the government has retaken around half of the territory of Nad Ali district, mostly in and around the district centre, none of the private mobile phone companies has resumed their operations due to uncertainty about the political and security situation. The only network that has resumed its activities in the district is Salaam, a company partly owned by the government. It is based in and operates from right inside the heavily-guarded district government compound. Its operation is thus protected by the government against attacks, as this would, in fact, be an attack on the heart of the district administration. However, the Salaam network’s coverage is limited to a radius of only about five kilometres and is weak because of heavy usage.

Many residents in the Dashti Simi area of the district additionally have access to the AWCC network that operates from the vicinity of the strategically-important Shurab base (also known as the Shurabak base, formerly known as Camp Bastion) in neighbouring Washir district. An AWCC antenna continues to work near the base.

Other services available 

There are some non-governmental organisations and United Nations agencies that deliver services in Nad Ali. These include the National Solidarity Programme (NSP), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and certain NGOs. They have built water gates and culverts, dug wells and distributed water pumps that can be installed on wells to access clean drinking water. According to some key informants, the most useful development projects include the 17-kilometre asphalt road from Lashkargah city to Nad Ali district centre and the road which leads from Lashkargah to Gereshk through the Chanjir area (known as the Chanjir road). The road between Nad Ali district and Lashkargah was completed in 2011, but work on the Chanjir road, which was worth USD 33 million, has occasionally had to be halted because of fighting in the district. Approximately 13 kilometres of this road has been asphalted and its construction is ongoing. When the Taleban controlled Nad Ali district, the construction of the Chanjir road was still underway. The contractor had to give the Taleban, who monitored the road’s construction, a negotiated share of the funding. The Taleban also take taxes from various other development projects. Normally, they and the contractors meet to negotiate the Taleban’s share.

Mending the asphalted road in Nad Ali. Development projects in Taleban-controlled areas have to get permission and pay a ‘tax’. Photo: Engineer Nisar Ahmad Nasrat, May 2019

Mending the asphalted road in Nad Ali. Development projects in Taleban-controlled areas have to get permission and pay a ‘tax’. Photo: Engineer Nisar Ahmad Nasrat, May 2019

Some of the respondents stated that the Taleban allowed the delivery of basic services and development projects because they did not want to alienate the population. Others reasoned that the Taleban allowed these projects so that they could make money from the taxes they levy.

Currently, the Citizens’ Charter programme, which replaced the NSP, is active in the district. It has constructed water gates and culverts in most parts of the Shnai Simi area, as well as digging wells and installing water pumps. It is reactivating the former shuras that were established by the NSP and other NGOs, and according to the respondents, is working with tribal elders and shuras to prioritise projects based on the needs of the residents. It is also working with people to generate micro-hydropower. The micro-hydropower generators will be installed along with different parts of the Boghra Canal and will generate electricity for local residents.

The only service the Taleban provide is some judiciary work for the people of Dashti Simi and in certain parts of Shnai Simi. They have a mobile judiciary service that hears cases and dispenses verdicts, but it is not operating prominently and is not very well-known or easily accessible, as the Taleban fear being attacked or bombed by the government or foreign forces.


The government and NGOs fund and operate most services in Nad Ali district, sometimes with a relatively high degree of freedom from Taleban interference. The government can supervise and monitor education and health facilities in the areas under its control with few problems. The government’s role in Taleban-controlled areas, however, is more akin to a service provider with limited control over its operations. In this system, the Taleban, in their territory, monitor and restrict what schools are allowed to teach while leaving the responsibility of school funding and teacher salaries to the government. On girls’ education in the areas under their rule, the Taleban have followed the local practice that let girls study up to grades 4, 5 or 6 depending on the area. In practice, girls’ education – if it takes place at all – comes to an end at the end of primary school, both in Taleban and government-held areas, with the exception of some girls attending a boys’ high school in separate classes in central Nad Ali.

Similarly, health facilities in Taleban-ruled areas are funded and supported by the government and NGOs, but must obey the Taleban when it comes to how and when to treat their patients. Aside from insisting that health staff must obey the Taleban’s military command, the Taleban leadership does not interfere much in health facility operations. Two exceptions here were some Taleban interference in the staffing of health facilities in their territory and their insistence that the polio vaccination campaign only takes place at mosques, as opposed to door-to-door as was done previously. The result has been a less effective campaign against polio, as not everybody, especially women, can easily leave their homes to go to a mosque.

The government can monitor its health and education facilities outside of government-controlled areas, but must first seek permission from, and coordinate with, the Taleban. In this, it monitors, but it cannot control. The Taleban make decisions on what can be taught and who can do the teaching in these areas of the district. They have banned some school subjects and introduced some of their own, including subjects that are taught in madrassas and mosques.

There is no state-provided electricity in Nad Ali district. Unconnected to any national electricity grid, people have installed private solar power panels or small hydropower systems to meet some of their needs. The Taleban have banned private telecommunication companies from operating phone or mobile internet networks for fear of being exposed to attacks through their presence being reported via mobile phones. The public Salaam network is the only telecommunication company active in the district. It has been able to continue operations because it is based in the district government compound and thus enjoys its protection. Its network, however, covers just a radius of some five kilometres around the district centre. Many residents in the Dashti Simi area, which is largely under Taleban control, have access to the private AWCC network because an AWCC antenna continues to operate from the vicinity of the government’s Shurab base in neighbouring Washir district.

The Taleban collect taxes from residents while providing no funding for public services. They collect religious taxes such as ushr. They also tax development projects – this is not a fixed sum but based on the deals and agreements that the Taleban and the development project contractors negotiate. Without Taleban permission, no development projects can be implemented in the areas under their control.

The current arrangement has left the district with a dual system of governance where the population, generally fed up with both the government and the Taleban, has to navigate between them.

While the legitimacy of the Afghan government in the eyes of the local population may be weak, there has been, according to Mansfield, a “fundamental change” in how people in central Helmand see their interactions with the government, the wider economic system and public services. (20)  As this dispatch has shown, even though public service provision may be poor and inadequate, people have got used to having them. The demand for and expectation of these services has increased and in part, is now filled by private education and health initiatives. Whoever rules the district in the future will need to take into account the people’s expectations for continued services, whether public, private or both.


Edited by Christian Bleuer, Jelena Bjelica, Said Reza Kazemi and Martine van Bijlert


(1) See, for example: Elke Beyer (2012), “Competitive Coexistence: Soviet Town Planning and Housing Projects in Afghanistan in the 1960s,” The Journal of Architecture17(3): 309-332.

(2) David Mansfield (2016), A State Built on Sand: How Opium Undermined Afghanistan, New York: Oxford University Press, page 220.

(3) Mike Martin (2014), An Intimate War: An Oral History of the Helmand Conflict 1978-2012, New York: Oxford University Press, page 31.

(4) BJM Goes et al. (2015), “Integrated water resources management in an insecure river basin: a case study of Helmand River Basin, Afghanistan,” International Journal of Water Resources Development32(1): 3-25, page 5.

(5) Muhammad Ibrahim Attaee (1344 [1966]), Helmand da kultur pa saha ki(On the culture of Helmand), Kabul: Ministry of Information and Culture.

(6) For a map of central Nad Ali, see: Martin, An Intimate War, page xxviii.

(7) Mansfield, A State Built on Sand, page 211.

(8) Mansfield, A State Built on Sand, pages 211-212.

(9) Mansfield, A State Built on Sand, page 247.

(10) Martin, An Intimate War, pages 96-108.

(11) Martin, An Intimate War, pages 99-100. Martin says that Nad Ali was also seen by the Taleban as a place where they could raise funds by addressing local, mostly land, conflicts:

The district was also seen as a position in which they [Taleban] could make money due to the fact that there were, by now, interminable land disputes in Nad-e Ali, and the social heterogeneity meant that the need for an ‘impartial’ figure was greater than in areas where there was a unified tribal leadership.

(12) Martin, An Intimate War, page 5.

(13) Martin, An Intimate War, pages 111-125.

(14) Martin, An Intimate War, pages 117, 120.

(15) Martin, An Intimate War, page 122.

(16) From September 2004 to December 2013, ISAF had a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Helmand that was supported by the US, UK, Danish and Estonian governments.

(17) Martin, An Intimate War, pages 125-132.

(18) Martin, An Intimate War, page 133.

(19) Examples of mosque and madrassa books include: Qoduri, Kanz ul-Daqayeq, Nur-e Zalam and Abul Montaha. The first two are about fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) and the last two about aqayed (the Islamic belief system). Written in Arabic, they are centuries-old.

(20) Mansfield, A State Built on Sand, page 261.


Governance Nad Ali public service Taleban USIP


Ali Mohammad Sabawoon

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