After a gang of thieves had continually terrorized an Afghan neighborhood near here months ago, locals decided they'd had enough. "We complained several times to the government and even showed them where the thieves lived," says Ahmad, who goes by one name.
But the bandits continued to operate freely. So the villagers turned to the Taliban.
The militants' parallel government here in Logar Province – less than 40 miles from Kabul, the capital – tried and convicted the men, tarred their faces, paraded them around, and threatened to chop off their hands if they were caught stealing in the future. The thieves never bothered the locals again.
In several provinces close to Kabul, the government's presence is vanishing or already nonexistent, residents say. In its place, a more effective – and brutal – Taliban shadow government is spreading and winning local support.
"The police are just for show," one local says. "The Taliban are the real power here."
Widespread disillusionment with rampant crime, corrupt government, and lack of jobs has fueled the Taliban's rise to de facto power – though mainly in areas dominated by fellow ethnic Pashtuns. Still, the existence of Taliban power structures so close to Kabul shows the extent to which the Afghan government has lost control of the country.
"This is a major problem for them," says Habibullah Rafeh, a political analyst with the Afghanistan Academy of Sciences. "Even though the Taliban can't capture Kabul militarily because of the strength of the international forces there, the government can't stop them from operating freely just outside of the city."
When President Hamid Karzai's government first took power in 2001, "authorities gave every family in Logar two kilos of food," says a local resident who works with an international nongovernmental organization and identifies himself as Abdel Qabir. "When that ran out each family received $200 assistance. But that, too, ran out, and people had no money and there were criminals everywhere.
"So people turned to the Taliban," Mr. Qabir continues. "They may not provide jobs, but at least they share the same culture and brought security."
Villagers say that almost every household in Logar Province has Taliban fighters. By day the area is quiet – most people stay indoors behind large mud walls or tend to their fields. A tiny roadside market sells dried fruits and soft drinks, and the shops often go unattended for hours.
As nightfall approaches, Taliban fighters slowly emerge from the houses and surrounding hillsides, some lugging rocket-propelled grenade launchers over their shoulders, ready to begin a night's work. The guerrillas set up checkpoints along Logar Province's central highway, stopping trucks and taxis to check IDs.
A few miles away sits a police checkpoint, but the police say they don't dare enter the Taliban-controlled areas. Yet many villagers say they don't need the police, since crime has almost vanished.
The foreign troop presence in Logar and neighboring provinces remains limited, too. NATO forces tend to only patrol some areas and focus their efforts on specific operations, usually at night.
The Taliban now have a strong presence in all seven of Logar's districts, including outright control of four of them, locals say. "In these districts the Taliban patrol openly in the daytime and there is no government presence at all," says Qabir.
In neighboring Ghazni Province, the Taliban is in full control of 13 of the 18 districts, according to locals. Similarly, in Wardak, which neighbors Kabul, the insurgents have control of six of eight districts. None of the six districts in either province dominated by ethnic Hazaras, however, are run by the Taliban.
In areas under their control, the Taliban has set up their own government, complete with police chiefs, judges, and even education committees.
An Islamic scholar heads the judicial committee of each district under Taliban control and usually appoints two judges to try cases using a strict interpretation of sharia law, according to locals and Taliban members. "We prefer these courts to the government courts," says Fazel Wali of Ghazni city, an NGO worker. Taliban courts have a reputation of working much faster than government ones, which often take months to decide cases and are saddled with corruption, he says.
The Taliban's parallel government is also involved in local education. Employees with Coordination for Afghan Relief, an Afghan NGO that works in Ghazni city and trains teachers, say Taliban authorities recently gave them a letter detailing the "allowed curriculum" in local schools.
Abdul Hakim, a Taliban "Emir of Education and Culture" in Ghazni Province, says his group checks all schoolbooks to ensure that they adhere to their version of sharia law. "We want to ensure that our youth are trained in Islamic education," he explains. "First, they should learn sharia law and religious studies. Then comes science and other subjects.... But we don't burn or close down schools if they are in accord with Islam."
However, locals say that the number of schools in Taliban-controlled territory is dwindling fast. Of the 1,100 schools operating three years ago in Ghazni, only 100 are left, according to the Ministry of Education. Almost no girls' schools remain, except nearly a dozen in the government-controlled provincial center.
The group also brings its austere interpretation of Islam to the areas they control, banning nonreligious music and flashy wedding parties. In Logar, guards at Taliban checkpoints regularly stop vehicles and beat drivers playing music.
The government police often refuse to enter Taliban territory. In Logar Province, when the Taliban set ablaze the homes of suspected government sympathizers during the middle of the night a few months ago, the locals called the police, desperate. "But the police actually told us to wait until morning, since they don't like to come out at night," recalls one resident. The houses burned to the ground.
Mozafaradeen Wardak, chief of police in Wardak Province, denies the allegations and says that, while the insurgents may have control in places like Logar and Ghazni, the police still regularly patrol.
Independent political analyst Waheed Muzhda says the Taliban's advance from the south toward Kabul resembles their progression when they first took power 12 years ago. In both cases, he says, they won support by bringing law and order.
"We have no TV. We can't listen to music. We don't have parties," says Abdul Halim of Ghazni Province, who, like others in the area, is a Taliban supporter. "But at least we have security and justice."