Every morning at 8, Maulawi Zahir heads into Waygal district center, a remote mountain village of stone houses stacked almost vertically up granite slopes. As the undeniable man in charge of the Afghan village, the Taliban leader is there to hear and settle disputes. But despite his group’s ascendancy, he struggles to burnish his credentials among his constituents, even in an area where loathing for NATO and the Afghan government runs deep. “People aren’t happy, but they pretend to be,” says one local trader. “They dislike the Taliban as much as they dislike government.”
Zahir’s attempt at daily dispute resolution is important in one respect: for the first time in almost a decade the Taliban are administering an Afghan district unmolested. In fact, Waygal has been almost completely abandoned by NATO for the past three years. For the insurgents and their non-Afghan militant allies from Pakistan and Arabic-speaking countries it is the most visible step in a longer term strategy to turn Nuristan, itself virtually given up by the alliance since 2009, into a militant hub and a staging post for attacks on strategic targets, including the capital, Kabul.