Since the fall of the Taliban regime at the end of 2001, Jegdalek has been transformed from a desolate ruin left behind after the Soviet war into a thriving community with a fully functioning girls' and boys' school, a computer lab, a medical clinic and even a pool hall.
The place seems to be a model for the transformation that Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, has promised with this year's surge of troops and civil support: a secure zone where development can flourish. But Jegdalek's stability is based not on any overt military help but on the determination and effort of the local people.
"There is no government here," says Wasil Khan, 58, Jegdalek's senior elder. "No Afghan army, no foreign presence. Everything is run by our own local system, a system that has served us for generations."
Located in remote mountains 60 miles southeast of Kabul, Jegdalek is surrounded by minefields, Taliban militants and drug lords. Its residents can't help but hear the message the Taliban sent earlier this week, when it staged a murderous attack on government offices and the presidential palace: that it will not stop until it controls the entire nation, including the heavily fortified capital and every village dotting the remote countryside.
That threat, however real, falls on deaf ears in Jegdalek. "We will never let the Taliban into our area," says Khan. "If they come here, the entire village will rise up against them."
They have done it before. During the Soviet occupation, Jegdalek was a stronghold of the anti-Soviet mujahideen, who staged deadly ambushes in the narrow passes leading to the valley and held out against the Soviet Red Army for nine years, at a high cost in destruction and death.
"After the Soviet withdrawal Jegdalekis lost the desire for fighting," says Zabit Khan, 45, a former mujahideen fighter, now a shopkeeper, who spent years battling the Soviets from Jegdalek's impenetrable hilltop strongholds. "We lost so many of our young people and watched our beautiful homes collapse under Soviet bombardment. When the civil war started, we all decided to leave for Pakistan. We wanted nothing to do with fighting our own people."
Ironically, the hard war against the Soviets is part of what keeps Jegdalek safe from Taliban incursions today. The militants remember how difficult it is to take the valley. The vast minefields surrounding it, bristling with Soviet-era land mines, deter any large-scale invasion.
So Jegdalek thrives while much of the rest of Afghanistan crumbles. With help from Morning Star Development, a Colorado-based nongovernmental organization that has been working in Jegdalek for years, village elders have recognized the tools their young need to succeed in the modern world. They've hired an English teacher and tapped into modern technology. One-quarter of the 250 households in the valley now have solar power. It's minimal -- just enough to light five or six light bulbs per house -- but a revolution in terms of Afghanistan's impoverished hinterlands.
A modicum of security helps such minor investments make a big difference. "The solar panels have completely changed our lives," says Zabit Khan. "I used to pay 700 afghani [$15] a month for fuel to light our gas lamps. Now we have light for free." For an Afghan villager, $15 is enough to buy school supplies for his children and maintain a level of dignity normally reserved for more affluent urban Afghans.
Other villages, some a mere 20-minute jeep ride from Jegdalek, remain in the dark ages. The lack of progress there has created deep distrust of the Kabul government and an environment in which radicalism can thrive. Opium cultivation is still widespread in those areas. But in Jegdalek, opium has been all but eradicated as locals open businesses and exploit local ruby mines, a tradition dating back generations.
In Jegdalek, elders made the decision early on to reject the Taliban and work with the international community to rebuild the village. But they are convinced that what made it work is that they have rejected outside interference, so no one feels the traditions and culture are under threat.
Corruption, endemic in most of Afghanistan, is virtually nonexistent in Jegdalek. Decisions are made and implemented collectively, giving villagers themselves a stake in their future and creating a fine balance of opportunity and reward in which the entire community benefits.
No official from Kabul has been imposed on Jegdalekis. They are averse to the idea: The government, they say, is corrupt. Any interference in their affairs would jeopardize the fine balance they've created themselves.
But it's just this fine balance that makes Jegdalek's success so vulnerable. Corrupting influences are never far away.
"Sometimes it's hard to know who to trust," says Ashoor Khan, a local businessman dealing in rubies dug out of local mines. "People from surrounding villages come here because of the facilities we have, but there is still a lot of Taliban support in those villages. Many of us are afraid outsiders will break apart the unity we've created."
Indeed, unity is one of Jegdalek's greatest strengths. "This is what has kept the Taliban out," says Nasirullah, one of Jegdalek's many ruby miners, who uses only one name. "In a village like Uzbin, which is not far from here, you have a situation where one house supports the Taliban, another house supports the government. Here, everyone is united against the Taliban."
And the results are plain to see: an oasis in an otherwise bleak landscape. Prosperity has made the locals allergic to war. "We are telling our young people to forget about fighting," says Wasil Khan. "We tell them to focus on their education and open businesses, to make a future for themselves."
As encouraging as the local scene is, though, Jegdalek's future is inextricably linked to that of Afghanistan. The nation's further deterioration will inevitably lead to its demise. If the Taliban does come back, Jegdalek is destined to become a wasteland once again.
But Jegdalek's residents would face a threat from a strengthened Kabul government too. Figuring out how to keep Afghans like them safe without making them feel under control will be the toughest challenge for creating stability in Afghanistan.