As Afghanistan rebuilds its health system, it faces key challenges in financing health services. To reduce dependence on donor funds, it is important to develop sustainable local financing mechanisms. A second challenge is to reduce high levels of out-of-pocket payments. Community-based health insurance (CBHI) schemes offer the possibility of raising revenues from communities and at the same time providing financial protection. This paper describes the performance of one type of CBHI scheme, the Community Health Fund (CHF), which was piloted for the first time in five provinces of Afghanistan between June 2005 and October 2006. The performance of the CHF programme demonstrates that complex community-based health financing schemes can be implemented in post-conflict settings like Afghanistan, except in areas of high insecurity. The funds raised from the community, via premiums and user fees, enabled the pilot facilities to overcome temporary shortages of drugs and supplies, and to conduct outreach services via mobile clinics. However, enrolment and cost-recovery were modest. The median enrolment rate for premium-paying households was 6% of eligible households in the catchment areas of the clinics. Cost recovery rates ranged up to 16% of total operating costs and 32% of non-salary operating costs. No evidence of reduced out-of-pocket health expenditures was observed at the community level, though CHF members had markedly higher utilization of health services. The main reasons among non-members for not enrolling were being unaware of the programme; high premiums; and perceived low quality of services at the CHF clinics. The performance of Afghanistan's CHF was similar to other CHF-type programmes operating at the primary care level internationally. The solution to building local capacity to finance health services lies in a combination of financing sources rather than any single mechanism. In this context, it is critical that international assistance for Afghanistan's health sector continues.