An extraordinary and intimate documentary depicting the lives of fighters within the Taliban’s insurgency in Afghanistan reveals the challenges faced by the West if it is to “buy off” the rebels and persuade them to re­integrate into civilian life.
The most detailed picture to have emerged since the Taliban renewed their insurgency in 2006 shows fighters operating freely in large areas of countryside, apparently with local backing.
The documentary, made for Channel 4’s Dispatches and to be shown tomorrow night, concentrates on a group of fighters including Taliban and Al-Qaeda members but largely composed of men from Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-e-Islami group as they attempt to ambush US and Afghan police vehicles on the main road from Tajikistan, one of the US main supply routes.
It comes amid evidence that the insurgency, far from faltering under a US surge, is strengthening and expanding its operations.
The men are seen preparing roadside bombs capable of disabling armoured vehicles, planning an ambush and conducting courts and interrogations. Pashtun villagers make clear that they are happy to pay taxes to the fighters and regard them as more legitimate than the government in Kabul.
Operating in Baghlan and Kunduz provinces, the fighters claim they can call on 4,000 men at the height of the fighting season. They all declare they will continue fighting until the Americans and “other infidels” are driven out.
Even more worrying for Nato — in an area overseen by German forces — is the absolute denial by local police that the Taliban are operating near the road, despite the film’s ample proof.
The scale of the growing insurgency is made clear by one of the leaders of the group, Commander Qalaqub, who explained that 30-35 groups were operating in the region, numbering as many as 150 fighters.
“People come to us from all over Afghanistan,” he added. “People come to us from other Islamic countries – Chechnya, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. We get special mujahideen from abroad too, but we are not allowed to talk about them.” It transpires they are largely from Saudi Arabia and Yemen.
Another leader, Commander Mirwais, is a millionaire former importer of cars from Europe. “Jihad has become the duty for all the Afghan nation, because the foreigners and unbeliever countries have attacked us.”
Mirwais adds that the local groups control more than 1,000 villages. “We haven’t taken control of cities and towns because we don’t want civilians to die as there are a lot of people living in these areas.”
On his travels through the countryside with the fighters, Afghan journalist Najibullah Qureshi notes how a hospital built with US and UN money is under the fighters’ control.
During an ambush that goes wrong – an attack on the main road – it becomes clear how the group uses children to observe a Nato base and pass on information to an informer. The latter ensures that there is plenty of traffic near the site of the ambush. When villagers walk past where the men are hiding with their weapons, they seem indifferent to their presence.
It is this that will present the biggest challenge to the planned approach to dealing with the insurgency which continues to see the fighters as separate from the population here.