Show Hide image

Up close with the insurgency

When I turned a corner to find a man wearing a black hooded mask, with an AK-47 slung across his chest and grenades strapped around his waist, I was at a bit of a loss as to how to behave. Salaam alaikum - the Islamic greeting of peace - didn't seem quite appropriate. I said it anyway. It seemed to break the ice.

I had already travelled several hours out of Kabul. I wore a blue burqa - the perfect outfit if you want to go unnoticed. The arrival of a foreigner in this area would raise suspicions, and then my meeting with the foot soldiers of one of the world's most wanted warlords would be cancelled.
An Afghan friend had travelled with me to help with the Pashto translation. On a dust track we were met by a man who took our mobile phones, then led us up the rocky mountainside through Wardak Province. The walk was not easy in a burqa; my companion asked if I could lift it up to make the climb a little easier. The fighter looked at me. "Yes, OK," he said, "she is just an old lady." You know you are getting old when even the mujahedin seem young.

We climbed up and up until we reached a sort of ridge, where we were told to wait. About half an hour later, men emerged from behind the mountain in single file, all carrying different weapons: rocket-propelled grenades, AK-47s, missiles. They fanned out and took up positions behind different rocks. I saw one crouching down and looking intently through binoculars, checking to see if we were leading British or American troops to them. When they were satisfied we hadn't been followed, we were taken down into a gully, and as we turned a corner I saw the black hood of the commander.

He was sitting on the ground, legs crossed, with about a dozen armed men around him. There was an impressive array of weaponry on display: machine-guns and more rocket launchers, and they all had satellite phones.

“So, what do you want?" I was asked. We began a long talk. The commanders of the Hezb-e Islami paramilitary group, which follows Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, one of the world's most wanted insurgency leaders, are not the Taliban, but they work with them. I had unprecedented access to Hekmatyar's fighters in four provinces of Afghanistan. They are well co-ordinated, appear to have extensive support, and have the weaponry, know-how and will to cause havoc for the coalition forces.

In Parwan Province I was shown missiles buried in a vineyard along with IEDs, as the military calls them: improvised explosive devices that are often buried at the roadside and detonated remotely as military convoys pass by. More soldiers die from these than from anything else in Afghanistan. The young fighter told me that IEDs are easy and inexpensive to make. He had already made up a can of explosives, and the electrical wires and mobile phone to set it off were laid out, ready for use.

Sitting in the rocky gully, the commander had a moan about the poor coverage the group gets in the media. "You never report our attacks on the American troops," he said, and showed me what he claimed was footage of one of their attacks on a US truck.

In Logar Province I was told that, despite the burqa, I had been spotted by the Taliban entering the village. "I told them you are our guest," the fighter said. "We have an agreement with them here. Otherwise there's no doubt you would have been taken."

I filmed a series of questions for Hekmatyar and sent the tape through a number of intermediaries to where he is hiding. Two weeks later, his replies found their way back to me. No, he had no intention of entering a Karzai government, he said, despite the president's apparent repeated pleadings. And war in Afghanistan would never end as long as foreign troops remained here. "Nor," he said, "would there be any security."

Alex Crawford is Asia correspondent for Sky News

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Is Google Evil?