Talking to the Taliban

For Afghan insurgents every death, no matter from which side, is a step closer to victory

I didn't recognise Ghafar at first. His beard was longer than it had been a year ago and this time he wore a yellow turban instead of a black one. But the small tattoo on his forehead remained and he still spoke with the quiet confidence of a man who doesn't fear death.

"In the daytime we are farmers. At night we are Taliban," Ghafar said, smiling.

Throughout the summer, politicians as well as journalists have told the British public that the insurgency in Afghanistan is being defeated. Even as the number of UK soldiers who have been killed passed the hundred mark, the war was being touted as a success - particularly in the southern province of Helmand, where most of the 8,500 UK troops are based.

Gordon Brown used a brief stopover here on 21 August to suggest that the insurgents were on the back foot and to talk about the "substantial progress" made. But when I recently interviewed two Taliban commanders, they told a different story.

I originally met Ghafar and his colleague Zahir Jan in Kandahar in the spring of 2007. They had travelled from their homes in Helmand, bringing with them descriptions of women and children buried under the rubble left behind by air strikes. Both said that they were fighting to defend their religion, their country and their family.

Since then, the violence has continued. The Taliban and the foreign soldiers have taken heavy casualties. Thousands of Afghan civilians have fled.

Given the intensity of the combat, two men who live through it every day should look weary. Yet Ghafar and Zahir Jan appeared more relaxed and determined than ever.

Speaking on condition that the location of the interview be kept secret, they came across as happy and optimistic. For them, every death, no matter from which side, means that they are a step closer to victory.

"The Taliban and the Americans are as different as fire and water. Maybe the water will kill the fire or the fire will kill the water, but one of these things has to happen," Zahir Jan said.

Helmand is one of Afghanistan's most dangerous provinces. Over the past two years, it has become notorious for gun battles, roadside bombings, suicide attacks, assassinations and air strikes. At its worst, the fighting has been fiercer than anything British soldiers have experienced for decades. Yet the situation is meant to have improved in the past few months, especially in the district of Garmsir.

The top British commander in Helmand has claimed that "the Taliban are much weaker" and "the tide is clearly ebbing not flowing for them". The Defence Secretary, Des Browne, has repeatedly called the war a "noble cause".

Although such claims were rubbished by Ghafar and Zahir Jan, it was their demeanour rather than their words which suggested that they were far from being crushed.

Offhandedly, they said the Americans deserve to be attacked on their own soil and warned that the Taliban could eventually send suicide bombers to the US. They added that they were a "thousand times more confident" of victory in Afghanistan than they had been before, thanks largely to growing support from the population and to improved weaponry.

"We have very advanced rockets. You can split them into three parts and carry them on donkeys. Then you just walk along and when you see a convoy of troops you can fix them together and fire them very quickly," said Zahir Jan.

Now, the rebels are again showing their strength and taking the fight to new areas. Ten French soldiers were killed near Kabul, the Afghan capital, on 18-19 August, and rockets have been fired into the city itself.

"If the foreigners did not have their planes, then within five days I guarantee we would be in the avenues of Kabul," Zahir Jan said.

Following our previous meeting, he had been arrested by a group of Taliban while returning to his home in Garmsir. The movement was fragmented then, he told me, and not everyone knew each other. After being beaten and threatened with execution, he was released when a senior insurgent intervened on his behalf.

He claimed, however, that the militants have a clearer command structure now and have become more moderate. "The areas controlled by the Taliban are very secure, and in most of them they don't bother anyone. It's OK if people shave and listen to music, and in the markets you can even buy TVs. In some parts, you are not allowed to watch TV, but they still let you shave and listen to music."

Despite this, there does not seem to be any chance of a peaceful solution to the war. Claims that former Northern Alliance leaders have held negotiations with the insurgents simply provoked laughter from Zahir Jan.

"If the Taliban get hold of them they will be finished," he said.

It's hard to know their exact ages. Zahir Jan gave his as 20 last time, but he could easily be younger or older. Ghafar is probably in his early thirties. They fight not only in Helmand, but also in Kandahar and Uruzgan.

Ghafar stayed quiet for most of the interview, speaking only occasionally. When I asked if any of his relatives had been killed during the past year, he said: "I have not lost anyone from my own family, just my best friends who I used to meet up with."

To Ghafar, however, the dead are always martyrs. They are not to be mourned.

This article first appeared in the 01 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The truth about GM food