Armed and defiant: a tour of duty with the Taliban army

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The Independent Online

Racing across the desert in the north of Helmand province, our convoy was kicking up a dust-storm that could be seen from space. The Taliban were demonstrating their control over a wide region. These are the same Taliban that Brigadier Ed Butler, the commander of British forces in the region, said were "practically defeated" in Helmand.

Instead, they are confident and well-armed, all with AK-47s, and many of them carry rocket-propelled grenadelaunchers.

We passed the burnt-out remains of a Spartan armoured personnel carrier, destroyed on 1 August with the loss of three British lives. Last week the British were forced to abandon their "platoon house" at Musa Qala, and were only able to get their vehicles after a deal brokered by local tribal elders. The plan to spread goodwill from these "inkspots", and provide an environment to deliver aid, has had to be radically reviewed in the face of heavy Taliban attacks.

Their communications equipment and vehicles are new and they have a constant supply of fresh men from the madrassas, the religious schools in Pakistan. Recently, the "Waziristan accord", which has seen Pakistani forces withdraw from parts of the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, has made it even easier for the Taliban to manoeuvre.

The man leading these forces against the British said this kind of high-speed patrol was vital. "It's essential training," he said. The Taliban always valued speed and mobility. It was the secret of their success when they swept aside rival mujahedin to take the capital and most of the country 10 years ago. Few carry any possessions other than weapons.

When we stopped for the night, they broke into groups to eat in different houses in a village. They demand and get food and shelter wherever they stop, but it is impossible to say how enthusiastic the villagers really are.

The Taliban commander said the tactic of suicide bombing, still relatively new to Afghanistan, would be employed far more intensively in the future. "There are thousands waiting at the border," he said. "We are trying to stop them because they would cause chaos if they all came at once."

He denied that the Taliban supported the growing of opium poppies, claiming that it had been trying to persuade people to stop it because it is against Islam. For the past two years of their rule before their government fell in 2001, they imposed a nationwide ban. The commander said "the British have brought it back by encouraging warlords and not giving the people anything. Poppy-growing has led to support for crime, so Helmand is full again of corrupt bandits." What is clear is the Taliban are now far more numerous than the "200 core fighters", dismissed by the Afghan President Hamid Karzai not so long ago. Thousands of young men now see them as a resistance force against international troops who have had five years and are not seen to have delivered results. Driving around the region during the next day with a local commander, Mahmud Khan, was a little like visiting villages in Britain might be with a popular local politician. He knew everybody, and stopped often to chat.He said: "We gained our freedom from the British 160 years ago, and should remain free. We don't accept the claim that they are here to rebuild our country. They have done nothing for us."

On 7 October, two bombs fell on the village of Regan in Helmand. One hit a house, killing six members of a family, including three girls. After the bombs fell, villagers saw four helicopters land. Haji Mullah Sadeq said: "I was carrying two children, one on my shoulders, and one in my arms, when the helicopters landed and they started shooting at me. God saved me and I escaped."

Nato sources describe this village as being heavily defended by the Taliban. They arrested a suspect and flew away. One of the villagers pointed to the torn and bloody women's clothing left in the ruins of the house and said: "Are these the kind of houses they have come to build - the kind where clothing is cut to pieces?"

Meanwhile, the scale of institutionalised corruption practised by the Afghan National Army is shocking. They demand money at gunpoint from every driver on the main roads in the south. It was to stop just this kind of casual theft that the Taliban was formed in the first place in 1994. For the first time since then, the Taliban are now being paid again to sort out the problem.

David Loyn's report is on Newsnight at 10.30pm on BBC2 tonight