Welcome to Hell : Meeting the Taliban

The battle of Garmser was a strange experience, especially as I had met one of the Taliban commanders on the other side. The meeting had taken place a few weeks before, outside Lashkargah, the capital of Helmand, about ten minutes away from a British base. I had been told to wait in a compound by the side of the main road leading into town, and to expect up to six Taliban. But the commander, Mullah Ibrahimi, turned up in broad daylight with nearly 100 men.

I watched in disbelief as the pick-up Jeeps filled with Taliban rolled into the open compound. They kept on coming, one after the other, and were bristling with RPG launchers, AK-47s, and men carrying huge butcher’s knives and Russian heavy-machine guns. At any moment, I thought, the Americans or British helicopters would drop bombs on our heads. But none of the Taliban seemed at all concerned. It wasn’t a case of Afghan fatalism. They merely knew how few helicopters the British had.

The commander, a young energetic man who had once been the Taliban regime’s chief of criminal intelligence in Kabul, ushered me into a room. He told me not to worry, and that I was safe from American bombs in their hands. And then he laughed, and reminded me not to do this too often. “We had a shura [gathering] before you came, and voted on whether to kill you, kidnap you or grant you an interview. Fortunately, we voted to do the interview.” I thanked him, and made a mental note not to try this again.

“We know how overstretched the British are,” he explained. “We are fighting them across Helmand, and have them surrounded in the towns of Sangin, Musa Qaleh and we will take Garmser and soon have Helmand under our control.” His claims were far from mere boasts. The paratroopers had been fighting in what they call “fixed positions” for most of their tour. Fixed positions is another term for being pinned down. And before handing over to the Royal Marines, the paras had withdrawn from most of those towns. The interview was cut short by gunfire outside the compound. Someone had got too close and the Taliban had let off a few rounds. The commander asked me if I’d like to continue, but I suggested that perhaps we should all leave, certain we’d all be bombed into oblivion at any second. He laughed and agreed. “Tell the world how the Taliban respect all people, even non-believers.”

I assured him I would, and with RPGs and butcher’s knives inches from my face, I told him I felt very safe and welcome indeed.

Which wasn’t the case when I first tried to interview the Taliban a month previously. There comes a time in everyone’s life when they realise they are about to die. I thought my time had come when a Taliban gunman burst into a room and forced me up against the wall. Six other Taliban fighters followed him in, formed a firing line, and then raised their weapons and took aim.

I was sitting in a mud house just a few miles outside Lashkargah. I had spent weeks trying to set up my first interview with the Taliban, without much luck. But just when I thought I was about to get one of the first-ever interviews with them, they burst into the room and put me up against the wall.

As the room fell silent, I turned to my translator and asked, “Is this an execution?” He lowered his hands from prayer, turned to face me and answered quite simply: “Yes. It’s an execution,” before raising his hands to heaven again in one final prayer. The young Taliban standing directly opposite me raised his Russian-made heavy-machine gun inches from my face, so close I could stare down the black hole of its enormous barrel.

As we stood there, my translator and I face-to-face with six armed Taliban, I had all the time in the world to reflect upon the meaning of life, the madness of the War on Terror and the mendacity of those politicians who led us into this ridiculous war without end. But I didn’t. As I prepared myself for the moment of impact, and the immediate nothingness of death, I thought to myself — I could murder a good pizza. The local Taliban commander walked into the room at that point and clicked his fingers. That was the sign for the others to lower their weapons. “Please accept my apologies,” said the Taliban commander. “We thought you might be a spy.” Having been assured by my local guides that I was indeed a journalist, he invited me to sit down and drink tea.

He spoke calmly, but without pausing for breath, while I tried to catch mine. I was still shaking from the shock of my near-death experience, but managed to blurt out a few questions. “We are in command of this district, not the British,” he began. “We even have a shadow administration in Helmand. We have our own judges, our own local politicians and our own administrators. Nothing gets done in the villages without our agreement. And the local government and police can’t leave their offices without our consent. Otherwise they will be killed.” I nodded, but was more concerned by the Taliban gunmen milling around outside the room. They kept on pointing their AK-47s at me every time I moved. I thanked the Taliban commander and asked him if he had a final comment he would like to make? “Yes. Our one demand of the British is for them to leave our land. We want this message to be conveyed to Tony Blair — it’s easy to occupy Afghanistan, but it’s difficult to remain here for long. God willing, like the Russians before them, the Americans and British will fail.” And with that he got to his feet, clicked his fingers and his men got ready to go.

After that initial meeting, things between me and the Taliban became a lot easier. Every time I met a Taliban commander, he would pass on my name to other Taliban commanders, who would then contact me to arrange another interview. I was soon fielding calls every day, and quickly discovered that my name had reached Taliban commanders in the town of Quetta across the border in Pakistan.

This frontier town has become the main command and control centre of the Taliban, despite being in Pakistan, one of our main allies in the War on Terror. Whether unwittingly or not, Pakistan provides the Taliban insurgency with strategic depth, without which they couldn’t survive, and enables them to resupply, regroup and reinforce their troops in Afghanistan. Pakistan also supplies most of the suicide bombers who now threaten British lives.

A few weeks after my original meeting, the same Taliban commander contacted me and asked me to return. Assured I would not be forced up against a wall again, I agreed, and was given a password that would provide me with safe passage throughout Helmand. My car was stopped on the way to the interview by some local Taliban, but when told the password they let us through.

When I entered the mud compound I was frisked and invited into a bare room. The commander stood up to greet me, and an angelic-looking young boy, perhaps no older than 14, came into the room. He was wearing a perfectly white shalwar kameez, and smiled benignly as he entered. I stepped forward and shook his hand, but as I did so the microphone on my camera went haywire and started to emit a piercing beep. The Taliban commander jumped forward and pulled me away. “Be careful. Your microphone nearly set him off.” I noticed the young boy was wearing a camouflaged military-vest, which was packed full of plastic explosives, wired up and ready to blow. “You can interview him if you like,” said the commander. “He’s wearing a bomb.”

I sat next to the boy and looked in his eyes. There was no sign of malice, or madness, just innocence and perhaps a sign of gullibility. He was from Peshawar in Pakistan, and had been told by the mullahs in his madrasah that American and British soldiers were raping and murdering his fellow Muslims in Afghanistan. I asked him if he wanted to kill British soldiers out of hatred, or for the love of Allah? “For love,” he replied, his face lighting up in a gentle and innocent smile. I asked him if his parents knew about his desire to blow himself up? “Yes, they do. And they’re happy with my decision. My brother was also a martyr. He also sacrificed himself.” How? I asked. “He blew himself up and killed some American soldiers last year.” I was dumbfounded. I had reached a wall, beyond which I could neither see nor comprehend. I turned to the commander, who had struck me previously as being somewhat level-headed and contemplative.

I asked him, as one father to another, how he could possibly sit in the presence of an innocent child and agree to let him commit suicide? Wasn’t there a more positive course for him to follow? Couldn’t he help rebuild the roads and bridges in Afghanistan, or help save lives? “He can help rebuild the roads in paradise,” the commander replied curtly, and went on to say he agreed with the Taliban beheading spies and government officials.

There was no reasoning with him, no meeting of minds. I wondered how many other young Pakistanis were ready to sacrifice themselves for something a mullah had told them? The commander told me his own brother had sacrificed himself for Islam, and that his father died fighting the Russians.

There wasn’t a single recorded incident of a suicide bombing during the jihad against the Soviet Union. But they are now increasingly commonplace in today’s Afghanistan. The War on Terror has radicalised a whole generation of Muslims across the world, and they no longer need a just reason to fight Americans and British soldiers. A mullah can simply issue a fatwa, or tell a blatant lie, and his young followers will be prepared to kill and die.

The West has failed to deliver on its promises; Afghanistan receives less financial aid than Kosovo did, and even East Timor. But there has been limited progress, and while the reconstruction efforts and military assistance of the West have been – as ever – too little too late, at least they’ve been relatively well-meaning. But thanks to the debacle in Iraq, the West is now fighting what could become a lost cause. Even if, as in the case of Afghanistan, it’s still a just one.

 

Note – This article was first published in GQ (UK), January 2007

Read about Seans’ documentary Meeting The Taliban