Taleban fighters say history is on their side
The BBC's David Loyn had exclusive access to Taleban forces mobilised against British forces in Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan.
He answers some of your questions about his trip.
Q: In the UK, the Taleban are depicted as a harsh oppressive regime which ruled by fear. You associate closely with them. What are your feelings about them?
Raymond Mcalpine, Gravesend, UK
I am not sure about the word 'associate', which seems to imply approval, but if it means that I have spent a fair amount of time with them, then yes that is true, both in the late 90s and since.
As far as their regime was concerned, it is worth remembering that it was popular in many parts of the country - particularly the Pashtun rural areas in the south, although deeply resented in the north, the west and urban areas everywhere. It was popular because it was seen as not corrupt, and brought law and order so it was possible for Afghans to travel safely around the country in ways that have not been possible before or since. Their new leadership do admit that some mistakes were made in terms of the harshness of their rule, but they have not changed their profoundly conservative religious austerity, nor their desire to impose severe restrictions on women.
Q: Where are the Taleban getting their funding from and why are they fighting the Nato forces?
Mohammed Baba Iddrisu, Ghana
Travelling with them in Helmand I was struck by how much they do have, in terms of new vehicles, ammunition, and well-maintained weapons. They claim to have recently bought 8,000 Thuraya mobile satphones. So they are not short of money. The leadership deny that they are directly funded by Pakistan, although little happens in Afghanistan that does not have some Pakistani intelligence element in it. Their money comes from sympathisers, including governments in Arab states and collections from mosques around the world, raised from people who see them as fighting a 'jihad' - a holy war.
Q: Are the Taleban motivated more by Islam or a sense of nationalism? Additionally, do they discuss their war as part of a wider conflict which includes their 'brothers' in Iraq?
James Flynn, London, UK
It is nationalism fuelled by Islam. They draw considerable strength from painting themselves as the heirs of Afghanistan's warrior traditions. Even the most uneducated foot soldier will quote the dates of the battles in the nineteenth century when they beat the British. They do not see themselves as part of a wider world ''jihad', but an Afghan solution to an Afghan problem. However there are clear tactical links. For example, they now adopt suicide bombing as a weapon. This is quite new in the Afghan context, but they have seen how it works in Iraq.
Q: You mentioned that the Taleban often stop at villages demanding food. How do they treat the villagers, especially the women? I have read that some Taleban warlords are very fond of western goods like branded sunglasses, cigarettes etc.
Delnavaz, Haryana, India
None of the Taleban I spent time with had any western consumer goods, cigarettes etc. In fact, while they were showing off a cache of captured military equipment, a commander found an expensive pair of American sunglasses. But after playing around with them for a while, he tossed them aside. As far as the villagers are concerned, the Taleban treated them with respect and familiarity. A Taleban commander told me that the fact that villagers are willing to provide them with food shows their support. Along with the core of fighters, they recruit from local villages, and all wear the standard loose shirts and trousers (salwar kameez), so it is impossible to say who is a soldier and who a farmer - many are both. Of course, since I was travelling with armed Taleban fighters, it is impossible to know what the villagers really think of them (as it is equally impossible to find out the truth if a reporter jumps out of the back of a British or American armoured vehicle on an embed) I did not see any women during my stay. They always remain behind closed doors when men are around. These may look like severe restrictions. The Taleban see them as a mark of respect.
Q: The Taleban appear to be an indomitable force, disappearing and re-forming. Would the current government of President Karzai consider discussions with them and the possibility of a coalition or power sharing scenario?
Barry Derbyshire, Brisbane, Australia
They did disappear after 2001, and found it very hard to reform and recruit. Their re-emergence is very much as a force designed to beat foreign 'occupiers', and they express contempt for Karzai. The last real attempt to have any kind of meaningful dialogue with outsiders, remarkably enough, was in 1998, but it collapsed after an American cruise missile attack. The current leadership would not be likely to be interested in dialogue, and it is hard to see the United States agreeing to any power-sharing agreement, although there is increasing talk among analysts in the region about the possibility of Afghanistan splitting up, leaving the Pashtun south in Taleban hands.
Q: There seem to be a notable difference between al-Qaeda and the Taleban. What are the differences between the Taleban and al-Qaeda's political ideology?
Abdullah, Surrey, UK
The Taleban are very keen to point out the differences. They see al-Qaeda merely as 'guests' in their country and do not share their foreign policy or desire to export 'jihad' . But they do share the same austere iconoclastic view of the Islamic way of life.
Q: When the Taleban first started to take Afghanistan I remember reading reports of them being welcomed by cheering locals as they rid the country of the scourge of the war lords. Is there any support among the Afghan population for a return of the Taleban?
Dirk Dil, Luxembourg
There is growing support for a variety of reasons: firstly they see the Karzai government as corrupt and too keen on promoting the old warlords - I was shocked to see soldiers from the newly-formed Afghan national army taking money at gunpoint from every car that passed. This was happening on the main road linking Iran to Pakistan across the south of Afghanistan, and has powerful resonances since it was to stop corruption on this very road that the Taleban first emerged, with some popular support, in 1994. The trucking companies are paying the Taleban again to see if they can clear the road for them again. The Taleban are also winning support because of the failure of the international aid effort to make enough difference to people's lives. Civilian casualties in the worsening conflict also play into their hands.
Q: Since the Taleban forces are employed fighting and killing British troops, I am at a loss to understand why the BBC feels that it is using our licence fees well by giving their propaganda oxygen? If you were killed during an attack by Nato, who would accept responsibility for your death?
Paul Jewell, Ivinghoe, Buckinghamshire
I took an assessment of the risks, well aware of the possibility you talk about. The BBC would not have blamed Nato forces for my death in these circumstances. Like Churchill I rather think jaw-jaw is better than war-war, and feel that my job as a reporter is to explain best what is going on. Indeed in a democracy I have not just a right but a duty to do this as comprehensively as possible. 'Our licence fees' did indeed support what was actually rather a cheap trip by the standards of these things (I was both the cameraman and reporter). But on a separate point, 'our taxes' are paying for 'our soldiers' to fight a difficult conflict, and I rather wanted to know what they are up against and why. Don't you, Paul?
Q: Does the current Taleban force have intrinsic links to the Taleban political wing (in a similar manner to the IRA and Sinn Fein)? If they are only interested in ousting corruption, why can't they be given an official role working alongside the UN forces to re-build the country?
Jay Willcox, Barcelona, Spain
There isn't really a 'political wing' like the IRA - the whole Taleban movement atomised after the fall of the government. The military revival this year is the first real sign that they are still a potential force. I did suggest to a number of their commanders that since they share much of the same agenda as foreign interests in the country - fighting corruption, ending the opium trade and so on - they might join forces. They were contemptuous. To them the British-led forces in the south are foreign invaders, and they see them as infidels, (although there have been British Muslim military casualties). There is no compromise on this. But given the way they have been demonised by the world, I wonder too if the Karzai government would be willing to make the compromises necessary to offer them an official role.
Q: You mention the fact that soldiers of the Afghan Army are demanding payment at gunpoint for access through vehicle checkpoints. Are these the same soldiers that have been trained by British and coalition forces? Why have the British led coalition not put a stop to this?
Adrian Lewis, Newcastle, UK
Beats me, Adrian. This was the most surprising thing I saw. They are the same soldiers whose training has been paid for by western taxes. And frankly there seems to be little point in sending good British soldiers to fight in this kind of political context. They are fighting with one arm tied behind their back. Every time government checkpoints steal from a motorist the Taleban recruit another soldier. The trucking companies are now paying the Taleban again.
Q: If Nato is failing in its promise to rebuild and modernise, how does this effect the morale of the British troops who are having to face the brunt of violent frustration?
Richard V Evans, Neath , South Wales
Read their blogs. On this trip I did not meet them, since I was behind Taleban lines throughout, although I have been embedded with British forces in Afghanistan this year. But I did talk to a lot of local people, and their perception that the international community has brought only bloodshed and not aid is a hard one to shift with guns and tanks. A farmer who I spoke to (not a Taleb, but a refugee who had fled to safety with his family after his father was shot and wounded in crossfire) said that the Taleban are the only people to gain from this situation. Military vehicles do brutal things just by being in villages made of mud houses. He is worried about his orchards and vineyards. He saw tanks breaking down the walls and setting up a military position in his village. Does he think they have come to deliver aid? On the record British troops, the bravest and best in the world, talk the talk. But given that the defence secretary who sent them in said they might not have to 'fire a shot' - put yourself into the shoes of a soldier who is going in for the next tour - knowing that his predecessors went in to provide goodwill and a secure environment for aid, and found themselves fighting one of the most intense conflicts of the last half century.
Q: How significant is Pakistani assistance with regards to the return of the Taleban? Is the ISI (Pakistan's Inter Service Intelligence) still providing them with funding and logistical assistance and, if so, what can be done to pressure Pakistan to cease this assistance?
Jonathan Hall, London, UK
This is the hardest question. The Taleban deny it - strongly and vehemently. They portray themselves as Afghan nationalists and successors of a warrior tradition. The easy answer is that there is considerable 'soft' support in Pakistan, ie in allowing the madrassas - religious 'schools' to function. The Taleban are not just educated here, but go back for R&R between trips. The international border - the Durand line - was drawn up by a British colonial administrator more than a hundred years ago in a hurry - and has been blissfully ignored since. So there are a lot of men who are Pakistani nationals who fight for what they see as a Pashtun cause. Pakistan's biggest security concern is to the east - India. Of course the ISI need to know what is at their backs when they look at the threat from India. But I do not know if they are behind the new rise of the Taleban. I do know that they are not short of money. Their vehicles, communications equipment and weapons are new.
Q: Do you think that the Taleban will win the war? Can Afghanistan really become a democratic country with the help of the West?
Ramon Garway, Monrovia, Liberia
I am short of a perfect crystal ball, Ramon. The Taleban were under-rated by everybody in the late 90s but they took most of the country. As it stands the war is unwinnable for Nato. Afghans say the West has had five years to install a functioning democracy and Afghanistan is still waiting.
Q: Is it justifiable and correct to speak of the Taleban as one cohesive force? How do they perceive themselves in terms of identity? Finally, did you ask them whether they know Osama bin Laden and what was their reaction?
Daniel Maier, Stuttgart, Germany
Apart from the main Taleban under Mullah Omar, still their leader, there are a number of other militias based in the tribal areas of Pakistan who have an ability to operate. But his central force is the strongest. I did not meet anyone who has met Osama, and they claim he was only a guest.
Q: Are the Taleban happy with the Afghanistan borders as they stand?
Charles Trimnell, Bournemouth, UK
The Durand line, the Afghan border, is not a major issue for them - nor indeed a problem . They can cross it at will, and never really agreed with it. (When I was crossing it once about 10 years ago on the main road, we had to wake up a customs officer to put a stamp I needed in my passport, only because I would need the exit stamp for the next time I went into Afghanistan. There is no more porous border on the planet) Their hero is Ahmed Shah Durrani, who first united Afghanistan in the eighteenth century. The exact border is immaterial.
Q: Are the Taleban aware of the fact that many people in Britain disagree with the war in Afghanistan and Iraq?
Craig Eastman, Birkenhead, UK
They have no idea of any of the complexities of the debate in Britain.
Q: Do the Taleban foresee a time when they will lay down their arms and stop fighting? What is their objective and can they see a time when there will be peace?
Edward McCarthy, Edinburgh, UK
'Islam' means 'the way of peace'. That is their dream. But it may not be achievable in any normal human context, Edward. Rather like the dreams of communism the struggle may be as important as the result. They were very surprised that when they brought relative security to most of the country in 1996 the international community did not congratulate them.
Q: Is life more bearable now, for the average Afghan, five years after the fall of Taleban?
Umar Mukhtar, Kano, Nigeria
It got a bit better. But it has got worse, particularly in the south. Many refugees have returned. More schools have opened. Roads have been built. But corruption, the return of the warlords, and now substantial civilian casualties have turned the debate. Five years is a long time. Five years after Germany's defeat in the Second World War, the country was transformed to the point that it was one of the founder members of the European Union - the most stable economic power bloc in the history of the world. It seems to be harder to make peace now than it was then.