WARDAK PROVINCE, Afghanistan – We leave the Afghan capital of Kabul shortly before dawn and head south to Wardak province, where a powerful Taliban commander has agreed to speak to us.
Driving down the Kabul-Kandahar highway, one of the most dangerous roads in Afghanistan today, the Afghan journalist who is my guide on this trip, systematically goes through the list of threats we face.
"First, we should be careful of bandits," says the Afghan journalist, whose identity cannot be revealed for security reasons. "Second, to avoid detention by the Afghan government and third, we have to be careful with the people we're about to meet. There's a risk of being kidnapped by another group of Taliban." He advises me to put on a burqa, the all-enveloping garment commonly worn by rural Afghan women.
We're on our way to interview a Taliban commander who goes by the name of Abu Tayeb. The head of a special Taliban brigade, Abu Tayeb claims to have 1,300 men under his command in the Wardak province.
There are two broad categories of Taliban fighters today, we are told. There are local fighters, who are appointed by commanders close to Mullah Omar, the reclusive, one-eyed Taliban chief. Local fighters live and fight in their native provinces. The second type of Taliban, the kind of men Abu Tayeb commands, are authorized to fight anywhere in the country. Abu Tayeb is said to report to Mansour Dadullah, one of Mullah Omar's top deputies.
More than six years since US forces ousted the Taliban from power in Afghanistan, the hardline Islamist group has been waging an increasingly violent and more and more sophisticated guerrilla war against coalition forces as well as the internationally-backed Afghan government under President Hamid Karzai.
In these desolate, Pashtun-dominated southern badlands though, the Taliban seem to be gaining the upper hand.
Proof of their success dots the highway as we head toward the troubled Ghazni province, where a group of South Koreans were kidnapped in July. Burnt-out carcasses of trucks, overturned four-wheel-drives…the landscape is starting to resemble the front line of a combat zone.
The sun is up by now, beating relentlessly on the dusty, dun-colored landscape.
In the distance, we see two men with a motorbike parked on the edge of the road. They are our escorts who will lead us to Abu Tayeb and his fighters. I notice they have a Kalashnikov strapped to their motorbike.
Close encounters with Abu Tayeb
It's a long drive to a desolate valley where Abu Tayeb and his men are waiting for us. They are all masked for the camera, their faces covered with the long turban cloth favored by Pashtun men. Abu Tayeb himself wears the trademark black turban of the Taliban. He also sports a USA camouflage waistcoat over the traditional shalwar-kameez, or loose-fitting shirt and trouser ensemble.
Seated on a mat surrounded by his masked men, Abu Tayeb is eager to show us his new anti-tank mine, demonstrating how he can rig up the mine to a remote control device.
"It's Iranian," he says, checking out the brand new device.
It sparks a discussion in the local Pashto language between the Taliban fighters. "Don't say it's Iranian; it's Chinese," we're told at the end of the discussion. It’s hard to tell if they have no idea where the device is coming from or if they simply do not want to tell.
NATO commanders operating in southern Afghanistan in recent months have accused Iran's Revolutionary Guard of supplying sophisticated weapons, including missiles, to Taliban forces in Afghanistan. It's a charge the Iranian government denies.
'Looking for an excuse to attack Iran'
Iran proves to be touchy topic, I realize shortly after I start the interview with Abu Tayeb.
When I ask him what role Iran plays, Abu Tayeb launches into a rant. "You, you have a program… after Iraq and Afghanistan," he sputters. "You are just looking for an excuse to attack Iran. If you have seen Iranian weapons, tell me, show them to me. It's just an excuse to occupy Muslim lands."
And with that, he gets up. The interview is over.
But I am a guest of the Taliban and in the Pashtun lands, hospitality is not taken lightly. We are invited to share the midday meal of goat stew with the Afghan staple, naan bread.
More relaxed now, Abu Tayeb points out one of the men – the only one not masked – under his command. "He's Iraqi," he says.
The sole Iraqi – who does not speak the local Pashto language – does not want to talk to me. I am told he has volunteered to be a suicide bomber and is awaiting his mission.
All around us, there are signs of the ties between the Afghan and Iraqi insurgencies. Over the past few years, NATO commanders in Afghanistan say the Taliban are increasingly benefitting from technology and training garnered from the Iraqi insurgency and financed by the booming local opium industry.
I'm shown an anti-tank rocket launcher that the Taliban fighters call “Saddam's rocket." It’s hard to tell if this weapon was part of the Iraqi military arsenal that mysteriously vanished in the chaos following the 2003 US invasion of Iraq.
But one thing’s clear. They are not hard or expensive to get a hold of.
"We can buy them for between $300 and $350," explains a Taliban fighter.
Obviously, the Taliban have no problems equipping themselves for the insurgency.