Frontline: Behind Taliban Lines

The struggle to interpret Afghan insurgent groups accurately is nothing new. Outsiders have tried to explain their dynamics for centuries. Most have achieved only mixed results.

— David Rohde, “Terrorists Without Borders,” 23 February 2010

This time, the fight here is global.

— Commander Kalaqub

“I’ll carry my weapon as long as the Americans are here. It will stay on my shoulder. When the non-believers go home, then I’ll put down my weapon. I can’t give up my weapon without that.” Just 18 years old, Fazul is a passionate new recruit to Hezb-i-Islami, an Islamist organization who helped to drive the Soviets from Afghanistan during the 1980s. Fazul is both extraordinary and typical of today’s fighters, determined to defend their sovereignty. “It is the duty for all Afghans,” says Cmdr. Mirwais, a former millionaire businessman who turned to jihad after the U.S. invasion, “because the foreign and nonbeliever countries have attacked us. They are getting rid of our religious and cultural values.”

Both men have agreed to speak with Afghan journalist Najibullah Quraishi, who last fall spent 10 days in northern Afghanistan with Hezb-i-Islami’s “Central Group,” an organization with ties to both Al Qaeda and the Taliban. His experiences comprise Frontline: Behind Taliban Lines, premiering this week on PBS and online. Quraishi explains at the start the risks involved: “I was thinking, ‘I was going to meet a group of Taliban.’ This was the time in which I came myself to enemy.”

After many weeks of negotiating, Quraishi reports, he’s picked up by a pair of men on motorbikes. Their faces covered and guns visible, the fighters take him into the northern mountains, where he is invited to “live among the insurgents as a guest and to document their daily lives.” Quraishi keeps his handheld camera mostly steady as he interviews various mujahedins. Early on, his hosts show him a burned out APC, which they claim to have ambushed and destroyed. “Little here was as he expected,” observes Frontline narrator Will Lyman, as Quraishi learns that his hosts aren’t “mainstream Taliban.” Their commander claims the Central Group includes some 3000-4000 “hardcore” fighters, expanding their reach from the longtime fighting in the southern Helmand and Kandahar provinces into the north, where a highway has become a major overland supply route for coalition forces.

The fight now is generally directed at large targets, the corrupt governments of the U.S., certainly, as well as Afghanistan and Pakistan. As it was recorded last year, Behind Taliban Lines does not address recent anti-Taliban efforts by Pakistan; neither does it look into the insurgents’ own complicated international affiliations. It does, however, consider such complications at a local level, that is, the ways that anti-coalition endeavors are conceived, carried out, and sometimes undermined, by an organization that is alternately fierce and slack, highly motivated but not always competently managed.

As the fighters commit to Holy War — digging up old recover old guns, shells, and buried at the end of the Soviet-Afghan war, assembling IEDs, and venturing into the harsh landscape — they maintain a sense of group history, however murky. “We split Russia into 25 pieces,” boasts one young fighter. They mean as well to record their own history: one group member shows off a cell phone video recording of an attack that went well: “I filmed it while we were fighting,” he explains, as the tiny screen shows gunfire and predictably dodgy imagery.

The group keeps what appears to be day-to-day control of villages, with residents paying taxes to them instead of Karzai’s government, and providing the fighters with food and shelter. Quraishi rides along during an effort to plant roadside bombs, taping the bomb-making process (even though he’s been instructed not to) and observing errors in communication and timing that end up thwarting a planned attack. “They sense something is wrong,” Lyman narrates, while a fighter complains that their instructions were inaccurate. By phone, a commander back at the base sees the failure another way: “You guys are caring about your own lives too much.”

It’s not long before Quraishi’s presence comes under scrutiny: if initial interview subjects are proud to proclaim their dedication, as the days wear on, fighters begin to voice doubts as to his own mission. “Hey Mr. Journalist,” says a fighter from off-screen, “How come you follow us so much? You don’t let s eat or sleep, you’re trying to film us 24 hours… If we ask you to take part in the jihad, would you do it?” When he’s offered a weapon for this venture, Quraishi insists, “My gun is my camera.”

Everything he sees confirms Quraishi’s original sense that he was coming “to the enemy.” When he returns, he is unable to inform local authorities concerning his experience, which raises a whole other set of questions when another attack, carried out some days later, is successful. These questions are not, however, the focus of Behind Taliban Lines. Instead, it makes the case — forcefully — that the fight being waged by so many elements of the Taliban and Al Qaeda is formidable. While the groups are alternately disorganized and structured, effective and petty, each success encourages the men anew, and, as the show reveals, their potency and ability are regularly underestimated.

RATING 8 / 10