SHAFAQNA (International Shia News Association) – As international troops prepare to leave Afghanistan after more than a decade of war, the Taliban retains a strong presence in parts of the country.
The BBC’s Panorama programme has gained unique access inside a Taliban stronghold, little more than an hour’s drive from the capital, Kabul.
As we turned on a dusty road into the mountainous Tangi Valley, we were just 60 miles (97 km) south-west of Kabul and already deep in Taliban territory. The valley is known as the gateway to Kabul, and it is from here that attacks have been launched on the capital.
It is in the key province of Wardak – the scene of some of the most violent battles between Nato and the Taliban in recent years.
Having reported from Afghanistan for 10 years and been kidnapped by another group of Taliban fighters in Helmand, I was all too aware that this was a dangerous place, especially for Western journalists.
I had arranged to meet Said Rahman, the Taliban’s self-appointed leader in the area, popularly known as Governor Badri. Now aged 27, he started fighting as a teenager against the American-led forces that swept the Taliban from power in 2001.
He says he will continue fighting until the Americans have left the country. He also wants to extend Islamic rule across Afghanistan.
Governor Badri claims the Taliban do not need to “impose” their vision – though in fact many Afghans oppose the group and its violent methods.
“The people are Muslim and want an Islamic government,” he says. “Westerners don’t want an Islamic government here. The ones we scare and kill are the enemies of this land.”
Granting access to a reporter was an opportunity for publicity, and Governor Badri was keen to show off the area he claims to control. He took me to a hilltop and pointed to the huge former American base of Combat Outpost Apache that was abandoned three years ago.
Everything that was left behind was taken. “Even the barbed wire we gave away to cemeteries, madrassas and mosques,” he says.
From here we could also see the site where the Americans suffered the most deadly single attack of the Afghan war in 2011, when a Chinook helicopter was shot down by the Taliban, killing 38 people, including 17 US Navy Seals.
Not far off is what remains of the Afghan army presence, a hilltop base.
Army spokesman Gen Mohammad Zahir Azimi told me the Afghan military was in full control of Wardak province.
But Taliban forces were moving freely in the Tangi Valley, even during the day. Governor Badri says the Afghan soldiers rarely venture out, except in heavily armoured convoys.
Taliban control is especially evident in the Tangi Valley’s schools. The Imam Abu Hanifa School has about 50 teachers and 1,400 students. There were classes in maths and science, but the Taliban make sure religious teaching is at the heart of the curriculum.
Remarkably, this school that runs to a Taliban agenda is funded by the Afghan government in Kabul. And much of the government’s education budget comes from the West, including Britain.
There were no girls to be seen at the school, or indeed anywhere else in the area.
The official Taliban line is that their infamous ban on girls’ education has now been relaxed. But the headteacher, Mohammed Salem, candidly admitted that there were no girls’ schools in the area and no plans to build any.
When the Taliban governed Afghanistan, harsh and brutal punishments were meted out by Sharia or religious courts. The amputation of limbs and the stoning of adulterers still happen in areas the Taliban controls.
In the Tangi Valley, a trial over a land dispute was being held in an orchard, Governor Badri was sitting as the judge and jury.
“With the help of Allah our decisions will be much faster than Kabul’s Supreme Court,” he said. “Once we make a decision, that’s it. They don’t need to appeal to a higher court.”
It is for Sharia and Islamic government that Governor Badri says the Taliban “sacrifice ourselves, create martyrs and give our blood” fighting American-led forces.
Nearby, a young boy was playing with a Kalashnikov. Asked what he was going to do with the AK47, he simply replied: “Shoot people”. His father added proudly that he hoped his son would “become a real mujahid”, or holy warrior.
Governor Badri is one of the most wanted men in the area. He says US special forces have launched several raids to kill or capture him, and he has been repeatedly targeted by drones.
The last attack missed him by half a metre, he adds, wounding him and making him deaf in one ear. “Whenever I’ve turned on my mobile the drones come,” he says, “so I try not to use my mobile.”
During the four days I spent with the Taliban, I was allowed to talk to a range of people. Some were selected, and I was nearly always under the Taliban’s watchful eye.
Some locals said they were happy to have a respite from the constant state of war that existed when foreign forces were on the offensive, but others were nervous about voicing any criticism.
“We are scared of both sides,” one man who wanted to hide his identity told me. “No-one here can tell the truth.”
Before I left the Taliban proudly paraded their fighters before me in an orchard. Even here the men carrying rifles and rocket launchers were warned to spread out and cover their faces, for fear of presenting a target to drones when grouped together.
One of the Taliban military leaders in the Tangi Valley, Commander Inteqam, boasted of using American technology such as Google Earth to choose targets.
Sporting designer sunglasses and speaking perfect English, the commander claimed that all of the Tangi Valley was under Taliban control, and that the next goal was to take Kabul.