When Zahir Jan set out on the journey from his home in Helmand to the neighbouring province of Kandahar, he knew there was a good chance he might not finish it.
“It’s not easy being in the Taliban these days,” he said. “At every checkpoint on the way here the police and army asked us for bribes. They said if we didn’t pay them they would hand us over to the foreigners.”
The 20-year-old had just travelled through an area Tony Blair describes as the key to world security. It was guarded by men who routinely blackmail anyone they don’t like the look of.
Zahir was an obvious target because he is one of the many Afghans who have chosen to fight against the British and their allies in the local government.
Peace only exists for him back in the district of Garmser. The Taliban rule the region around his home there and, if he is to be believed, they will control many more places before the summer is out.
“We are very strong. We have lots of soldiers and very modern guns,” Zahir said. “Let me tell you, in all of Helmand there are maybe 100 people working with the government. The rest of the men are with the Taliban. I can assure you that in every house five men are now with the Taliban. There are not any Sindhis, Punjabis, Arabs or Chechens with us. We are all local people, and we are very strong.
“Everyone has picked up a gun. What else can we do? We cannot bear it any more. When the foreigners first came we thought maybe they wanted to build the country, but what have they done in the last five years? They have done nothing so we have to stand against them. They have killed innocent people, occupied the country and now jihad is demanded of us.”
Zahir met The Independent on Sunday with two other Talibs from Helmand. A third party closely linked to the militants arranged the interview, which took place at a secure location inside Kandahar city one morning earlier this month.
The insurgents’ description of life in their home province was far removed from the version Downing Street and Nato officials are keen to promote. As far as these men are concerned, any soldier with a white face is a “foreigner”. There are no differences between the various countries that make up the International Security Assistance Force (Isaf).
They spoke of villagers too scared to switch on their lights at night in case their homes are bombed in air strikes; troops deliberately shooting civilians; and members of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance using their new roles in the Afghan army to persecute the Pashtun population.
“We have to fight because even if we don’t we will be killed,” Zahir said. “We have the Koran and, praise be to God, we are Muslims, so we have to defend ourselves, our women and our country.”
Helmand is the Taliban’s stronghold and one of the most dangerous places in Afghanistan. The former head of Isaf, Lieutenant General David Richards, described fighting in the province last summer as the worst British troops had faced since the Korean War.
“If you go there in a helicopter you will see the houses are just mountains of rubble as high as this,” Zahir said, gesturing to a large wall behind him. “Lots of people are lying dead under their homes because no one feels safe enough to get them out.”
Dressed in a shalwar kameez and green combat jacket, he was by far the most talkative of the group. For him, there is no doubt what is happening to hearts and minds.
“The foreigners just sit in the desert and open fire from there. As soon as they get reports of Taliban they open fire, without checking. When they occupy an area they kill all the women and children. They do not even spare the animals, they kill them as well,” he said.
A recent survey by the Senlis Council think-tank found 80 per cent of men in Helmand and Kandahar believe the international troops are not helping them personally, while 71 per cent believe the Afghan government is also unhelpful.
According to Zahir, support for President Hamid Karzai’s administration will only fall if he cannot stem the flow of civilian deaths caused by Nato-led forces.
“He is just using the name of Islam, but he is not a Muslim in his heart. If someone beats me, another Muslim will feel pain. But here people are killed every day and he doesn’t react,” he said.
With him was Ghafar, a softly spoken man wearing the kind of jet-black turban traditionally sported by the Taliban.
The 31-year-old told The Independent on Sunday his cousin is being detained at Bagram Air Base, north of the Afghan capital, Kabul. He defended the insurgency as a natural reaction to attacks on local culture, including the government’s intermittent attempts to reduce opium production.
“My house has been searched three or four times and, more importantly, my poppies were destroyed last year. That was my life, it was the only way I could earn an income,” he said.
“Now the only way I can feed my family is with a gun. The Taliban themselves don’t pay salaries, but there are some good Muslims in the community who support us.”
It is too dangerous for Western reporters to visit Helmand unembedded, as the three men admitted. They claimed that the Taliban recently executed 10 foreigners caught spying there.
But elsewhere across southern Afghanistan it is the local government forces and Nato who often inspire most fear among the population.
In Kandahar people usually associate the former Taliban regime with security, while blaming the international troops for causing widespread civilian casualties in bombing raids and firefights. Even women long for the pre-invasion days, when they could at least walk the streets without the threat of being killed at any moment.
Ghulam is 60 or 70 years old – he’s not sure exactly. He is from Lashkar Gah, Helmand, and, like the other two Talibs, he describes the situation in the province as unbearable.
“The worst time I have experienced in my life is now,” he said. “It’s worse than when the Russians were here. The Russians treated us well, they never went into our houses. Now the foreigners go into houses, disturb the women and kill innocent people.
“Do you see my white beard? Do you see I have no teeth left? Still, even I am fighting against them.”