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  August 16, 2010

Living with the Taliban on the Afghan frontline

Channel 4 News has obtained rare film of Taliban fighters on the Afghanistan frontline
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Channel 4 News has obtained rare film of Taliban fighters on the Afghanistan frontline, including footage of their attacks on US forces. Channel 4 News Chief Correspondent Alex Thomson looks at what the film tells us about the insurgents and their tactics.

Even if I did want to do it, I would not be allowed to by ITN. Nor would anybody here. But out there in the wide open world of the freelancer, Paul Refsdal did it. He did it brilliantly well.

If he hadn't slightly overplayed his hand at the last moment, he would have got away with it unscathed and pulled the whole thing off. But even as it is, he has emerged from Afghanistan with footage the like of which has not been seen I will bet, in nine years of war.

Because that's what it's like if you want to seek out the Taliban or other insurgent groups across Afghanistan and set up what the west would call an "embed" with them. It's a helluva risk.

Paul is at least alive to tell the tale and sell his story. Though not without a six day kidnapping under murky circumstances. The Norwegian cameraman insists that no ransom was paid.

More from Channel 4 News on embedding in Afghanistan, reported by Stephen Grey:

- Nato turns to militias in Afghanistan battle

- The gangs of Kandahar - the city's real power?

- Capturing Taliban leaders: covert Afghan war

Armed fighters

It all starts with the moment when you move beyond the point of return. When the RV finally takes place up some distant mountain track in the east of the country in this case, Kunar Province.

Unsmiling, heavily armed fighters suddenly materialise and then there you are, out there, on your own, with nothing but trust to keep you going. From behind their turban-masked faces they are smirking, saying quietly to each other, "He's really scared of us, isn't he?" And so it went on for the whole of the first day as they trekked back up to their command post.

Day two and things had calmed a little. Commander Dawran - who set the whole thing up - made it plain that Refsdal is a guest. And that is that. Under Afghan custom they will now pretty much lay down their arms to protect him. Rather, on this occasion, than shoot or behead him as a suspected spy.

And by the second day the faces are being revealed, they are laughing around and joking: "If I appear in this people are going to say 'Who's the country boy?’" His mate laughs and adds: "He's filming us all to say look here - these are the bad guys." And things begin to fall into something of a routine.

The men have a heavy machine gun of fairly ancient origin placed to cover an ambush point on a road used almost daily by the US military. There is no problem filming them as they discuss ambush plans, set it up and execute it. There is much celebration when they claim to hit an American vehicle with a short burst from their primitive gun emplacement high above the snaking mountain road.

But, try as I do, I see no vehicle hit on the camera, at any rate. Commander Dawran lectures his men saying: "During the Russian invasion, someone asked me when the victory will come? The answer was, if the holy warriors are honest and fight only for the sake of God, then victory will come soon. If not, it will take more time."

He compares the motives for the insurgents fighting with those of the west, the Americans - for this is both a US dominated war and they are in a US area of operations: "We fight for our freedom, our religion and we fight for our holy land. We are fighting for these goals. What are their goals? For what are they fighting us? Are they oppressed? Have they been treated unfairly? Are they living in a dictatorship?"


With their trust in their God, their belief is absolute that their day will come against the Americans as it did against the Russians. History, they sense, is on their side. Time, they know, certainly is. But with shortages of weaponry and ammo there is plenty of time, up here in the hills of Kunar, for Commander Dawran to be with his wife and their three children.

Or to play their favourite pastime of rock throwing - see who can hurl the boulder the furthest. Commander Dawran of course, seems to win all the time, though not without loud allegations of cheating. With every day comes the ambush. It is almost routine. And ultimately that is their problem. You can obviously only ambush the Americans for so long until their Special Forces or air attack will seek you out.

So many Nato soldiers on the other side have been puzzled at the insurgents' habit of going for the same ambush points time after time after time. The dangers of this are obvious. And so it happened. One night they had to get out and run up the mountains immediately for cover. Special Forces duly attacked Assad - their second in command - the fighters said he, several soldiers and 13 family members were killed. The game was up. Their war in this area had ended.

In light of the Wikileaks publication of US military field reports, Channel 4 News found war logs which referred to the Special Forces calling in the AC-130 H Spectre gunships in Afghanistan.

In one incident in 2008 close air support was called in by Task Force Bushmaster, after reports of small arms fire from insurgents.

In the report it says the Lockheed AC-130 H Spectre engaged with the insurgents. The AC-130 gunship is nicknamed "The Angel of Death" and is only used by the United States Air Force.

In another field report from Operation Medusa in 2006, The Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force (CJSOTF) calls in close air support.

The report says that at 15:14GMT, the AC-130 Spectre gunships called in by elements on the ground. The report estimates that that the enemy battle damage assessment (BDA) from the close air support of the AC-130 gunship engagement is 62 enemies killed in action.

At 1810GMT, the unit is engaged again with the Taliban and more air support is called in. This engagement resulted in 15 enemies killed, according to the ground report.

At 0015GMT, the AC-130 engages yet again with an enemy position, killing five enemies in action.

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Those same Special Forces would surely come calling at another of their houses that night, or the night after. They had to leave that day and Paul had to get out, back to Kabul. Just before he left, Omar, one of this group's up and coming fighters, gave Paul his mobile number and said to call in two weeks and he could come and film with him at another location.

It proved to be a trap. Omar would then kidnap Paul Refsdal, holding him for six days. As ever with these things, precisely what happened is murky and mysterious. Though Paul insists no ransom was paid after he converted to Islam.

As for Commander Dawran, his prediction was deadly accurate. The Americans did subsequently attack his house. He survived. Two of his three young children, did not.


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