Courtesy Yvonne Ridley
THE Taliban now holds a permanent presence of 72 per cent of Afghanistan according to the latest report by an influential think tank.
But within hours of the International Council on Security and Development (ICOS) releasing this news various politicians and ambassadors from Afghanistan, America and Britain criticized its contents.
The reality is none of these people really know what is happening on the ground in Afghanistan because it is not safe to travel and if any of them do venture out it is rarely beyond the confines of Kabul.
The reason I know the ICOS report carries weight is because I have just returned from Afghanistan myself and, unlike most politicians, diplomats and journalists who go to the country, I went in unescorted.
The Taliban is forming an ever tightening noose around Kabul with, as ICOS says, three out of four main highways into the capital city now compromised by Taliban.
How do I know? Because I drove around Afghanistan with film-maker Hassan al Banna Ghani and saw the evidence with my own eyes – we nearly got our heads blown off for our troubles as well, having inadvertently driven into a firefight between Taliban fighters and Afghan police 30 minutes from Kabul on the main road to Ghazni.
We drove up from Peshawar, through the dramatic and historic Khyber Pass, down into Torkham and from there we had a straight run via Jalalabad to Kabul.
Itâ€™s an amazing drive, possibly one of the most scenic routes in the world, but it wasnâ€™t the backdrop of the Hindu Kush or the fertile green valleys cloaked in a gossamer-like morning mist peaking out from rows of jagged mountain peaks ahead which took my breath away on this occasion.
It was the fresh roadside carnage which punctuated the drive to the Afghan capital. We must have seen the skeletons of nearly 20 oil tankers targeted by rocket propelled grenade launchers in the hands of the Taliban.
These are images British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, US President elect Barack Obama or Hamid Karzai are unlikely to see for themselves, because the only safe way to get to Kabul is to fly in to the airport.
We didnâ€™t have the luxury of choice, so our decision to drive this treacherous route was based on the fact we couldnâ€™t hang around Islamabad before getting a seat on a flight.
But I am glad we did, because it gave us a chance to see for ourselves what is happening on the ground in Afghanistan. it gave us an opportunity to talk to ordinary people who have to live day in and day out without the luxury of a heavily armed military escort, or a heavily fortified place to work and an even more heavily guarded place to sleep.
For the next week we traveled by road, by car, unescorted into areas and provinces that other foreigners dare not go, and as I said earlier, we nearly paid a heavy price for our amazing footage.
And thanks to that experience, I can read the ICOS report coming from a point of knowledge that the Western leaders and all of their advisers simply do not have.
That is why it would be foolish to dismiss ICOS claims that the Taliban now holds a permanent presence in 72% of Afghanistan, up from 54% a year ago. They have advanced from their southern heartlands, where they are now the de facto governing power in a number of towns and villages, to Afghanistanâ€™s western and north-western provinces, as well as provinces north of Kabul.
Norine MacDonald QC, President and Lead Field Researcher of ICOS told a London press conference: â€œThe Taliban are now controlling the political and military dynamic in Afghanistan.
â€œDespite increasingly dire levels of security in Afghanistan in recent months, there has been surprisingly little change in response from the international community. The insurgency continues to turn NATOâ€™s weaknesses into its own strengths,â€ she added.
The Taliban are closing a noose around Kabul, and there is a real danger that the Taliban will simply overrun Afghanistan under the noses of NATO,â€ said Paul Burton, Director of Policy for ICOS.
The British Ambassador to Afghanistan, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles commented on the report on the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme on Monday morning in a dismissive fashion, saying: â€œIâ€™m afraid the methodology in the report is seriously flawed. I mean for example its map of Kabul, which I have in front of me, shows the area where Iâ€™m sitting talking to you from now, across which I drove this morning to see President Karzai, as being under heavy Taliban influence.
â€œItâ€™s quite the reverse: Afghans are strolling in the streets, celebrating the Eid. It counts as one incident in the province the size of Yorkshire, meaning that that province is under permanent Taliban control. Itâ€™s a very thin peace of workâ€.
The arrogance and ignorance of Sir Sherard is nothing short of breath-taking. No foreigner dare venture out for a stroll in Kabul unescorted because of kidnap fears. And Iâ€™d like to bet he went under heavily armed escorts to do his interview.
I have seen the British Embassy in Kabul – it is hidden behinds vast mounds of concrete bunkers, barbed wire and a heavily armed guard presence. You canâ€™t just stroll in to the embassy there like I did in March 2003.
I know nothing about Sir Sherard, but Iâ€™d like to bet he doesnâ€™t go for a stroll anywhere in Kabul, but I do know Norine MacDonald, author of the report. She is one gutsy lady who comes from a point of knowledge because she does get out on the ground – Kabul and beyond.
Furthermore Iâ€™ve seen her sit on her hunkers and talk with Afghan men – and women â€“ about their hopes, needs and fears in some of the most dangerous areas of Afghanistan.
Also speaking on the Today programme was Afghan MP Shukria Barakzai who when asked about the report said: â€œIâ€™m surprised. This is not the truth. If Talibanâ€™s that much powerful so whereâ€™s these Coalition forces and Afghan Government themselves? I donâ€™t think the Taliban will be that much powerful although there is a lack of security, this is the truth.
â€œThe Taliban is still a threat for security and somehow the Coalition forces, also in some places they are threat for security, particularly for civilians, but I completely disagree with such figures which has been made.â€
Iâ€™ve also had the pleasure of meeting Shukria, an amazing woman from an extremely wealthy and privileged background – being rich is not a crime but I can tell you that Shukria will not have stepped outside of Kabul unless by air.
She is a bright, intelligent woman and I was delighted when she became an MP because she has a good heart and a deep love for her country.
I am really fearful about plans to vastly increase the US and British presence in Afghanistan. I can tell you the Taliban are rubbing their hands with glee at the thought of what they regard as a â€œbigger army, bigger target and more shiny new weapons to take from the toy soldiersâ€.
The American presence is loathed in Afghanistan even among those who donâ€™t want to see the Taliban back in power. This is down to many things not least of all their arrogance, refusal to acknowledge or even try and understand the culture and their habit of shooting at any motorist who tries to overtake their slow-moving convoys.
Think about it â€“ when you have an open road ahead why should you have to sit behind a bunch of armored personnel vehicles doing less than 20mph.
And try talking to an Afghan motorist who sits patiently in a traffic jam only to have his car scrunched and shunted to the side by a US convoy which has decided to create its own traffic free lane. he will tell you exactly what he thinks about the behavior of Uncle Samâ€™s boys.
Then thereâ€™s the endless list of US missile strikes on wedding parties which have slaughtered innocent Afghans – very rarely are these murders followed up by an apology but they continue to happen.
Norine also called for a free and open media – that would be nice but there is also documented evidence that anyone writing against the US occupation can expect a visit from the Americans. I spoke to one young such journalist who ended up being kidnapped, beaten and thrown in a cell in Bagram for 18 hours after revealing out of date US army rations were being sold on the black market in Kabul.
Guess what, the story is true as I found out trolling through the goods on sale at an open air market in Kabul. There indeed were US army rations on sale – and we have Hassanâ€™s film to prove it.
The western leaders can either choose to remain in denial and send in more troops while listening to pompous civil servants, politicians and diplomats who say only what they think their masters want to hear, or they can sit down and read the ICOS report and act upon it.
There are solutions to the Afghan crisis and removing the arrogant, ignorant US military is one way – and take out the Brits too because Afghans can no longer distinguish between the two.
Bombard the people with genuine aid and not artillery shells and give the Afghan Government real support instead of aid with conditions attached.
Genuine job creation schemes offering decent money is a good start. And while it might be nice to have career women emerging from the rubble of Kabul, start with the men first. Give them their dignity back by providing real jobs.
Given the choice between starvation or fighting for the Taliban for around $40 dollars a month, I know what decision I would make. Think about it – itâ€™s a no brainer.
* Yvonne Ridley and Hassan al Banna Ghaniâ€™s documentary: In Search of Prisoner 650 will be broadcast on Press TV in early 2009.