CNN's new "Taliban" documentary, which debuts this Saturday Dec. 11 at 8 p.m. ET, provides an unprecedented insider's perspective of a resilient and resourceful adversary that has kept U.S.-led coalition forces bogged down in Afghanistan for the past decade.
CNN provided me with an advance copy of the film and helped arrange a discussion with the steel-nerved filmmaker, Norwegian journalist Paul Refsdal, who risked his life embedding himself in a Taliban fighting unit in Kunar province -- a move supposedly blessed by Taliban leadership.
However, as Refsdal described to CNN's Anderson Cooper in the video, his heart-rending experience of going from invited guest to kidnap victim certainly forced him to question his decision.
Although Refsdal did escape, it was not before converting to Islam in an effort to save his own life after an al Qaeda member informed him he would be executed as a spy. But it is interesting to note that, to this day, Paul still considers himself a Muslim.
Refsdal is no stranger to combat zones, spending the last 26 years reporting from the frontlines of intense conflicts the world over, including a trip to Afghanistan in 1984 when he covered the Mujahideen during their U.S.-funded jihad against the Soviets.
I asked Paul if he saw many differences between the Mujahideen of the 1980s and today's Taliban holy warriors. Refsdal explained that while the Mujahideen had more advanced weaponry (as a result of U.S. funding via Pakistan's intelligence service) -- including RPGs and portable heat-seeking, surface-to-air missiles called Stingers -- they were less serious and less devout than the Taliban.
The Taliban seem more mature and take the conflict more seriously but, then again, they have no choice considering they're fighting against the world's most advanced combined military forces.
The Mujahideen, on the other hand, were fighting against a waning Soviet empire that used old tanks, refused to fight at night and bombed the countryside indiscriminately as opposed to employing more sophisticated guerrilla tactics.
Refsdal was struck by how his hosts defied the popular depiction of the Taliban as narrow-minded fanatics. The Taliban commander was actually bound by Pashtunwali, the Pashtun moral code, to protect and treat his guest well because hospitality is a key virtue in Afghan tribal society (of course, the sub-commander broke these laws when he later kidnapped Paul for ransom -- watch the documentary for the details).
Refsdal was able to capture their humanity on film during long hours of downtime between ambushes, showing the Taliban singing, praying and playing games to kill time, such as seeing who could throw a large stone the farthest.
Paul constantly asked them not to modify their behavior or routines in the least, because Refsdal was less interested in filming action scenes and more focused on capturing images such as the Taliban playing with their children -- images that portrayed the realities of everyday life (which they didn't quite understand).
The film also shows the Taliban readying for battle, and in one clip their commander gives a pep talk that is actually profound in light of the current debate in Washington surrounding the war's rationale and validity. The commander posed a series of rhetorical questions to his troops:
We [the Taliban] are fighting for our religion, our freedom, our honor and our land. What are their [NATO's] goals? For what purpose are they fighting us? Are they oppressed? Have they been treated unfairly? Are they living in a dictatorship?
According to Refsdal, most Taliban are motivated to fight because of foreign occupation rather than jihadist ideology. Although Islam is important to them -- it is but one aspect of their national identity.
The Taliban Paul met seem nationalistic -- religion has nothing to do with why most of them joined the Taliban in the first place. As Paul told me:
They are not fighting because of Islam or jihad -- they are fighting against occupation. If they were all Hindus, the Afghans would still be trying to drive out the outsiders.
During the film a Taliban commander mentioned that his funding came from Pakistan -- which touches upon a very controversial issue between U.S. and Pakistani leaders. Paul said, from what he gathered, many of these contributions flowed in from Salafi Taliban spiritual leaders and businessmen based out of Peshawar, but he was unsure of (and they would never tell him) if Pakistani intelligence or military were involved.
Finally, I asked Paul when he looked around at the 30-year-old weapons, dirt floors, and clay outposts, combined with the fact the Taliban never really train during downtime -- was it hard to believe NATO hasn't achieved its objectives?
He answered my question with a question -- a good one at that: "What are NATO's objectives?" And not unlike the type of questions posed by the Taliban commander cited earlier, I assumed Paul's also was rhetorical in nature.
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