CNN goes exclusively behind Taliban lines as the US prepares to pull troops after 17 years of war in Afghanistan.
Balkh Province, Afghanistan (CNN) – On the outskirts of a dusty village in northern Afghanistan, a mass of Taliban fighters is gathered along the side of the dirt road. They are carrying AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades and waving the militant group’s flag. They stand in stoic silence, staring at us intently. There is no trace of emotion in their eyes.
It’s an eerie scene, not least because large Taliban gatherings are a prime target for airstrikes.
The commander appears unfazed. He has been fighting since he was old enough to carry a gun.
“We are ready for any sacrifice. We are not scared of being hit,” he tells us. “This is our holy path, we continue our jihad.”
Reporting through a veil
Our journey begins in Mazar-e Sharif, the country’s fourth-largest city. The Taliban was forced to withdraw from the city after a bitter battle in 2001. Now, they are just miles away. We are heading to Chimtal district, which the Taliban took over 18 months ago. The government still has a small base in the main town but the surrounding villages are all controlled by the Taliban.
Between 60% and 70% of Afghanistan is now contested or under the control of the Taliban.
Read the full report: 36 Hours with the Taliban.