Host Sean Plunket had many questions for British freelance journalist James Fergusson throughout last evening's packed-out session at the Aotea Centre, Talk to the Taleban.

With New Zealand's SAS still committed to service in Afghanistan, the questions remain especially relevant. They included, "What on earth are the troops doing there?", "Who are we fighting?", "Are there any al-Qaeda left in Afghanistan?" and "What is the right direction to go in now that Osama bin Laden is dead?"

This might sound like Taleban 101 but these are issues which are constantly fudged. Some clarity does very nicely.

Fergusson, who has spent years covering events in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and who has had unprecedented access to Taleban leaders and civilians, gave considered responses to each one. He defined the who and why of the Taleban, quite distinct from foreign al-Qaeda, as many world leaders have mistakenly labelled them.

He explained how bin Laden, who fought the Soviet occupation, poured money into the coffers and found safe haven with the hospitable Pushtun Taleban, even if they didn't much trust him. The Taleban became a "law and order party" to get rid of the "stoned bandits". They originally had no ambition to rule the country, said Fergusson.

Plunket raised the Jon Stephenson issue: if our troops are handing prisoners over to Afghan security, are we breaking human rights rules? It seems so, said Fergusson. The Afghan security squad, the NDS, were "goons" who tortured with impunity.

And the right direction now that the man used as the reason to invade has gone?

Not easy, but Barack Obama starting some dialogue with the Afghan leaders might be a start, said Fergusson.

Earlier in the day, Australian environmental activist Paul Gilding's session The Great Disruption was disturbing. He predicts we are in for a serious global economic shakeup. Simply put, the economy has grown too large for the earth's resources to sustain. The premise that economies must keep growing is utterly wrong - the food and oil prices we already see skyrocketing are going to get worse.

So we are heading for a crisis: a disruption. Gilding is an advocate of a "stable state economy", where people buy less, work less, earn less. Prospecting for oil and coal is not the way to go. And we've got to stop shopping for all that useless stuff. Times, they are a-changing.

Other highlights from yesterday's festival included Australian writer Carolyn Burke, who delivered a moving tribute to French singer Edith Piaf. Burke read passages from two phases of Piaf's life: from 1935, when she was a thin "guttersnipe" with no idea of the triumphs and tragedies before her; and from 1960, when she overcame arthritis and years of painkiller addiction and returned triumphantly for a season on the stage. Then she died.

The queen of Indian cuisine, Madhur Jaffrey, intelligently hosted by Alexa Johnston, swanned on to the stage in tight black jeans, boots and a glamorous black velvet top, every inch the movie star she used to be in her remarkably varied career.

Jaffrey was hilarious as she recalled how she was packed off to London to study at Rada; her mother weighed down her suitcase with a huge granite mortar and pestle and a cast-iron wok - at a time when she couldn't even cook.

Through a series of serendipitous relationships, Jaffrey eventually found herself making movies with Merchant-Ivory, wooed by the BBC for a television series, which led to her first book, then the next ... and she has never looked back. She was an utter delight.