A rare view from inside Afghanistan
TALIBAN-CONTROLLED AFGHANISTAN (CNN) -- CNN Journalist Kamal Hyder has been reporting from eastern Afghanistan, which is controlled by the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban and is bracing for a possible attack by U.S. forces. He spoke to CNN Anchor Aaron Brown by phone on Tuesday.
AARON BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: We've managed to get a call in to a Taliban-held territory in Afghanistan. This is very rare opportunity for us to get a firsthand look or a firsthand conversation with what the situation is like within the Taliban-controlled area.
Kamal Hyder is on the phone.
Can you hear me?
KAMAL HYDER, CNN JOURNALIST: Yes, I can hear you.
What I can tell you right now in that in the east, most of the population, which is in the rural area of Afghanistan, are seen more and more with weapons, something that the Taliban would not allow in peacetime because they de-weaponized Afghanistan. But there is a feeling among Afghanistan's rural population that the country may be under threat of an attack and people are getting up for a long guerrilla war.
BROWN: What kinds of weapons are you seeing? Are you seeing small arms, or are you seeing larger weapons?
HYDER: Basically, these are small arms like AK-47 rifles. There are some small cannons on -- portable cannons which are on mountaintops, which are normally carried away. This is very difficult (UNINTELLIGIBLE) in the east, an ideal country for guerrilla warfare.
At this moment you don't see any movement of heavy weapons because there's something with the official government forces use. These are tribal, and there is always a risk that tribals -- if the tribals throw their support behind the Taliban, then obviously it becomes a new ball game.
At this moment in time the decision of whether the Afghan nation will go with the Taliban or not hangs in the balance, and that will be decided if and when Afghanistan is attacked.
BROWN: And how will that be decided? Is there some structure for that to be decided within the tribes or the groups, or will it just be apparent by what they do?
HYDER: The Taliban have been able to muster the elders of the townships and the districts, including the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) because their religious scholars. They have called them in, they have put their input. They have told the government that Afghanistan is tribal society, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) tribes, (UNINTELLIGIBLE). Most of the people, including tribes from the Pakistan side of the border, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) tribe, these people are now siding with their Afghan residents, because you must not forget, the tribes live across both borders into Pakistan as well, and most people here feel that the United States is attacking Afghanistan without substantial evidence against Osama bin Laden. So these people are now becoming more and more aggressive, and they are saying that if Afghanistan is attacked, of course, Afghanistan's ruling population will resist. Whether that becomes the reality or not will be very clear once Afghanistan is attacked.
BROWN: How are they getting information there?
HYDER: Most people in Afghanistan have only the radio as an access to outside world. Their only radio service, the radio (UNINTELLIGIBLE) , is now beaming more and more programs, it is as if the whole country is in a state of war. Most people are bracing for a major attack. Urban centers are being emptied. However, the people in rural population who have their crops and particularly in the east and higher ground, they still have their corn crop, which has not been harvested. They are not planning to move. Unless the bombing campaign is relentless, Afghanistan's rural population is unlikely to move.
BROWN: And are they getting information from the other side of the border, from the Pakistani side of the border as well?
HYDER: Well, they are getting information that there's a lot of consternation here, apprehension here. And Pakistan, which was home to so many refugees, is now giving in to international opinion. And they feel that Pakistan, which was their only haven for refuge since there are millions of refugees there and people have families on the other side of the border, and it will become more difficult, and in most cases families will be separated by virtue of the fact that some people may have already sent families across.
Most people who are moving without their household belongings, they're just going with the clothes on their backs, they're going to Pakistan with the pretext that they're visiting relatives. Those numbers are also dwindling as Pakistan sealed its border, and the situation therefore remains quite critical because the Afghans feel that Pakistan and the international community per se may be letting them down, that the Afghan people have suffered enough, that there is a drought here, and that Afghanistan's people are poor, and that the international action may actually strengthen the Taliban because this will be seen as aggression against Afghanistan, not just the Taliban.
BROWN: Kamal, I just want to bring viewers who may have joined us up to date. You are in the eastern part of Afghanistan, close to the border with Pakistan, correct?
HYDER: Yes. It is relatively closer to the border than most places, but it still substantially deep into Afghanistan in the sense that it is the access and the difficult road; even short distances can be traveled in very long time. So basically, this feeling is not just along the border belt, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) also going deeper in (UNINTELLIGIBLE) provinces to (UNINTELLIGIBLE) province to (UNINTELLIGIBLE) province.
In most places there is now an opinion forming that an attack on Afghanistan will be considered an attack against the people of Afghanistan. And there is of course a lot of anxiety and tension as people search around radios; that's always been an obsession. These days we find more and more people congregating around a single radio.
BROWN: These weapons that they have -- two questions: Are they being issued by the government? And are they old Russian weapons leftover from the Russian invasion?
HYDER: Afghanistan have humongous amounts of stockpiles of all sorts of exotic weapons and ammunitions. Most of the ammunition and weapons were of Russian origin, Chinese origin, Eastern European origin. Thousands and millions of dollars worth of equipment that was brought in during the jihad against the communists.
So these are all basically light weapons. The drivers have been allowed to keep these weapons. People who have hidden these weapons away fear that they might be taken by the Taliban have now been told by the Taliban that in order to defend the homeland that anybody who come out with these weapons, it will not be considered against the law.
BROWN: Do -- how many people are in the area we're talking about? Are we talking hundreds, thousands of people?
HYDER: Well, these are thousands of people. Today a source in Kandahar also told me that on the border belt of Afghanistan and Pakistan the town of (UNINTELLIGIBLE) for example 50 thousand people ready to volunteer to fight in case Afghanistan is attacked. More and more people now feel that they have to stand by their government, whether they like their government or not. They feel that -- and historically, if history is anything to go by, Afghans always unite when they're attacked from outside.
BROWN: Have you heard people talk about Osama bin Laden in particular? Are they aware of what happened in New York and Washington?
HYDER: They are very much aware of what happened in New York and Washington. Most Afghans I've spoke to, most Afghans that talk on their own will tell you that they do not condone acts of terrorism. You must remember that Afghans themselves have never been involved in terrorism. They say we have never hijacked aircraft. They say we have never put bombs in foreign capitals, that we are a peace-loving country. It must be remembered that this is an introverted country ... Afghans by nature are introverted. They do not carry acts of terrorism overseas.
They also say the Afghanistan -- the people of Afghanistan need to see evidence brought forward by the United States. You cannot try someone or try to kill someone before holding them accountable or before bringing him before a judicial system. They feel that evidence may not be adequate, and therefore they feel that they cannot hand over this man.
BROWN: So they don't necessarily believe at this point that the government of Afghanistan is harboring terrorists or in any sense sponsoring terrorism?
HYDER: There is -- I mean, that feeling may be emerging. Some people are beginning questioning the wisdom of their government. But over all, the majority of Afghanistan is still very conservative, and they, therefore, believe that they stand by their government.
Most of the people in Afghanistan are not particularly happy with the foreign interference in Afghanistan, be there Arabs or anybody else. This must be remembered that Afghanistan and tribunal society which has always been introverted. So most people are not aware, most people do not even know what Osama bin Laden looks like. Photographs are banned in this country. People do not even know what he looks like, and if he were to walk amongst the people, the chances of anybody spotting him are also very remote.
BROWN: Back to the tribespeople who are armed. Are we talking about adult men? Are we talking about children? What are we talking about?
HYDER: Well, we are -- you see, you must remember that Afghanistan's people are very hardy. Most of the children here -- I mean, when I say children, I'm talking about teen-agers, 12-, 13-, 14- year-old, will probably sling an AK-47 to walk with their fathers or to walk around their lands in the tribunal areas of Afghanistan, or the places where the tribes are not predominant.
They are all ages. We saw an old man, for example, yesterday, who was running a small way side inn in Afghanistan. He was carrying a short gun with him. He said, we know they're going to attack us with missiles, there's nothing we can do against that. but we know that if they come into our territory, then we'll fight until the last man. That's the kind of feeling prevailing in Afghanistan.
BROWN: So old men and young boys in both cases armed, and at least talking about a willingness to fight. Do they expect to be bombed? Do they expect the bombing to start soon?
HYDER: Yes, that apprehension is very, very high. In fact, every evening people think that tonight is the night and every day brings new hope. But without -- I mean, they still -- the realization here that Afghanistan's people may be attacked anytime, and apprehension is running very, very high over here.
People are afraid that this will be a vicious strike. Some people say that it may be (UNINTELLIGIBLE). That's why you see movement in the cities. People think that this will not be smart weapons, as the international community is trying to target the cities. And there is not much of (UNINTELLIGIBLE) as far as people are concerned because there are conflicting reports on the radio because of so many countries beaming in different versions of what's going on the Afghanistan.
BROWN: I apologize if this is naive: Are people stockpiling food? Is there anything like bomb shelters that are being built or opened up again maybe that existed during the Russian invasion?
HYDER: Afghanistan's population never hid in bunkers during the war also. Afghanistan people have been used to 23 years of war. In some cases I remember that even in other provinces of Afghanistan, if there was a feud or there was shooting or mortar fire, children would take vantage seats just to see the fireworks display. (UNINTELLIGIBLE) has become a very common thing. Most people are not taking cover, most people are just watching the show from their roofs or from whatever vantage point that they can find. So these people are quite used to a lot of fighting and a lot of bloodshed. They are not particularly organized enough to be going into bomb shelters.
You must remember that Afghanistan's infrastructure is almost destroyed. There's nothing left standing, nothing of value. The highways are completely gone, the bridges are destroyed, and in most cases, entire blocks of the cities bombed by the Mujahedeen regime when they fought amongst themselves, bombed by the Russians when they went for the rural areas of Afghanistan.
They are quite used to fighting, and they -- you'll see any high-priority targets which can be picked up.
BROWN: And just a final question: The people we've been talking about have been tribes people, not soldiers with the government. Do you see any presence of the Afghan army or the Taliban forces there?
HYDER: Well, whatever remains of the Afghan army are a few trained officers or a few trained technicians from the communist regime or before that from (UNINTELLIGIBLE) time. The people from (UNINTELLIGIBLE) time are now in their 70s and late 60s. Most of Afghanistan's Taliban militia is basically volunteers from the rural areas such as (UNINTELLIGIBLE), Kandahar, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) province. These are basically villages, (UNINTELLIGIBLE). Most of the fighting forces are not paid their salaries, they're just given food and rations and they're not basically paid. It is not a conventional army. It is basically volunteers from the country side who fought the war -- who fight the wars in Afghanistan, not a well-equipped modernized army.
BROWN: Kamal Hyder, thank you for talking with us. Be safe out there.
HYDER: Thank you very much.
BROWN: Thank you.
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