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Matthew Chance: Afghan living conditions likely to grow worse

CNN's Matthew Chance
CNN's Matthew Chance  

NORTHERN AFGHANISTAN (CNN) -- More U.S.-led airstrikes targeted Taliban strongholds in northern Afghanistan on Wednesday. And with the strikes are new reports that some Afghan civilians were among the casualties.

Meanwhile, the opposition Northern Alliance continues to play a waiting game -- commanders refuse to launch a run at the capital, Kabul, until more damage is inflicted on Taliban troops.

CNN's Matthew Chance is based near the front line, and he filed the following report:

CHANCE: I'm on the Shamali Plains north of Kabul, overlooking the positions of the front lines, where the Taliban forces and the forces of the Northern Alliance literally stand off against each other. Kabul is just about 45 kilometers from where we're standing right now. It's also the place where in the past three days we've been witnessing U.S.-led warplane attacks against those Taliban frontline positions. Obviously, we're in a good vantage point here to bring you the latest developments.

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I can tell you so far though it's been relatively quiet. We heard a jet fly over about an hour ago, but there is no indication from here what its mission was. But let me give you an idea of exactly where we are right now. This road is the road to Kabul. Obviously, this bit of the road is in the territory controlled by the opposition Northern Alliance forces. But just 10 kilometers down there, that's Taliban-controlled territory, and obviously there's a lot of road in between there and here which is no man's land, where people just can't venture.

Of course, a lot of the inhabitants of this village have already moved away because this area comes under such intensive bombardment on occasion. It's changed hands in the past five years three times between the Taliban and the forces of the Northern Alliance. It is quite a volatile place. But hopefully it will give us a good vantage point to show you the latest developments as they unfold.

CNN: What's the reaction there among the Northern Alliance troops that you've been traveling with to this latest round of airstrikes there? I mean lots of folks have been waiting to see just how far forward they would be moving, taking advantage of any openings that these airstrikes have made in the Taliban troops there.

Any sense that there is any forward movement that's in the offing here?

CHANCE: No sense at all, at this point. There has been frustration expressed by the Northern Alliance commanders that the airstrikes from the United States-led coalition have focused too much on targets deep inside Afghanistan and not enough on those frontline positions.

Nevertheless, they have welcomed the latest round of strikes on those Taliban frontline positions. But there's still no indication of any movement as yet from these frontline positions of the Northern Alliance to push toward Kabul. Even though Northern Alliance commanders say they do have a battle plan ultimately to do that, we haven't seen any sign of it yet.

CNN: You've been moving closer and closer to what's being called the front lines there. Give us an idea of the kind of conditions that you've been observing there among the people who are still there and have not evacuated. What are living conditions like there?

CHANCE: The conditions are pretty bad. This is one of the poorest countries in the world, and of course it's been wracked by conflict for more than two decades now. So the living conditions of the people is extremely poor. The infrastructure of this country is virtually nonexistent. The roads -- this is the only tarmac [paved] road, for instance, that I've seen in the several weeks that I've been here.

The houses are built of mud. The sanitation is extremely poor. The food is in extremely short supply. There's a million displaced people across Afghanistan. Many of them have absolutely no income whatsoever and depend for their survival on the handouts of international aid agencies.

So, it's very harsh conditions for the vast majority of people in Afghanistan, and those conditions are set to get worse because in just a few weeks from now, winter is expected to set in and temperatures regularly plunge well below zero, making every day life there that much harder.

CNN: Speaking of the food, where have you been getting your food? What have you been eating lately, you and the crew that's traveling with you?

CHANCE: We brought a lot of supplies in with us, a lot of canned food from Russia, where we came in from. We've also been resupplied at some point by lorries, trucks that have been in convoy coming across the very high mountains from Tajikistan. But those mountain passes are closed as soon as the winter sets in. Snow blocks all the roads.

So what we're doing is, we're getting whatever food we can from the local market. The advantage we have, of course, is that we have money. We have money to buy goats and cows and vegetables and rice and people to cook that for us. But as I say, the vast majority of people here have no money. They survive on handouts from aid agencies. So we're the lucky ones, really.


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