Nic Robertson: Inside the Taliban heartland
SOUTHERN AFGHANISTAN (CNN) -- U.S. B-52 bombers swept across Taliban front lines north of Kabul on Friday, laying down a carpet of bombs in an effort to clear a path to the capital for opposition Northern Alliance forces.
Meanwhile in southern Afghanistan, CNN's Nic Robertson has been touring the area, and he filed the following report:
ROBERTSON: We have been able to talk with a senior Taliban commander [Akhtar Mohammad Usmani] for the southern region, a strategically important region for the Taliban. This is their heartland. He told us that since the aerial bombing campaign had been going on, he had only suffered 15 fatalities in his fighters; he said morale was high, and he was having no problem recruiting fighters.
We asked him, however, if he was angry at the Taliban government for essentially facing off with the United States by not handing over Osama bin Laden and bringing on an air campaign against his army. And he said that was missing the real issue.
USMANI: The real issue is not Osama bin Laden or al Qaeda. The real issue is the Taliban and the Islamic law which they have enforced in Afghanistan. ... That is why we have been targeted. But we understand this, and that is why we are ready for sacrifices and we have to pay with our blood for all this. So we don't really care about all this because we know it's not the issue of either bin Laden or giving refuge to al Qaeda here. The real issue is the Taliban government, which we [will] defend until the end.
ROBERTSON: We were also able to visit a hospital Friday in Kandahar -- again, unescorted by Taliban. We were able to speak with people who said they were civilians. In fact, two men who said they were civilian workers at a hydroelectricity power plant said it had been bombed on Thursday. The Taliban ambassador to Pakistan said Thursday that that facility had been bombed. We have not been able to visit it, but two people in the Kandahar hospital said they were workers there and were injured in this bombing.
We've also been able to talk to the Taliban governor [Mullah Mohammad Hassan Rahmani] for Kandahar. We asked him if there was a plan to replace Taliban spiritual leader Mullah Mohammed Omar should he be killed. Rahmani said in Muslim culture, one leader would be like another, and he could be replaced.
RAHMANI: We know our Islamic responsibility. Islam should be united, and they should have a leader. He should serve and should have responsibility, and thanks to God, our leaders are safe so far and they are serving. And God forbid, if there is any problem, it is easy, and one Muslim can serve instead of the other Muslim. ... We are not worried about this. If there is a small problem, to solve the problem, we are sure we can solve it easily, and one responsible Muslim will take the responsibility of the other.
ROBERTSON: The trip to the hospital and the market Friday have been the first times that CNN have been allowed out unaccompanied by Taliban officials. However, military facilities have remained off-limits to us.