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Nic Robertson: Taliban digging in for long haul

CNN's Nic Robertson
CNN's Nic Robertson  

(CNN) -- CNN's Nic Robertson has been covering the war from inside and outside Afghanistan. He's had exclusive access to areas controlled by the Taliban, and he spoke with CNN's Martin Savidge on Sunday from Quetta, Pakistan.

SAVIDGE: What seems to be the morale of the Taliban forces these days?

ROBERTSON: From what we could see in Kandahar, which is where we've just been -- and one remembers that Kandahar is really the spiritual stronghold of the Taliban, and one would expect spirits there to be better than anywhere else in the country -- what we can see from the Taliban fighters we mixed with and talked to quite freely was quite a high sense of morale. They certainly don't exhibit any fear at this time. In fact, quite the opposite.

Many of the people we talked to, many fighters and indeed people on the street said, "Look, the United States has been bombing us from the air. We haven't been able to take any revenge on them. We really want to fight their ground forces."

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And when we say to them, "Well, you've had a lot of your military hardware destroyed, you know. Where do things stand for you on that front? ... They say, "Look, we fought the Russians in the Soviet occupation in the 1980s without tanks, without a lot of heavy equipment, and we did that very successfully." And they say that they're ready to do that again.

Morale from that point of view appears very high. In fact, when one talks to some commanders, it's almost as if they're willing a ground invasion at this stage.

SAVIDGE: From what you've seen, is there any indication that the bombing campaign is having military success against the Taliban?

ROBERTSON: That is very difficult to judge because on our trip into Afghanistan, all military facilities were off-limits. So it was very, very difficult to gauge. We did see military hardware disbursed around the country undamaged. A tank by a main road, some armored personnel carriers scattered in a remote mountain location, anti-aircraft guns hidden under trees. And in the city, in an urban area, we saw one armored personnel carrier that had been destroyed, we were told, by jet aircraft fire. In fact, we were told it had been hit several times.

We were also told by people that the military compounds in the city had sustained very, very heavy bombardment. And although we weren't able to go to those compounds, people told us that they believe, because in advance of the bombing campaign, Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban leader, had been saying that he only thought that the United States was saber-rattling, saying that it was going to attack, or preparing possibly for an attack, and that for that reason, the Taliban hadn't fully prepared themselves, and there was a lot of hardware in these bases. And people in the city tell us that they believe in some bases a lot of hardware was in fact destroyed.

But Taliban fighters say to us they don't feel as if they actually need that hardware. But it is something that's very difficult to verify and do a realistic damage assessment on the ground because we just are not allowed by the Taliban to have that kind of access.

SAVIDGE: You mentioned Mullah Omar and other members of the leadership of the Taliban. What is their lifestyle like? Do they live from place to place, a la Saddam Hussein, or are they very much out in the public eye?

ROBERTSON: They're not in the public eye. In fact, most people on the streets we talked to say, "Look, why is the United States bombing the cities and the civilian people?" They say all the Taliban and all the Arabs -- and when they say Arabs, they mean al Qaeda forces belonging to Osama bin Laden -- they say they're out in the countryside.

Certainly we met with, in the city, the foreign minister. And we met with a very, very senior military commander for the Taliban's whole southern-area command. So clearly, there are some senior people around. But from what we understand, most of the sort of senior and influential Taliban leaders are out in the countryside.

Now Mullah Omar does have a very large compound inside, or just on the edge of Kandahar, and we went past that on two occasions, and it did not appear as if it had sustained heavy damage. It had certainly not been obliterated, and most of the walls around it looked as if they were standing without damage. And a lot of the buildings inside the compound looked completely untouched. So it is possible that some facilities belonging to Taliban leadership are still OK, if you will, for them to use.

SAVIDGE: From what you know, dealing with this nation for so long, what will it take to topple the Taliban?

ROBERTSON: Very difficult question. Certainly there are divisions within the Taliban leadership. However, the hard-liners in the Taliban leadership are really winning the day at this time as is the case in most nations that come under fire from outside. The hard-liners tend to have their way, and people are very much forced to band behind them.

And indeed, the sort of attacks that have led to collateral damage on civilians do seem to have put the population somewhat behind the Taliban at this stage. It is very, very difficult to assess what it will take to break them at this time. They say -- the fighters say, the leadership say -- that they're ready to face whatever comes.

From where we stand, and what we were able to see in Kandahar -- and again, Kandahar is a particular area, it is their heartland, it is their spiritual stronghold, so it is somewhere that's going to have a very, very defiant image. And again our visit in there was only a brief one so I think our view also has to be regarded as somewhat of a snapshot of the overall picture.

But from what we could see there, the Taliban are digging in for the long haul. They say they know how to fight a ground invasion and an air invasion. They won't face it head-on; they'll disburse their forces. They seem to be able, ready and willing at this stage to fight a long campaign. And a ground-force invasion is going to be met with resistance. The Taliban say that they would fight back to that sort of invasion.

A political framework is perhaps one of the ways that the Taliban can be beaten at a political level. But they are very, very strong -- or appear to be very strong in their region at the moment. Dissent is being stamped out. Abdul Haq, who went into Afghanistan recently, who was there to rally support for anti-Taliban elements, was killed very quickly. Another tribal leader that went in, Hamid Karzai, we understand from the Taliban and from his followers in Pakistan, has also been under attack.

So the Taliban are really trying to stamp out any elements of political uprising against them. So it's very difficult to say at this time. Definitely from the Taliban mind-set -- it looks set for a very, very long campaign.

SAVIDGE: Well, that leads right into the next question -- what do you see happening in the future? Winter's coming on. Do you expect that things will sort of lie low during the winter months? Or do you believe the Taliban are going to continue the fight?

ROBERTSON: The Taliban say they're ready to fight through the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. In particular, there have been many offensives, military offensives here in the winter in the past. Until he was killed a few months ago, the leader of the Northern Alliance, Ahmed Shah Massoud, had launched some of his more successful attacks on the Taliban during the winter months.

While hampering military efforts, winter will not necessarily bog them down. The Taliban, I believe, at this stage are looking for the campaign to last through winter. In the south, where they are, the weather tends to be a little better than in the northern mountains, where the Northern Alliance are at this stage.


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