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Al Qaeda, Taliban Confident About War

Aired October 15, 2001 - 12:00   ET


JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN ANCHOR: And now we want to go to Pakistan, where as we said, that Secretary of State Colin Powell is visiting this day, and to our Nic Robertson, who is one of the -- in fact, the only Western journalist included on a tour of part of Afghanistan over the last couple of days.

Nic, I gather you've been back only a short time. And please bring us up to date.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Judy, one of the interesting things about getting back into Afghanistan at this stage is to get a real assessment on the ground of actually what's going on outside of what the Taliban brought us into the country to do, which was to go and see a village in the mountains that they said had been bombed by American planes, where they said 200 people had died.

Certainly, we saw that village. We couldn't verify 200 people had died there. But it certainly did look like a civilian habited area. There certainly did appear to be a number of casualties. There were a number of graves around. And of the 40 or 50 houses, about 80 to 90 percent were destroyed, completely leveled. And the area did appear as if it had been bombed and there were bombs in the area.

But outside of that, looking around the countryside, one is able to see almost an economy, a rural economy of workers normal: plenty of people working in the fields, fields well tended, the stores and the villages well stocked -- people seeming to be quite happy.

In the towns, the gas stations working -- fuel -- the fuel pumps there on the streets -- some of the stores closed in the cities themselves. But, out -- most of the stores opened and food supplies in those stores and very much a sort of a sense of business as usual.

But just before we were about to leave from that trip, we did have a meeting with representatives of al Qaeda, who did deliver that special message from Osama bin Laden saying that there would be serious consequences if civilian homes in Afghanistan were destroyed.

But they also went on to say that Osama bin Laden really believes, at this stage, that al Qaeda, the Taliban, Afghanistan is winning this war. And he believes that al Qaeda has really set the agenda effectively for this war -- in their terms, that is a fight against Islam, not against terrorism. And they believe that this fight that they are winning will continue and will bring about, as they see it, the economic and political destruction, not only of the United States, not only of Britain, but also that will ripple on across the world -- Judy.

WOODRUFF: Nic, we're very curious about these al Qaeda representatives you met with. Tell us a little bit about who they were, their demeanor, what else they said to you.

ROBERTSON: One of them was a translator and spoke very good English, although he did appear to be also part of the al Qaeda network. The other gentleman appeared to be more senior. He did speak English as well, but left the fine details of translation to his translator.

They were introduced to me by somebody I have met on several previous trips to Afghanistan, somebody not inside the Taliban administration, but somebody who I have known to trust over the last few years. And they were introduced to me as al Qaeda members. They certainly deported themselves as if they had a serious message to deliver. They certainly spoke adherently about the issues. They certainly spoke with some -- what appeared to be with some authority coming from Osama bin Laden, impossible to gauge whereabouts they would sit within the hierarchy of al Qaeda organization.

But they came to me with a very serious message, to put across it appeared, and they certainly delivered it in a very clear and concise way and can -- certainly appeared to be able to answer quite probing questions on Osama bin Laden: his thoughts, how the organization perceives the current situation, things like this.

They did appear to be genuine members of al Qaeda as far as one could determine -- Judy.

WOODRUFF: Nic, did they say anything about the events of September the 11th and what's happened in the interim period?

ROBERTSON: They did allude to that.

They said that, from their perspective, one of their members or somebody fighting for their beliefs has, as one individual, has as much power -- military power as a whole core in an modern army. I asked them to explain this. And they said, look: If one of our -- one of our believers, one of our followers destroys himself and in the process destroys a building, destroys a large number of people, that would take a large amount of a modern army to do that. And therefore they say that, you know, one person is equal to one core of an modern army.

That is sort of where they are coming from. That's how they view themselves taking on the rest of the world that they see allied against them at this time.

WOODRUFF: Nic, if you saw no fear on the part of the al Qaeda representatives, what about on the part of the Taliban officials who were escorting you for the last couple of days? Did they indicate any fear or apprehension about this military campaign led by the U.S.?

ROBERTSON: No, definitely not.

We met with Mullah Abdul Kabir (ph), who is purported to be, perhaps, the third in line -- the third most senior person in the Taliban. And he was very, very clear in what he was saying in an off- camera press conference some 20 hours ago.

It was very robust, his statement, essentially saying that the only way for -- the only way forward to stop this at the moment was for the United States to negotiate with the Taliban to hand them evidence of Osama bin Laden's involvement in this. Of course we know, from President Bush, that that's not going to happen.

But it was a very robust message and that, certainly, absolutely no indications from the Taliban leadership that they are ready to step away from this current conflict -- and with -- from other Taliban officials, and even from the Taliban guards we were with, no indication that they felt any level of fear, or intimidated by the forces that are allied against them at this time -- Judy.

WOODRUFF: And, Nic, once again, back to your original comments about what you saw on the ground once you were in Afghanistan.

Did you -- what sense did you get overall about how this campaign is going, in terms of the destruction on military targets? Or did you get a sense at all?

ROBERTSON: There was evidence of some destruction of military targets. Certainly, what we were shown in Jalalabad airport would have been considered a military target by military planners. It was the radar installation at the airport. And the Taliban told us that that was taken out by a cruise missile on the first night. And, certainly, we can see the debris from a guided missile, similar to cruise missiles that have been used in previous air campaigns against Iraq and also in Kosovo, that was evident there.

In other sites that we drove past while we there -- some military installations -- and we could see some evidence of destruction from outside of those installations. But across the city, I mean, the pervading view really is that far from in the area -- we were in, of course, Jalalabad, which is eastern Afghanistan -- the pervading view there is very much a sort of a life as normal -- fewer people in the cities, but very much a life as normal -- plenty of cars out on the road, people going about their daily business, sitting around at the side of road so no sense of fear there -- Judy.

WOODRUFF: It's remarkable.

Nic Robertson reporting from Peshawar, Pakistan -- he is the only Western journalist who was a group of -- in a group of journalists escorted into Afghanistan by the Taliban. Thank you very much, Nic -- just a remarkable account there of what you saw.

And particularly remarkable, Aaron -- who is with us now in New York -- and particularly remarkable to me -- the comments of the Taliban and the al Qaeda representatives, Aaron.

AARON BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: They are no less emboldened than they seemed a month ago, that's for sure.

Secretary of State Powell is in Pakistan now. The Italian prime minister is in Washington. We are keeping -- we are watching to see when he and the president will come out to make some remarks.

As we wait for that, we'll go to Islamabad. Christiane Amanpour is there.

Christiane, we may interrupt as we go here if the president comes out. In the meantime, we know that the secretary of state is there. The demonstrations continue. Why don't you pick it up from there?

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Aaron, if you can hear me, ahead of General Powell's visit here, there has been a huge amount of security. There were military helicopters in the air.

Colin Powell arrived here over a couple of hours ago. And he is due to meet President Musharraf tomorrow. And then they'll hold a joint press conference. He's here to give support to General Musharraf and thank Pakistan for standing with the United States.

But, perhaps in light of the al Qaeda statements and the bin Laden statements talking about having defined this war in their own terms, there were a couple of important aspects of political support that have come from Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

He has said that this is a war on terrorism and not one on Islam, a message the United States has been trying to get out. And, in light of bin Laden and al Qaeda trying to appropriate the Palestinian cause to justify these terrorist attacks, Yasser Arafat made a very important distinction between what he called a Palestinian just cause and unjustified terrorism.


YASSER ARAFAT, PALESTINIAN AUTHORITY CHAIRMAN (through translator): Our Palestinian cause is a just cause.

We are supported fully by the international community, support of the Arabs, the Muslims, the Christians. It's the holy land. There can be no mix between our just cause and objectives and methods that are unjust by terrorist acts and the killing of civilians...






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