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Live From Afghanistan With Nic Robertson: Afghans Claim U.S. Bombs Killed Civilians; An American Who Fought With the Taliban; U.S. Marines Prepare for Possible Battle

Aired December 2, 2001 - 20:00   ET


ANNOUNCER: LIVE FROM AFGHANISTAN WITH NIC ROBERTSON. Tonight, targeting al Qaeda hideouts, claims of civilian casualties.


BRENT SADLER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): These are the first harrowing pictures to emerge from a district called Agam, two hours drive from Jalalabad.


ANNOUNCER: An American fighting with the Taliban.


ROBERT YOUNG PELTON, AUTHOR: Twenty years old from Washington, D.C. and he's a member of Ansar, or the helpers, the Arab-speaking fighters funded and supported by Osama bin Laden.


ANNOUNCER: An exclusive report. We'll hear from the wounded man, now a prison of war.


JOHN WALKER, TALIBAN FIGHTER: When we withdrew from Takhar, we walked by foot maybe more than 100 miles.


ANNOUNCER: And the challenges and obstacles of covering a war.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We've also been pushing tribal leaders to let us join fighters they claim are closing in on the city so we can see for ourselves.


NIC ROBERTSON, HOST: Welcome to our viewers around the world. Tonight, LIVE FROM AFGHANISTAN comes from the border with Pakistan; three hours drive up the road behind me is the last bastion of Taliban control, Kandahar. This is as close as the Taliban will allow to us get. Tribal leaders here tell us they are fighting alongside U.S. and British special forces, calling in air strikes on Kandahar city airport. Our sources in the city there say they hear the fighting close to the airport.

Three hundred and fifty miles further north around the city of Jalalabad, the United States continues with its allied bombing raids on holdouts of al Qaeda network and Osama bin Laden. In those mountains, officials, local officials say that innocent villagers are being killed. An exclusive video to CNN, Brent Sadler examines what's happening. We warn you some of these images are graphic.


SADLER (voice-over): Scenes of devastation, and heavy loss of life in a remote region of eastern Afghanistan. The tragic aftermath, claim regional authorities, of two successive days of American air strikes in Nangarhar province. These are the first harrowing pictures to emerge from a district called Agam, some two hours drive from Jalalabad, a village they call Madokolay. It is within eyesight of a mountain range, which conceals Tora Bora, a suspected hideout for al Qaeda or Taliban diehards, a high priority U.S. military target.

Survivors dig for the remains of victims in Madokolay, two days after the destruction, delivered, they claim, by U.S. warplanes, a claim, U.S. military authorities deny.

This man holds up what he says is a bomb or missile fragment. "This is their humanitarian aid to us," he says angrily, "they want to rebuild Afghanistan but this is their gift to us."

Sorrow is turning to anger here. By day, they can see American bombers flying overhead. By night, they say, aerial weapons are hitting them not terrorists.

"Find the Arab or Osama here," he says, "If they are here, burn me to death, but they're not."

In Jalalabad's hospitals, casualties fill the dirt-stained wards and corridors. Bodies are laid out in the morgue. The city's mujahideen corps commander who tells me he's in contact with unnamed U.S. authorities acknowledges the depth of the problem. Scenes like this, he believes, undermine efforts to win Afghan support for the war on terror.

MOHAMMED ZAMAN, MUJAHIDEEN CORPS COMMANDER: Of course, this is our problem. The dead body, our problem. The complaint, our problem. Villagers, our problem.

SADLER: And he claims, the district office for his own mujahideen security personnel for the area was destroyed in the attacks, inflicting more deaths. Casualties of what's being attributed by officials here as targeting errors, errors which they insist must stop. Brent Sadler, CNN, Jalalabad.


ROBERTSON: The attacks are part of a global effort to stamp out international terrorism following the September the 11th attacks, which killed thousands. United States Central Command say they are not attacking civilian areas. And that includes the village of Agam.

United States Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said in all the bombing raids, they are trying to avoid innocent casualties.


DONALD RUMSFELD, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: We are bombing in Afghanistan. We are doing it in way that is as precise and careful as ever has happened in history. There are lots of people shooting in Afghanistan. There opposition forces. There is the bombs we are dropping. There are people on the ground. There are the al Qaeda and the Taliban shooting and blowing up and killing people. So there's a lot of ordnance flying around and there is no question. But that from time to time, innocent people, noncombatants, undoubtedly are killed and that' is always unfortunate.

The -- I hope we hit an al Qaeda headquarters. We are systematically trying to do that.

ROBERTSON: In southern Afghanistan, not far from the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, U.S. forces are digging in at remote desert air base. Walter Rodgers is with the 10th Marine Expeditionary Force.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Our father who art in heaven...

WALTER RODGERS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A Protestant chaplain leads U.S. Marines in prayer as the anti-Taliban ring draws tighter and tighter around Kandahar.

The Marines paused at their base in the Afghan desert Sunday, this as the coalition military buildup continues. The Roman Catholic Eucharistic minister, Major Beau Higgins, said, quote, "We are definitely getting prepared for what lies ahead." Higgins' full time job is a Marine intelligence officer, and he said the war is reaching a culmination point.

MAJ. BEAU HIGGINS, MARINE INTELLIGENCE OFFICER: The way the Taliban is looking, a lot of the pressure, kind of a snake, kind of squeezing in on them, and hopefully, they'll be -- you know, we can get them out of there in the pretty near future. So we will see.

RODGERS: Both Roman Catholic and Protestant services offered the prayer of Isaiah, that the sword my be beaten into plowshares and the spears into pruning hooks, but peace still seems quite distant from this Marine base camp.

MARINE CORPS: Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.

ROGERS: This Marine lance corporal, Alesar Hernandez said that he attended the mass because he got a sign. Newly arrived pictures from his wife of their baby daughter, Milagros Angelica (ph).

ALESAR HERNANDEZ, U.S. MARINE CORPS: Sure enough, the pictures were there, and I said, I have to go thank the man upstairs for this one.

RODGERS: Meanwhile, the number of Marine attack and support helicopters at this desert base nearly doubled overnight. Nearly all the pilots complained of the terrible dust they have to fly through, but Captain Doug Sanders says his Cobra helicopter is more than ready to fly.

CAPT. DOUG SANDERS, MARINE HELICOPTER PILOT: She's fast. She flies low. She's very agile. If I'm in combat, that's what's going to keep me alive. They have a tough time keeping up with her.

RODGERS (on-camera): Nearly everyone here is beginning to speculate on when the final push for Kandahar will begin. It is not at all certain these Marines will be participating in that, although one officer said, quote, "We're here for a purpose. We'll tell you after we do it."

Walter Rogers with Task Force 58, in southern Afghanistan.


ROBERTSON: Well, as the military efforts continue inside Afghanistan thousands of miles away in Bonn, Germany, Afghan leaders are meeting under the auspices of the United Nations. Six days of talks now that many hoped would be wrapped up to bring an interim government to Afghanistan. CNN's Jim Bittermann has been following those sometimes faltering talks.

Jim, what's the latest?

JIM BITTERMANN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Nic, it's well after two in the morning here outside Bonn and the delegations up at Petersburg Guest House are still working away at this hour. All day long, they've been checking, changing and correcting a document that they believe and they hope will create the political structure for a new Afghanistan.


BITTERMANN (voice-over): After six days of discussions, Afghans try to restart government in their homeland. Now, at least have a draft outline on paper of how that government will look. Under the outline, which could change, a temporary ruling council, in reality, the government, to include 29 members, 23 of them ordinary members, five deputy chairmen and one chairman. The top six offices must include at least one woman, and one member of each of Afghanistan's four main ethnic groups. The 29 members will serve for six months. The draft agreement says a fixed date shall be set when the government is to be created. On that date, the ruling interim administration takes charge of the banking system, will be recognized as a sovereign government and will take over Afghanistan's seat in the United Nations.

The draft specifies that the former king declines the role of head of government and will serve only to open and preside over the traditional ruling assembly, which will be convened at the end of six months. As well, the document requests a multinational peacekeeping force for Kabul and perhaps other parts of Afghanistan.

A German diplomat at the talks says he hopes there will be a new beginning for Afghanistan by the end of this month.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The parties all agree that the start (UNINTELLIGIBLE) -- that we start form scratch with a new government. So they have to indeed to get all together in Kabul and start on a given day.

BITTERMANN: But still ahead, is perhaps the most complicated issue -- who gets what job in the new administration. Yet, when I asked diplomatic observers here, they said success is at least now probable.

(on-camera): In your view, it's no longer a question of whether but when is it going to finish.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, I think it's increasingly a question of when rather than whether. But with these kinds of things, you can never be sure.

BITTERMANN (voice-over): German sources indicate the conference, which was meant to end Saturday will now go on through a seventh day, Monday and perhaps longer.


BITTERMANN: And Nic, that final agreement will no doubt differ from the draft that -- which we saw. But all the parties can talk -- confer that it must include the one element, the one element that no one has seen on paper or at the bargaining table and that is a final list of all those who will participate in forming the next government for Afghanistan -- Nic.

ROBERTSON: Jim, you talk about the diplomat observers there. This has been an opportunity for international countries to get an insight into how Afghan politics works. What are they telling you they're learning?

BITTERMANN: Well, I think we've all learned a lot more about Afghan politics than any of us dreamed we ever would, particularly about the intricate mix of ethnic and tribal politics it takes to keep a balance.

One of the things that I would say just from my observations here, as someone who has a background in Chicago politics, kind of rough and tumble politics you see in the United States, is the incredible politeness of the politics. There is an awful lot of hand shaking and hugging and what not that goes on and also, a lot of indirectness. And I think one of the reasons these talks have taken so long is the fact that people are a little bit indirect and don't often state necessarily their primary intent right off the bat -- Nic.

ROBERTSON: Jim Bittermann in Bonn, thank you very much.

One of the elements coming out of those talks in Bonn is of course, the loya jerga, the grand council. This historic method inside Afghanistan for dealing with issues of national importance, national decisions. CNN's Ben Wedeman examines this role in Afghanistan's history.


BEN WEDEMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Sometimes, you have to go behind the woodshed for wisdom. Olan Malihan (ph) never got an education, but he knows a thing or two about his country, about what works and what doesn't.

He and his friends have had it with fanatical rulers and power mad warlords who have reduced their country to a wasteland.

"The hell with wars and battles," Olan (ph) says. "The most important thing is that we stop fighting."

Here, they say, the best way to cure what ails Afghanistan is a loya jerga, a grand assembly bringing together all the countries leaders to debate their problems and come up with practical solutions.

The loya jerga tradition goes back 2,000 years, and though some ended in acrimony rather than agreement, over the years the loya jerga has become the preferred means to address the nation's problems.

The last loya jerga took place in 1987 under the Soviet-backed regime of Mohammed Najibullah. A rubber-stamp affair, it seemed more suited to Moscow than Kabul, but it represented a significant nod to tradition by an embattled leader desperate for legitimacy. Mohammed Malwan was a deputy commerce minister under Najibullah and attended the 1987 meeting.

MOHAMMED MALWAN, FORMER DEPUTY COMMERCE MINISTER: For the solution of the problem of Afghanistan, there is no way but to get that familiar and especially if it is in the form of loya jerga.

WEDEMAN: In recent months, Afghan refugees in Pakistan have held a series of such meetings to debate the country's future. And even among Afghanistan's feuding factions, including those meeting in Bonn, Germany, there is rare consensus that a loya jerga must be held in the months ahead.

(on-camera): A loya jerga could provide the final stamp of approval to a post-war government in Afghanistan. If, that is, the war ever comes to an end. Ben Wedeman, CNN, Kabul.


ROBERTSON: When we come back after the break, an interesting tale from the uprising inside a jail in northern Afghanistan. A Taliban survivor who claims to come from Washington tells his story.


ROBERTSON: When the Taliban stronghold in Konduz, north Afghanistan fell, many hundreds of Taliban were taken prisoner. They were imprisoned in a large fortress not far from the city of Mazar-e- Sharif. Not long after, an uprising followed. Many hundreds of Taliban were killed in the bloody uprising in that prison complex.

One survivor, a Taliban who claims to have come from Washington, tells his tale. It is as yet, uncorroborated. He was contacted by author Robert Young Felton working for CNN. He found him and tells his story.


PELTON (voice-over): I met John walker in a hospital in Shpregon (ph), in northern Afghanistan. Someone had said there was an American among the foreign fighters who had survived the prison uprising at Kali Jangi (ph). The admitting room, where they were doing triage was filled with the dead and dying.

The Afghan doctors told me that most of these badly injured men would die that night. They have survived a week of bombs, grenades, firebombs, and finally freezing water that was poured into the bunker. When I heard that an American was here, I brought along American Special Forces medics to attend to his wounds.

John Walker is 20 years old from Washington, D.C., and he is a member of Ansar, or the helpers, the Arab-speaking fighters funded and supported by Osama bin Laden.

He came here six months ago from Yemen where he was studying Arabic. He had told his parents he was leaving for Afghanistan to become an aid worker.

WALKER: I was a student in Pakistan studying Islam. And I came into contact with many people who were connected with the Taliban. I lived in the region, in the northwest frontier province there. The people there in general have a great love for the Taliban. So, I started to read some of the literature of the scholars and the history of the movement, and my heart became attached to them.

PELTON: Instead, he want to Kabul to join the Taliban. But because he could not speak Pashtun, they sent him to the Arabic speaking training camps run by bin Laden. He learned how to fire a Kalashnikov and was sent to Kashmir to fight. He saw bin Laden many times, usually, when Osama would visit the camps and sometimes when he visited the front lines. John began his jihad on the front-lines north of Kabul and later was sent to fight in the province of Takhar, then the war began.

WALKER: When we withdrew from Takhar, we walked by foot maybe more than 100 miles. Afterwards, I was really sick for the whole period.

PELTON: Surrendered as part of over 3,000 Taliban fighters in Konduz, he entered in General Rashid Dostum's fortress at Kali Jungi (ph). John is now a prisoner of war has been removed to a safe place to recuperate and possibly face prosecution. Others were not so lucky.

This is Robert Young Pelton for CNN, in Shrebregon (ph), Afghanistan.


ROBERTSON: When we come back after the break, just how we get to the news when the Taliban try to keep us out and also, a look at children of Afghanistan, how they suffer and what they need.


ROBERTSON: Afghanistan has been at war for 22 years, many hundreds of thousands have been killed. The average life expectancy is little more than 40. It led to a dislocated society and children here, often suffer the most and as Harris Whitbeck reports, often need the most help.


HARRIS WHITBECK, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The Kabul skies still plied by U.S. B-52 bombers are now filled by something rarely seen here in the last five years, the colorful paper kites that are the national pastime. Kite shops in Kabul are back in business. During the Taliban years, they were considered an affront to Islam.

"They would beat us and destroy our kites," says kite maker Zalgai (ph), "They would not let us sell them openly."

Children now stand on rooftops, string in hand, indulging in play as timeless as a child's laugh.

Development workers say much more needs to change in children's lives. Decades of war have left tens of thousands of orphans, one in four Afghan children dies from preventable diseases before the age of five, and a fast-approaching winter is threatening thousands more. UNICEF executive director, Carol Bellamy, says immediate aid efforts should have longer-term effects as well.

CAROL BELLAMY, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, UNICEF: To some degree, the emergency response is literally to try and reduce the number of kids who will die this winter from just terrible conditions. So yes, that's critical need for blankets and medicines. But those medicines, at the same time, will contribute to a health system being able to respond. WHITBECK: Some efforts to rescue Afghanistan's threatened children have been homegrown, but inadequate. A state-run orphanage in Kabul houses 450 boys and girls, but they sleep in dank, unheated dormitories, and the staff has not been paid in four months.

An improvised school for orphans teaches children to read and write, but it depends on private donations that dropped off during years of war. UNICEF says it will focus on education.

BELLAMY: Two years from now, the public school system could be running. It might not mean every child is in school. There are countries around the world where lots of children aren't in school, but at least the system would be running. The teachers would be back in the classrooms and women would be contributing members of society.

WHITBECK: Children may be spending more time in the classroom, and less time flying kites.

Harris Whitbeck, CNN, Kabul, Afghanistan.


ROBERTSON: The Taliban have never made it easy for journalists to cover the news. And as they're increasingly pushed on the defensive in their last stronghold of Kandahar, it is increasingly difficult. We have been reporting from this border trying to glean all the information we can as people stream out of Afghanistan across here into Pakistan. Often times, we are trying to gather pieces of the puzzle from those people as they leave Afghanistan.


ROBERTSON (on-camera): Further inside Afghanistan we understand that the Taliban still do not control the main highway from Kandahar. But in Spin Boldak, itself, everyone...

When words like perhaps and possibly pepper your stories, you know you're not close enough to the news and you know you're chasing missing parts to the puzzle. So while we've been struck at border, prevented by the Taliban from crossing and doing our best to divine from truck drivers and defecting Taliban officials what's happening in their last bastion, Kandahar...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We relinquish this today or night. We have given the telephone number to...

ROBERTSON (on-camera): So when the Taliban give over the town to you, then you can help us come in?


ROBERTSON (voice-over): We've also been pushing tribal leaders to let us join fighters, they claim, are closing in on city so we can see for ourselves. It's no good asking the former Taliban ambassador who grew to international importance through his daily news briefings, delivering the Taliban's view because he says he is no longer able to grant visas for travel, but instead, now tells how it all went wrong for the Taliban, how bombing left front line fighters without food and ammunition and how he and other Taliban officials tried to persuade Mullah Omar to hand over Osama bin Laden.

So the question when stuck so far from the story, is who is to be believed. The truck driver, "The Taliban don't control the highway," he says. The defector, "Last night, elder said anyone who wants to leave can. I'm going to my family," he says. The former official or the tribal leader, "The Taliban will hand over this town because it means they won't have to die," he says.

It all paints a picture of the Taliban under pressure, very much what we are expecting and therefore, more easily believable. So where then do the other details from the same people fit into that image?

Like the tribal chieftain, seemingly on the same side as American forces, fighting the Taliban. But when asked what difference it makes having U.S. troops on the ground...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): The people aren't happy, but they can't do anything about it. We have no government. No defense.

ROBERTSON: And do we believe, as well, the new Taliban officials sent in to replace the defectors?

"As long as our leader Mullah Muhammad Omar is alive," he says, "We will defend this patch."

And for that matter, how will we know if he does die?


ROBERTSON: The truth is we'll be here trying to get all the information from all the tribal leaders, truck delivers, Taliban officials who cross this border.

Coming next, the headlines and "PEOPLE IN THE NEWS". We'll be back tomorrow with another LIVE FROM AFGHANISTAN.




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