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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

LIVE FROM AFGHANISTAN WITH NIC ROBERTSON

Aired December 3, 2001 - 20:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
ANNOUNCER: LIVE FROM AFGHANISTAN WITH NIC ROBERTSON.

U.S. forces are gunning for bin Laden. Bombers pounding the suspected hideouts in the mountains, huge explosions in Tora Bora. CNN's Brent Sadler in the foothills.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BRENT SADLER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: A telltale plume of smoke over the Tora Bora mountains in eastern Afghanistan.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ANNOUNCER: And a CNN exclusive: An American fighting with the enemy.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: John Walker is 20 years old from Washington, D.C and he's a member of Ansak, or the helpers.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ANNOUNCER: Anti-Taliban forces continue to fight for Kandahar, the Taliban's last stronghold. CNN's Walt Rodgers is U.S. Marines.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WALTER RODGERS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: In the midst of a sandstorm, something approaches the U.S. Marines' forward base in the southern Afghan desert. Is it friendly or a bad guy?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ANNOUNCER: The Northern Alliance in Kabul, where lack of security is a big problem. CNN's Ben Wedeman...

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: In Afghanistan, travel is a deadly serious business.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ANNOUNCER: And the refugees: the upsurge out of Kandahar to Pakistan. CNN's Nic Robertson...

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Naji Walojan (ph) says he has seen untold horrors on his 25-day journey from Mazar-e Sharif in the north.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ANNOUNCER: Live from Afghanistan, Nic Robertson.

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, HOST, "THE POINT WITH GRETA VAN SUSTEREN: I'm Greta Van Susteren in Washington. We're having trouble with our satellite signal from Kabul right now. Nic Robertson will be joining us as soon as we get things cleared up.

Tonight's top story though is not in Afghanistan itself, but in Germany. That is where negotiees for Afghanistan's political factions have agreed on an interim government. CNN's Jim Bittermann joins us from the site of talks near Bonn -- Jim.

JIM BITTERMANN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Greta, within the last few minutes here, the U.N. spokesman has announced that the delegates to this convention, to this congress here to form a new government in Afghanistan, have agreed to a structural arrangement for an interim administration for Afghanistan, that is to say, a kind of government.

Basically, they have agreed to create a 29-member group. There would be 23 ordinary members, five deputy chairman of this group and one chairman who would, in a sense, be the prime minister for Afghanistan. And that government, as it were, would take effect really within the next few days, perhaps few weeks. There is no date set yet, but they are going to be working on that tomorrow about exactly what day they want this government to take hold.

The government would last six months. It's an interim administration. At end of six months, there would a traditional Afghan tribal gathering, which gathers together leaders from all over the country. They call it a Loya Jirga. And they would try to set up a more transitional government framework to rule until a new constitution is drawn up. And this agreement that has been reached here also provides for a constitutional commission which would have 18 months to draw up a new constitution for Afghanistan. And after that, six months after that constitution is drawn up, hopefully there would be free and fair and open elections for the country. So, basically, two years from when this agreement is signed, there would be elections in Afghanistan.

As I mentioned before, the date has been left open. But the most critical thing that has been left open here -- and they only just started talking about -- is who gets what jobs in this new administration. Only late tonight, about two and a half hours ago, did the Northern Alliance come up with a list of names for proposed candidates for these various positions within the new government. So tomorrow at noon, when the delegates gather again, they are going to be looking over those names, trying to slot them into these 29 positions and decide who is going to be running the country within a few weeks time -- Greta.

VAN SUSTEREN: Jim, there are four factions involved here: the Northern Alliance and those who are loyal to the exiled king and two smaller groups. Are all four groups happy with this interim arrangement?

BITTERMANN: As far as we understand from the U.N. spokesman, that's what has been agreed to tonight. All four groups are in on this structural arrangement.

By the way, I forgot to mention one of the more important elements of this arrangement is an annex which asks -- requests that the international community provide a security force which would be assembled as quickly as possible to go into at least Kabul, perhaps other parts of Afghanistan, to provide security for this new administration, a very important thing given the conditions on the ground there -- Greta.

VAN SUSTEREN: Jim, thank you. Jim Bittermann reporting live from Bonn, Germany.

And now we are going to go to Afghanistan where our Nic Robertson is standing by -- Nic.

ROBERTSON: Greta, we're here on the Afghan-Pakistan border. About 70 miles northwest of here is Kandahar city. We're told by our sources there it is tense at this time. We travel further north, however, to Jalalabad, about 350 miles. In the mountains outside of that city, U.S.-led air strikes have been targeting al Qaeda networks, where Osama bin Laden and his supporters are suspected still of hiding out.

Local officials tell CNN that there have been civilian casualties as part of this allied led campaign. Journalists were taken there recently, including CNN's Brent Sadler.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SADLER (voice-over): A telltale plume of smoke over the Tora Bora mountains in eastern Afghanistan. Heavy bombers target what the U.S. military suspects are terrorist hideouts dug deep into the rock, a hidden complex of caves and tunnels familiar to Osama bin Laden, who used it as a stronghold against Soviet occupation in the 1980's. It makes Tora Bora a high priority target for the Pentagon's war planners attempting to stop al Qaeda's freedom of movement.

REAR ADMIRAL JOHN STUFFLEBEEM, PENTAGON SPOKESMAN: This area below Jalalabad is one of the two areas that we are focusing the air strikes in this part of the campaign now because our reports indicate that this is where leadership potentially may be.

SADLER: But an U.S. attempts to winkle out any al Qaeda or Taliban leadership from this fortress-like terrain is now antagonizing U.S. allies in Jalalabad. As bodies arrive in the city, the anti- Taliban's military corps commander says he's urging the U.S. to change tactics, claiming heavy civilian casualties have resulted from the bombing.

Truck loads of fighters escorted journalists to Tora Bora at the request of reporters. At one village, dead livestock and dozens of lives lost, it's claimed, the bodies buried in these graves. Survivors say their village was destroyed in the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

"If they want to find Osama, the Taliban, and also the Arab people," he says, "that's good. In this place though, there is no Osama, only civilians."

(on camera): But some villagers say they suspect al Qaeda hideouts maybe about a two hour walk or mule ride from here. Combined with repetitive U.S. air strikes, it effectively makes this a frontline.

(voice-over): The journey here is arduous. Aside from our armed guard, there was no significant security in the area. Subsistence farmers scratch out a living in the drought-parched land. They have no means to distance themselves from armed terrorists and may be paying the consequences.

The U.S. military denies bombing civilian areas, saying the planes hit their intended targets, pointing out that it must -- quote -- "destroy al Qaeda or Taliban leadership and the places they do business."

STUFFLEBEEM: We know for a fact that these were legitimate military targets in that area that were struck. We know that there was terrific, traditional, consistent planning to ensure that only these targets were struck. We know there were no off-target hits, so there were no collateral damage worries in this series of strikes.

SADLER: This mountain range is a tough nut to crack from the air or on the ground. And bombing puts the districts with its remote communities in the line of fire.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ROBERTSON: Brent Sadler is now back in the city of Jalalabad and joins us there live from there. Brent, you talked about the terrain. You have been out there. You have seen it. Just how difficult is it, do you believe, to track down the al Qaeda there?

SADLER: Well, it is extraordinary difficult territory. It's impossible, for example, to get tanks or any heavy-armored weaponry in there, should there be a combined mujahedeen ground and U.S.-supported air assault on that region. More likely to use helicopters, perhaps chinooks, going to high altitude and dropping troops from helicopters onto the top of those peaks.

The Soviet Union forces tried it when they were here during the 1980s and it failed for the Soviet troops during that decade. So it is extraordinary difficult from a military perspective. As I talk to you now, Nic, we can hear continuing U.S. heavy air activity over Jalalabad. Again, Tora Bora, we are told by commanders here, the target -- Nic.

ROBERTSON: Brent, what is the implication of the civilian casualties? What are the local commanders telling you about how that's affecting people's view of the international community at this time?

SADLER: Well, quite clearly, they are saying it's undermining support for the anti-Taliban, mujahedeen alliance in eastern Afghanistan here. They are saying that these casualties, many dozens they claim, over the past four days of successive U.S. air strikes are really sapping away at the support these mujahedeen leaders say they have among the population at large here.

Another noteworthy piece of news came out of here several hours ago when Hasran Ali (ph), who is the corp commander of the mujahedeen area here, said that he had had information -- a message he said that had been passed on from Osama bin Laden himself through sympathetic Afghan emissaries who spoke to elders, tribal elders, that have been sent to the Tora Bora region by the mujahedeen.

And Osama bin Laden is reported to have said in that message that he is not prepared to fight mujahedeen forces. He will, however, fight what he called foreign forces. And he had requested the mujahedeen not to send armed troops.

That request is being denied by Hasrid Ally (ph), at least. He says some 1,500 fighters from the Eastern Alliance here are being assembled , may already have been assembled, may already have been assembled, and will be sent to assault -- launch an assault on that area.

One other piece of news from here, there are consistent reports of helicopter landings at Jalalabad Airport, which is just a few miles from where I am standing here, that possibly linking with efforts to send mujahedeen troops into that very key area. Back to you, Nic.

ROBERTSON: Brent Sadler in Jalalabad, thank you very much. Further south in Kandahar, also U.S.-led bombing raids on that city. Our sources there tell us key bridges around the city have been hit, leaving the city with only one access and entry road.

The also say that around the airport of Kandahar city there has been intense fighting. Anti-Taliban forces we are told, may have taken some areas around the airport. About 65 miles southwest of Kandahar City, Marines are dug in in the desert. At the moment they haven't been given their battle orders, but they are fighting the elements.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

RODGERS (voice-over): In the midst of a sandstorm, something approaches the U.S. Marines' forward base in the southern Afghan desert. Is it friendly or a bad guy?

This is but one instance of how, in a hostile environment, the constantly blowing sand and dust presents a serious challenge. Here, a Marine's home can literally blow away. A 50-caliber machine gun remains covered lest it jam in an emergency. You have to drink liters of water to wash the dust out of your mouth and it blows right back to your eyes, ears and nose.

Sometimes, the seeming darkness at noon eclipses helicopters. The Taliban may be the enemy, but sandstorms and dust are a close second.

UNIDENTIFIED U.S. SOLDIER: The dust is our biggest threat. Basically, when you have the type of rotor system this that puts out a hurricane type of velocity and it blows up all the dust particles, you tend to lose your visual reference.

RODGERS: In extreme dusty conditions, some laser-guided weapons systems become less accurate. Ordinary weapons like M-16 rifles have to be cleaned two and three times a day. Most important, the rifle's bolt carrier has to be grit free on semiautomatic weapons.

UNIDENTIFIED U.S. SOLDIER: I want to make sure it is clean. I want to make sure my rifle there is not going to jam. I know I am not going to jam, but I have got to make sure my rifle doesn't either.

RODGERS: The Marines' communications gear is especially sensitive to the blowing sand and must be cleaned two and three times a day.

UNIDENTIFIED U.S. SOLDIER: Some of your radio systems will tell you when they are dirty, different sounds on the handset, different sounds over the radio, just tells you when you are keying out -- you need to clean it.

RODGERS: So, the Marines cover up against another enemy. Some wear masks and bandanas like outlaws in the Old West until they take them down and you realize these are the good guys.

(on camera): In fact, one officer says these Marines would fight to be here, even with the sandstorms. And he added, there are others standing off shore in ships who would kill to trade places with those already here.

Walter Rodgers with the U.S. Marines in southern Afghanistan.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

VAN SUSTEREN: We have more satellite problems coming out of Afghanistan. We will have Nic Robertson up again in just a few minutes. In the meantime: A 20-year-old American claims he fought with the Taliban.

The man, identified as John Walker, surrendered in Mazar-e Sharif, the site of a prison uprising by Taliban fighters. Walker is now in the custody of the U.S. military in Afghanistan. His story is compelling, although still uncorroborated. Author Robert Young Pelton, working with CNN, found the man while he was being treated in an Afghanistan hospital, and got his story in this exclusive interview. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOHN WALKER, AMERICAN TALIBAN FIGHTER: I was a student in Pakistan studying Islam. I came into contact with many people who were connected with the Taliban. I lived in region in the northwest frontier province. People there in general have a great love for the Taliban. So, I started to read some the literature of the scholars and the history of the movement and my heart became attached. And they have the avalans (ph) and they have the non-avalans. I was with the separate branch of the non-avalans.

(UNINTELLIGIBLE)

They have another name. I don't remember the (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

ROBERT YOUNG PELTON, AUTHOR: You have a slight accent.

WALKER: I haven't spoken English native speakers in several months. I have been speaking Arabic. I been living overseas for about two years. You have to understand, all of the mujahedeen at that point, were in a very bad state psychologically. We had withdrawn a great distance, and we had lost a lot around Afghanistan. So, when they stopped us and they said give all of the weapons, many people were hesitant, so many of them held, they hid inside their clothes hand grenades, which is against what we had agreed upon. And this is against Islam. It is considered a major sin to break a contract you have made, especially in military situations.

Every single one of us, without any exaggeration, every single one of us was 100 percent sure that we would all be shot that night.

VAN SUSTEREN: Stay with CNN with more on the John Walker story. His father, Frank Lindh will be among Larry King's guests tonight. That is at 9 Eastern, 6 pacific right after THE POINT. We are going to take quick break. We will be right back, stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROBERTSON: Back here on the border with Afghanistan, inside the country the Northern Alliance had been making sweeping gains against, the Taliban. Many of those battle fronts now secure, but as Ben Wedeman reports, the highways are still another front, another challenge for the Northern Alliance.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So, if we go down this road, and we have a problem, people try to rob us, what are they going to do?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Find out what will they do. They will kill you. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes.

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): In Afghanistan, travel is a deadly-serious business. This safety expert is looking for a group of gunmen to escort journalists on a road trip from Kabul to Jalalabad, attending to details most travelers would never have to contemplate.

You don't have to go too far out of the capital to discover the perils of the road. At a cold, windswept checkpoint south of Kabul on the road to Kandahar, Northern Alliance troops look for arms and Taliban stragglers headed south.

It's impossible for you to go to Kandahar, says this soldier, it's not safe. Further down the road, a United Nations convoy, loaded with wheat for the drought-stricken province of Bamian is going nowhere.

Truck driver, Ahmed Ziya (ph), says other trucks have been looted by villagers. They won't move until they know the road to Bamian to the west is secure. The turf of the Northern Alliance ends here, at the village of Durani, 40 kilometers, or 25 miles, south of Kabul.

(on camera): This is as far as the authorities would allow us to go on the road from Kabul to Kandahar. After this, it's highway robbers and Taliban fighters.

If you go any further, says this local commander, you will be killed. Some Afghans aren't phased by the danger. It's nothing new. For those armed with personal contacts and tribal connections, this journey seems like any other, fraught with peril and always difficult.

Ben Wedeman, CNN, Durani, Afghanistan.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ROBERTSON: If there was one thing that the Taliban, perhaps, may be remembered positively for by the people of Afghanistan, it was for bringing security to the highways. The businessmen were one of the Taliban's biggest fans. Of course, all that has changed and it remains a challenge for the Northern Alliance to bring that same security to the highways and to convince the businessmen that the new administration in Afghanistan are good for them.

When we come back, after the break, how the bombing and insecurity is still driving Afghans from their homes.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROBERTSON: When allied bombing began almost two months ago, aid officials feared millions of refugees could flood out of Afghanistan. Pakistan feared it had much to lose. It was already home to two million Afghan refugees who fled during the 1980s Soviet occupation.

So far, the large numbers have not arrived. But as we've found out in a visit to a refugee camp here, intense rounds of bombing are still driving Afghans out of their country.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

(voice-over): Under the watchful eye of a Pakistani border guard, Baz Gul (ph) leads his family on a quest for safety. Unlike most refugees along this border, he is entering Pakistan legally. He says he's been traveling more than a week to get here and is escaping bombing west of Kandahar.

He moves his family of ten into tent number 248, not journey's end, however. The wind-blown camp on the border, merely a way station en route to more permanent refugee status deeper inside Pakistan. He's not alone.

Naji Walojan (ph) says he's seen untold horrors on his 25-day journey from Mazar-e Sharif in the north. Sitting astride his worldly possessions, he wonders what to do next. He talks of a better future and hopes the politicians in Bonn can deliver it.

(on camera): They are certainly not the first and they are unlikely to be the last. Each phase in the bombing campaign has driven refugees from different areas in the country. For now, it appears to be the turn of those around Kandahar.

(voice-over): While no aid official here would describe the increasing number of arrivals as an influx, up from about 300 families a day to 600 per day, they say the current military pressure on the Taliban is having an impact.

ELLEN HAKIM, UNHCR TEAM LEADER: It's mostly because people are unsure about the situation, and especially around Spin Boldak, they are unsure about what can happen during the next coming days.

ROBERTSON: Ahmad Azhar dispenses frontline medical care as refugees arrive. He expects to treat 100 or so a day, with ailments ranging from malnutrition to aching joints from walking. But only the lucky benefit. Many more refugees are across the border, unable to enter Pakistan.

AHMAD AZHAR, MALAYSIAN MEDICAL RELIEF: Well, when I was here from the 20th of November, they just occupied this spot. Now, you can see it stretched all right to the end there. So it is still increasing every day.

ROBERTSON: There are signs that this may not be a permanent settlement. Even now, from this human morass, some are drifting back into Afghanistan, headed, aid workers say, mostly towards cities in the north, where, for now, the war appears to be over.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

A glimmer of hope then maybe, that when the war subsides, all the refugees will go back home.

We'll be back at the same time tomorrow with LIVE FROM AFGHANISTAN. Up next, THE POINT WITH GRETA VAN SUSTEREN. She'll be looking more at the story of John Walker. And for our international viewers, it's "International Sport."

We leave you with these images of U.S. troops having a friendly snowball fight with young children in northern Afghanistan. After four years of drought, it will likely bring a smile to the faces of their moms and dads as well.

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