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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

LIVE FROM AFGHANISTAN

Aired December 17, 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.

The hunt for Osama bin Laden: Is he still in the mountains of Tora Bora, or has he managed to slip away?

Left behind by al Qaeda fighters, caves packed with weapons.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NIC ROBERTSON, HOST: There are many more caves like this one in these mountains, and highly likely, many more stuffed full of ammunition, ammunition the al Qaeda never got time to use.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ANNOUNCER: And in Kabul, the former U.S. Embassy reopens with a commitment to new Afghan leaders.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

AMBASSADOR JAMES DOBBINS, U.S. ENVOY TO AFGHANISTAN: The United States returns to Afghanistan today, at the head of a great international coalition, a coalition committed to rooting out terrorism and those who support it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ANNOUNCER: CNN'S Jim Clancy is live in Kabul.

U.S. forces in harm's way, at risk from land mines littering the airport at Kandahar.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What you're doing is, you could lose your life at some time. Once you come to terms with that, it makes the job a lot easier.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ANNOUNCER: Live from Afghanistan, Nic Robertson.

ROBERTSON: Tonight, LIVE FROM AFGHANISTAN comes from the White Mountains near Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan. In the mountains behind me, the bombing that has characterized the hunt for Osama bin Laden in the last few weeks has almost ceased in last 24 hours.

Local Eastern Alliance commanders say they have overrun all the al Qaeda cave complexes in the mountains. However, significantly they say they are no closer to finding Osama bin Laden.

We were able to take a visit to some of those caves in the mountains now that al Qaeda have fled. What is not clear is where the al Qaeda have gone, many here speculate towards Pakistan. What we found in those caves was an arsenal so significant, it appeared as if it was a place Osama bin Laden had decided to make a last stand.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

(voice-over): Eastern Alliance fighters beckon towards a small hole in the hillside deep in the Tora Bora range. From the outside little to hint of what's hidden behind this modest opening.

An Aladdin's cave of armaments that this lethal stash was collected by Osama bin Laden. Chinese-made heavy machine gun rounds in cases untidily packed almost to the roof of this al Qaeda cave. Close by, mortar bombs lined up against the wall.

(on camera): There are many more caves like this one in these mountains and highly likely, many more stuffed full of ammunition, ammunition the al Qaeda never got time to use.

(voice-over): Outside, the destruction hints at the heavy bombing in the last few weeks. No evidence however, that despite their massive stockpiles, al Qaeda fighters stood their ground here in battle. All indications point to a hasty retreat, higher into the mountains.

Indeed, of the 2,000 al Qaeda fighters, U.S. officials believe were in these mountains, very few have been found. Local Afghan fighters have captured a handful, including they Arabs paraded to the international media. For commanders at Tora Bora, the trophies of war, evidence of their success in routing al Qaeda from the mountains above.

The true value of these captures may be the information they can provide to western governments on Osama bin Laden's whereabouts. Interviewed privately by CNN, one group says they believed Osama had been in the area as recently as Saturday.

The truth is no one really knows where Osama bin Laden is. He may still be in these mountains, hidden perhaps in a deep cave or long gone across the border and into Pakistan.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(INTERRUPTED FOR TECHNICAL DIFFICULTIES)

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, "THE POINT": Many of the strategies in this war have centered on the elaborate systems of caves entrenched in the Afghan mountains.

CNN military analyst, General Wesley Clark tell us what goes on behind the scenes of a case assault.

GENERAL WESLEY CLARK, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Here at the outset, we've received information on a tunnel complex located in the high ground of Tora Bora. So we put overhead aircraft and satellite detectors in play. Maybe it's infrared. Maybe it's some other technology. Maybe it's mapping with a map, but we locate that complex.

We think we know something about where the entrances and exits are, and we think we know something about what it looks like on the inside. Now what we want to do is we want to seal off the entrances and exits, except for one.

And so we've done this was guided weapons. You've seen them fly in right here and block off the two tunnel exits on the flanks, and that leaves the center exit. The center exit or entrance is where we're going to go in with our team. So we're going to form up a team that will get us up to the mouth of the tunnel or cave.

And to that, we're going to have to protect ourselves as we move in, and so the team has various components. We don't know how many people this might be. It might be 50. It might be 100. It might be 25, but some people will be security and they'll be helping us by protecting our flanks in the rear as we move up into a hostile area.

And then there will be some support elements, and the support elements will provide suppressive fire on the mouth of the cave tunnel complex or around it. And then, behind that and moving up through it will be the assault element. The assault element will actually go into the cave or tunnel, if that's the mission.

They'll have some people who can search the rooms and secure them and then they'll have other people who can handle any prisoners that might be located there.

Now the key on this is what happens once they get inside, and that's what we can't know at this point because we don't know exactly what that area is going to look like inside.

And we could be engaged by indirect fire, mortars, artillery, rockets hidden somewhere. We could end up encountering a minefield that we didn't know about. There could be wounded enemy outside who would let us pass. They'd play dead. They come up and they shoot us in the back.

The biggest risk, the greatest unknown is what's on the inside of the cave and tunnel. We just don't know what's in there. And so, that's the problem the assault force itself has to face when it enters into the objective area.

ROBERTSON: Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has been touring the region. He was in Afghanistan Sunday, not only meeting with U.S. troops, but also with Afghan officials. He has now flown on to Brussels, but Jamie McIntyre caught up with him on the plane and asked him about Osama bin Laden.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN MILITARY AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Did bin Laden escape from the Tora Bora area?

RUMSFELD: That presumes he was there.

MCINTYRE: Yes, it does.

RUMSFELD: Since we did not that with precision, and we don't know if he's there now, it would be difficult to answer the question.

MCINTYRE: Are you saying you don't know where he is?

RUMSFELD: I am saying that it is a question mark as to his exact location. There are people who continue to speculate that he may be in that area or may have been in that area, or he may be somewhere else. My feeling is, until we catch him, which we will, we won't know precisely where he was when we catch him.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERTSON: After taking their first casualties at Kandahar City Airport, Marines there are continuing with their effort to make the airport there just outside Kandahar City safe.

It was very recently an al Qaeda base. During the 1980s, it was a key military installation for the Soviet army during their are occupation of Afghanistan. It was fought over many times. It's been mined heavily. There are a lot of unexploded weapons around there.

And, Mike Chinoy has been with the Marines as they go through their very painstaking task now of making it safe for them to operate from.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MIKE CHINOY, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Explosions at Kandahar Airport, but this time set by the Marines, controlled blasts getting rid of some of the mines and other lethal ordinance that litter this place.

Ironically, the technicians who prepared these explosions were the same ones who, on Sunday, rescued three Marines injured by a land mine, including one soldier who lost his foot.

That incident happened here, near an abandoned building at the end of the runway, with Taliban anti-aircraft guns on the roof. The Marines has just searched it for ordinance when one of them stepped on a mine.

As he lay in agony, the rescuers had to probe with knives for other devices before laying down a tape to reach him safely.

SERGEANT MICHAEL GATTIS, U.S. MARINE CORPS: You got an angle when you're probing, as far as if you do hit the body of the mine. That's what you're actually wanting to detect, not the fusing but the body.

And as long as don't grip it tight and it impacts up, you're fine. If you grip it tight and you are just jamming it in the ground with no technique, you're going to set it off.

STAFF SGT. MICHAEL LEURINI, U.S. MARINE CORPS: What you're dealing is you could lose your life at some time, and once you come to terms with that, it makes the job a lot easier, and you know that your job is making other people safe. And that's where we get our satisfaction.

CHINOY: The rescuers told us how they talked with the injured man, Corporal Chris Chandler from Camp Pendleton, California, who was later evacuated by helicopter as they worked their way forward.

GATTIS: We were talking with him to keep his conscious, as far as asking him where he's from, asking him his name, how many brothers and sisters he had.

LEURINI: He was worried that we were going to hurt ourselves, you know, and my comment to him was, we get paid $150 extra a month for that, so not to worry about it.

CHINOY: With bombs, rockets, grenades, fuses and ammunition almost everywhere and controlled explosions a regular occurrence, it's becoming clear that unexploded ordnance is the Marines most immediate security problem.

(on camera): The Marines say they're even concerned about mines being planted in craters on the runway, craters like this, caused by U.S. bombing. According to Marine ordnance experts, there's concern that departing Taliban and al Qaeda fighters put landmines in these craters, convinced the Marines might use them as foxholes.

LIEUTENANT MIKE RUNCLE, U.S. NAVY: And that's the trick to mines. Our first indication that there's a mine field would be when one guy steps on it.

CHINOY: That's hardly the only security threat though, as the Marines reinforce their presence here. Thirteen plane loads of troops and equipment arrived on Sunday night. We are told there's still a danger from pockets of Taliban and al Qaeda fighters.

With plans to reopen airport runway moving ahead, the Marines will have to expand their security perimeter, and that means working through the surrounding mine fields whatever the risk.

Mike Chinoy with the U.S. Marines at Kandahar Airport.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ROBERTSON: At another key airfield in the north of Afghanistan, French troops are deployed, keeping air base there secure. These are the toughest French troops, the French Foreign Legion, now known as the Infantry Marine. They are there, 200 of them, providing security for the United States Army engineers to repair the runway. Those engineers also working with local Afghan workers to make that runway safe, like Kandahar Airport has been exposed to more than 22 years of war inside Afghanistan, many dangers lurking there, including mines.

Like Kandahar Airport as well, Mazar-e Sharif in the north will likely be a key staging point for humanitarian efforts inside Afghanistan.

Coming up after the break, United States diplomats return to Afghanistan, after more than a decade in absence.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROBERTSON: A key component of Afghanistan's transition from Taliban rule to interim government is the provision by the international community of a limited peacekeeping force. That force will likely be in some of the cities of Afghanistan, Kabul being top of the list.

Over the weekend, negotiations were -- intense negotiations were underway in Kabul to give a shape and a role to that force. Those negotiations appear to be making progress. An advance force will be in place before the inauguration of that interim government on the 22nd of December.

As British Prime Minister Tony Blair explains, he expects British commanders to be at the head of that force.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TONY BLAIR, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER: Britain is willing in principle to lead such a force. It is likely to comprise troops from various countries, European and others. Friday's meeting of potentially troop contributing nations was attended by a number of EU countries, as well as Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the Czech Republic, Jordan, Malaysia, Turkey and the U.S.

The British contingent is likely to be up to 1,000 to 1500, though I stress that this is not yet decided. We expect the resolution to be passed by the U.N. Security Council later this week. The United States has given its full help and support for the security force, and we would hope to have lead elements in place shortly.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERTSON: In Kabul Sunday -- in Kabul Monday, a simple flag- raising ceremony at the long deserted U.S. Embassy, gave an indication of United States increasing commitment to Afghanistan.

And as Jim Clancy reports, for the people of Afghanistan, it gave some more hope.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) JIM CLANCY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: U.S. Marines raised the very same American flag that had been lowered here on January 30, 1989, thrusting its colors into the gray winter skies over Kabul.

Still bearing the scars of conflict, an embassy window reflected those colors for the first time in a dozen years. A cool drizzle almost led to postponement of the event, but the U.S. Special Envoy flung off his coat, declaring rain, a good omen for the flag raising, and for drought-stricken Afghanistan.

DOBBINS: The United States returns to Afghanistan today at the head of the great international coalition, a coalition committed to rooting out terrorism and those who support it.

But the United States also comes ready to join with the rest of the international community in assisting with the reconstruction of Afghanistan.

CLANCY: Looking on, foreign service nationals, Afghans who work or used to work at this embassy, and braved rocket fire, mobs and shootings to stay at their posts.

Their children, some of them holding small American flags, behind rows of diplomats and Northern Alliance ministers. General Fahim, the defense minister, an interior minister, Kad Uni (ph) heard what the U.S. expects of their interim government.

DOBBINS: This new Afghan government will be led by a new generation of Afghan leaders, who have a historic opportunity to lead Afghanistan into a new era. As they do so, they can be assured that the United States will be there with them.

CLANCY: The embassy building was hit by a missile. Many of its windows broken. A nearby annex was gutted by fire during a Taliban- era rampage. Still, as a truckload of supplies arrive from the airport and the moving in progressed, diplomats remarked the Taliban had ransacked but not looted everything from books and photos to the Ambassador's fine china, crystal and silver service remain in place.

What has changed is the understanding that no matter how remote a nation may seem, how impossible its problems, nothing good will come by ignoring its plight.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

CLANCY (on camera): Just what can the United States do for Afghanistan? Well, Ambassador Dobbins revealed that in talks with General Fahim, the Defense Minister, they had asked for the United States to assist in building a professional army in Afghanistan, one that would perhaps be multi-ethnic, represent everyone, and end some of the fears that people have about the in fighting among the former Northern Alliance warlords that ruled the country and brought it to its knees beginning in 1992 -- Nic.

ROBERTSON: Jim, outside of those preparing a military force for Afghanistan, what does Ambassador Dobbins say are the more other pressing problems in the country?

CLANCY: Well certainly, one of them is to get that, not peacekeeping but security force in place. He said the United States wasn't going to take part in that, but it would have people in positions of enablers in that process.

He said in terms of rehabilitation, the U.S. was going to stand up and be counted, along with other nations in Europe, Asia, around the world, but a lot of those decisions have yet to be made. Clearly we're in a transitional phase. The Ambassador was telling all who would listen that this has got to be a process that moves forward.

It will depend certainly on the United States and the rest of the international community. It will also depend on the politicians in the interim government of Hamid Karzai, how they deliver on their promise of a multi-ethnic government, and move this country toward that Loya Jirga, an emergency session that should be able to come up with a more permanent answer to governing the people of Afghanistan -- Nic.

ROBERTSON: Jim, even through the Taliban rule, the United States was one of the major contributors of aid to Afghanistan, to the Afghan people. Did Ambassador Dobbins, or have other diplomats in Kabul expressed what is happening with the humanitarian effort now? Winter is closing in?

CLANCY: Well, we have to take a look at two facets here. One of them, as you mentioned here, is humanitarian aid. In this area, already the World Food Programme embarking on the largest ever distribution program in the history of this country.

We are likely to see more following. A lot of it's going to depend on the lines of communication, being able to get the food assistance out to those people who need it most. And remember they also need assistance with shelter and housing, fuel, heat, medical care, these kinds of things here in a real emergency mode.

I haven't heard any clear answers about it. Even less clear is when you talk about rehabilitation. That is something that's going to be debated and discussed. It's going to be analyzed here on the ground before the money is actually committed.

But clearly what we're seeing is a will on both fronts, a will to deliver that badly-needed humanitarian aid as winter sets in, and long-term assistance in the reconstruction of Afghanistan -- Nic.

ROBERTSON: Jim, the news down here in Tora Bora is all about Osama bin Laden, his whereabouts. Those Northern Alliance commanders who were able during this long campaign to give key information on the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden, do they have any insights now where he is, where he may have gone?

CLANCY: They don't seem to have anything here in Kabul. They're listening a lot to what you're hearing there in Tora Bora. Clearly a lot of people looking to those prisoners that were seized, looking for answers from them. There's a lot of speculation in the capitol about the fact that because it is such a remote area, if Osama bin Laden were to have been hit by a bomb or a missile, you might not know it.

More clearly, I think there's a lot of people here in the capitol that believe that Osama bin Laden slipped away before the final assault on Tora Bora even began.

There's a feeling here that the man who was the mastermind behind so much of the al Qaeda organization, that he had escape plan. He a back-door route that he could get out.

There is, of course, as we would suspect fingers be pointed at Pakistan, both for support of the Taliban or sheltering the Taliban, as well as al Qaeda. A lot of that as you well know, Nic, is political, the long-running animosities between the Northern Alliance and Islamabad -- Nic.

ROBERTSON: Jim Clancy in Kabul, thank you very much for joining us. When we come back, a perspective from the frontlines on the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROBERTSON: Watching the hunt for Osama bin Laden from so close to the frontlines has given some interesting perspectives that will likely be important in the coming years, as the international community will likely remain involved in Afghanistan.

One is here on the ground. It takes a large force of troops just to control a small area inside Afghanistan, and perhaps more significantly, that even in this coalition of Eastern Alliance commanders here on the ground, there are differences. There are differences between how to catch Osama bin Laden. Indeed, whether or not to catch him.

Thank you for watching. LIVE FROM AFGHANISTAN will be back at the same time tomorrow. Up next, "THE POINT WITH GRETA VAN SUSTEREN". For our international viewers, please stay tuned for "WORLD SPORT."

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