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Live From Afghanistan: U.S. Forces Move Forward; Hamid Karzai Faces Multiple Challenges; Legend of Dragons in the Mountains of Tora Bora

Aired January 1, 2002 - 20:00   ET


ANNOUNCER: U.S. forces move forward. Two operations with one goal, bring Taliban and al Qaeda leaders to justice.

For the new Afghan leader, a more pressing matter.


JOHN VAUSE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: For days now, a meeting with tribal elders, an effort to unify his country.


ANNOUNCER: And a tale of dragons in the White Mountains of Tora Bora, a centuries old legend brought back to life.


NIC ROBERTSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Of caves and bad spirits, though something permeates the ages. The common thread of good versus evil transcending the centuries.



ROBERTSON: Tonight, LIVE FROM AFGHANISTAN comes from the White Mountains near Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan, the last known hiding place of Osama bin Laden. However, it is the hunt for the Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, that appears to begin to be heating up.

U.S. Special Forces are joining anti-Taliban fighters about 120 miles northwest of the Taliban's last stronghold, Kandahar City. They're centering their activities around the mountains at Baghran, in the province of Helmand. They believe that Mullah Omar is held up there with hundreds of his fighters.

In another operation, hundreds of U.S. Marines have deployed in Helmand Province in intelligence gathering operations. To find out more about both those ongoing operations, we're joined by Bill Hemmer with the Marine Base in Kandahar Airport. Bill, what's the latest?

BILL HEMMER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Nic, good morning to you, 5:30 a.m. local time here in Kandahar. Within the past hour, we saw the several hundred marines who set out on that mission about 30 hours ago come back here to the Kandahar Airport.

In fact, we've got some videotape, taken just within the past 60 minutes, that shows the number of light armored vehicles the LAVs that rolled back into the Kandahar Airport here.

When asking the Marines about the operation, many said it went well. It went fine, but rather uneventful. One Marine described it as a very cold mission with a lack of sleep and also the only encounter, he said they came across, were a group of farmers along the roadside.

As you mentioned, Nic, the reason for this mission was to find intelligence in a compound in Helmand Province, a rather large complex we're told, that consists of about 14 different buildings and several hundred marines were sent out to investigate that. Again, the ultimate search here is for more information on Taliban and al Qaeda leadership.

Earlier on Tuesday, Colonel Andrew Frick of the U.S. Marines here in Kandahar, in charge of many of these operations described the compound and what the marines were targeting. Here's the colonel.


COLONEL ANDREW FRICK, U.S. MARINES: You see a complex of structures, if you want to say walled-type compounds as you see in a lot of the homes or settlements here. There's a wall around them. There's numerous buildings or sub-buildings inside the wall.

In this particular case, there were no caves, at least not caves in the side of a mountain, because of the location. The one we went into this morning was in very good condition, at least from what our imagery showed and from what reports that I have back.

Some of them have had damage, not by us, but previously.


HEMMER: Once again to repeat, the Marines tell us that there was no hostile fire, no -- involving U.S. Marines here. In addition to that, they tell us they were working in cooperation, what they described AFT, anti-Taliban fighters on the ground, working Afghan forces throughout Helmand Province. Apparently they were the ones, in the words of one marine, who were knocking on the doors basically throughout this entire operation.

In addition to that, the marines say they wanted to complete the mission by sun up Wednesday morning here and indeed that is what they have done here in Kandahar -- Nic.

ROBERTSON: Bill, 200 Marines, still that's a large number for an intelligence gathering operation. Do the Marines say why so many?

HEMMER: Yes. Nic, it's our understanding through the Marines here that the greater amount of Special Forces operations have been working in groups of six or eight. They say due to the size of this compound, again we described it as a walled structure with about 14 different buildings.

Apparently the structure was so big that they needed a lot of marines to go in there. They also say whenever they go on a mission, they take at least five times the firepower needed, just in case, Nic.

ROBERTSON: Bill, are you getting any details back on the hunt for Mullah Omar in the Baghran cave area, in the northwest of Kandahar?

HEMMER: Nic, it's our understanding here in Kandahar, part of this mission was to find and track down Mullah Mohammed Omar. They say they've been watching this compound for some time. They say it was occupied then emptied, occupied once again, then emptied once again, and that's the result for this mission that we have seen in the past 30 hours.

With regard to the hunt for Mullah Mohammed Omar, it is quite apparent, sources at the Pentagon do indicate that there are plans on the table for future missions involving the marines in the area of Baghran, where many believe Mullah Mohammed Omar may now be taking refuge.

Again, these are plans on the table. They have not been initiated just yet, but they may be sometime in the very near future. Nic.

ROBERTSON: Bill, what's the level of trust between marines and the ATF, the anti-Taliban forces? Here in Tora Bora, there are many people that speculate that the Eastern Alliance fighters somehow let Osama bin Laden slip through their fingers. Is there a concern amongst the marines and Special Forces there that this could happen with Mullah Omar?

HEMMER: A bit of a split decision here, Nic. The Marines tell us no. They say they're working quite well with the Afghan forces and they're quite satisfied with that mission and the operation as it is now in force.

With regard to the Special Forces though, sources within the Green Berets do indicate to me that they're quite concerned that not enough Special Forces have been sent in in certain areas. They indicate that they are "chomping at the bit right now."

Some say they can't sleep at night, trying to get a piece of the action, as they describe it. Others indicate that they've been here for several weeks and have basically done nothing. They say they're growing with more frustration and think they should have a larger role possibly in the hunt for Mullah Mohammed Omar.

But certainly, Nic, those decisions are not made on the ground here. They come from a much higher source in Washington, D.C. -- Nic. ROBERTSON: And Bill, is anyone giving you any sense of why it's taken almost three weeks to go after Mullah Mohammed Omar? When we were in Kandahar a little over three weeks ago, the same tribal leaders were telling us that Mullah Omar was up in this compound. He'd gone there with his fighters. But it's taken a long time to get around to chasing him down.

HEMMER: Yes, fair question. Here's what I can tell you. The local governor of Kandahar, Governor Shirzai (ph) was here at Kandahar earlier on Tuesday. He indicates that about 1,500 Taliban fighters are in that town of Baghran that you're talking about, maybe protecting Mullah Mohammed Omar. Apparently he says he has given them a deadline to surrender within five days' time and says that deadline should be met.

With regard to the other aspect, there's no telling. Those questions probably should be directed at the Pentagon, and at Central Command in Tampa. There's no way to ascertain as to why or why not that has not been carried out.

In addition to that, Nic, we're now into the month of January. We know that Kandahar fell on the 7th of December. It's around that time, or earlier that week that many believe Mullah Mohammed Omar took refuge in Helmand Province. But again, many military sources say he can run for a long time but he's going to die tired in that effort -- Nic.

ROBERTSON: Bill Hemmer in Kandahar Airport with the Marines, thank you very much for that update.

The most high profile Taliban U.S. prisoner taken so far, the American Taliban fighter John Walker has been moved from the USS Peleliu in the Arabian Gulf to another vessel there, the USS Bataan.

Apparently, the Peleliu is being readied for the return of the marines, who are now at Kandahar Airport. So far, the United States has 210 suspected al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners in their custody, and Red Cross officials are checking, they say, to insure that all those prisoners are having proper standards of care maintained.


GIANNI BACCHETTA, INTERNATIONAL RED CROSS: We are going inside. We are registering each one of these prisoners. We are talking to them about their detention conditions, and we are very keen on knowing that the let's say minimal standards are respected considering health care, considering food, considering sheltering.


ROBERTSON: Well as Bill was reporting a little earlier, the anti-Taliban fighters chasing Mullah Omar are under the commander of Governor Sharzai. However, as John Vause reports from Kabul, it is the head of Afghanistan's interim government, Hamid Karzai, who has authorized the search for the Taliban leader.


VAUSE (voice over): With intelligence reports suggesting that the Taliban leader Mullah Omar may be hiding in a remote province of central Afghanistan, combat ready marines in Kandahar boarded planes before dawn to join the hunt for America's second most wanted man.

Despite the U.S. fire power being sent to the region, the new Afghan interim chairman, Hamid Karzai, told CNN that Afghan soldiers were taking the lead in the operation.

HAMID KARZAI, AFGHAN INTERIM GOVERNMENT: Yes, I have information about that. I have authorized that.

VAUSE: Karzai was also confident about catching Omar, telling CNN "if not this time, next time." For the new Afghan leader though, there have been other more pressing matters. For days now, meeting with tribal elders an effort to unify his country.

At the Presidential Palace today in Kabul, there was only praise for Karzai from provincial delegates, this man saying "congratulations to this brave and decisive and heroic leader."

KARZAI: They bring us their demands. They give us their complaints. So far it has been support, support, support, support which is very good. They're asking -- a lot of them are asking for the arrival of the international forces, which is again something that Afghans are very keen to have peace in Afghanistan.

VAUSE: But even the new leader is surrounded by reminders of the past decades of war. Today, showing the U.N. Envoy to Afghanistan Lakhdar Brahimi, the damage to the Presidential Palace.

KARZAI: This is shockingly sad, you know. From here in, there were all these pieces of Afghan art (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

VAUSE: This room was once part of the home of Afghanistan's Royal Family, over 100 years old. It was later a museum, but it's been heavily damaged, its historical treasures looted.

KARZAI: A tragedy. A tragedy.

VAUSE: John Vause, CNN, Kabul.


ROBERTSON: When we come back, how some Afghan refugees are beginning to return home.


ROBERTSON: There are more than three million Afghan refugees in neighboring countries in this region. Many of them fled the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, and many more fled after the September 11th attacks.

But as Harris Whitbeck reports from Kabul, some are being encouraged to return home by the improving security situation.


HARRIS WHITBECK, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Mohammed gathers his family for morning tea and bread. They live in a borrowed house in Kabul and barely have enough to feed themselves. But the family is counting its blessings. A month ago, they lived as refugees in Pakistan.

"East, west, home is best" he says. "We love our country. It seems like paradise to us."

After the U.S. bombing stopped and the Taliban left Kabul, Mohammed and his family decided to return home. They now face the challenge millions of refugees like them will have to overcome, to try to reestablish their homes and most importantly, find work in an economy that is just beginning to emerge from years of war. The U.N. Refugee Agency calls it reintegration.

FELIPE CAMARGO, UNHCR: This is one of the key issues of reintegration, employment, and how can the economy build up quickly.

WHITBECK: Mohammed's children all have high school diplomas. His eldest daughter, Naida, wants to be a teacher.

"I am looking for a job" she says. "I left an application at the Ministry of Education but haven't heard from them yet."

(on camera): Naida is not alone. The vast majority of the four million Afghan refugees are under the age of 18. That is a lot of young people who will need to find jobs to survive in a country of few opportunities.

(voice over): The U.N. says the growing sense of stability that is attracting returning refugees should also help improve the marketplace for those who will need jobs.

CAMARGO: The private sector needs to be encouraged to come back to Afghanistan to reestablish manufacturing industries that can absorb the largest number of skilled applicants that will come back.

WHITBECK: And the influx of donor agencies would also help stimulate the economy. But those who are already back and face immediate needs, can't wait too long for the jobs that will help feed them.

Harris Whitbeck, CNN, Kabul, Afghanistan.


ROBERTSON: By far the greater number of refugees have taken shelter in Pakistan, approximately two million. They have grown to be an economic burden the struggling Islamic republic has often had trouble keeping up with.

As Walter Rodgers now reports, the leader of that country, President Pervez Musharraf, has had a lot of luck in guiding his country through the troubled times, the September 11th attacks created in this region.


WALTER RODGERS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Napoleon once said "I wish all my generals have luck." Pakistan's President General Pervez Musharraf has been very, very lucky since September 11th.

Amid threats of a military coup against him, even possible assassination, Musharraf nudged Pakistan along a nice edge between his radical Islamists who supported Osama bin Laden and the West, which demanded Musharraf cooperate against bin Laden and the Taliban.

RIFAT HUSSEIN, PAKISTANI ANALYST: If it were a civilian government, that would not have lasted very long. It would have either been overthrown by the jihadi protests or it would have been sidelined by the military.

RODGERS: Islamist conservatives demanded Musharraf's head because he allowed the United States to use Pakistani bases for the War against Terrorism across the border in Afghanistan.

Muslim clerics, like Qzai Hussein Ahmed were virulent until Musharraf muzzled them with house arrest shortly after this interview.

QAZI HUSSEIN AHMED, PAKISTANI MUSLIM CLERIC: The people have lost confidence in Pervez Musharraf's government. Pervez Musharraf's government has got no popular support. He is isolated from the people.

RODGERS: But Musharraf has luck. American bombing in Afghanistan, though unpopular in Pakistan, turned the Taliban into losers, marginalizing pro-Taliban supporters in Pakistan.

NAZEEM ZEHRA, JOURNALIST: There is a dynamic of power which is at play, and when success tends to attract power in defeat of the Taliban, I think has played a major role.

RODGERS: The September 11th bombings also turned into a huge break for Musharraf. America suddenly needed Pakistan in the War on Terror. Pakistan suddenly broke out of its diplomatic, political, and economic isolation.

Before General Musharraf was snubbed because he overthrew a terribly corrupt civilian government. Pakistan was also being punished for earlier testing a nuclear bomb.

(on camera): Testing a bomb, Pakistan defied the world but Musharraf could not do it twice, could not defy the United States in the War on Terror, despite majority Pakistani sentiment for the Taliban.

Pakistan would have risked being branded a terrorist state. So Musharraf made an unpopular choice at home. He sided with Washington.

HUSSEIN: He made the right choice at the particular time, and then took everybody into confidence.

RODGERS (voice-over): Sounding at first the reluctant partner in the war, behind the scenes Musharraf was a brilliant politician, courting and seducing the critics, the moderate clergy, intellectual, tribal leaders and journalists, all through his consultative consensus building.

SALIB BOKHARI, NEWSPAPER EDITOR: This experience of handling the situation, a very critical situation after 11 September tragedy, has polished him. I would now rate him as a greater statesman than probably the political leaders in the past.

RODGERS: But is the ever contemplative Musharraf out of danger now? The general's cooperation with Washington leaves him vulnerable to widespread anti-Americanism at home, and he is constantly tested by India over the disputed Kashmir.

ZEHRA: You can have a military leader at the top, but certainly at the end of the day, it's what the public thinks of him which will define his future.

RODGERS: Pakistan's future remains worrisome and Musharraf will need double the luck he's already had. Illiteracy and poverty are staggering.

HUSSEIN: If as a result of the depressed economic situation, the people were to begin to feel the hurt and if they were to come out on the streets, maybe seven or six months down the road, at the time when he wants to hold national elections, there's a very good chance that the right-wing elements here, who do not like his withdrawing support from the Taliban, and who hate the alliance with the United States, could make very significant electoral gains.

RODGERS: But President and General Musharraf has outsmarted the odds makers and outmaneuvered opponents through a soldier's constancy of purpose, his purpose, the preservation of Pakistan.

GENERAL PERVEZ MUSHARRAF, PAKISTANI PRESIDENT: The vision remains constant. The vision is constant. Vision never changes. Vision and strategy and national interest never change. They remain constant, and they remain constant even now. The modality and the method for reaching those may get adjusted and readjusted, but the final objective of vision and strategy and national interest will always remain constant.

RODGERS: That vision has so far placed Musharraf on the winning side, during the seismic events of the last year.

Walter Rodgers, CNN, Islamabad.


ROBERTSON: Coming up, an ancient tale of good versus evil, of dragons in caves with uncanny parallels with today.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) ROBERTSON: This will be my last LIVE FROM AFGHANISTAN show for a while. For four months, I've been covering this conflict from Kabul to Kandahar, from Taliban to tribal leadership, and I'm taking a break.

But before I go, I want to share with you a story I discovered in an aging Afghan guidebook. It's an ancient tale of good versus evil, and seems to capture the spirit of today.


ROBERTSON (voice-over): Not far from Tora Bora in the White Mountains, local history has it, Buddha once flew here to fight a dragon in a cave. Mythology tells us the dragon was merely the spirit of a disgruntled cow herder, who committed suicide.

To look around here now, perhaps little has changed. Fewer cows, more sheep and goats maybe, little vestige though of the thousands of stupors, buddhisms, places of worship that dotted the landscape for centuries when this place was an essential stop on any Buddhist trail of relics. Of caves and bad spirits though, something permeates the ages. The common thread of good versus evil, transcending the centuries.

The different today, those that flew here to fight their demon, came from the West not the East. They delivered their blow with a fiery vengeance that echoed up and down the hillsides.

Caves billowed smoke, although not from any fire-breathing dragon. The white rock that makes these mountains split asunder by a power unrecognizable two centuries ago, never mind two millennia.

When the dust settled, no trace of the dragon, only a lair loaded with hate and bad intentions. The modern days dragon's henchmen, disciples of their master's suicide plan, herded down the hillside and paraded for the chronicles of the day.

Had Buddha left such a recording, would we now play it on our world history CDs? But history here is still in the making. These modern knights ride out daily to search caves that appear devoid of dragons. The best of the local fighters seem sure that bad spirits have been driven away.

So when this story is told two millennia from now, will it still be a simple parable of good versus evil? Who will have triumphed and how? Impossible to say, likely though this chronicler's tale will seem as ancient and hard to fathom as the tales of Buddha's exploits 2,000 years ago.


ROBERTSON: Only time will tell. I hope you've enjoyed watching. I'm Nic Robertson. LIVE FROM AFGHANISTAN will be back at the same time tomorrow with Bill Hemmer with the Marines at Kandahar City Airport. Up next, a CNN Special, "The Survivors of the September 11 Attacks," and for our international viewers, please stay tuned for "WORLD SPORT."




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