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Forces Fighting for Taliban Confined Basically to Three Places

Aired November 15, 2001 - 10:31   ET


BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: We've been reporting what we believe to be the situation in many parts of Afghanistan. But clearly, it is difficult to discern what is taking place in certain areas. David Ensor in Washington has been talking to a number of people, perhaps with more information again this morning.

David, good morning to you.


Yes, I've been talking to some knowledgeable U.S. officials who are closely following the action on the ground in Afghanistan. And while there's a very fluid situation and certain amount of fog of war, there are a few things that we can say, based on what these officials have told me.

First of all, these officials say that fighting on behalf of Taliban, forces fighting for the Taliban are now confined basically to three places. Let me just mark them for you here. The first is city of Kandahar and the area around it. Sort of down here in the southeast of the country. The second is Konduz, up here in the north. And the third is -- and the area around there. And the third is the city itself of Baglan, just below it, just above Kabul. These officials say that in those three areas, there is still active fight under way with forces fighting for the Taliban.

And interestingly, these same sources told me yesterday and asserted with confidence that the Kandahar airstrip, which is about 14 miles northeast of the city, perhaps about there, had been taken by anti-Taliban forces. Now they are telling me that there is in the area around that airstrip a good deal of fighting, good deal of gunfire.

They believe that anti-Taliban forces are still holding the airstrip, but there is a real firefight going on in that area, just to the -- about 14 miles to the southeast to the city of Kandahar. They say there is also some gunfire in and around the city itself of Kandahar, and so those are the areas where there's an active fight still going on. These officials saying that the rest of the country is largely under the control, at this point, of anti-Taliban forces.

Now a couple of other points. Let's see. Concerning the report that on Tuesday, U.S. forces had hit an Al Qaeda building, a headquarters building of some sort, and that possibly senior Al Qaeda personnel had been killed by those bombs or missiles, these officials saying that they still believe that is a real possibility, but that its impossible to know at this point whether it's happened or not. No U.S. personnel have gotten to the building.

Clearly there were a number of personnel killed, including Al Qaeda personnel. How senior they were, we'll have to wait until people can get to that building itself.

So there's a few new points at least on what's going on the ground. It is a very fluid situation -- Bill.

HEMMER: Indeed, David, quickly here, the three areas you talked about. Is there any speculation as to why the Taliban seems to be fighting back in these areas, and abandoning clearly others earlier in the week and over the weekend?

ENSOR: It seems that the Taliban forces in the north retreated to Konduz, and in the south retreated to Kandahar. Now these forces include quite a number of foreigners, Pakistanis, Arabs and others who helped kind of solidify the Taliban regime, and these people have nothing to lose. They are considered some of the toughest fighters on the Taliban side. And many of them probably believe that they will die if they're caught. So they are likely to be very fierce, and this night could go on for a while yet, officials say.

HEMMER: All right, David, come back when you get more. David Ensor, live in Washington.

Let's talk more of the same issues David was just discussing. Our next guest was the coauthor of the "Terrorism Fact Book," a guide to the history of terrorism. It's players, financiers, and its most spectacular strikes, that of the attacks in New York on September 11th. Jason File, a terrorism specialist at Yale University Law School with us now.

Good morning to you.


HEMMER: I want to talk first of all about the words of Mullah Mohammed Omar, talking about a plan for the destruction of America proceeding at this time. What do you make of his words and his warnings? I think that right now, we're talking about what appear to be more empty threats that are coming out of a very desperate situation. I think that this is -- it's certainly expected -- I think that these sorts of statements are things that will always come out from a situation where it seems that the group is being backed into a corner, although we certainly shouldn't count out the possibility of more terrorist attacks within the United States by similar radical people who feel very disenfranchised right now.

HEMMER: I guess that's wasn't my question. You used the word "empty," or "empty threats." Based on what we saw on 9/11, a lot of people talking the word with heavy meaning at this point.

FILE: I think there's certainly reason to take within the United States. But I think that there's also certainly a motivation that's behind those boards that is coming from a very desperate situation. I think it's important to remember that.

HEMMER: Based on the work you've done, the research you've done, the people with whom you've had conversations, how, in terms of numbers, how big is Al Qaeda within Afghanistan itself at this point, do you reckon?

FILE: Well, we know that the Al Qaeda organization has approximately 5,000 people through its training camps over the past 10 years. It's difficult to say how many of them are remaining in Afghanistan, although it would certain be a fair estimate to say that at least half of them are still there. Al Qaeda uses its members not only for terrorist purposes across the world, but also to fight in battles against the Northern Alliance on behalf of the Taliban, and I think it's certainly fair to say that a number of them are still there.

HEMMER: If they are not there, where do they find refuge, given the military strikes and the movement on the ground in the Northern Alliance?

FILE: Well, Al Qaeda actually started in northern Pakistan, and I think that first place we should look for an area where they will probably flee. There's certainly support among the Pashtun tribe, that is across the border in Pakistan, and there are a number of militant groups that exist there, who would be willing to give them shelter, and so I think that's the first place we should look.

HEMMER: Last week, or Monday actually, Donald Rumsfeld mentioned Sudan, and Somalia, a few other areas that may hold potential there.

Go back within into the borders of Afghanistan right now, if indeed Mullah Mohammed Omar is still there, bin Laden is still there. Al Qaeda leadership is still there. The landscape is changed dramatically right now, and there are those who know the territory just as well as they do. I would assume at this point that this is pretty good news for the U.S. and others who want to root them out.

FILE: I think it is good news, although I do think that there are strategic positions in the mountains, particularly to the northeast of Kandahar and also to the northeast of Jalalabad, where we find very significant strongholds for the Al Qaeda organization, as well as for the Taliban. And I think that those are areas that even if you know the lay of the land, they're still very defensible positions, and I think it may require a significant amount of military force to dislodge them from those positions.

HEMMER: Final question here, how long do you believe it will take to lift the fear of the Taliban throughout the country?

FILE: That's a difficult question, because there are going to be some lingering scars which may last a long time. I think it's certainly the job of the international community to make sure that it can structure an international system to try to create a functioning government there as quickly as possible, to try to allay some of the fears that people in Afghanistan might have right now.

HEMMER: Jason File, Yale University, come on back, OK.

FILE: All right, thanks, Bill.




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