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Foreign Correspondence: Indira Lakshmanan

December 26, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: First, an interview where the new Afghan leader, Hamid Karzai. He heads a six-month interim government that assumed power last weekend. The interview was conducted for APTN by Associated Press reporter Kathy Gannon.

HAMID KARZAI: I am absolutely determined that we will fight terrorism and I am absolutely sure and so are my friends and the cabinet and the people from Afghanistan that there’s no way, absolutely no way, that we can allow Afghanistan to be made the home of terrorism or be used for terrorism anymore. We’ll finish them, the terrorists, inside Afghanistan and we will also cooperate with the international community to finish them elsewhere.

KATHY GANNON: Do you believe that they are moving in the right direction? Do you believe Osama bin Laden is still in Afghanistan? Do you believe that Mullah Omar is still inside Afghanistan?

HAMID KARZAI: Probably Mullah Omar is still inside Afghanistan.

I keep receiving reports that he may still be somewhere around southwestern parts of the country. I have asked people to look for him and they are looking for him. I almost, you know, two or three times I have received a call from the Southwest indicating that Mullah Omar may be here or there.

We will look for him and if we find where he is, we definitely arrest him — very much definitely arrest him.

With regards to Osama bin Laden, I don’t know where he is. We receive reports now and then that he may be here or there, and if we get a detailed report about his whereabouts, we will certainly go after him too and arrest him.

KATHY GANNON: Before Sept.11 when the Taliban were still in full power, the Western intelligence, the feeling was that they were as many as 12,000 foreign fighters here. Five thousand to six thousand from Arab countries, maybe 2,000 from Chechnya and Uzbekistan, 4,000 Pakistanis. That’s a lot of people.

Do you believe that there are still a large number of them in Afghanistan?

HAMID KARZAI: Well, I don’t know how many there are. Some of them have run away. Some of them have run away from Afghanistan. Smugglers and other people that have compromised Afghanistan’s interests, they made them go away from Afghanistan. They fled. Some people are still here, but I don’t think they are in large numbers.

I think that terrorism is largely defeated in Afghanistan, that the Taliban have completely vanished as a political and military force, but there are remnants in the form of individuals or small groups. Those should be looked for and arrested and put to trial.

KATHY GANNON Do you feel they feel the ordinary Afghans and the people that are meeting you, that they feel that’s necessary that international forces be here in Afghanistan to ensure the peace, given the history?

HAMID KARZAI: They want guarantees from the international community for peace in Afghanistan. They think the international community has not been fair to Afghanistan in the past — that this nation deserves more — that there has been a lot of interference.

And they see the presence of UN forces as a guarantee against interference, as a guarantee for the commitment of the international community, of the big powers, of the United States, and as a guarantee internally within Afghanistan that they will be given a sense of security. So that’s, all those concerns are legitimate and we support that.

MARGARET WARNER: Now a conversation with Indira Lakshmanan, Asia correspondent for the Boston Globe. The day after the Sept. 11 attacks she flew to pack tan and spend most of the war reporting from Quetta.

Well, recently she’s been reporting from Kandahar in southern Afghanistan. Welcome Indira.


MARGARET WARNER: You got into Kandahar just days after Mullah Omar and the Taliban fled that city, their last stronghold. When what did you find when you got there?

INDIRA LAKSHMANAN: Well, I have to say I had two pleasant surprises in my time in Kandahar.

One was I had been expecting to find an extremely bombed out city, because I would say Kandahar really took the brunt of the U.S. air strikes because it was the last holdout. And in fact, I found to my surprise that rather than it being a city that was totally destroyed by bombing, it was a city certainly in disrepair, a poor city that was decaying, but not as a result of the bombing. In fact the bombing appeared to have been incredibly targeted.

Just to give you one example, I went to this one street where there were two al-Qaida houses, and you saw a bombed out house, basically nothing remaining, then a fully standing house that belonged to a family who lived there, and then another bombed out house that had been an al-Qaida and Taliban safe house.

So it was very interesting to see that some of the reports we had heard about the Pentagon doing precision bombing, in fact, had been correct, that to a large extent they had really pinpoint bombed al-Qaida headquarters or al-Qaida offices.

Also, the second thing I was surprised was that I did not face hostility for the most part. I think I encountered curiosity, surprise among the Kandaharis who saw me on the street and approached me and talked to me, but I did not feel hostility as an American there.

MARGARET WARNER: And now what about former Taliban? Are they very much in evidence? What of the reports of the senior leadership and where they’ve gone, we’ve just heard Karzai said he’s got reports about Mullah Omar and others all over Afghanistan.

INDIRA LAKSHMANAN: I don’t know where the senior leadership themselves are. I mean there were reports that Mullah Omar could have been still in Kandahar Province or at the border with Helmand Province, so there are a lot of people who believe that he and perhaps some other senior leaders may be hiding out there.

As far as rank-and-file Taliban goes, there’s a much for tricky and thorny question because in a way they’re everywhere. So many people in Kandahar province were part of the Taliban. So as many people said to me, they just need to take off their tour ban and go home, they’re still there, they’re living amongst the people in Kandahar.

MARGARET WARNER: We heard Mr. Karzai say as far as Mullah Omar is concerned they’ll find him and arrest him, but did you detect among the Taliban still in Kandahar any fear that they’re about to be arrested or prosecuted?

INDIRA LAKSHMANAN: Well, nobody was admitting to me that they were Taliban, I have to say, because they know — everyone knows that the U.S. Marines who have now set up a camp in the Kandahar airport are intending to arrest all Taliban and all al-Qaida they find.

So even though I found a number of people who I’m convinced were Taliban, had been Taliban, they wouldn’t admit it to me.

MARGARET WARNER: Now tell us about — you did go into some of these former al-Qaida houses, and Taliban houses in Kandahar. Tell us what you found.

INDIRA LAKSHMANAN: That was absolutely fascinating, and I would say that was the highlight for me of three months covering this story, was actually seeing irrefutable proof because — particularly having after having spent such a long time in Pakistan where the rank and file people would say to you show us the proof, show us the proof, that bin Laden and al-Qaida were behind it, you begin to believe that – well show us the proof.

When I got to Kandahar I really felt that I saw for myself the proof in the form of hundreds of pages of documents that were just strewn about amidst the rubble, amidst the wreckage of al-Qaida safe houses, Taliban safe houses, and most interesting of all in the main al-Qaida terrorist training camp.

MARGARET WARNER: What kinds of documents?

INDIRA LAKSHMANAN: Everything. In the offices I found a number of administrative, ideological fund raising related documents — things like envelopes and thank you notes saying thank you for contributing to such and such — presumably, I guess, fake Islamic charity, which was a front for funding al-Qaida.

One of the most interesting documents I found in an al-Qaida safe house was a document on the stationary of the Taliban embassy in Islamabad that listed in Pashtun language, the language of Kandahar province southern Afghanistan, a listing of all U.S. forces, military forces as of Sept. 10. That was fascinating.

Then in the military training camp which I’m sure all of your viewers will recognize from the video, the al-Qaida recruitment video that was shown again and again, the men jumping through the obstacle course, I visited that training camp, and that was absolutely bone chilling.

And again, hundreds of pages of documents that were just there amidst the rubble, you could just pull out, they were in Arabic and I was able to get them translated — you know, documents showing diagrams of nerve gas, pages and pages of explanations of how to set off a nuclear reaction — notebooks, I mean dozens of note books diagramming how to make explosives, how to make mines, how to ambush people in-houses, commando operations, all sorts of basically death and destruction in every form.

MARGARET WARNER: What about chemicals or other things like that?

INDIRA LAKSHMANAN: What I saw was an abandoned chemical laboratory with glass, beakers and bottles and all sorts of chemicals, I don’t know what they were. Some of the bottles were in Arabic and I of course didn’t touch anything, I didn’t take them away, so I don’t know what they were.

I can say that I went back a second day and that second day when I went back, there was a U.S. military chemical specialist team there. They had suits on and masks and they were taking things outs of there. So I’m sure that they’re having it tested.

MARGARET WARNER: Now back to the situation in Kandahar. There were reports for instance that the new government there has asked everyone to turn in their guns. How stable, how secure did the situation seem to you?

INDIRA LAKSHMANAN: I have to say it did not seem very secure or stable. I mean already Afghanistan throughout the whole country is infamous, let’s say, for being a country — they call it a Kalashnikov culture where everybody has at least one or more Kalashnikovs in their home.

When you walk around or drive around the streets of Kandahar, literally every minute you see truck loads of men, armed, riding by, and you don’t know who are they. Are they loyal to the new governor, Gulaga Sharzai? Are they loyal to the Taliban, are they loyal to al-Qaida? Who are these people? So although the governor has every intention, I believe, of disarming people, I think that’s going to be a leviathan task for him.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, what about refugees coming back, of course many went to Pakistan, the UN has reported thousands and thousands were turning almost immediately to Kandahar. First of all, did you see this, and secondly what are they returning to?

INDIRA LAKSHMANAN: I did see that, and it was again incredible for me. I’m talking a week and a half ago I witnessed – you know — truckloads of people with their blankets tied on top of their cars or with donkeys loaded up going back home from the Pakistani border, from the Chaman border.

A reason they go home is the same reason any one of us wants to go home, that’s our country and who among us wants to be refugees?

MARGARET WARNER: Do they have homes to go home to?

INDIRA LAKSHMANAN: Well, like I said, because the bombing was largely pretty targeted, although I think there was certainly damage, there was plenty of accidental damage it’s true, and there was damage to houses that were right next to al-Qaida or Taliban houses, I think the people who are going back must have had places to go back to. I mean it’s an extremely poor country and there’s a lot of rebuilding to do.

MARGARET WARNER: And then were there relief operations already under way, for instance for food?

INDIRA LAKSHMANAN: In Kandahar, no. When I was there the international organizations had not yet returned, but they had certainly returned in Kabul and Jalalabad and elsewhere, so I’m sure probably by now they are already operating. I know Mercy Corps was one that was trying to get in there very quickly.

MARGARET WARNER: Finally, you mentioned the curiosity with which Kandahar people regarded you. What’s it like, one, to be a western reporter, but particularly a woman? Did you wear a burqa?

INDIRA LAKSHMANAN: No, I didn’t wear a burqa, but I did wear sawar-kanese, which is the local dress worn by most women in Pakistan and Afghanistan, sort of baggy pajama pants and a long tunic top and a scarf over my head. But I think that in itself was enough of a shock for the men, and I say the men because I saw practically no women the whole time I was in Kandahar, I saw maybe three or four women in burqas out on the streets, other than that they’re mostly at home, you don’t see them.

So for the men it was something of a shock because Kandahar even before the Taliban, let’s remember, is a very conservative part where women wore burqas to begin with, so I think they were quite startled and perhaps just interested, who was this they were looking at.

MARGARET WARNER: Thanks Indira, very much.

INDIRA LAKSHMANAN: Thanks for having me.