November 16, 2001
| MARGARET WARNER: For
more on the military picture after this remarkable week, we go to Mark
Thompson, national security correspondent for Time magazine. Welcome,
MARGARET WARNER: What makes the Pentagon think that this al-Qaida military commander Mohammad Atef has been killed?
MARK THOMPSON: Well, apparently on Wednesday a bunker, a military bunker belonging to the al-Qaida forces was hit south of Kabul. They didn't know what they had. It was a pre-planned mission, not especially going after this guy. But within 24 hours, telephone wires and radio waves across the world were going out to the various al-Qaida cells saying God, they've killed him. And the Pentagon has deduced, it learned this morning, that Atef was the fellow that they got.
MARGARET WARNER: And if it's true, what impact do they think it's going to have on al-Qaida, on its operations?
MARK THOMPSON: Well, this fellow was the military chief of al-Qaida. He was responsible for Osama bin Laden's personal security. As the Pentagon guy told me today, Osama is hearing footsteps. I don't think you could kill someone in al-Qaida that would shake Osama as much as the fellow they got two days ago. So I think it will do a lot to their morale. It will hurt it. It will crimp their military planning for any future events but plainly what concerns folks at the Pentagon is what is already in the can was already set to go--.
MARGARET WARNER: In terms of terrorists.
MARK THOMPSON: Right. In terms of terrorist acts won't be changed perhaps by his death.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let's step back and look at the big picture. Just a week ago we had the Pentagon still declining to even confirm that Mazar-e-Sharif, the first big city or town at least that the Northern Alliance took had been taken. Now they're saying today - or at least the Taliban's lost control in two-thirds of the country. Why do they think it happened so fast?
MARK THOMPSON: Well, basically it's a new way of conducting war. Using precision-guided munitions what the Pentagon did really for the first three weeks was attacked the rear. Remember the reports about the folks in Kabul going to the front lines to avoid the bombs in Kabul. What was happening was they were attacking depots, reinforcements, armaments in the rear. Then when they began to attack the guys in the front, the guys in the front picked up their phones and said help, they got no answer. So all the front lines were exceedingly brittle. And once the fellows in the front lines called and found out they couldn't get help, panic happened and whoosh, like a guillotine, the Taliban went South.
MARGARET WARNER: How do they assess the reports coming out of the region now that Kandahar, which of course is the Taliban stronghold in the South, has been, or at least Mullah Omar has agreed to leave in 24 hours? Again, the Pentagon, as we just ran, said they were skeptical of this. What do they think is going on?
MARK THOMPSON: I mean in both Taliban stronghold, Kunduz in the North and Kandahar in the South, we're seeing immense pressure being brought on the Taliban. And they are splintering unto themselves. You have got the fellows who want to fight to the death and the rest of them who are saying gee, you know, maybe we really don't. And that's great from the Pentagon's perspective because it's when people are in disagreement with their intimates that secrets tend to be spilled. And although the Pentagon tonight I don't think really has a firm idea of what is happening, they do know that the ground is shifting beneath the Taliban in both of these cities and that's a good chance to pick up valuable intelligence about bin Laden or any of his key lieutenants.
MARGARET WARNER: But now would the Pentagon want a deal to be cut where Mullah Omar and all his top lieutenants could leave in safety and go to the mountains?
MARK THOMPSON: I don't think the Pentagon believes they can leave in safety. I mean if you have a guerrilla force, you need the support of the local population. What we've seen over the past week is many of the Pashtun tribes in the South really don't care for the Taliban that much. And if you don't have that, you must have sustenance from the outside, from Pakistan and there are U.S. Special Forces all along that border now making sure that aid of that nature doesn't flow in to Omar or any of his cronies.
MARGARET WARNER: So how has the U.S. military strategy, or at least focus shifted to take account of this new reality on the ground?
MARK THOMPSON: Well, plainly the bombing is much more concentrated now. You know, if they had 200 caves last week, now they're down to 50 or 100 in the region they've got to look through. So they're going to concentrate on that.
MARGARET WARNER: Let me stop you there. You mean U.S. forces think they've taken out half of bin Laden's caves?
MARK THOMPSON: No. What they think is that half of them are no longer protected by Taliban forces, so it's a safe bet that Osama, as his circle gets tighter and tighter, he is going into a smaller and smaller universe of caves and a lot more U.S. Special Forces are going in, in that region and they're working closely with local Afghans who are seeking retribution and basically they're being told to find Osama. They're bombing the caves. In some cases they're sending Afghans into the caves. In the next 48 hours, are a pretty crucial time for seeing if they actually nab bin Laden.
MARGARET WARNER: Explain further why they think the next 48 hours or 24 is so key for that.
MARK THOMPSON: Because now is the time of maximum turmoil. You know by early next week everyone is going to get a little used to this new geography. But right now nobody is sure where borderlines are. You know, bin Laden or any of his folks aren't sure if they're safe where they are. They're going to be checking; they're going to be trying to go to more secure locations so they're going to be moving. But the place they're moving in is smaller. So all things are working against him and in favor of the U.S. force.
MARGARET WARNER: Now there's also of course a lot of confusion in some of the towns that the opposition has taken. We saw that report on Jalalabad. There are reports that in Kabul rival forces are dividing up the town. How worried is Pentagon that they're going to have another kind of conflict on their hands among, sort of a return to the civil war we saw there?
MARK THOMPSON: Well, they were very worried early this week about Kabul and were quite pleased when the slaughters that occurred were basically retail, not wholesale as one guy told me. They don't think that is going to last forever. They want a U.N. peacekeeping or some other kind of force in their quickly at least to act as a sheriff. And we don't have that yet. The next week is going to be critical to be sure we don't have broader bloodshed than we've had already.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, how does this - the British troops coming into the Bagram Airfield, how does that fit into what the sort of next phase is, or this phase?
MARK THOMPSON: There are British troops as well as American troops at that base. They are primarily going there to dispatch humanitarian aid. That is the part of the country most hard hit by the drought and by Taliban forces. So it is largely going to be for humanitarian aid, but, you know, you can hide an awful lot of guns, an awful lot of bombs under, you know, under foodstuffs. So there will be a military component there. It just brings the fight closer to where the Taliban are. Our pilots have been flying from the Arabian Sea for a month. Those are long flights. You know a plane can do one, maybe two missions a day switching crews. You bring planes into that base, and they can fly four or five times a day.
MARGARET WARNER: So is that the plan, to actually use that base also for, as they say, close air support?
MARK THOMPSON: They will if they need to. This thing is moving so fast I think the idea that they have a plan written down in ink is inaccurate. It's written in chalk and they keep erasing and writing new stuff.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Mark Thompson, thanks so much.