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ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Afghanistan is emerging as a likely first target of American retaliation for this week’s terrorist attacks. The country’s vast landscape of mountains, deserts, and isolated villages has served as a base of operations for Osama bin Laden, the suspected mastermind of several assaults on the United States including the 1998 bombing of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The United States sent Cruise missiles against what were believed to be bin Laden’s camps in Afghanistan then, and yesterday Secretary of State Colin Powell had this message for the Taliban militia, which rules the country.
COLIN POWELL: You need to understand you cannot separate your activities from the activity of these perpetrators. And in our response, we will have to take into account not only the perpetrators, but those who provide haven, support, inspiration, financial and other assets to the perpetrators.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The Taliban is an Islamic fundamentalist group, which took control of most of Afghanistan the mid-’90s. It had won a civil war among the various factions, which had fought the Soviet army after its 1979 invasion. In charge is a reclusive religious leader, Mohammed Omar. This week he said bin Laden was not responsible for the attacks in the United States; and today he exhorted his people to be brave and prepare to defend Islam. The Taliban has refused repeated requests to hand over bin Laden, who was indicted in the United States for the embassy bombings. In response to the refusal, the United Nations imposed economic sanctions on Afghanistan. Bin Laden’s whereabouts remain uncertain. He is believed to be constantly on the move to avoid detection and harm.
To many in the region, he is seen as a kind of Robin Hood. Last March, Ray Suarez talked with Sayed Rahmatullah Hashimi, a 24-year-old roving ambassador for the Taliban. He said he was in the U.S. to establish ties with the new Bush administration. But he criticized American policy regarding bin Laden.
SAYEED RAHMATULLA HASHIMI: He has helped the Afghans with his own personal money, millions of dollars, during the Soviet occupation. So for the Afghans, he’s a good guy. If we were to hand this good guy to the U.S., what kind of justification will we give to our people?
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Afghanistan is a poor, landlocked nation of 26 million people, which over the years has resisted repeated invasions. The ruling Taliban adheres to a strict religious doctrine and regressive policies that have stifled businesses, closed almost all mass communications, and ended education and other opportunities for women. In addition, the nation is in the midst of a severe drought, which has brought widespread suffering. Last week leader of an anti-Taliban guerrilla organization– Ahmad Shah Massood– was injured in a suicide bombing. His death from those injuries was announced today. To move against Afghanistan, the Bush administration will need help from neighboring Pakistan; and today Secretary of State Powell said that support had been offered.
COLIN POWELL: We are receiving expressions of support from around the world, and not just rhetorical support, but real support for whatever may lay ahead in this campaign that is ahead of us to win the war that the President has spoken of. And I’d especially want to thank the President and people of Pakistan for the support they have offered and their willingness to assist us in whatever might be required in that part of the world as we determine who these perpetrators are.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The Taliban representative in Pakistan warned other countries-especially Islamic ones– not to help the U.S.
TALIBAN REPRESENTATIVE: If any neighboring country gave territorial way or airspace to the U.S.A. against our land, it would draw into an imposed war. It is not impossible that it would attack such country under compassion and the Mujahideen would have to enter the territory of such country. The responsibility for the grave consequences and instability of the region would then rest with these countries.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: An estimated 850,000 Afghans have abandoned their homes this year, fleeing drought, fighting and human rights abuses. Now that exodus is growing. The government of Iran announced today it was closing its border with Afghanistan to prevent the entry of refugees.