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Interview With Mansoor Ijaz

Aired December 22, 2001 - 15:05   ET


CATHERINE CALLAWAY, CNN ANCHOR: Two questions are dominating the battlefield developments from Afghanistan, and both are of high interest to the U.S. military. First, of course: Did the Pentagon hit a legitimate target when it struck a convoy that was traveling near Tora Bora? And second: Is Osama bin Laden dead or alive? A question we've been asking for some time now.

And CNN's Jonathan Aiken is at the Pentagon with the very latest.

Let's begin Jonathan first, of course, with the convoy. What's the latest on that from the Pentagon?

JONATHAN AIKEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, the question of the legitimacy of that target, Catherine, the Pentagon shedding some light on its decision to attack that convoy on Friday. Let's recap things for viewers -- and we have a map to show you just to bring you up to date as to what area we are talking about.

The U.S. military said a convoy made up about 12 to 14 vehicles and a lot of people had left a command-and-control center -- that's the description we were given -- a command-and-control center near the city of Khost, which is just east, as you see, of Tora Bora. Also, the U.S. military says that al Qaeda and Taliban leadership were in that convoy.

The U.S. says that areas around Khost, near Tora Bora, still have pockets of loyalty to both al Qaeda and Taliban rule. Once the decision was made to attack that convoy on Friday, it was hit hard by fighter jets launched from the USS Stennis in the Arabian Sea, and also AC-130 gunships -- these are armored aircraft that fly over an area and rake it with fire. As you can see, this convoy was hit rather hard.

Yesterday Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld would say only lots of people were killed. There's an Associated Press report that puts "lots" at about 60. No comment on that from the U.S. Central Command.

Local groups have said that the convoy was loaded with the local leaders who were heading to Kabul for the installation of the U.S. -- of the new government. But the Central Command told us that after being fired upon, the convoy then fired back. Two shoulder-fired missiles were aimed at U.S. jets. We're told the jets themselves were never in danger. And the Central Command went on to say this morning that further evidence in the past 24 hours -- and we're quoting here -- "validates the convoy as a target," though the Central Command would no go into any details.

Now, as to the second question about a Osama bin Laden -- is he dead or alive? The answer, frankly, is we don't know. The Pentagon doesn't know. If they do know, they're not sharing.

No word either way that we're hearing -- and that's possibly one reason why U.S. Marines and other troops may be heading into Tora Bora as early as this weekend. The Marines, possibly elements of the Army's 10th Mountain Division in Uzbekistan will be joining coalition forces and also opposition groups on the ground and heading into a cave-by-cave search in the Tora Bora region.

They're going to be looking for intelligence. Obviously, they're going to be looking for weapons stashes. And needless to say, they're going to be looking for some clues as to Osama bin Laden. Is he alive in any of those caves? Is he dead in any of the caves that were hit hard by U.S. forces?

Now, shedding some light on this, and perhaps a little bit of mystery, too: Pakistan's president, General Pervez Musharraf, told Chinese television today that he thought Osama bin Laden was killed in the U.S. attacks. There have also been persistent rumors that bin Laden is in Pakistan.

The commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, General Tommy Franks, said in Kabul today that if, in fact, bin Laden managed to make it across the border, he's not worried, because bin Laden will be found.


GEN. TOMMY FRANKS, CMDR., U.S. CENTRAL COMMAND: If he is, in fact, in Pakistan, then it's only a matter of time until the Pakistanis will find him. That's my view.

So it may be here, and it may be somewhere else; but it's only a matter of time before we find him.


FRANKS: I don't think so. I don't think so. And I'm not sure that he's yet in Pakistan.


AIKEN: One other item from here, too: Central Command telling us that there is another al Qaeda leader that is now in the custody of U.S. Marines at their base in Kandahar, at the airport just outside of the city. So that brings to 16 the number of people who are being held at Kandahar. There's another eight onboard the assault ship USS Peleliu, which is in the Arabian Sea. Among those eight, the American Taliban, John Walker. So a total of 24 U.S. detainees now in U.S. custody -- Catherine.

CALLAWAY: Jonathan Aiken at the Pentagon. Thanks, Jon, with the latest information.

And as you know, the hunt for bin Laden is the central focus of the allied military efforts in Afghanistan and -- just as it was on the first day of the U.S.-led attacks.

And here to talk a lot more about that situation is Mansoor Ijaz. He's a South Asia analyst.

Thanks for being with us today.

MANSOOR IJAZ, SOUTH ASIA ANALYST: Good to with you, Catherine.

CALLAWAY: Let's focus a little bit now on Pakistan, and their role in the search -- of the search for bin Laden. What are the possibilities of bin Laden being in Pakistan now? And is the Pakistani government actively looking for him?

IJAZ: Well, certainly they're ensuring that he's -- if he's there anywhere that he's turned over. And my own assessment is that bin Laden himself, if he is still alive, would have made it pretty clear that -- in his own mind -- that if there was a way to blame Pakistan for his whereabouts and cause headaches for the Pakistani government, that he would like to do that. Because he is essentially -- as soon as Pakistan decided to ally with the United States he became anti-Pakistan. And it certainly wouldn't bother him in the least if Pakistan were to be scoured for potentially harboring him, even though he's not there.

CALLAWAY: What about those inside Pakistan domestically? How do they feel about the search for bin Laden? Do they think he'll be found? And, you know, what kind of support would he receive from Pakistanis?

IJAZ: Well, I think there's a certainly a clear indication that the Pashtun tribal leaders that live very close to the Afghan border could be a problem area. In other words, they could harbor him, and they may keep him for a while.

But I think we have to understand that long-term, these same, very (sic), Pashtun leaders are going to need to be able to do business with the Afghans on the other side of the border. And that's their primary source of economic livelihood; they don't have any other way to make money.

So maybe bin Laden can sustain them -- let's assume for the sake of argument that he was coming in and staying with them, he could sustain them for a short period of time. But long-term -- and I think that's what the Pakistani intelligence chief has explained to these people -- long-term it's not in their interest to harbor anybody of that type.

CALLAWAY: Well, you're an analyst in this region, so let me ask you: What about Musharraf's statement today that he believes bin Laden may, indeed, be dead somewhere in one of the bombed caves. Do you think that is what has happened, or do you think he's still in hiding?

IJAZ: I don't think that was a false trial balloon. General Musharraf is a very careful and very logical man. And he does not float trial balloons for the heck of it. And so I think there's a good chance that Pakistani intelligence knows something that the rest of the world does not yet know. And if he is making that statement, he's probably making it with some very clear understanding of what the facts are.

CALLAWAY: Let's look ahead a little bit on the interim government that we're seeing now taking the reigns there in Afghanistan, and the role of General Musharraf cooperating with this new government. How do you see that future playing out? And will we eventually see, at some point, the Northern Alliance, or whoever is involved in the new government, basically saying enough is enough, we don't need your help anymore?

IJAZ: Well it's very, very good question. Essentially what this comes down to is the following: On one side of Pakistan you have a hostile India, and on the other side you have an Afghanistan today that is no longer friendly to Pakistan interests.

So the generals in Pakistan that are below General Musharraf could very easily come to the conclusion, if things got more heated along the Pakistani-India border, as they right now, and if the Northern Alliance that controls the defense ministry, the interior ministry and the foreign ministry, even though they don't control the prime ministership -- if they came to the conclusion that there was a squeeze play going on here, I think we could see a very big problem in Pakistan. And that is a very serious concern at the Pentagon, and at the White House right now.

CALLAWAY: And quickly: Are they going to be able forget the past and move forward here?

IJAZ: I think General Musharraf can persuade his people that a stable Afghanistan is in everyone's interest, even though they may not be the best friends. The problem will be whether the Afghans decide that India is a greater ally of theirs than having a better relationship with Pakistan next door. If that happens, then I can tell you the Pakistanis will not be happy.

CALLAWAY: Mansoor Ijaz, thank you for your insights today. Thanks for being with us.

IJAZ: Thank you.




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