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Live From Afghanistan: Tracing al Qaeda Footsteps; Former Warlord Becomes Part of Government; What Is the Next Target in War on Terror?

Aired December 24, 2001 - 20:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
ANNOUNCER: LIVE FROM AFGHANISTAN with Nic Robertson.

Tracing the footsteps of al Qaeda.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Access to the so-called super caves at the heart of Osama bin Laden's operation are through these hard-to-reach valleys.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ANNOUNCER: The one-time warlord, now a member of the new government of Afghanistan.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERT YOUNG PELTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: There is a spirit of hope and progress under Dostum, a man who is moving from war maker to peace maker. From warlord to political leader, from alignment once with the enemies of America to its close ally.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ANNOUNCER: What could be the next target of the war on terror?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Even before the September 11 attacks, the Philippines was fighting its own war against Muslim militants linked to al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, a group known as the Abu Sayyaf.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ANNOUNCER: And Christmas finds its way to U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We actually just took them off and put them up on the wall there, sir.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ANNOUNCER: Now, LIVE FROM AFGHANISTAN, Nic Robertson.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. We're having trouble with our satellite signal from Jalalabad right now. Nic Robertson will be joining us as soon as we get things cleared up.

In the meantime, in Islamabad, Pakistan today, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition said it is quite possible that Osama bin Laden is dead. Kenton Keith told a news briefing he had no new information on which to base that guess, but Keith says it is possible bin Laden was killed during the intense U.S. bombing of the Tora Bora caves complex.

Nic Robertson reports now on the slow, painstaking process of investigating what is left of those caves.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ROBERTSON (voice-over): High in the Tora Bora mountains, Eastern Alliance fighters sit around a bomb-damaged al Qaeda camp. The undisturbed wreckage of buildings an indication that this outpost of Osama bin Laden's fighters has not been searched. Through steep sided valleys and up and down high hills, Eastern Alliance fighters show off the many al Qaeda sites U.S. bombers hit in their quest for Osama bin Laden.

Like the entrance to this small al Qaeda cave, still blocked by rock falls following the bombing. There is little sign of thorough examination, despite reports U.S. special forces are going cave to cave.

Overhead, an occasional warplane cruises through the sky. For the most part, the fighters left on these hillsides eye each other carefully. Three factions sit at one checkpoint in an uneasy truce, guarding the upper slopes of the mountains for the unseen U.S. special forces, who are keen to prevent any clues about Osama bin Laden being taken without permission.

(on camera): Access to the so-called super caves at the heart of Osama bin Laden's operation are through these hard to reach valleys. However, so far there appears to be little evidence to support their existence.

(voice-over): Passports found in a bombed al Qaeda camp and shown secretly to CNN hint at bin Laden's planning for September the 11th. This Somali passport shows the bearer arriving in Pakistan, a common route to Afghanistan, on September the 11th. A different passport we have seen shows a young Saudi arriving in Pakistan on September the 8th, apparently in preparation for what was to follow the deadly attacks in the United States.

Back on the mountain side and away from guard duty, Eastern Alliance fighters relax, apparently more confident than most Westerners that for them at least the battle against al Qaeda is more or less over. (END VIDEOTAPE)

ROBERTSON: Well, we are live now from Jalalabad, just north of the Tora Bora mountains, the last known place where Osama bin Laden was known to be hiding out. In Kabul, the head of Afghanistan's interim government, Hamid Karzai, made his first major political decision. He appointed the Northern commander General Abdul Rashid Dostum as the deputy defense minister. Dostum has been jostling in a power play to get this position. He was feeling left out of the new administration.

He is an important military figure in the north of Afghanistan, and as Harris Whitbeck reports if Karzai had not made this move, getting unity in the government would have been very hard to achieve.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

HARRIS WHITBECK, CNN CORRESPONDENT (on camera): The chairman of Afghanistan's new interim government, Hamid Karzai, took steps toward consolidating the unity of his new government. He named one of Afghanistan's most powerful warlords as deputy minister of defense. Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum had controlled a large part of northern Afghanistan during the fight against the Taliban, and his taking of the strategic city of Mazar-e Sharif helped pave the way for the eventual defeat of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

With two of the most powerful warlords in the country now in the top positions in the ministry of defense, Afghanistan is well on its way toward the formation of a professional, unified army. Chairman Karzai had said, during his swearing-in ceremony, that he wanted a unified army for his country, and he had asked the United Nations help him to that effect.

Gen. Dostum, the new deputy prime minister, has sparked some controversy in the past. During the Bonn Agreement that led to the creation of new government, he had expressed his concern over the fact that he had not been given a major role to play in this new government, and the fact that he is such a powerful warlord had sparked some concern that the unity of the government and peace in Afghanistan might be relatively short-lived.

Harris Whitbeck, CNN, Kabul, Afghanistan.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ROBERTSON: General Dostum controls much of the northern Afghanistan, particularly around the city of Mazar-e Sharif. He is regarded by many Afghans as a commander who will and has in the past changed sides. His support for the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan earned him many, many enemies inside the country, and there are many here who see General Dostum as essentially just a warlord.

But as Robert Young Pelton reports, General Dostum sees himself more as a popular northern commander worthy of a position of authority.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

PELTON: In northwestern Afghanistan, there's little confusion as to who is in charge. The man who traditionally (UNINTELLIGIBLE) undisputed ruler of six provinces is General Abdul Rashid Dostum.

He is an ethnic Uzbek born in northern Afghanistan in 1954. He came from a peasant family in the desolate region northwest of Mazar-e Sharif. With only a seventh grade education, he joined the army, and quickly rose through the ranks to become a commander of 600 men at age 24. The name Dostum is actually a nickname from the Persian word for "my friend," an expression he uses to address people even to this day.

The former Afghan army general has been criticizing for changing sides when he left the failing Soviet-supported government in 1992 to fight with the mujahideen. He was forced out of power in 1997, when the Taliban advanced north, and his second-in-command betrayed him.

He fled to Turkey and returned this past May when the Northern Alliance sent a helicopter for Dostum and 30 men waiting at the border with Iran. He joined men who been fighting in the mountains for four years, and quickly increased his force to over 2,000 men. These were the men who battled the Taliban regime at night to avoid enemy aircraft, fighting on a horseback, often an empty stomachs.

At the end of September, he was joined by 14 American special forces troops who had a simple command: Support Dostum. They rode with Dostum on horseback, calling in air strikes. If you look closely at the famous photo held up by Rumsfeld showing Americans fighting on horseback, the man in front is Dostum. Dostum had become a guerrilla commander, a strategic chess piece in America's war against bin Laden.

The northwestern Afghanistan is the gateway to Russia and Europe, and has an estimated population of 10 to 15 million people. Many of the inhabitants of these six provinces are predominantly Uzbeks, Turkmen, Hazaras and Tajiks. Dostum had the popular support and military skills needed to defeat thousands of Taliban and maintain civility once they were gone.

I joined Dostum a few days after he entered Mazar in triumph. To show his new conciliatory style, he showed us two senior Taliban held in his house. He had negotiated their surrender peacefully, rather than through violent means.

There have been significant changes in the last month under Dostum. Uniforms have arrived from Uzbekistan for his men; Afghan intellectuals had began to return. The Friendship Bridge is reopened, and people are welcoming peace. After four long years, this area of Afghanistan is coming back to life.

Dostum controls the second largest city in Afghanistan, and has the support of millions of non-Pashtun Afghans. Since the surrender of the Taliban in Konduz, he has been meeting with regional commanders, mullahs, village elders, women doctors and politicians. Long lines form outside his compound from early morning to late night.

Dostum makes speeches about the need for reconciliation, for forgiveness and unity, sounding more like a statesman than a warrior these days. During the Ead (ph) festival at the end of Ramadan, he urged Afghans not enjoy their rights, to feel free to criticize him, and not to hate others once aligned with the Taliban. Dostum is the leader of the local political party, called Jumbish Mili-Islami (ph), which he wants to align directly with the goals and the freedoms of the United States.

This part of Afghanistan is a different place now that Dostum is back. For the first time in four years, locals celebrated the end of Ramadan with laughter, music, festivals and games. As the gun fire of war changes to the firecrackers of Ead (ph) celebrations, there is a spirit of hope and progress under Dostum, a man who is moving from war maker to peace maker, from warlord to political leader, from alignment once with the enemies of America to its close ally. But the question remains: Will America remain Dostum's friend?

This is Robert Young Pelton for CNN, Shebergan (ph), Afghanistan.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ROBERTSON: In Kandahar, in southern Afghanistan, the Taliban's last stronghold, a hold out of eight al Qaeda fighters in the city's hospital. Those are armed al Qaeda fighters. There was a standoff there on Monday when U.S. fighters and Afghan fighters, according to eyewitnesses at least, say that they were -- that al Qaeda fighters in the hospital who were there being treated for injuries were surrounded. Now during the firefight, apparently nobody was killed and no one was injured, according to these reports. However, one person was transferred to the Marine medical facility at Kandahar Airport, and according to sources in the city the standoff at Kandahar hospital is still under way there, still are armed al Qaeda fighters inside that hospital.

The controversy over the convoy that the U.S. warplanes attacked on Friday still goes on. Hamid Karzai, the head of Afghanistan's interim government, met with a survivor of that convoy. But the new minister for border affairs inside the new Afghan government, Amnullah Zadran (ph), said that there were al Qaeda members on board that convoy. He also said that from that convoy U.S.-made Stinger missiles, surface-to-air missiles, were fired at the U.S. warplanes. Also, there was anti-aircraft gun fire fired at those planes.

Now, according to the Pentagon, they had reason to believe, sources had told them, intelligence sources had told them that there were senior al Qaeda figures on that convoy. However, other members of Afghanistan's interim government say that the convoy, which was about 10 to 12 cars, was made up of tribal elders on their way to the inauguration of Afghanistan's new government Saturday. The results of the attack on the convoy left more than 50 people dead, and the controversy here, even within Afghanistan's interim government, still goes on.

Now, coming up after the break, under Taliban -- under the Taliban rule, women will kept at home, forced to stay away from the workplace. All that is changing.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JOHN VAUSE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: ... pressing issue for Afghan women. More importantly, she says, her right to work, to education, to freedom of speech and for now, she says, the best they can hope for is the return to the 1964 constitution, which guaranteed these basic human rights.

(voice-over): According to Dr. Samar, the burkas will come off when the women feel safe and secure. But for now, there are psychological problems, trauma and depression, caused by the harsh years of the Taliban, and Dr. Samar is just one of two women in the male-dominated interim government.

DR. SIMA SAMAR, MINISTER OF WOMEN AFFAIRS: They know that I am strong enough. I have struggled during the Russians, after Russians, and during Taliban. So, I will continue my struggle.

VAUSE: A long, hard struggle for women like Sonia (ph) as well, now desperate to work and to put the past behind her.

John Vause, CNN, Kabul.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ROBERTSON: When we come back, as the focus of international terrorism moves on from Afghanistan, which countries will find themselves in the crosshairs of international security?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROBERTSON: During a lightning helicopter raid in Hazni province between Kandahar and Kabul, U.S. forces snatched the former Taliban deputy intelligence minister, Abdul Haqwazaik (ph). He was picked up at a compound, an indication that despite the fact that many Taliban leaders have either fled or gone to ground, U.S. forces appear still determined to round up all those that may have information leading to the arrest of Osama bin Laden.

In Pakistan at the same time, the Taliban's former Ambassador Abdul Saleem Zaeef has asked that country for political asylum. Abdul Saleem Zaeef gave the daily press briefings to the international media during the bombing campaign in Afghanistan. Pakistan is considering his request. One of the restrictions they have put on the former ambassador is that he does not talk -- does not talk to the media.

Now as the focus begins to shift from Afghanistan, which countries around the world will begin to bear the scrutiny of the international community for possibly harboring terrorists? In a series this week, CNN looks first at the Philippines. The Philippines, like Afghanistan, does have hard-line militant Islamic groups, but unlike Afghanistan the government in the Philippines is very much supporting the United States and the international efforts to crack down on terrorism, as Maria Ressa reports from the battle front in the southern Philippines. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MARIA RESSA, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Before the U.S. bombs fell on Afghanistan, even before the September 11 attacks, the Philippines was fighting its own war against Muslim militants linked to al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, a group known as the Abu Sayyaf.

AVELINO RAZON, FORMER POLICE INTELLIGENCE OFFICER: We were able to establish that all along bin Laden has been directly supporting the Abu Sayyaf through Khalifa, his brother-in-law.

RESSA: Bin Laden's brother-in-law, Mohammad Jamal Khalifa, lived in the Philippines from about 1987 to 1993. The ties are more than personal, say police.

The world first heard of Abu Sayyaf after the first attack on the World Trade Center. Ramzi Yousef, convicted in that bombing, was linked at trial to Osama bin Laden. He helped train many of the Abu Sayyaf's first members.

Police here say the group, named after a famous Afghan fighter, carried out more than 100 terrorists acts in its first four years, but after bin Laden's brother-in-law left and Yousef's arrest, the Abu Sayyaf became a strange mixture of ideologues and mercenaries.

It's known best for kidnappings -- nearly 200 hostages in the past two years, most released in exchange for millions of dollars in ransom. This year, the Abu Sayyaf beheaded one American hostage and has held an American couple, Martin and Gracie Burnham, since may.

President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo vows to crush Abu Sayyaf and stand with the U.S. in its global war on terror.

PRES. GLORIA MACAPAGAL-ARROYO, PHILIPPINES: We already have been a target for terrorism all this -- and this is the reason why we understand what it means. Now, it's not a lonely fight anymore. Now it's part of the international battle against terrorism.

ADM. DENNIS BLAIR, COMMANDER, U.S. PACIFIC FORCES: They're a bad group that needs to be put out of business. The Philippines are committed to doing that, and we are going to -- we the United States are going to help them do it.

RESSA: Easier said than done. Troops fighting the Abu Sayyaf must maneuver in remote, rugged terrain, a guerrilla war, difficult to tell friend from foe.

(on camera): After September 11th, the military has had help, with the U.S. pledging nearly $100 million in military assistance. During President Arroyo's visit to the U.S. last month, President Bush offered more, asking her if she wanted U.S. troops.

(voice-over): Mrs. Arroyo turned down the offer. As the campaign here drags on, more than six months so far, the government is starting to lose the faith of its people. Many here in remote areas in Basilan accuse the military of making a devil's bargain with the Abu Sayyaf.

During a hostage standoff in June, soldiers had the kidnappers and their hostages trapped in a church and hospital. Yet all were able to escape.

ISABELLA CABAYA-CRUZ, BASILAN RESIDENT (through translator): It's like they had them inside a sack. How did they escape? It's like they're working together, they're all the same.

RESSA: That surprise escape led to charges that officers were paid off with ransom money. Lawmakers in Manila launched an investigation, and at least one called for the command to resign now.

SERGIO OSMENA, PHILIPPINE SENATOR: They seem to be dividing the spoils as far as ransom is concerned.

RESSA: The investigation found no corruption, but its message was no comfort.

MARITES VITUG, AUTHOR: I'm convinced that it's pure, unadulterated incompetence of the army.

RESSA: Soldiers on the front said they lacked resources, like radios for communication. The military, denying corruption charges, acknowledges it needs help.

ANGELO REYES, PHILIPPINE DEFENSE SECRETARY: We admit to tactical lapses. We admit to committing operational mistakes. But we don't admit to receiving ransom money.

RESSA: The U.S. military is helping with equipment and training, but even with a friendly government routing al Qaeda's friends from the Philippines has already taken longer than anyone expected.

Maria Ressa, CNN, in the southern Philippines.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ROBERTSON: As part of the series that focuses on the countries that may find themselves in the focus of the U.S. war on terrorism, Wolf Blitzer talks with anti-terrorism expert Paul Bremer to find out more about the Philippines.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Ambassador Bremer, let's look ahead. There is a threat from the Philippines, a terrorist threat. What's the nature of that threat?

PAUL BREMER, COUNTERTERRORISM EXPERT: The threat there is an extremist Muslim group called Abu Sayyaf that's been active for the last couple of years, which is really an offspring from the longstanding independence movement in one of the southern islands of the Philippines archipelago.

BLITZER: Is there a connection with al Qaeda? BREMER: Yes, it appears that a number of the Abu Sayyaf terrorists have trained probably in Afghan camps, and there certainly are connection with al Qaeda.

BLITZER: And if we take a look at a map of the Philippines -- and we'll put it up on the screen -- our viewers obviously know there is a lot of islands, Manila of course being right over here. But if you take a look at the thousands of islands, a lot of places where people could hide, presumably even Osama bin Laden.

BREMER: Yes, it's a very tough security situation for successive governments in the Philippines to control all of these islands. My own guess is that bin Laden will not head to the Philippines, he will head somewhere else, but is certainly something we've got to keep our eyes on. It's not that easy to get there, for one thing.

BLITZER: But this is the case where the government of the Philippines is totally on board with the United States.

BREMER: We have -- it's very different from Afghanistan. We have a government that is a friend and ally of ours. President Arroyo has been very clear in wanting to help suppress the Abu Sayyaf group, who have kidnapped and killed foreigners, including Americans. So, we have a mutual interest here, and I think our government is offering to help them in any way we can.

BLITZER: And the U.S., the Bush administration recently provided a lot of military assistance, economic assistance to the Philippines. But what specific role law enforcement, intelligence, military would the United States play in trying to deal with the terrorist threat in the Philippines?

BREMER: Obviously when we're dealing with a friendly government, we want to work in cooperation with that government. President Arroyo has said I think very recently that she doesn't want American combat forces there. What she wants is American cooperation, particularly in intelligence. We have very sophisticated means of collecting intelligence in very difficult places, as we have seen in Afghanistan. I think that will be the main part of our effort.

BLITZER: So, presumably we are not going to see a classical, traditional military involvement in the Philippines. It will be much more low key.

BREMER: I wouldn't be surprised if you had some American soldiers who are specialized in collecting intelligence, but I think it would much more of an intelligence operation than a military operation.

BLITZER: Ambassador Bremer, thank you very much.

BREMER: Nice to be with you.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ROBERTSON: Coming up, a news update with Wolf Blitzer. And following that, Christmas comes to Afghanistan.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROBERTSON: Following 22 years of war and misrule by regime after regime, Afghanistan's new leaders face challenges that would be daunting for any government. That they do so with an empty bank balance and little else makes it doubly so. As John Vause discovered in an interview -- in a discussion with Ahmed Fawzi, the U.N. spokesman in Kabul, there will be international support along the way.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

AHMED FAWZI, U.N. SPOKESMAN: I think the people of Afghanistan and especially the new leaders of Afghanistan realize that never before in its history and probably never again will they get a chance like this. They have just made it from slipping back into the abyss. And it's a very delicate situation now. They have to deliver to the people of Afghanistan.

And we have no doubts they will. This is a determined group of people. They are now on the course to deliver to the Afghan people what has been promised by them and by the international community if they get their act together. They got their act together in Kabul on the 22nd of December. Now they have to think about next six months, getting the infrastructure rolling, the day-to-day business of government. And then, education, health, roads. And the international community is out there standing by to pour billions of dollars into this country. That's why I say it's a unique opportunity.

VAUSE: Let's talk about that reconstruction for a moment. Far more complicated than Cambodia, East Timor, then Bosnia. In many ways, is this the most difficult job that the U.N. has faced?

FAWZI: It is a very complex job, but I would like to say that every operation is unique in its own right. We can't compare this to Cambodia or East Timor or any of the other major operations. I would rather say Afghanistan is Afghanistan. There is no place like Afghanistan in its complexity, in its multiethnicity, and in the problems that -- what has gone on here for the past two decades and more is an affront to humanity. And I think that the international community is now standing up and saying, we made mistakes in the past. We are not going to repeat those mistakes. It's a wonderful thing.

And I hope we deliver, we as the international community through the U.N. system and bilaterally, that we deliver to the Afghan people. There are people still who can't afford a loaf of bread in the streets of Kabul and other provinces. There are people dying of starvation living in caves. This can't go on. This is the 21st century. So, reconstruction has to start immediately. And, as I said earlier, health, education -- they are thirsty for knowledge as they are thirsty for peace.

VAUSE: Let's talk about that reconstruction. The figure which is being mentioned, around $9 billion. The practicalities of that, how do you get $9 billion into a country that has no central bank? How do you get the money here on the ground and working?

FAWZI: Well, one of the agreements, or one of the clauses of the Bonn agreement, is that the new interim administration will -- one of its tasks will be to be set up a new central bank of Afghanistan and to start printing money in Afghanistan, and to have international drawing rights on international institutions. So this is one of the tasks that Hamid Karzai has before him.

VAUSE: Is there a timeframe on that? How soon has he got to get that up and running?

FAWZI: Within the first six months.

But, you know, this is a timeframe that was agreed with the Afghans. This is not -- I mean, if it takes a little longer than six months, so be it. But we are here to help him and to help his new administration. One example of that help, which is very symbolic, is that the day before the administration took over, 30 office kits arrived for the 30 ministries, 29 plus the chair. And these office kits were comprised of a computer, a chair, a desk, a desk lamp, paper clips, the basics to get the ministries running. And more of this is going to be forthcoming. So help is on its way on the financial side as well. The IMF and the World Bank are working on these matters as we speak.

VAUSE: Is it fair to say that the only leverage that Hamid Karzai have or the most powerful leverage that Hamid Karzai has is the billions of dollars in aid which will come into this country?

FAWZI: I think that is an important source of leverage, as you call it. The fact that is he backed by the international community and the international community is ready to pour billions of dollars of aid into this country if the country and its new administration exhibit a respect for international standards of humanitarian law, respect for women and the education of girls and women, respect for their neighbors, to support the struggle against terrorism in Afghanistan and elsewhere. So long as this is happening in the country, he will continue to have the backing of the international community.

VAUSE: And just very quickly, in six months time, how much needs to be done so that this interim administration can be judged a success?

FAWZI: The immediate priority is security in the streets of Kabul and the immediate surroundings, the convening of the Loya Jirga, very important step in the next six months, and the day-to-day running of government. They have lacked an infrastructure and a government that runs efficiently for the past five years under the Taliban. During the next six months, Karzai has got to put this ship in order and adjust its course so that it is sailing in the direction of a free, independent, unified Afghanistan at peace with itself and its neighbors.

(END VIDEOTAPE) ROBERTSON: In Afghanistan, it is already Christmas Day. And with the demise of the Taliban and the return of Westerners, despite the fact that this is an Islamic country, there are this day small pockets of celebration for the Christian festival, as Jason Bellini found out when he toured the U.S. embassy compound in Kabul.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JASON BELLINI, CNN CORRESPONDENT (on camera): What is this again? This is the former Marine house bar?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes. If you see the brass sign in the back back there, it's a -- you can obviously see the bar.

BELLINI: Right. And now what is it?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Now, like I said, it's the puppy baskets -- the residents of first squad while they're here.

BELLINI: Where are the beds?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: When it's rolled out, we're all laying all top of each other, just like a baskets full of puppies.

(LAUGHTER)

BELLINI: Sergeant Brent Conover.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hey, how are you doing?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Fine. How are you?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All right.

BELLINI: How are you all going to celebrate Christmas here in the Marine house bar?

SERGEANT BRENT CONOVER, 26TH MARINE EXPEDITION UNIT: Just like another day here, you know, standing post, you know, make sure everything is good to go here, everything is secure.

BELLINI: You are not going to exchange gifts?

CONOVER: You know, a little bit, like MRE pound cakes or something like that. You know, whatever we can do, you know, to keep their spirits up. We try to make it a little bit more comforting, you know, with a record player.

BELLINI: Marines like Billy Joel?

CONOVER: You've got no choice.

(LAUGHTER)

BELLINI: Tell me about this over here, the stockings you've got or the socks? Are they even clean, these socks you have up here? CORP. LANCE FACIANA, 26TH MARINE EXPEDITION UNIT: No, sir. No they're not.

BELLINI: They're not clean.

FACIANA: No. They're actually -- just took them off and put them up on the wall there, sir.

BELLINI: If Santa were to come by and put something in your stockings, what would you want it to be?

FACIANA: I'm sure everybody here would like some real food and some more warming layers because it's pretty cold out here.

BELLINI: Well, I hope you have a full stocking in the morning.

FACIANA: Hope so too, sir.

BELLINI: Does it seem likely?

FACIANA: No, sir.

(LAUGHTER)

BELLINI: So the tree may be a little Charlie Brownish, but the Marines, you've got to give them credit, they've made an effort. On top of the tree, they have an angel wearing a burkah. Now, they told me about this Christmas decoration, hand made by the Marines. This is Tali Claus. This is Taliban Santa Claus. Check out the long beard.

Other decorations, a camel. They don't have a lot to work with, but the Marines are celebrating Christmas with pride and a sense of humor.

SERGEANT ANDREW POMYKAL, 26TH MARINE EXPEDITION UNIT: It's hard to imagine this is actually Christmas. I mean, look, it's sunny. It's bright. It's warm here. You know, back home in Lejeune, it's probably cool, be out shopping. You know, I always do my Christmas shopping last minute. I'm sort of lazy like that. Of course, all our thoughts are at home right now, even though we are still focused on the mission here. It would be nice if we could be home. But this is where we are. This is what we train for.

CORP. WILLIAM BRIGGS, 26TH MARINE EXPEDITION UNIT: Made a phone call home the other day. I mean, that was basically the only thing that really consists of my Christmas.

BELLINI: Who did you talk to?

BRIGGS: I talked to my father and my mother and my sister.

BELLINI: Is tonight just like any other night for you, or are you thinking about home more, it being Christmas Eve?

I guess the people are thinking about it more, but, I mean, no one has really said too much. I guess I'm trying to keep out of -- keep it in the back of mind just so I don't get like -- don't think about it too much, I guess.

SGT. GRADY RICHARDSON, 26TH MARINE EXPEDITION UNIT: Just had a baby boy. You know, this is -- it's not my first Christmas away, so, kind of get used to it. What can you do? I mean, I'm in the Marine core, you know, serving my country. That's really all I can do, proudly.

SGT. LEMMER, 26TH MARINE EXPEDITION UNIT: Lately this is getting to be just another day. I'm going to miss home, going to miss the holidays, but I'll make up for it next year.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I would rather be home. Going to make the best of it as we are here.

Merry Christmas. Happy New Year. See you soon. And that's all.

BELLINI: Jason Bellini, CNN, at the U.S. embassy in Kabul.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ROBERTSON: When we come back, celebrating Christmas with the U.S. Marines at Kandahar airport.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROBERTSON: For the last week or so, Marines have been moving into Kandahar city airport and making it their home. They began their Christmas celebrations by consecrating a new chapel with Christmas carols sung and a rousing rendition of "God Bless America".

Bill Hemmer has spent some time with those Marines and has been with them listening to their Christmas thoughts.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

CORPORAL DANIEL RIDINGS, U.S. MARINES: I really don't mind to being away at the holidays. I'm kind of known as the Scrooge around of home, so...

STEVEN RIDINGS, DANIEL'S FATHER: Merry Christmas, Daniel. We just -- I guess you wanted to get the out of singing the Christmas carols with the guys, so you decided to have an interview with us.

D. RIDINGS: Well, they didn't invite me to do their Christmas carols, but I'm kind of glad they didn't. Thanks, Dad, it's nice to hear from you.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Corporal Derick Putrell (ph), Ontario, California, I miss you Lauralee (ph). I love you. I miss you, Dylan (ph), Mom, Dad, Brian, Jeff, Chris and happy holidays. And I will be home soon.

BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: Tell them who Dylan is.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Dylan is my son. I will be home soon, son. I know that you are walking now and I'll be ready to play ball soon. CHRISTEN MATTHEWS, CPL. MATTHEWS WIFE: I am very proud of what he doing. I'm glad you could be a part of it. It's hard being away from him this time of year, but at least he is out there doing something good for the country.

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL: Hi, papa.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Say I miss you.

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL: I miss you.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Show him your teeth.

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Smile, show everybody your teeth. Come on, baby. Marisa (ph) lost another one of here teeth. Smile. Come on, smile. Smile, Marisa, you're on TV. Come on.

JOSE MARTINEZ, CPL. MARTINEZ'S FATHER: Hello, mijo, this is your dad. I'm here and I'm thinking about you. This is my best Christmas present this year. Take care of yourself, mijo. And I'm thinking about you all the time.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I love you, Dad.

HEMMER: First up, your holiday salute. Name, rank and hometown please.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Hi. My name is Corporal Cory (ph) Wilson. I'm from Prince William County, Virginia. And I just want to say hi to all my family and I love you guys.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm senior airman Jesse Goldblum (ph) from Waverly, New York. And I just want to say merry Christmas to my family. I love you all.

HEMMER: How much of a Scrooge are you?

D. RIDINGS: I'm really not that bad.

HEMMER: Let's get it from the family, the Ridings family. Is he a Scrooge and how so?

BARBARA RIDINGS, CPL. RIDINGS' MOTHER: He's actually not a Scrooge. He just hates to sing. And so, even when we're in church, he just kind of -- when we are all singing and belting out these songs, and we go to a church that really kind of gets going as far as lively music, he just never gets into it. But he sits there's and he opens up his stocking. And your stocking will be there for you, Daniel, when you get home.

HEMMER: That's nice.

D. RIDINGS: That's so sweet.

(LAUGHTER)

HEMMER: Listen, we are not going to beat up on you today. Merry Christmas to your family one last time.

D. RIDINGS: Hey, merry Christmas parents and Emily. And tell everyone I said hi and I love you all. And give Maggie a little bark for me, all right?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We will.

S. RIDINGS: OK. Merry Christmas, Daniel.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Tell all the guys that we love them and we are praying for them.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ROBERTSON: Now, onboard the USS Stennis, recently arrived in the Arabian Sea, the crew are prepared for Christmas. But as Frank Buckley reports, they may have to put war first.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

FRANK BUCKLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): One week into combat flight operations aboard the USS John C. Stennis, another milestone: Christmas.

A choir practiced this week for mass and services planned for Christmas Day. Also planned, a traditional meal. But the crew of the Stennis will not have a day off. They are fighting a war.

ALGERIK ATWELL, USS JOHN C. STENNIS: I feel kind of bad because I'm not with my family. But I feel this is a gift, you know, for all my people at home and everybody at home, you know, that we are doing this for our country, you know. So it's a gift to them from us.

BUCKLEY: Throughout the ship, there are declarations and expressions of holiday cheer. And the Christmas spirit is alive among many of its crew. Lieutenant Jeannie Duda reads from an e-mail she sent to her father after a flag found in the rubble of the World Trade Center was raised over the flight deck of the Stennis.

LT. JEANNIE DUDA, U.S. NAVY HELICOPTER PILOT: It hit me pretty hard that I spent some time out here, feelings that I have at rest because I have to be away from my family for the holidays. Now, I focus on the fact that I have future holidays with my family. Those who died in the tragedy left behind loved ones that will never be able to celebrate the holidays together again.

BUCKLEY: Her father forwarded the e-mail to his friends and co- workers. Many of them have written to Lieutenant Duda to express their support.

DUDA: Just (UNINTELLIGIBLE), you know, the meaning of Christmas is what my dad would say.

BUCKLEY: For others on board, there will be sadness about being so far away from home.

CHRIS GREENWELL, USS JOHN C. STENNIS: It is a sincere loneliness. You know, being away from home, missing everybody, everything.

BUCKLEY: Alfred McGuire will be missing his children, hoping that some day, they will understand why he couldn't be there.

ALFRED MCGUIRE, AVIATION STOREKEEPER: I try to call them as much as I can, and I tell them that, you know, if Daddy could be there, he would. But right now, Daddy has something that he has to do. And it's a little bit more important.

BUCKLEY (on camera): It is probably fair to say that virtually every member of the ship's crew has delivered a similar message to friends and family at home: They would rather be with them during this holiday season, but duty calls. And they will have to remain on station. They are military men and women, after all. And their nation is at war.

Frank Buckley, CNN, aboard the USS John C. Stennis in the Arabian sea.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ROBERTSON: And this is where we will be to bring you the very latest in the hunt for Osama bin Laden. From all the CNN teams in Afghanistan and around the region, a very merry Christmas!

Thank you for watching. I'm Nic Robertson. LIVE FROM AFGHANISTAN will be back at 11:00 p.m. Eastern and again at the same time tomorrow.

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