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New Report Claims Secret U.S. Airlift of Pakistani Military Advisors Out of Afghanistan Was Also an Escape Route for Enemy

Aired January 21, 2002 - 08:04   ET


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: A new report this morning claims that a secret U.S. airlift of Pakistani military advisors out of Afghanistan was also an escape route for the enemy. In the current issue of "The New Yorker" magazine, investigative reporter, Seymour Hersh, writes about the getaway, which he says took place during the siege of Konduz in November, and gave perhaps thousands of al Qaeda and Taliban members safe passage to Pakistan. Sey Hersh joins us now from Washington -- thanks so much for joining us on this holiday morning.


ZAHN: All right. Say, I'm going to start off by putting on the screen a small part of what you wrote in the magazine. You say American intelligence officials and high-ranking military officers said that Pakistanis were, indeed, flown to safety, in a series of nighttime airlifts that were approved by the Bush administration. The Americans also said what was supposed to be a limited evacuation apparently slipped out of control, and as an unintended consequence, an unknown number of Taliban and al Qaeda fighters managed to join in the exodus.

Now, according to your sources, just how many fighters escaped?

HERSH: Well, nobody knows real numbers. One of the things I did do is I went to India, because I did know that the Indian government has very close ties with the Northern Alliance, our allies there, and also had very good intelligence about it and did not speak publicly. But I learned that they were very upset as were, by the way, many members of our Special Forces, which were roaming around the countryside at that point, trying to kill Taliban or capture them. And that's how I learned about the story initially.

Some of the Delta Forces guys were very unhappy. They had been doing terrific work that nobody has really been able to report on -- we will one day, I hope -- really ferreting out the enemy. And all of a sudden, the command -- the Central Command in Florida, which runs the war, CentCom, put out a special order restricting airspace between Konduz, which had been a retreat area for most of the northern -- in the northern part of Afghanistan.

You know, our war was so terrific, so quick, we attacked with such ferocity and such accuracy that we had the enemy on the run, and they all congregated at this little hill town call Konduz. And from there, all of a sudden one night around Thanksgiving, in the middle of the siege, an air corridor was set up between Konduz and northern Pakistan -- northwest Pakistan 200 miles away. And at night, planes regularly flew through that corridor, the no-fly zones more or less, and Pakistani relief planes. And so, that's how this whole thing began.

The Indians knew a lot about it. And after a few days in Delhi, the Indians told me their numbers were roughly 5,000. The best number I could get from an American was a few thousand. So we'll never know.

You could imagine, the evacuation was asked for by Musharraf, the president of Pakistan, who said to us in effect, look, I'm in trouble now anyway because I'm supporting you guys in the war. And the Taliban are our allies, and I can't have a lot of boys coming back in body bags. There were about 1,000 to 2,000 Pakistani army soldiers there training the Taliban army and Pakistani intelligence.

ZAHN: Right.

HERSH: And so, we agreed to fly them out. What happened is that, of course, as I quote somebody who served in the Vietnam War said to me at the end of the Vietnam War, when we evacuated, everybody took out their buddy. And you know, if there was space on a chopper for 10, he said, we put 14 on.

ZAHN: Sure.

HERSH: What happened is everybody took out somebody they knew -- they worked with. And the...

ZAHN: But...

HERSH: Yes, I'm sorry.

ZAHN: Say, you know, sorry to stop you there. But before you go any further, I think we need to make it clear that the U.S. administration continues to say this didn't happen. Let's have you analyze what Secretary Rumsfeld had to say about this over the weekend -- let's listen.


DONALD RUMSFELD, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: I do not believe it happened. I can't prove a negative, but our people have checked to the extent that it is possible to check. We have had enormous numbers of aircraft and intelligence sensors in various ways watching that area. No one that I know connected with the United States in any way has saw any such thing as a major air exodus out of Afghanistan into Pakistan.


ZAHN: Your reaction to what the secretary of defense had to say.

HERSH: I like Donald Rumsfeld, and he's an honorable guy. And if he doesn't know, he doesn't want to know, because the facts are that this was approved. There was a regular exodus that was authorized. It got out of control, as some -- I quote a very high American intelligence official as saying, "dirt got through the screen."

And some -- if you remember, you know, the fact is right now, today, we don't have any high-ranking Taliban or al Qaeda. We haven't really captured anybody -- one or two on the fringe. And a lot of people think they got out then through Konduz. Some of the very senior people got out, because I started to say the Pakistanis, as many in your audience know, have lost (ph) any ties to the Afghans, to the Taliban and to their supporters. And so --particularly the Pakistani intelligence service. So this is like, somebody said to me, they're like our children, our brothers, our sons. They took them out, and they protected them.

And you know, I'll tell you. What's interesting is I asked Mr. Rumsfeld in a fax in the middle of the week to respond. I didn't get an answer. It seems to me that along with just this story about being -- what happened, and the government not being sort of straight with us about it, there's an amazing sense that they can pretty much get away with anything, I think.

You know, we in the press are sort of in a dilemma here. There were press stories, as I wrote about it in the magazine, there were press accounts of rumors about this. The government denied it, as Mr. Rumsfeld just denied it. The same language, oh, my god, you know, I can't believe this is happening. There's no gambling on the premises.

And in fact, we really don't know what's happening. We don't have an ability to get in, and they do have an ability just to simply stonewall us, because there were no Americans there. There were Indian intelligence people. That's why I went to Delhi. But no American intelligence people were inside.

ZAHN: All right. Has there been any more response from the administration? I know you said you tried to make contact with Mr. Rumsfeld as of Tuesday of last week. Anything since then, now that the story...

HERSH: It was Wednesday...


ZAHN: ... has been promoted and is out?

HERSH: I was -- you know, I did what everybody did yesterday. I went and played tennis and horsed around. I haven't even checked my phone messages. Nobody has -- you know, I don't know. I will know today. But the answer is that I did talk to other people in the administration, obviously, who confirmed it. And it's not hard to confirm.

I'll tell you right now, it was a mess. It was embarrassing. We lost control of an evacuation. I don't know why we're not being straight about it. All this talk about I don't know, nobody has come forward to me. We control the air space. We saw everything that moved. No plane could fly from Konduz to Pakistan without getting shot down unless we let it happen, and we let it happen. And I think there's just no other way to explain it.

ZAHN: Say, we only have 10 seconds left for this response. Where are these al Qaeda fighters that claim were airlifted to Pakistan?

HERSH: We thought we'd get access to certainly to some of the Taliban inside Pakistan. That was one of the things, once we discovered what happened, we thought we would be able to interrogate them. That did not happen. The Indians think some of them may end up being reformed into another new guerilla unit and head into Kashmir. That's probably too harsh. We don't know that yet.

But the Indians, by the way, decided not to bite our tail, because we are their ally and they are very -- they want to have a good relationship with us. But they were seething about this too. You know, what the hell is going on, you guys. You're supposed to be fighting these guys, and here you are protecting them.

ZAHN: Well, we're going to continue to follow this one closely and see if your interview today will generate any more reaction from the administration. Seymour Hersh, as always, good to have you with us here on A.M.

HERSH: Thank you.

ZAHN: Appreciate your dropping by.




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