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American Morning

British Troops Expect to Land in Afghanistan Tonight to Spearhead Multinational Stabilization Force; Did John Walker Commit Treason Against U.S. Forces in Afghanistan?

Aired December 20, 2001 - 07:04   ET


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: British troops expect to land in Afghanistan tonight to spearhead a multinational stabilization force. Their mission is to maintain control of Kabul while Afghanistan's interim leadership takes charge of the government.

Our John Vause is standing by in the Afghan capital as the troops await the green light.

Good morning. What's the latest from there this morning, John?


As you say, we are waiting for those British troops to arrive. They should be here in a couple of hours time. They'll be touching down at Bagram Air Base. That's about an hour north of Kabul. Their job in the next two days will be mainly to protect U.N. officials and diplomats as well as Afghan government officials for that swearing in ceremony of the new interim government.

Now that force will grow over the coming years to anywhere up to 5,000 troops. It'll be led by the British. They're contributing 1,500 troops to that international stabilization force.

Now there's still some confusion about how much authority or how much power they'll have on the streets of Afghanistan. One of the generals here, the defense minister, Fahim, he says that their role here will be largely symbolic. That's at odds with some members of the interim government itself as well as the U.N. as well as local Afghans on the streets who are looking forward, are very much hopeful that this new international stabilization force will, in fact, keep the peace.

Now we're also waiting for some New York firefighters and New York police officers to arrive. They'll be touching down in about 16 hours from now and they'll be bringing with them 29 metric tons of food for Afghan orphans. They'll be bringing some cooking oil, some rice and some powdered milk. They're working in conjunction with the World Food Program.

And we're told that these officers, these firefighters and policemen, they attended the World Trade Center immediately in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks -- Paula. ZAHN: Thanks, John, so much for that update.

This morning we are learning a lot more about American Taliban John Walker and what he was doing in Afghanistan. His picture here as a teenager living in California and studying Islam is quite different from the John Walker who turned up in enemy territory fighting with the Taliban.

He was wounded in the prison uprising in Mazir-i-Sharif and after being captured spoke exclusively with CNN.

Now at first Walker was reluctant to be taped. But with the cameras rolling and lights on, he told his story to CNN contributor Robert Pelton.


JOHN WALKER, AMERICAN TALIBAN FIGHTER: I was a student in Pakistan studying Islam and I came into contact with many people who were connected with the Taliban. I lived in a region, in a northwest frontier province. The people there in general have a great love for the Taliban. So I started to read some of the literature of their scholars and the history of the movement and just, my heart became attached to them and I wanted to help them one way or another. So I had the opportunity to go there.


Do you have any military skills or you just were sort of...

WALKER: No, I don't.

PELTON: Did you attend any of those camps where they train you?

WALKER: Some training camps.

PELTON: Because a friend of mine was American and they had to hide him from the Secret Service all the time. And he want to fight in Kashmir

WALKER: In Pakistan? Yes, that's how it is. They always hide the foreigners.


ZAHN: That exclusive interview was taped on December 2, but just arrived back in London and we are seeing it for the first time.

Robert Pelton, the man who conducted those interviews, joins me now from London.

Thank you very much for being with us today, sir.


ZAHN: Hi. So as you know, the American administration is considering what to charge John Walker with now. You perhaps have had more contact with him than most of us outside of the government. Do you think he should face a treason charge based on what he told you?

PELTON: Well, based on what I know, he went in seven months ago to help fight with the Taliban against the Northern Alliance. His goal was not to fight against America. He got caught up in the war when it started shortly after September 11. So I don't think he deliberately went to fight against American interests.

ZAHN: We're going to play another part of the interview you conducted with him where he specifically talks about his experience at Mazir-i-Sharif. Let's listen together.


WALKER: You know, the basement was filled with the stench of bodies and we didn't have any more weapons available. But they said look, we're going to die either way. If we surrender, then they'll kill us. I mean is it better to be killed? I mean if we surrender the worst that can happen is that they'll torture us or kill us, right?

So right here in the basement they're torturing us and killing us. So we might as well surrender. At least we might have a chance to...


ZAHN: All right, he, you conducted this interview shortly after that experience he described in Mazir-i-Sharif. Describe to us the conditions under which you interviewed him and how the interview came about.

PELTON: Well, Walker had been in a basement for seven days and they had dropped bombs on that bunker. They had thrown shells down there. They threw grenades. They poured gasoline and lit it. And finally they poured in freezing cold water. He sat in that water or stood up in that water for 20 hours while other people drowned. He then decided to give himself up.

When I saw them, Dostum, General Dostum had brought the prisoners to me for me to interview them. I actually didn't see Walker because there was a truck full of wounded and dead and dying Taliban.

I was then later told, about a half an hour later, that he was in the hospital. And it was a horrific scene. I walked in, there were 18 men in various states of being wounded and dying.

I went over. I talked to him. He was hostile at first. And then I told him I had brought an American special forces medic and I moved him to a different room and we began treating him.

At that point he started to talk freely. He felt that he was not in a threatening situation. ZAHN: How did you feel he was being treated at that point? As I understand, not only were there the presence of this medic you were talking about, but other U.S. special forces that you at one point had described, you know, reacted quite negatively towards John Walker, which, I guess, should not come as any great surprise.

PELTON: Well, you have to -- right. The man I was with had been fighting and killing Taliban for two months non-stop. There was very little sympathy with him. But they were very professional men and when we went to see Walker their only interest was to provide proper medical care and to also talk to him to find out who he was and whether he was an American citizen.

At all times they did not injure him, threaten him or do anything that would be considered abusive.

ZAHN: But you know, though, that there's a lot of speculation as to how John Walker might be defended. One of the theories is that his defense attorney will, in some way, allege that he had been brainwashed by the Taliban. Did he impress you as someone who was brainwashed or had some sort of psychiatric disorder?

PELTON: Not at all. He's a very intelligent man, very soft- spoken, knew exactly what he was doing, had wanted to study the Koran, felt it was his duty as a Muslim to fight jihad. There, in my personal experience and also knowing other Americans who have fought in jihads, this was a very intelligent man who had made a very important life decision.

ZAHN: Now you say it was also your understanding that he was there to fight opposition forces and not America. Did he ever confirm to you at what point he found out the Taliban was, in fact, facing American troops?

PELTON: Well, I think the first bomb load that dropped on him convinced him that America was in the war. I've also talked to senior Taliban mullahs and it was a big day in their lives when they began receiving American air attacks. And what happens is they were decimated and they fled on foot 100 miles to escape that bombardment. So he knew what was happening. But I doubt he had much of a choice in terms of giving up or surrendering.

ZAHN: When he talked about the Taliban being close to his heart, did he elaborate on why he was so anti-American at that point?

PELTON: He was not anti-American. I think that's a myth. I mean he was pro-Islam. He wanted to help establish an Islamic state, which the Taliban were trying to do. At no time during my conversation with him did he give me negative opinions about America or say anything bad about our country. His focus was on being a good Muslim and fighting jihad, which, as you know, is one of the pillars of Islam.

So I don't see him as an anti-American person at all.

ZAHN: And yet in an interview that people read in "Newsweek," when asked about what had happened on September 11, he certainly did not say that shouldn't have happened. And if you were to really read between the lines of what he said in that interview, he almost supported what happened here.

PELTON: Well, I can't vouch. I was not there during the preliminary discussion he had with other people. All I know is I spent 45 minutes with the man. He was free to speak his mind. We didn't go into that area at all. I asked him if he was aware of the attacks. I asked him if he knew Osama bin Laden. He mentioned yes, he'd seen him many times. He had plenty of opportunities to tell me his feelings about America. But his focus was always on being a good Muslim and fighting something that he believed in.

ZAHN: And when you described how the first bombs fell, having to, you know, go out on foot by 100 -- you know, you said, what did you say, a hundred miles, travel a hundred miles? Did he give any thought...

PELTON: He walked a hundred miles on foot, yes.

ZAHN: Yes. Did he ever give any thought to stopping what he was doing?

PELTON: Well, Paula, you really can't. I mean you're looking at thousands of men fleeing in panic and it, I was aware of much of the combat operations that went on. They were hunted down mercilessly and they were killed. There were very few prisoners taken in the first two months of the combat. So I can't imagine that he on his own accord would stand up.

Plus keep in mind his goal was to die. So obviously his goal was to stand and fight.

ZAHN: Well, Robert Pelton, your interview was absolutely stunning, fascinating and I know that a bunch of attorneys around this country are looking at it very carefully this morning as we try to analyze what direction this case may go in.

Thank you very much for your time today. Appreciate your dropping by.

PELTON: My pleasure.

ZAHN: And we're going to have more of Mr. Pelton's exclusive interview later on in our program.

So did John Walker commit treason when he took up arms against U.S. forces in Afghanistan? Sources are now telling CNN President Bush may soon announce how he wants the government to deal with the Taliban American.

White House correspondent Kelly Wallace has the view from the North Lawn this morning -- good morning, Kelly.

Any idea exactly when that decision may come down?

KELLY WALLACE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, good morning to you, Paula.

Good question. We just know a decision could come soon, as you noted, by the end of the week, possibly as early as today or tomorrow. We certainly know the president is still getting advice from his Justice and Defense Departments about what to do. And Paula, as you mentioned, there has been a lot of discussion about whether to charge him with treason, a crime that could carry the death penalty.

Now, we are told that that has not yet been ruled out, but that some senior Justice Department prosecutors and some in the White House Counsel's office are a bit concerned about it. They believe that there are big legal requirements in terms of proving treason.

There is also the concern, in the words of one U.S. official, about making Walker a "media martyr" and that the administration is looking for a "tough, but tempered approach."

And so we are told one recommendation under consideration, with the caves that no final decision has been made, is to charge him under the federal law that prohibits aiding and abetting terrorists and terrorist organizations. Each count under this charge could face a maximum of 10 years in prison.

Again, no final decisions have been made, but lots of discussions here at the White House and again at the Justice and Defense Departments.

Also at the same time, Paula, lots of questions being raised about why Walker has not yet been able to visit with a lawyer. Some civil libertarians raising questions, Walker's family, and yesterday Ari Fleischer, the president's spokesman, saying that the president -- or excuse me, saying that Walker is being afforded all the rights under the international agreement guarding -- guiding how prisoners during wartime should be handled.


ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Under the Geneva Convention, when the questioning deals with military matters or matters of intelligence, the Geneva Convention does not require the presence of a lawyer. He is being treated as someone who fought against the United States in an armed conflict and that's why he is classified properly as a battlefield detainee.


WALLACE: Well, Fleischer did say if he does become in the custody of law enforcement personnel, then, of course, the rights under the U.S. constitution would apply and he should, of course, have a visit with a U.S. lawyer -- Paula, back to you.

ZAHN: Well, Kelly, we'll be counting on you to keep us up to date on all these machinations in Washington, as the administration nears a decision on what to do about John Walker.

WALLACE: We'll do our best. ZAHN: Thanks, Kelly.


ZAHN: We'll let you go warm up. It looks chilly down there this morning.