for National Geographic News
and National Geographic Adventure Magazine
near Mazar-e Sharif,Afghanistan
Robert Young Pelton is in Afghanistan following the U.S. military campaign against the Taliban and efforts to track down Osama bin Laden, the Saudi millionaire fugitive, after the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and other incidents of terrorism. NationalGeographic.com/news will publish his periodic reports from the field. Below, Pelton talks with Brian Handwerk in a phone interview.
Where are you now, and what's happening on the ground?
I'm staying as a guest of General Abdul Rashid Dostum about two miles from his military headquarters, which is the Qalai Janghi fort [outside Mazar-e Sharif].
What's the latest on the situation at the fort and with the battle there?
I visited the fort today [Wednesday] with General Dostum and they had collected the Northern Alliance dead, which numbered about 40. There were about 32 Taliban or al-Qaida bodies left there. The exterior of the fort had a large chunk taken out of it from a misdirected American bomb, and inside there had been a number of hits from the U.S. Air Force. It's also a major arms cache, so there were literally thousands of munitions strewn about the place. It was a scene of fierce fighting, so the Red Cross was collecting the bodies today. I also went there with two captured Taliban commanders to view the scene as well. They are staying at Dostum's house with us.
How did the prison fighting happen?
It happened because they weren't being rough with the Taliban, they were treating them with respect, according to the Afghan concept of hospitality. But most of the prisoners were foreignerswhat you'd call the al-Qaida group, which is not a term that's used here, by the way; they call them "tourists"who decided that they wanted to take out as many opposition soldiers as possible. So the mistake the Northern Alliance forces made was in not tying up the prisoners. It's an Afghan cultural thingthey treated them with respect, and that's what they got for their generosity.
It's been confirmed here that a CIA agent was killed at the prison and that five Americans were airlifted for medical attention. What have you learned?
They brought 500 foreign fighters, people who have pledged to die for the cause, and originally they really hadn't searched them well and hadn't tied them up. So one man pulled a grenade and threw it at a group and killed two of Dostum's generals.
The American was killed by a stray bullet away from that scene. After the fighting began, toward the evening they had subdued prisoners but they still hadn't tied them all up. They put them into a sort of a subterranean holding area in the rear part of the fort. Dostum uses this as a headquarters, and on one side there is sort of a modern complex. The CIA officer was in that area and was hit by a bullet.
Why did they not just level the fort with bombing?
The fort is a large complex of buildings, rooms, and subterranean areas. At the time there were around 400 or 450 Taliban. The area is also used to store munitionsboxes and boxes of bullets, mortars, rockets, heavy machine guns, old-fashioned Russian tommy guns, there are literally thousands and thousands of weapons there. When the prisoners were put in this hold, they managed to overcome their guards and grab weapons. The fort's walls are made of soft mud and there are number of hiding placesnooks and crannies. The walls are from four feet to about 30 feet thick. So when they began fighting, we heard explosions around 10:00, and the air strikes started about an hour later. [The United States] ran continuous bombing runs into the fort in intervals from two seconds to two minutes throughout a 24-hour period.
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