US bombers guided by spy with a phone

Our man behind the lines
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British and American special forces soldiers are in the centre of Kandahar, their faces masked with Afghan scarves, waving from their pick-ups at the crowds of staring children. But during the early days of the US bombing campaign, the bombers were guided in by a quiet, inconspicuous Afghan man who glided from house to house, watching the Taliban's moves and whispering targets into a satellite phone.

Abdul Ali sits in his office, smiling quietly at his own success. A former mujahedin commander who fought in the war against the Russians, he is a tall, thin man with a quiet voice, heavily bearded and wearing a yellow turban.

He never had any direct contact with the Americans. Instead, he sent messages to Hamid Karzai, the opposition leader who has been named head of Afghanistan's interim government agreed in Bonn.

All he had to do, he says, was make a brief satellite phone call, whisper an instruction as simple as "Governor's house", and two or three hours later, American bombs would fall on the site. He had a satellite phone smuggled in to him by Mr Karzai's people. It was moved from house to house by women, who hid it under their burqas. Mr Ali would send them instructions through their husbands.

The Taliban threatened to execute anyone found with a satellite phone during the bombing, and another man was caught and publicly hanged in Kandahar. Mr Ali, who has six children, the youngest only two years old, admits he was "a little afraid", but he kept on sending his messages. At one point the Taliban interrogated and tortured him, but decided he was innocent and let him go.

The American papers have been full of boasts that few civilians were killed in Kandahar because of the accuracy of the bombs. That is not true – the city is full of the ruins of bombed houses. The hospital admitted around 40 civilians wounded by the bombing every day, about five of whom would die– and that is only among those who made it to the hospital.

"If we had not provided the information we did, there would have been a lot more casualties," says Mr Ali. He is well aware of the civilian death toll. He can reel off the addresses of the dead, and talks bitterly of the night the Americans bombed an arms depot and exploding shells killed people nearby.

But, he claims, only one of the bombs he guided in ever went astray and killed civilians. Fourteen people were killed when a bomb aimed at a Taliban police station missed its target and hit a house, ploughing into a room full of people. "I was unhappy. Innocent people were killed," says Mr Ali. "I told Karzai's people: 'Don't make a mistake like this again.'" Yet he kept on sending his messages.

Mr Ali says the obvious targets, like Taliban barracks, were bombed very early. After that, the Taliban began moving around the city, holding meetings in private houses and other locations. He would watch them moving around the city and pass a message about where they were. "Because Karzai knew the city, all I had to do was mention the name of a house," he says.

Once, he saw the Taliban hold a meeting in the hospital. "I told them the Taliban were there," he says. "But I also told them: 'There are women and children in there. Please don't bomb it.' "

Sometimes the bombs would fall two hours after the message, sometimes three. Sometimes they would not come for two days – far too late to be of any use.

Mr Ali, a former mujahedin commander, was in charge of the local media before the Taliban came to Kandahar. After their arrival he fled to Pakistan, where he lived in exile for a year. But he decided to return. "We were working against the Taliban here even before the World Trade Centre and Pentagon attacks," he says. "I was working with Hamid Karzai, holding meetings with Taliban commanders to persuade them to leave the Taliban. We were trying to organise a loya jirga [traditional tribal assembly] against the Taliban even then."

He sent his messages for a month. Then, on the day that Abdul Haq, another opposition leader, was captured and hanged by the Taliban, Mr Ali was arrested and taken for interrogation. "They punched me, kicked me, slapped me," he says. Fortunately for him, they decided he knew nothing and let him go, but clearly it was too dangerous to remain in Kandahar. He joined Mr Karzai in the hills.

Why did he take such risks? "I have been working for peace and stability for a long time," he says. "It was the world's demand. Everyone in America wanted us to help against the terrorists. But I wanted them out of my country as well."

Now Mr Karzai has appointed him head of Kandahar's newspapers, radio and television again. The radio is broadcasting, and people are able to listen to music again. But television – also illegal under the Taliban – is still off the air, because the equipment that remains is so antiquated.

"Please tell your people they must help us rebuild Afghanistan," says Mr Ali. "We can do valuable work informing our people here with radio and television. But we need help to get them running."