CNN's man at the Afghan front

Nic Robertson isn't just shaping up to be CNN's next Peter Arnett. He's one reason Peter Arnett is Peter Arnett.

The conflict following terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon promises to push Robertson to the kind of prominence that Arnett found during the Gulf War. When the terrorists attacked, Robertson was the only Western journalist reporting from the southern portion of the country, the part controlled by the ruling Taliban force. The Taliban harbors U.S. officials' prime suspect in the attacks, Osama bin Laden, and, hence, has made Afghanistan the prime target of American retaliation.

Before being expelled from the country last Wednesday, Robertson scored a major scoop by delivering, via videophone, the first feed out of Afghanistan on the day of the terrorist attack. He has been a steady presence on CNN.

Robertson said in an interview that, after 20 years of war in their country, the Afghans are well drilled when they think an attack in imminent. "Most of the men are still around, but the women and children are gone," he said from Taliban stronghold Kandahar last week. "The government has prepared them for the possibility of war. Threats from the outside have a unifying effect."

The heat of action is familiar territory for Robertson. In 1991, he was a CNN engineer, covering the early days of the Gulf War. He was sitting in a Baghdad hotel with Arnett and anchor Bernie Shaw on the first night of the United States' attack on Iraq, the night that made Arnett famous.

"He was instrumental in getting our coverage going," Arnett said, noting that among Robertson's coups was smuggling a bulky satellite telephone into Iraq by breaking it into pieces, which he convinced Iraqi customs officers were less interesting video equipment.

Robertson graduated from technician to producer, tapped by CNN star Christiane Amanpour to work with her around the world, most notably covering the brutal conflict in Bosnia. For four years, Robertson's job was on both sides of the camera—sometimes producer, sometimes reporter.

Based in London with his wife, fellow CNN correspondent Margaret Lowrie, he has covered the peace process in Northern Ireland, a coup in Pakistan, conflict in Kosovo and waves of events in Afghanistan.

When the Taliban expelled foreigners last Sunday, he continued reporting and struggled through the government bureaucracy, pushing to remain behind. He and CNN colleagues argued that the Taliban was better off allowing CNN to remain to communicate its messages to the rest of the world, particularly in the event of an American attack. "Otherwise, their side of the story won't get out," Robertson said.

But government officials finally sent Robertson and his crew out, contending that they couldn't guarantee their safety either from a U.S. attack or from Afghan mobs that might come looking for even a British employee of a U.S. TV network. Robertson was reporting from the Pakistani border Thursday.

"It's very disappointing for him," said Lowrie of Robertson's expulsion from Afghanistan. "On a personal note, my children and I thank God."

But, after three years of frequent trips to cover Afghanistan—and the holder of an active visa into the country—Robertson thinks he could go back in. With the Taliban is searching for a diplomatic solution, it would be to their benefit to have CNN around, he said. "I'm still hopeful."