Anti-Taliban rebels call U.S. bombing too little

Northern Alliance says more attacks would stop forces on front lines

October 18, 2001|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

BLUCHKHIL, Afghanistan - Two bombs falling in Afghanistan's war don't amount to much, yet for opposition fighters watching from a village rooftop, the heavy blasts were pleasant sounds just the same.

The bombing, however, was earth-shattering only in the literal sense. When U.S. warplanes bombarded the Taliban's front lines here for the first time Tuesday night and early yesterday, the limited airstrikes didn't impress those who felt the shock waves in this village about 1 1/2 miles away.

Even the children here are hardened veterans. They played and worked in fields of ripe cotton and corn stubble yesterday afternoon, within easy range of Taliban guns, as the muffled crump of artillery fire on another front blended into the background noise of life in the line of fire in Afghanistan's north.

Mohammed Saber, a soldier in the opposition Northern Alliance who first went to war when he was 13, watched the United States punish his Taliban enemy from the night sky. The strikes ended in minutes, leaving him to wonder what the point was.

"This is nothing," he said through an interpreter. "This is the least the Taliban has suffered. We have seen so much fighting, we can't compare these [American] attacks with that. This is too easy."

Saber has plenty to worry about. His two wives and his 5-year-old son live with him near the front line. If the Taliban forces are only wounded, and not destroyed, they could strike out from the foothills like an angry beast.

"We would be happy if there were more than 5,000 jets to get rid of the Taliban," he said.

Opposition fighters and commanders complained that the first U.S. airstrikes on front-line Taliban forces here were so limited that they did nothing to stop the regime from pounding back with its heavy guns in an artillery duel that lasted at least an hour.

"We wondered why the American jets came and bombed just one or two times," opposition commander Mohammed Salim, a veteran of the decade-long war against Soviet troops, said through an interpreter.

"It must be continuous. The Taliban would only last one day if they were constantly bombed."

The Northern Alliance knows that it didn't stand a chance against the Taliban before the air war began and that the airstrikes have brought them to the verge of retaking the strategic northern city of Mazar-e Sharif. So, the Taliban's Afghan enemies are very careful not to sound ungrateful for the gift of U.S. air power.

"When two people are fighting with each other and a third one comes and beats one of them up, the winner must be happy," Northern Alliance soldier Mohammed Ahref, 30, said as a distant machine-gunner fired a few bursts at the Taliban lines.

Northern Alliance troops encamped in farmhouses of cracked mud walls in the valley below were waiting for the bombs to fall and immediately joined in the assault by launching an artillery barrage, Salim said.

The Taliban, ignoring the risk of drawing more fire from U.S. warplanes, blasted back with artillery guns that the U.S. strikes had failed to knock out.

Evidence of the battle lay scattered in a courtyard of the farmhouse that serves as a barracks for Saber's fighters.

Just a few yards away from the window of a crying child, dozens of spent artillery and mortar shells littered the ground from where opposition fighters had fired up at the hilltop Taliban positions.

The Northern Alliance says it is coordinating its attacks on the Taliban with U.S. forces but won't divulge how. Salim would say only that his men were ready to fire when the U.S. warplanes struck.

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