Rebels running out of patience

U.S. strikes causing little damage to Taliban, Alliance says

War On Terrorism

The World

October 26, 2001|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan - For five days now, military leaders of the Northern Alliance have watched American air assaults against the Taliban's front-line troops guarding Kabul, and the military leaders have formed a strong opinion of what they've seen.

They think they're a joke.

Once again yesterday, U.S. warplanes arrived in late afternoon to attack Taliban positions south of here. The jets circled over the rich Shomali Plain, dropped bombs amid the pounding of anti-aircraft guns and roared away, their swept-back wings reflecting the gold of the sunset.

But there are never more than two planes. They arrive about the same time each day. They fly at a high altitude and typically drop from eight to 10 bombs total. Alliance military leaders say that after the first night, the bombing has caused little damage because the Taliban expect the attacks and because some of the bombs have strayed far from their targets.

"America can shoot cruise missiles from the Indian Ocean to Mullah Omar's house," said one puzzled officer, "but they can't hit the right targets on the front?"

The air campaign has disappointed the alliance, dashing its hopes for large, sustained attacks. Nor has it seemed to impress the Taliban, who are neither fleeing in terror nor defecting in large numbers.

What the bombing has done, apparently, is anger the Taliban and inspire them to launch about 30 rocket attacks in recent days against the city of Charikar.

"America is going to boost the Taliban's morale by this kind of bombing and waste time too," said Gen. Babajon, leader of the Northern Alliance troops facing the Taliban here.

He was sitting in the ruins of the air base's control center, waiting for the afternoon's bombing run. Thousands of Taliban troops were massed on their front lines about 1 1/4 miles to the south.

"This is not the kind of war you can decide with two airplanes," said Babajon, who uses only one name. The United States needs to conduct its air war against the Taliban, he advised, "in a way to show them they are up against a great power."

Alliance leaders are nearly unanimous in their disappointment. "So far, the level of pressure on the Taliban is not such that we should expect them to be demoralized, to lay down their arms and run away," said Abdullah Abdullah, the Alliance's foreign minister. "I don't believe there is such pressure on them."

No one here knows why the United States is waging what seems a cautious war. American officials say they want to limit civilian casualties; but most civilians have long since fled Taliban-controlled towns along the front. "America is saying these things to calm its nerves," said Babajon.

More likely, Alliance officials say, is that Washington fears offending Pakistan, which does not want to see the Northern Alliance have military victories and dominate Afghanistan's next government

Whatever the cause, opposition leaders say a long, drawn-out bombing campaign could improve the Taliban's morale by showing that they can defy America's wrath. It will also give them more time to rally radical Muslims to their cause.

"Afghans don't worry about, don't tremble at the sound of bombs exploding," said Mullah Ezatullah, a reserve military officer who was the military leader of west Kabul before being driven out by the Taliban in the mid-1990s. "You have to hit them on the head to have an effect."

He said the Americans may need to drop "thousands of bombs" to crack the Taliban line on the Kabul front. Breaking it once and for all, he said, could also require American helicopter gunships and ground troops.

On Gen. Fazel Ahmad Azimi's front lines, east of Bagram, American jets have dropped only one bomb. Northern Alliance officials believe it killed five Taliban. Azimi believes the bombing has cut the Taliban's supply lines, but it has not inspired much fear.

"The people who we are fighting grew up with the fighting in Afghanistan," he said. `They've been fighting for 23 years. They are not afraid of those bombers."

Military officials who fought the Soviets during their 10-year occupation of the country compared the United State's bombing tactics unfavorably to their former enemy's. "In the Russian period, we saw as many planes in one day as we've seen in the past five," said Assistant Cmdr. Hadod, a leader of the Northern Alliance's commando unit.

Hadod, watching the bombing runs here, was puzzled by the high altitude of the planes. "The American airplanes fly too high in the sky," he said. "The Russians would fly just above the ground."`If they had 15 planes or 100 planes, it would have some effect," he said. "But right now, it does not have any effect."

The Afghans say they have expressed their doubts to American officials. "The Americans don't hear us," said Babajon. "They aren't listening to us."

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