As many as 10 times over the last six weeks, the Air Force believed it had top Taliban and al Qaeda members in its cross hairs in Afghanistan but was unable to receive clearance to fire in time to hit them, according to senior Air Force officials.
The officials said the problems stemmed from delays due to a cumbersome approval process and intense disagreements with the U.S. Central Command, which oversees the war, over how much weight to give to concerns about avoiding civilian casualties.
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"We knew we had some of the big boys," said an Air Force officer familiar with the execution of the air campaign. "The process is so slow that by the time we got the clearances, and everybody had put in their 2 cents, we called it off."
Adding to these problems has been recurring friction between the military's operations and what amounts to a parallel war being waged by the CIA, which has played a significant combat role in Afghanistan, carrying out its own airstrikes with unmanned aircraft and deploying covert operatives on the ground, officials said.
The effect of the problems, some Air Force officials argued, has been to prolong the war. Despite a week of remarkable success in Afghanistan, they said, U.S. Special Forces troops are now being forced to go into Afghanistan on the ground to pursue members of the al Qaeda terrorist network and Taliban leaders who could have been killed from the air earlier in the campaign.
Although disputes within the U.S. armed forces over tactics have been a characteristic of most if not all wars, Air Force officials say the delays in approving targets have been surprising in Afghanistan because President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld have made attacking members of al Qaeda and their hard-core Taliban allies the major objective.
At the same time, an official noted, Bush at the outset of the war made "low collateral damage" a major criterion in the conduct of the campaign. A reason, administration officials said at the time, was to avoid angering U.S. allies in the Islamic world about the conduct of the war.
One four-star general on active duty blamed some of the problem on micromanagement of the war by Rumsfeld and his senior advisers at the Pentagon. The execution of the war was "military amateur hour," the general said. "The worst thing is the lack of trust at the senior leadership level."
But most of the Air Force's frustrations over getting approval for airstrikes appear to be directed at officials at the U.S. Central Command headquarters, which is run by Army Gen. Tommy R. Franks, the overall commander of the war.
Air Force Lt. Gen. Charles F. Wald, who until earlier this month commanded the air campaign, has complained about the clearance problems directly to Franks more than a dozen times since the war began on Oct. 7, officials said. They said he never received a response. "Centcom was a black hole on this," one officer said, referring to the Central Command.
Wald moved to the Pentagon about 10 days ago to become the Air Force's deputy chief of staff for operations, a transfer that had been delayed to permit him to oversee the opening phase of the air campaign.
The complaints are now being discussed among senior Air Force officers at the Pentagon and elsewhere across the service.
A spokesman for Central Command, when asked for reaction to the Air Force complaints, declined to comment.
The unhappiness is not universal inside the Air Force. Some officers argue, for example, that the war had to be conducted with extreme care about targets because public opinion in Islamic countries could easily turn against the United States if there were excessive civilian casualties. Even so, the concerns have grown so widespread that officers at three major Air Force bases said they were aware of internal discussions about them.