Some Air Force officials have also expressed frustration with the CIA, saying it repeatedly failed to share information about its activities in Afghanistan. Friction between the CIA and the military is common in wartime, said one senior officer, but in the Afghan conflict it has been exacerbated because the CIA is not only gathering intelligence but also conducting airstrikes using an unmanned aircraft that carries missiles. Officials disclosed that over the last month, the agency's drones, called Predators, have fired about 40 Hellfire antitank missiles, a first in warfare.
But the CIA has been reluctant to inform the military what it is doing in Afghanistan, two Air Force officers said. "That's the way they operate," said one. "It's getting better. It's not fixed."
Despite the presence of Air Force liaison officers at CIA headquarters, Air Force officers monitoring Kabul and other sites in Afghanistan occasionally have been surprised to see an explosion, only to learn later that the CIA was firing a missile. "Something would happen, and we would say, 'What was that?' " the other officer said.
But Wald, in his first interview about the air campaign, said yesterday that "the relationship with the agency is fantastic. I don't see that as a problem."
Bill Harlow, the CIA's senior spokesman, said, "There has never been a better relationship between the CIA and the military, and between the DCI [director of central intelligence] and the CINC [regional commander in chief]. We are sharing all information with the Central Command on this issue, and any suggestion that we are not is ludicrous."
The core of the clearance problem, as described by several officials, is that the Central Command, which has its headquarters in Tampa, retained authority to clear hitting sensitive targets, rather than delegate it to commanders of the air campaign, who were based at Prince Sultan Air Base, located 70 miles southeast of Riyadh in Saudi Arabia.
Air Force officers described Central Command as the bottleneck in the campaign, requiring that almost every significant target involving the al Qaeda and Taliban leadership be approved by officials there, or even by more senior officials in Washington. "Imagine you have a target in sight, you have to wake up people in the middle of the night, and they say, 'Uhhhhh,' " said one officer. "It's a scandal."
The view of Air Force officials is that Franks frequently was swayed by the excessive doubts of his subordinate intelligence officers and his legal adviser, Air Force officials said. The Central Command's top lawyer -- in military parlance, the judge advocate general, or JAG -- repeatedly refused to permit strikes even when the targets were unambiguously military in nature, an Air Force officer said.
At one point in October, a Taliban military convoy was moving north to reinforce positions facing the front lines of the Northern Alliance, the Afghan rebel army. Air Force targeters thought it was a prime target -- easy to hit and of clear military value. The JAG, Navy Capt. Shelly Young, declined to approve it on the grounds that "it might be a trick," the officer said. The target was so obvious that it worried Young, who suggested that the Taliban might have put children in it. Overall, this officer said, Central Command officials "were deathly afraid of a setup."
The Central Command made avoiding civilian casualties or damage a major issue in the clearance process, officers said. "The whole issue of collateral damage pervaded every level of the operation," said one officer. "It is shocking, the degree to which collateral damage hamstrung the campaign."
Another Air Force official aware of the situation rejected that assessment as extreme but said it was generally correct in the facts of the matter. "It's a problem that's been around for a long time with Centcom," he said. This long-standing issue was complicated by the personality of Young, who has a reputation of being cautious and a habit of playing "devil's advocate," he said. When clearance was sought, officials said, Young frequently would ask, "Are you sure?"
When faced with that question, the officials said, Franks would then turn to his top intelligence officer, Army Brig. Gen. John F. Kimmons, who tended to say they did not have total certainty about the target. "That got General Franks twisted into a pretzel," this official said.
One example of the problem of Franks wanting conclusive certainty, this official added, occurred when a target was positively identified by real-time imagery from a Predator drone. The Air Force's operations center in Saudi Arabia called for a strike, only to be overridden by the intelligence officers advising Franks, who said they wanted a second source of data. "It's kind of ridiculous when you get a live feed from a Predator and the intell guys say, 'We need independent verification,' " he said.
The Afghan war is not the first time the Air Force has squirmed over target clearance process. Getting approvals from all 19 members of NATO bedevilled military planners during the 1999 Kosovo campaign.
In this war, there is no coalition demanding to clear targets, yet the Air Force has found itself facing a very similar set of hurdles. The only other country involved in approving targets in Afghanistan is Britain, which asked to review all targets hit by B-1 and B-52 bombers flying from the British air base on the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia.
Asked for comment, a senior defense official conceded that there have been some problems in the air campaign, but said that "95 percent of it was fantastic."
He did not dispute most of the account of the campaign offered by several other officials, but said it failed to recognize the political context and American values, which, he said, both argued for taking extreme care to avoid civilian casualties.
Air Force officers who think the United States was too reluctant to attack al Qaeda and Taliban leaders should recognize that "there's a delicate strategic balance," he said. "For the United States to maintain the coalition and to not have international opinion turn against it, there probably had to be a concern" aimed at minimizing civilian casualties more than is usually done in warfare. "The sense was, at the senior level leadership of the United States [military] . . . that a collateral damage incident would have a multiplier effect."
In addition, the senior defense official said, frequently the leaders being targeted by the Air Force were mixed in with groups of other people. "Our mores in America are, we don't kill innocent people. We have extreme sensitivity to that," the official said.
"For people to say we missed opportunities, that to me oversimplifies the situation."