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U.S. Airstrikes Rise In Afghanistan as Fighting Intensifies

"In general, I think our forces have been aggressive, and the Taliban's been more aggressive this spring than in the past," Air Force Maj. Gen. Allen Peck, deputy commander of the Central Command's air component, said in a separate interview. Peck helps oversee a two-war force that can fly from bases in the Persian Gulf region to hit targets in either Afghanistan or Iraq.

Some of the U.S. airstrikes near the southeastern border have been "hammer-and-anvil" operations carried out in coordination with Pakistani ground forces, the new Pakistani ambassador to the United States, retired Maj. Gen. Mahmud Ali Durrani, said in an interview this week.

Retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who recently returned from a visit to Afghanistan, said the Taliban have gone from operating in company-size units of about 100 men last year to battalion-size units of about 400 men this year. Some recent airstrikes have targeted those troop formations, contributing to the sharp rise in the total.

The enemy in Afghanistan is "adaptive" and "very smart," Freakley said. One tactic they have used lately to counter U.S. dominance in the air is to withdraw, when fighting, into compounds where civilians are located, which has resulted in civilian deaths in two sets of airstrikes near Kandahar.

The spate of recent civilian deaths caused by the bombing has hurt the U.S. image in Afghanistan.

In late May, the Taliban occupied a village 20 miles from Kandahar, prompting some of the U.S. airstrikes, including one that killed at least 15 civilians. Afghan President Hamid Karzai called for an investigation of the incident and asked the top U.S. military commander in the country, Army Lt. Gen. Karl W. Eikenberry, for an explanation.

"We go to great pains to limit any kind of casualties among the civilian population," Freakley said.

The United States has introduced a variety of innovations that would probably surprise the Cold War-era designers of the warplanes flying over Afghanistan.

B-1 heavy bombers, designed to carry out nuclear strikes against major targets in the Soviet Union, are now supporting ground troops fighting guerrillas in the mountains of Afghanistan. "Nobody designed the B-1 to be a CAS platform," Peck said, using the military initials for "close air support," which helps forces on the ground.

"Our bombers are pretty flexible," he said in an interview. "And they can stay up a long time." They usually circle over the battlefield for several hours at a time, available to launch attacks as requested by ground commanders.

Freakley said he likes the B-1 because it can carry more bombs than a B-52 and is able to "loiter" longer over a battlefield. In addition, its ability to go supersonic -- it has a maximum speed of Mach 1.25, or 825 mph -- means that it can get to anywhere in Afghanistan in minutes, he said.

Another innovation has been hitting caves on the near-vertical faces of mountains. In recent months, U.S. forces attacked two major cave complexes in Konar and Paktika provinces that were used by enemy fighters as munitions dumps, Freakley said.

Striking those caves "was a tough problem," Peck said. An F-15 pilot himself, Peck said Air Force F-15E fighters delivered a "specially designed munition" -- a version of the 2,000-pound GBU-24 Paveway III bomb -- that could fly toward its target at a shallow angle and hit near the mouth of a mountainside cave.

But the biggest change for the Air Force may be that the service now finds itself operating so closely with the Army. "We're basically supporting a ground campaign," Peck said. "It's all driven by the ground commander."

Researcher Robert Thomason contributed to this report.

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