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Attacks From Out of the Blue

By Keith B. Richburg and William Branigin
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, November 18, 2001; Page A24

BAGRAM, Afghanistan, Nov. 17 – The narrow road running south toward Kabul is a testament to the devastation wrought by weeks of U.S. aerial bombardment.

Demolished tanks line the road, one flipped upside down, another with its gun turret sheared away. Discarded treads from tanks and other armored vehicles litter the open field. On the side of the road nearby are two huge craters.

This was the front line of Afghanistan's ruling Taliban, until its fighters suddenly fled to the south this week. The strict Islamic movement had conquered most of the country, and was backed by a formidable core of Pakistani, Arab and other foreign fighters. They lived in abandoned buildings from long-vacated villages, or in a series of fortified bunkers dug into the hardened dirt.

But the Taliban retreat came in no small measure as a result of the U.S. bombardment, which appears to have been a significant factor in cracking the Taliban's military machine and its morale.

No Taliban fighters are present to describe the reasons for their sudden pullback, but evidence at the front line suggests the U.S. bombing campaign was both selective and powerful. The poorly supplied and outnumbered Northern Alliance guerrillas, who marched triumphantly into Kabul after the retreat, as well as U.S. military officials in Washington, said in interviews that the bombing had been an important factor in breaking the grip of the Taliban.

The bombing campaign, which began Oct. 7, first destroyed the Taliban's air force, consisting of about 20 Soviet-era fighters and some aging helicopters. Without air capability, the Taliban's ability to resupply its forces was disrupted. Striking ammunition depots robbed the Taliban of some of its arsenal. And attacking vehicle convoys, from armored carriers to pickup trucks, severely limited the Taliban soldiers' freedom of movement.

The turning point was the battle for the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif, where U.S. Special Forces operatives on the ground selected the bombing targets and directed the strikes. The fall of Mazar-e Sharif on Nov. 9 broke the Taliban aura of invincibility, sapped their morale, and started a domino effect of defections by regional commanders and provincial warlords.

A more limited bombing campaign was then unleashed on Taliban positions here, and those attacks continued until the Taliban's last day in the capital, when U.S. helicopters fired missiles at Taliban members fleeing the city in pickup trucks. The basic equation of the war, said a U.S. Air Force officer, was "21st-century air and space power combined with 16th-century land forces."

This officer, an expert in targetting, said the U.S. bombing may have been more important for its psychological effect on the Taliban than for the physical damage it did. Many times, bombs were dropped from U.S. warplanes that were at such a high altitude they could be neither seen nor heard. Suddenly, the world around Taliban troops would begin to explode, he said.

"You don't hear anything, you don't see anything, and all your best stuff blows up," he said. "It's like God did it to you – your trenches, your tanks just blow up, cloudy or not, day or night."

Here on the front line, a Taliban bunker appears to have taken a direct hit. A metal shipping container that may have served as a bedroom is damaged, with blankets and pieces of clothing strewn about. There are empty food containers, cigarette packs, a dented license plate from a car registered in Kabul to a government agency.

"It was really loud," said a villager, Ahmed Mukhtar, who lives just a few yards away from what was the Taliban front line. "When the bombing started, we could see the Taliban leaving their positions, and running here to the Northern Alliance front line."

In the final days of the airstrikes here, Northern Alliance soldiers told journalists that the bombing had a deep psychological impact, hurting the morale of the Taliban troops. They reported overhearing radio conversations in which Taliban soldiers spoke of running for cover whenever the U.S. F-18 jets and B-52 bombers approached.

"Every day the United States bombs these positions, and every day the Taliban is getting weaker," Abdullah Mohammad, a 28-year-old observation post commander near the Bagram front lines, said a few days before the fall of Kabul. "They keep changing soldiers on the front line, because when the planes bomb, some of them get killed, and the morale of the others falls."

"The fact that they bomb their military bases, disrupt their communications, destroy their air force . . . of course means their morale is very low," Wahidullah Sabawoon, the Northern Alliance finance minister and a senior member of the leadership council, said in a recent interview. "They have no more training facilities. . . . Their air force is out of use. Their air defense has been destroyed."

The airstrikes were never as widespread or intense as they might have been, or as the Northern Alliance had hoped.

Rather than the kind of massive, debilitating bombing that was launched against Iraq at the start of the Persian Gulf War, the bombing here was more finely calibrated – a tank here, a bunker there. That strategy evidently reflected the lack of "high value" targets. Also, it may have resulted from a fear of civilian casualties.

Since the airstrikes began, the Taliban has issued several reports of large numbers of civilians killed by errant U.S. bombs. The claims have not been independently verified, nor have Taliban casualties been possible to calculate. But as the Northern Alliance has swept the Taliban out of much of the country, no new evidence of civilian casualties has emerged.

A senior defense official in Washington offered an example of the speed and precision of the bombing. One night early in the campaign, he said, Taliban forces were maneuvering in the north, possibly preparing to attack across a key bridge. That night, in foggy weather, the bridge was hit by three Joint Direct Attack Munitions, or JDAMs – bombs guided by signals from global positioning satellites. "That [had] a psychological effect for both the Taliban and the Northern Alliance," he said.

The Air Force officer provided another example. At one point, he said, a Northern Alliance commander told a U.S. Special Forces liaison officer that one tank had been blocking a line of advance for months. The U.S. officer offered to make it "disappear," then made a radio call.

Not long afterward, the tank exploded.

What was particularly striking, the Air Force officer said, is that B-52 heavy bombers dropped unguided "dumb bombs" with great precision because they were navigating using global positioning coordinates, transmitted by the Special Forces spotters. "With the B-52s, we're putting long sticks of Mark-82s down with such precision it is ridiculous," he said, referring to 500-pound blast and fragmentation bombs.

Added another official, "The B-52s, because of avionics upgrades, will drop a stick of bombs in a 1,000-yard area." Thus, he added, "I don't think we have 'dumb bombs' anymore – we have accurate gravity bombs."

Also, B-52s dropped JDAMs for the first time. Previously, only B-2 stealth bombers had dropped them, a senior defense official said. "To tell you the truth, I don't think people [inside the military establishment] really understood how accurate the JDAM was," he added.

At times, one officer said, B-52s were sent to Afghanistan with a load of bombs but without an assigned set of targets to hit. Instead, they would "loiter" near the battlefield, waiting for assignments from the spotters. "They hit a lot of TSTs," he said, using the military abbreviation for "time-sensitive targets" – that is, people or vehicles that can move away quickly.

In addition, he said, the campaign was unusual in military terms because the target sets were so small. "It wasn't like you had whole rafts of T-55s going down the road," he said. Rather, hitting one or two Taliban tanks or artillery emplacements could make the difference in permitting a Northern Alliance advance in a certain area.

Abdullah Jan, a top official in the Northern Alliance intelligence and security service, said the U.S. airstrikes "played a very important role," in Kabul and in Mazar-e Sharif.

Initially, he said, people in alliance territory "were hoping that America, because it is a superpower, would destroy the Taliban military machine in two or three days." But the bombing campaign got off to a slow start. Then, a few weeks into the campaign, when airstrikes started targeting Taliban front line positions north of Kabul and using B-52s, Taliban morale plummeted, he said.

Jan said the arrival of the planes usually could be heard clearly, giving the Taliban fighters time to take cover in underground bunkers. But the intensification of the strikes and the use of bunker-buster bombs and a few of the massive 15,000-pound bombs known as "daisy cutters" eventually took their toll.

"These kinds of bombs were more effective than other bombs," Jan said.

Staff writer Thomas E. Ricks in Washington contributed to this report.

© 2001 The Washington Post Company