November 2, 2001
Taliban's Foes Say Bombing Is Poorly Aimed and Futile
By DEXTER FILKINS
HAGATAI, Afghanistan, Nov. 1 — At first glance, the scene along the Taliban front lines appeared to be one of utter devastation: huge circles of charred earth, the footprints left by a daylong assault by American B-52's.
And then, rising from the ashes, came a Taliban soldier in his black turban, alive and armed.
"All day they have been shooting at us," said Muhammad Shah, a 20- year-old Northern Alliance soldier at his front-line post. "The American bombs were the biggest I have seen in my life, but they missed the Taliban."
All along this stretch of rolling hills two miles south of the Tajikistan border, where Taliban and Northern Alliance soldiers are separated in some places by no more than a few hundred yards, the soldiers gave identical reports: that the waves of American bombs that fell here today delivered plenty of flash and thunder but appeared to have largely missed their targets. Shells and bullets flew out of the Taliban positions almost as soon as the smoke had cleared, the soldiers said, and hardly let up through the day.
The reports from the front were amplified today by a senior official of the Northern Alliance, who complained that the American bombing campaign appeared increasingly misguided and ineffectual.
In an interview at his headquarters just a few miles from the Taliban targets that the American bombers were trying to destroy, the alliance's deputy defense minister, Atiqullah Baryalai, complained that the American use of heavy bombers to strike Taliban targets was a largely futile enterprise.
He said the American officials planning the campaign appeared to be disregarding the advice of the Afghans who know better.
"Mr. Rumsfeld chooses the targets in America," Mr. Baryalai said, referring to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. "This is our country. We know it best. If I were the defense minister of America, I could use his weapons better than he."
Still, Mr. Baryalai gave a somewhat rosier view of today's American airstrikes than many of his local commanders, who said as few as 3 bombs out of 30 had struck Taliban positions.
But he said the B-52's — the heaviest bombers in the United States arsenal — were too lumbering to hit the zigzag pattern of Taliban positions, and were unable to fire into hillsides where many Taliban soldiers hide in caves.
Mr. Baryalai said the B-52's were showing the same disappointing results on the Taliban lines near Kabul, the capital, where, he said, they apparently missed all their targets.
Independent verification of Mr. Baryalai's claims was not possible.
Mr. Baryalai said airstrikes could be more effective if carried out by fighter-bombers, which could negotiate the scattered Taliban positions and fire into the sides of hills where soldiers were dug in.
Mr. Baryalai declined to discuss his conversations with American officials, with whom he said he spoke on Wednesday.
In the past, he has characterized those conversations favorably, saying the two sides were working well together to direct the bombing. His comments today suggested that the relationship had become strained, and American officials concede that the offensive has not unfolded as well as hoped.
Today's assault, the heaviest against northern Afghanistan so far, began before dawn. The first attacks sent shock waves across the area, rattling houses and stirring animals for miles. The last strike, apparently from a B-52, came in late morning, when eight bombs exploded in rapid succession along the top of a ridge.
The spectacular explosions boosted the spirits of the Afghans living near the front lines. With each blast, villagers leaped from their camels or ran from their shops, clambering to higher ground for a better view.
Ghulam Sumar, 45, was toting a bag of tea on his bicycle when he saw the explosions, and he hopped off to watch for a while.
"Many times the Taliban have rocketed us from that place," he said, eyeing the blasts in the distance. "That's the end of it, I think."
Closer to the front, enthusiasm gave way to resignation, as evidence mounted that the strikes had not measured up to the hopes placed upon them. Muhammad Wali, leader of a post on the lines at Chagatai, said that at least one American bomb had strayed into a vacant field in Northern Alliance territory. He said that of 30 bombs that he saw explode on the front line, perhaps only 3 or 4 had struck Taliban posts.
"Our posts are very close, and we can see clearly which bombs hit and which ones did not," Mr. Wali said. "They killed some people, but many of the Taliban went underground."
The American strikes apparently did heavier damage in some areas. Mahmood, the commander of a communications post a mile behind the front, said he had heard Taliban soldiers on the radio calling for help for their wounded. Mahmood said his men had taken the opportunity to ask the Taliban troops to surrender.
"They started to curse us," he said.
On the lines, the Taliban soldiers appeared similarly defiant. Mr. Shah, the Northern Alliance soldier, said he was wakened before dawn by the first bombs, which landed near the Taliban post a few hundred yards in front of him. The ground shook, his dug-out began to cave in, and flames shot into the sky.
"It was like an earthquake," Mr. Shah said, crouching in his trench.
When the bombs fell, he said, he allowed himself a moment of celebration. Then the Taliban troops started firing.
"I grabbed my gun," Mr. Shah said, "because I thought they were going to attack."