The first American air raids on the Taliban front line north of Kabul missed their targets and dropped bombs close to the positions of their anti-Taliban allies at Bagram airport.
“The bombs were not on target,” said Elyas, a diminutive soldier fighting at Bagram for the Northern Alliance who was weighed down with a rocket launcher and a sack full of rockets strapped to his back. “They fell just in front of us.” Four foreign photographers also present at the former Russian military airport confirmed that two bombs had gone astray and had landed close to Northern Alliance troops.
The mishap on Sunday underlined the difficulty the Americans will have in launching sustained attacks on the Taliban front line, as the Northern Alliance has repeatedly demanded, because the front is difficult to identify from the air. It winds its way through heavily populated villages, orchards and vineyards.
No one was killed by the ill-directed bombs. The only casualty at Bagram over the past 24 hours was a 32-year-old soldier called Ahmad who stepped on a mine that blew off his leg.
General Babajan, the jovial Northern Alliance commander with a salt-and-pepper beard who is in charge at Bagram, refused to admit yesterday that there had been a bombing error by America. His reason was presumably that he did not want to give it any excuse to stop its attacks on the Taliban.
The aircraft were back in action above the airport yesterday afternoon. Two F-18 fighter-bombers, flying at about 15,000 feet but easily visible, circled and then each dropped a bomb. These exploded a mile or two away, sending up dark black mushrooms of smoke.
There was the “pom-pom” sound of Taliban anti-aircraft fire as the F-18s circled again and twice returned to drop four more bombs. This was not the mass raids and air support that the anti-Taliban forces had demanded to clear their way to Kabul, but it was a token of a new direction in US policy.
These pin-prick bombing raids are unlikely to worry the Taliban. Some Northern Alliance soldiers, who contacted their Taliban opposite numbers by field radio, were met with laughter. One Taliban soldier said contemptuously: “If that it is all the Americans can do, we can hold out a long time.” Colin Powell, the American Secretary of State, has said that he welcomed a Northern Alliance advance on Kabul. Previously, America feared that would offend Pakistan.
Bagram, the site of a city founded by Alexander the Great on his way through Afghanistan in 329BC, is important , and not just as a staging post on the road to Kabul. It still has a Russian-built runway more than two miles long. If the Northern Alliance could clear the Taliban out of villages and some hilltop positions to the south of the airport, from which they can hit the runway with artillery, then the anti-Taliban forces could use it to fly in military supplies.
But the Northern Alliance might not be able to do so even with the US giving air support. Its armed forces consist of two elements: a large number of soldiers in civilian clothes, often based in their home villages, who act as a militia and, second, some 12,000 to 15,000 professional troops in uniform. The latter, presumably essential for a successful offensive towards Kabul, have only arrived on this front in the past week.
General Babajan said that, despite the air war, there had been no serious fighting on his front since the days when the Taliban attacked after the 9 September assassination of Ahmad Shah Masood, the Northern Alliance’s former military commander. He added: “No new troops have arrived here. It is the same men manning these positions who have been here for the past six years.” The death of Masood, the one Afghan general with charisma and prestige, has hindered efforts to plan and organise a military attack.
A sign of the Northern Alliance’s dependence on Masood was evident in the office of Mohammed Arif, the deputy commander of a training camp north of Bagram, who has no fewer than three pictures of Masood around the desk. One is a sort of altar surrounded by green artificial flowers.
What seems out of the question is that military action by America in Afghanistan could be over by the start of winter in two and a half weeks, as Mr Powell says he would like. The only active front is around Mazar-i-Sharif, the biggest city in northern Afghanistan, where the Northern Alliance, which made advances last week, now seems deadlocked, though it says the Taliban are not counter-attacking.
Striking evidence that Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban leader, still has total authority over his men came yesterday when he sent a message ordering his men to evacuate UN facilities in Mazar-i-Sharif. His instructions were immediately obeyed.
The radio running on optimism
A year ago, Mohammed Ezedyar Alam abandoned the radio station that he was running in northern Afghanistan and fled for his life, when the town from which he was broadcasting was captured by the Taliban. Now, Mr Alam, a gaunt 38-year-old with a slightly harassed manner, is back on the air after starting a new station called the Voice of Peace. Its name reflects Mr Alam’s aspirations for the future rather than current reality. Its broadcasts are almost entirely devoted to war, and, to his embarrassment, the station is temporarily housed inside a military barracks in the village of Jabal Saraj.
There is no doubt that in Afghanistan, radio is king as a source of information. There are no newspapers or television. People are desperately eager for information. They feel, rightly, that the next few weeks will determine their future and the future of Afghanistan.
In the dusty streets of the villages held by the opposition, there is usually at least one man with his ear pressed to a radio. A silent crowd often collects around him, listening intently to the news. The most popular stations are the BBC, Voice of America and German radio, all broadcasting in Dari, a language akin to Iranian, as well as Radio Iran.
Mr Alam, working with a staff of 15, has been on the air for just a week, but already local people speak highly of his broadcasts, which go out for one and a half hours twice a day. “I think that the best news is on Voice of Peace,” said a soldier in camouflage uniform who was buying a radio in a small shop.
The day we spoke, the main news on the radio was about the opposition advance on Mazar-i-Sharif, the largest city of northern Afghanistan. Mr Alam, who knows the city well, drew us a small map indicating the main lines of advance by General Rashid Dostum and his deputy, Ata Mohammed. He said: “Our other items were about the bombardment of Kabul, 150 Taliban defecting, and [former Afghan] King Zahir.”
Mr Alam’s career as a radio journalist has required some rapid changes of location. Last year, he was chased out of the north-eastern town of Taleqon when the Taliban took it. A little earlier, they had briefly taken Charikar, north of Kabul, where Mr Alam was previously based, and had destroyed all his station’s equipment before they withdrew.
For the moment, the range of Voice of Peace is limited, but Mr Alam hopes that, by putting a new antenna on a nearby mountain top, he will soon be able to broadcast to Kabul. US bombers have destroyed Radio Shariat, the main Afghan station, and only a few provincial Taliban radios are still operating.
Mr Alam’s radio has also just broadcast a fascinating scoop. It reports that in retaliation for the US and British air strikes, the Taliban have banned the teaching of English in Afghanistan, and ordered all English language schools be closed. Those who continue to teach English will be severely punished.
Despite the Taliban’s suspicion of educational establishments in general, there has been a keen appetite to learn English, even in small villages, among Afghan students who believe that knowledge of the language is necessary for emigration. Small private schools have flourished.
The Taliban’s action against English is in keeping with its tradition of banning cultural phenomena of which it disapproves. When it captured Kabul in 1996, it immediately prohibited television, video, satellite TV and music, along with all games including football and even kite-flying ? a favourite pastime in Afghanistan. Some Taliban militants even strangled songbirds, often kept as pets, deeming them to be a distraction from religion.