In what may be the opening shots of the war in Afghanistan, a silver-coloured Taliban jet screeched through the sky and released two cluster bombs. Just missing some mud-brick houses, they exploded in a field, spraying hundreds of steel balls in all directions.
The attack at noon yesterday by the MiG fighter-bomber on the opposition-held town of Charicar, in the front line 40 miles north of the Afghan capital Kabul, was a clear warning from the Taliban government to its enemies. It showed that it still has teeth and is prepared to use them.
If the bombs, taken from old Soviet stockpiles going by Russian markings on the casing, had been released a few seconds later they would have landed in Charicar’s packed street market and killed hundreds of people.
As the MiG passed overhead, General Babajan, the commander of 2,000 Northern Alliance soldiers at Bagram airport, was in the wrecked control tower talking to a group of journalists. One end of the airport is held by his men and the other by the Taliban.
Just after the bombs exploded, General Babajan rushed out on to a balcony on the top floor of the control tower and pointed to rising smoke at the foot of the mountains. He said in a surprised tone: “This hasn’t happened before.” Perhaps equally surprised were his anti-aircraft gunners, who had no time to fire at the jet.
The Taliban have a small airforce, its planes inherited from the old Soviet-backed government. But its aircraft are mainly used for tactical air support for its ground troops and only occasionally against civilians. The jets have not been in action anywhere in the last four days.
Searching for the place where the bombs had landed, I drove back from Bagram, through half-deserted mud-brick villages close to the front line, to the battered town of Charicar. This has changed hands a number of times in battles over the past few years. The buildings on its outskirts are pockmarked with bullet holes and scorched by blast damage.
On a road beside a canal we stopped at a small shop to ask if they had seen where the bombs had fallen. An excited 10-year-old boy called Idi Mohammed said he had seen them both, one detonating on impact and the other half an hour later.
This is not the first time the Taliban have used MiGs to attack this area, but they have not used cluster bombs before. Idi Mohammed, as he showed us the way to the craters, said: “A bomb landed close to my brother six months ago and damaged his brain, so now he is crazy.”
After driving over several watercourses, we saw the craters beyond some long-abandoned Russian military vehicles. Around the main craters were smaller ones and hundreds of shiny steel balls glinting in the dust showing that cluster bombs had been used.
Possibly the Taliban pilot had aimed at some buildings a mile away that looked like fortified barracks. If so, cluster bombs, which are designed to kill human targets standing in the open, were a strange weapon to use. Whatever the target, Kabul had clearly decided to send a message to its enemies that the Taliban would not give up without a fight.
There are increasing signs of military preparations in this opposition stronghold at the end of the Panjshir valley. More young men armed with sub-machine guns are in the streets as reserves are called up. As we drove to find the bomb craters, a truck with multiple rocket launchers in the back speedily passed us on its way to the front.
General Babajan said that both he and the Taliban had brought up reinforcements to the front. In Afghanistan, the frontline usually consists of thinly-held forward positions with more troops stationed further back waiting to counter-attack against any breakthrough. Northern Alliance commanders say they are waiting for the US air assault to start before launching an offensive. If they do attack it is unlikely to be a direct assault on Kabul, which would be over-ambitious given their limited military strength. A more probable option is an attack on the town of Taleqon, in the far north, where Taliban supply lines are over-stretched.
But as the bombing run demonstrated, until the US air attack starts, Kabul has control of the skies and still has the means to punish its enemies.