A cluster of American jet fighters swarmed over Afghanistan's most controversial front line north of Kabul, meeting up in pairs, as they swooped sharply down toward their Taliban targets yesterday.
The Shomali Plain erupted with volleys of antiaircraft fire from Taliban positions, and one US plane released flare decoys, to thwart heat-seeking missiles. At least half a dozen bombs blasted Taliban positions, sending up huge columns of smoke west of the strategic, rebel-held Bagram airbase.
These are the most intense attacks, though just 20 minutes long, on Taliban positions north of Kabul, in three days of bombing that mark a new phase in US strikes on Afghanistan.
But dramatic as these images may be, rebel commanders of the Northern Alliance say they are symbolic only, a fraction of what is necessary to pave the way for rebel forces to an advance on Kabul.
"We are happy, because America is bombing our enemy," says alliance commander Mohamed Mustafa, as the sound of US jets fades over his part of the Bagram Front. "But these attacks are very slight. We ourselves fire 30 to 50 missiles at those positions a night, and this is no stronger," he says, stretching his arm out across the derelict vineyards and mud and wattle houses toward Taliban positions, that were still smoking.
"We hope they begin heavier bombing. This is not sufficient," Commander Mustafa says. "The Taliban don't even know it's American attacks - it could be our attacks on them. We've been doing it the same every day for six years."
Despite an impression outside Afghanistan that rebels are poised to capture Kabul, there were virtually no signs of military movement yesterday. During the bombing raids, in fact, alliance soldiers at a frontline tank position seemed unconcerned: They only paused in their volleyball game long
enough to look up to the sky and point out the roaring US jets.
The alliance is the focus of US efforts to topple the Taliban regime, which hosts accused terrorist Osama bin Laden. American officials have made clear - diplomatically, and militarily on the ground - that they approve of the current rebel effort to capture the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif.
But the US has been less supportive of helping the alliance north of Kabul, saying it wants the alliance to first ready a multi-ethnic coalition government.
"We give priority to capturing Mazar-e Sharif," Yunas Qanoni, one of the alliance's top-three civilian leaders, said yesterday. "But if there is a weakness in the Kabul line, we will take advantage of it."
"The US should assist the Northern Alliance capture of the large cities of Afghanistan, and help us move to the gates of Kabul," Mr. Qanoni said. "The US bombing tactics [to date] are wrong. There aren't any Taliban or bin Laden people at airports and military bases. They are at the front line."
Facing criticism that the US wasn't doing enough on the Kabul front - and mindful that the fighting season may be short because of the mid-November start of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, along with the Afghan winter - the US began pinprick raids three days ago.
US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld seemed to signal a new Pentagon strategy Monday, promising that the US strikes were designed to destroy the Taliban. "We're not holding back at all," Mr. Rumsfeld said.
But that is not the view of commanders on the ground, who say US efforts so far, while welcome, seem only half-hearted if the alliance is to break through the three lines of Taliban defenses north of Kabul.
Yesterday's targets included a strategic supply bridge, Mustafa said, and several concentrations of Arab, Pakistani, Chechen, and Uzbek troops - some of the Taliban's fiercest volunteer fighters, who have reinforced this front by the hundreds in recent weeks.
"There is one good point," Mustafa says. "This bombing will weaken the morale of our enemy. If we want to attack, we can break through the first and second line, but no more."
The front line had even shifted backward a degree, he says, because all alliance troops had been pulled back enough so they wouldn't be accidentally caught by an American bomb.
There was no danger of that on this front, since most targets were to the rear, where sections of the Taliban's "foreign legion" were in position.
"Even our attacks are better than these," Mustafa said, with a sneaky grin framed by a long black beard. "They attack from so high, they can't be sure of their targets. When we attack, we see them with our eyes as they retreat, and then pick them off."