A view from behind the lines in the US air war

Special operatives are key to the success of American airstrikes in Afghanistan.

Every night for weeks during the American bombing campaign in Afghanistan, the headlights of Taliban troop vehicles could be seen streaming toward the front line north of Kabul - where they thought they might be safer, since US strikes concentrated on the capital itself.

Wrong move, says an American operative who served as a spotter for US pilots during those nights, providing a rare glimpse into the conduct of America's air war in Afghanistan.

"They poured in like they were going to the world première of a new movie," says the operative, who would not identify himself by name or agency, but is almost certainly one of dozens of CIA agents and paramilitaries on the ground in Afghanistan.

"You'd think they would get the idea that it was not safe, when they saw their buddies' vehicles on either side of the road as mangled wrecks," says the operative, who wore jeans and a khaki vest with a radio jammed in the pocket. "They just didn't learn."

The result of such precision American bombing - on this front line, in the northern stronghold of Mazar-e Sharif last month, and now being heavily applied to the last Taliban stronghold in the southern city of Kandahar and the elaborate cave complexes of Osama bin Laden in the east - may be the most significant victory for air power since before the 1991 Gulf War.

Sustained air campaigns against Iraq then, and later against Serb forces in Bosnia in 1995, and against Yugoslav Serbian forces in Kosovo in 1999, all required ground troops - or the threat of them - to achieve political aims.

Taliban say airstrikes effective

But in Afghanistan, according to the highest ranking Taliban defector to date, airstrikes alone were having a crucial impact. "Kabul city has seen many rockets, but this was a different thing," admits Haji Mullah Khaksar, the Taliban deputy interior minister who defected to the opposition Northern Alliance as Kabul fell to the rebels on Nov. 13.

"The American bombing of Taliban trenches, cars, and troops caused us to be defeated," Mr. Khaksar says in an interview, as he huddles in front of a jerry-built electric floor heater in his rundown living room in Kabul. "All ways were blocked, so there was no way to carry food or ammunition to the front. All trenches of the Taliban were destroyed, and many people were killed."

Combined with the rout just days before of Taliban forces across northern Afghanistan, the bombing forced a decision by the Taliban leadership - who met in emergency session the night of Nov. 12, Khaksar says - to abandon Kabul, preventing a bloodbath in the city.

Such an outcome was not a foregone conclusion, says the US operative, who today laughs out loud about the difficulties and peculiarities of trying to conduct war in Afghanistan.

Alliance commanders, for example, were often in jocular radio contact with their Taliban counterparts across the front line - a fact that proved the undoing of some.

"The alliance commander would call the Taliban after an airstrike, and say 'Hi, how are you? You still there?' " the operative recalls. "Fine, fine, but they missed us - they were 200 meters south!" would come the boastful reply.

"OK, 200 meters north," the operative says he radioed to American planners. "After the next bomb drop, there was no one left to make radio contact."

Paramilitary operatives

CIA paramilitary officers, some of them working for the Special Activities Division within the CIA's Directorate of Operations wing, others recently retired from the armed forces and hired on contract, have been active since shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Washington, training alliance rebels and gathering intelligence.

Active in the past in Central America, Angola, and in Afghanistan with mujahideen resistance fighters against the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, operatives in Afghanistan today were ordered to the front line in September, when President Bush signed the most sweeping covert mandate in CIA history. The first and only known American casualty so far in Washington's declared war against terrorism was CIA paramilitary officer Johnny "Mike" Spann, killed Nov. 25 during a prison revolt by militants of the Taliban and Mr. bin Laden's Al Qaeda network in Mazar-e Sharif.

Mazar uprising

The former US Marine was in the crenelated Mazar fortress - where hundreds were killed, as the revolt was put down with American bombing and merciless alliance shooting of the armed prisoners - to interrogate prisoners. The fact that prisoners there managed to take the weapons of their captors, and lay their hands on an arsenal large enough to extend the fighting for three days, was no surprise to the Kabul operative.

Despite alliance assurances of tight security, he says his base was once guarded by a single, unarmed, 12-year-old boy, who was overwhelmed one day last month by a phalanx of journalists.

Another weak point nearly led to alliance deaths, when US planes dropped bombs on the alliance side of the front line in early October.

"Let's just say they are not the best map readers," says the operative with a slight southern accent. "They say: 'Here is the front line,' and put their thumb down on a 1/10,000th-scale map. We would say: 'Please, please use a pin - put a pin on the exact spot.' "That wasn't the only frustration, the operative recalls. Even getting the Northern Alliance to gather its military forces and launch the offensive in the north and against Kabul was a chore.

Publicly, alliance generals said they were "waiting for the Americans" to launch their long-delayed offensive. But behind the scenes, US agents pushed hard to end foot-dragging.

"We had to tell them: 'Get going! Move!' We had to prod them so much," the operative recalls. "I mean, I want to get home for Christmas!"

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