In the middle of the night, truckers, sleeping at the border here with food aid for Afghanistan, were jolted out of their sleep. The sky suddenly roared and rumbled as echoes of bombs from American B-52s played off the surrounding hills.
It didn't stop there. Four hours later came another roar in the dark sky and then more explosions and then the earth rumbled, again, as if it were suffering a faint earthquake.
Soon after dawn Thursday, the source of noise was visible. Huge pillars of smoke, 5 miles to the southeast, filled the sky.
The B-52 attacks on Afghanistan were under way, and the only witnesses except for the Taliban soldiers who were the targets deep in their trenches were nearby farmers, opposition soldiers on duty, camouflage-clad Russian commandos who control the crossing from Tajikistan, and the truckers who were stuck waiting for the isolated border crossing to open.
Awestruck by the violent forces they were witnessing, the truckers waited and watched. Across the small, slow-moving river, soldiers with the Northern Alliance, the foes of the Taliban, watched the raids with obvious satisfaction from their barren hilltop positions. They cheered and pointed toward the darkened clouds of sound and destruction wrought by the bombs.
For miles around as the morning wore on, villagers, farmers on donkeys and children playing in the muddy fields suddenly looked upward, listening to the drone of the phantom planes in the sky and recoiling when the roar of the bombs echoed across the valley. People mired in a distant, centuries-old way of life seemed scared but intrigued by the discussion about what powerful weapons and planes the Americans are using.
In a significant escalation of the 3-week-old air war in Afghanistan, the United States on Wednesday began carpet-bombing raids on Taliban positions near Kabul. Those raids continued Thursday when U.S. planes bombed Taliban trench works near the northern border town of Hikhanoum with dozens of huge explosions detonating in sequence across the barren, sandy hills--a pattern consistent with high-altitude B-52 strikes.
Thursday's bombing runs began in the cool predawn hours and continued through midmorning, with dozens of explosions reverberating against nearby mountains and huge plumes of dust and dark gray smoke rising into an overcast sky. The same entrenched Taliban positions were hit in at least four raids Thursday.
The powerful strikes, unleashed near a strategic border crossing where the Northern Alliance funnels supplies from neighboring Tajikistan, are seen as the latest intensification of the U.S.-led air campaign in support of Afghanistan's poorly equipped opposition forces and against tough frontline Taliban troops. The Taliban forces are said to easily outnumber the ragtag ranks of the Northern Alliance.
Rebels getting advice
For the first time, Northern Alliance officials have acknowledged that U.S. soldiers have been working among them to provide intelligence about the Taliban's actions, to offer military advice and to coordinate the U.S.-led bombing efforts. But if they are present in Northern Afghanistan, then the American soldiers are keeping a very low profile.
Until now, the heads of the opposition force, formally known as the United Front, had complained that the United States has not provided them information about the attacks, or coordinated its efforts with them. But they often seemed to know when the bombing would begin, because they used their own howitzers against the Taliban as a prelude to the U.S. attacks.
Not only do the Northern Alliance leaders now know about the attacks but they also can predict with certainty what the Americans are aiming at. This appears to be a 100-mile line south from where the Taliban are protected by trenches, land mines and armed facilities.
The Northern Alliance leaders say they want the Americans to continue to hit the Taliban front lines and to weaken them enough to allow the rebels to successfully launch a push westward toward Mazar-e Sharif, the only city where the Taliban and Northern Alliance are really locked in combat.
Unlike earlier attacks using precision-guided weapons, Thursday's raids were with high-tonnage bombs dropped in a pattern designed to obliterate dug-in fortifications and troops over a large area. The American attacks were reportedly aimed at Taliban front lines near Hikhanoum, which include 2,000 Pakistanis and 2,000 Arabs among several thousand Afghan fighters, according to Northern Alliance officials.
Rebel officials regroup
Despite pronouncements from Washington that the Northern Alliance is advancing, the opposition forces have held off from opening a new front, saying that they want the Americans to pulverize the Taliban's positions before sending their troops forward. They also say they are low on ammunition and other supplies despite their pleas for help from other nations. Indeed, the Northern Alliance's weapons stockpiles seem paltry.
The latest thinking among the Northern Alliance officials is that they must link up with Mazar-e Sharif across the northern ledge of Afghanistan, thereby opening up a new supply pipeline from nearby Uzbekistan. Once Mazar-e Sharif has fallen, they say, they can turn south toward Kabul, rather than attacking the city from the east.
If their plans do not go awry, and if the intensified U.S. bombing continues, the Northern Alliance says it could be at Kabul's doorstep within a matter of days.