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US Planes Carpet-bomb Taleban

Sitting in the ruined control tower of Bagram air base, a Northern Alliance commander watches US planes carpet-bomb his enemies.
By Tim Judah

General Babajon sat on a chair in the middle of the ruined octagonal control tower of Bagram air base, just north of Kabul. As American bombs fell on the Taleban, sending clouds of smoke and dust billowing hundreds of feet into the air, he said little but jotted down the times and locations of the strikes on a small slip of blue paper.


The US has been bombing Taleban positions on the southern and western edge of the runway for ten days, but Wednesday's raids were by far the most sustained and ferocious.


As the bombs fell soldiers at a nearby barracks whooped with joy as they raced up a ladder to the top of their lookout post to see the planes strike positions which they say the US has not hit until now.


A B-52 glinted in the brilliant morning sunshine as it made at least four passes over the base. It is the most powerful bomber on the planet. After it had gone, the sky clouded over but the American air raids continued, at least until dusk. Fighter-bombers passed overhead repeatedly.


In the distance, trails of dust could be seen rising from Taleban vehicles racing to and from their lines, perhaps to rescue wounded.


Northern Alliance troops said that they believed that the ferocity of Wednesday's raid may have been unleashed by a Taleban attempt to advance.


In his tiny shop by the airport, decorated with a drawing of a Soviet fighter plane, Haji Zainuddin, said, "So long as they don't kill civilians I am happy about it, but it does give me a headache." In the neighbouring village of Nawdea, men and boys climbed on to the roofs of their mudbrick houses to observe the spectacle.


Between raids, an eerie silence settled on the air base, one that was broken only by the wind rustling softly through the trees and by fallen leaves swirling between its shattered buildings.


In a jarring contrast to the carnage being wrought only a few miles away, families packed into little horse-drawn traps - with the horses sporting outlandish red and blue bobble decorations on their heads - trotted up and down the main road, close to the air base.


Off duty soldiers played volley ball while the skyline beyond them was punctured by billowing mushroom clouds of dust and smoke.


Bagram air base was once the biggest in Afghanistan. Moscow lent the Afghans money to build it, clearly having a view to their own future strategic interests.


In 1979, on the eve of their invasion, the Russians had reason to believe that their cash had been well spent. Just before the operation began, the Soviet military pre-positioned key units here.


Then, on the January 1, 1980, they used Bagram to fly in Babrak Karmal, the leader of what was to be their puppet regime. He was then taken to Kabul inside a tank. Until their eviction in 1989, Bagram played a key role in the Soviet occupation with planes and helicopters taking off from here in their doomed bid to subjugate the country.


Now, after a decade of fighting between Afghans, its buildings are bombed out shells. Wrecked tanks and old fighter jets lie strewn around like discarded toys. In the control tower equipment is in ruins, there is no glass in the windows and a shell hole in the roof.


By contrast, Bagram's runway, capable of landing the largest planes, appears to be undamaged. Donald Rumsfeld, the US secretary for defence, has mooted the idea of special forces taking control of an area in Afghanistan and launching raids from here.


If the Taleban could be driven off the hills overlooking the air base, Bagram would be ideal. Some of the one hundred or so US military men, which Rumsfeld says are now in Afghanistan, have been spotted at Bagram. They are certainly helping guide in the US bombs but they may also be assessing its suitability as a potential American base.


Another point of the raids is clearly to open the main road south to Kabul for the Northern Alliance. The road, built, like Bagram airport with Soviet money, runs all the way from Kabul to the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan. Despite the ferocity of Wednesday's attacks, General Babajon appeared to be in no mood to celebrate. Before the Soviets were driven out, he fought alongside them in the Afghan army against the mujahedin. "This is still not enough to make the Taleban run," he said. "They need to do more. We have had 23 years of war and we Afghans are used to it."


Then he got up, put his piece of blue paper in his pocket, and drove off. The Americans may be upping the stakes in their bombing campaign, but at least one Northern Alliance is clearly unimpressed.


Tim Judah, author of Kosovo: War and Revenge (Yale), is a regular IWPR contributor.


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