DASHTEQUALA, Afghanistan – The American warplane dropped into view from above high cloud cover, moving in fast from the southeast. It flew straight over a nearby hillside before climbing sharply and quickly to its left.
Only some among the crowd of Northern Alliance officers and translators who had scurried outside a nearby command center when they heard it saw the plane release the bomb as it swept past the hill.
About 30 seconds later, a thundering boom shook the ground, rattling even the tarpaulin windows stapled to the office of Gen. Mohammed Isaq, the local commander and one of the spectators.
Gen. Isaq quickly and quietly said something to one of his aides, who began barking into a walkie-talkie before shuttling off -presumably to find out more about what was happening. The U.S. strikes in this region of Afghanistan began just two days ago, and had never extended this close to the Tajik-Afghan border.
The general and his staff have been eager for more information. The bombing they watched was the third of as many as 18 strikes by U.S. planes in the area Tuesday afternoon, most of them aimed for the front line Taliban position on the Kalakata hillside.
Just moments earlier, opposing Taliban and Alliance soldiers had been staring each other down from hilltops of Kalakata and Puze-Pulyhumre, respectively. The routine is pretty much the same as it was on most days, the Alliance soldiers said less than an hour before the bombing: Watch, listen and squeeze off a few rounds on the Kalashnikov.
The battle line has stood between those two hillsides for a full year now. And it shows. Puze-Pulyhumre is littered with spent bullet and mortar shell casings. There are at least two cemeteries on the hill, with the graves marked by a set of stones set atop a pile of dirt. Trenches as shallow as a few inches and up to seven feet deep ring the entire hilltop.
As the bombing began, Isaq was telling Fox News that while he welcomed the bombing of nearby Taliban positions -- which began only on Sunday – he doesn’t see the effort as the end-all.
“You can bomb all you want, but it will take more than that to defeat our enemy,” the general said.
Others were less diplomatic. “You fly your planes all the way here from the Indian Ocean to drop five bombs,” said one Alliance officer who was visiting Gen. Isaq’s office during the bombing. “What does that really accomplish?”
The Northern Alliance has maintained for months that it will take a concerted ground campaign to sweep the Taliban from this part of Northern Afghanistan. The Alliance is happy to take up that task, its leaders say, provided they are given the go-ahead from their leaders.
But even if that order comes -and there is no guarantee -the area around Kalakata and Puze-Pulyhumre will be taken easily.
A simple 20-mile trip to the mountains from the Northern Alliance stronghold of Khoj-a-Bahuddin takes almost two hours. The first half of trip is a tortuous ride along what passes for a roadway in 20-year-old Russian jeeps.
The jeeps stop along the Kokcha River, where riders disembark and climb on horses to cross the river. From there it’s another 20 minutes up a dusty trail to the foot of the hill.
The unforgiving environment is one of the reasons the military situation has not changed in recent months. And that’s why some of the same Alliance officers who publicly say they would like push on to cities like Kabul and Mazar-I-Sharif before the onset of winter privately say they are in no rush.
“We have nothing at all to lose by waiting,” said one officer. “We’ll wait here while they drop more bombs, though there aren't enough now. We are in no hurry.”