AY-KHANUM, Afghanistan – U.S. warplanes resumed and escalated their attacks on frontline Taliban positions in the north on Thursday, including targeted carpet-bombing of bunkers and trenches within artillery range of Northern Alliance troops.
The attacks began before dawn and could be felt some 15 miles away in the town of Khoj-a-Bahuddin, waking residents here and shaking the ground and many buildings much more noticeably than previous U.S. attacks. The strikes continued through the morning but seemed to taper off as bad weather set in.
Local commanders reported at least five "substantial" strikes on Taliban positions, and said they had been assured more attacks were on the way.
Moments after 9 a.m. local time, two huge explosions could be clearly seen just behind Kalakata hilltop, located about three miles from an Alliance command center where a group of officers and soldiers had gathered to watch. The explosions flashed a bright orange and sent thick black smoke hundreds of feet into the air.
Alliance commanders watching from across the hilltop said the warplanes may have used the "bunker-buster" bombs that are built to find and destroy underground targets. Commanders said the explosions seemed to inflict more serious damage than previous attacks.
There was no official word on casualties in that strike, but Alliance commanders monitoring Taliban walkie-talkie traffic said they had heard the enemy mention 18 fighters dead or wounded.
Warplanes struck again even harder about 20 minutes later, laying down a targeted carpet bombing run along the same hill. There were several explosions, all in a row, seemingly located just behind the ridge of Kalakata hill.
Each of the carpet bomb explosions seemed less intense than the two previous hits, but were spread over a much wider area and hit almost instantaneously. Each explosion produced its own plume of huge black smoke.
The bombs produced another flurry of Taliban communication over the walkie-talkies. Interpreters said they could hear Arabic, Urdu and Pashtun languages being spoken, which seemed to support Alliance claims a number of foreign fighters, or "jihadis," are in the area to fight with the Taliban.
The precision of the attacks sparked more speculation U.S. special forces are in the area helping coordinate the attacks. Several soldiers have told reporters they have seen Americans in the area since at least Sunday.
Local commanders have been unable or unwilling to verify those reports. But several local commanders said it made sense for the Americans to be in the area at this time.
The airstrikes came amid increasing signs the battle for Afghanistan was moving north and west of the areas around Kabul. Heavy fighting has been reported in recent days around the area of Mazar-I-Sharif, where there are known to be American troops operating in cooperation with local commander Gen. Rashid Dostum.
The Afghan Islamic Press, a pro-Taliban service, reported on Thursday that Dostum’s forces had been pushed back after a fierce three-hour battle east of Mazar. Those reports were impossible to confirm, as Western journalists have been barred from the Mazar area by the Alliance.
There were other signs in the area Thursday that Alliance troops were ready to push farther west. A reporter saw more than 200 Alliance troops training in the area around Boidingak, in the north, after being dispatched there from the Panshjir Valley, closer to Kabul.
The troops’ commander said they were preparing for an attack on the city on Taleqan, which is on the road from Kabul west to Mazar. He did not say when the attack might come, and said he was waiting for orders from the Alliance defense ministry.
U.S. warplanes began bombing areas to the north on Sunday, and have alternated their attacks every other day. They have also made frequent food aid drops in the area.