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A view from behind the lines in the US air war

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

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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.

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