Afghanistan: The War Escalates

Stung by critics wondering when victory might come, the U.S. inches closer to a ground campaign

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CHRIS USHER/CORBIS SYGMA FOR TIME

President George W. Bush's first meeting with the Homeland Security Council

On the front lines of the war, you learn about America's strategy by staring at the smoke. Above the peaks and ridges of northern Afghanistan last week, the plumes billowed thick and black in long, ragged lines — calling cards of the B-52 bombers that each dropped 25,000 lbs. of ordnance on Taliban positions. For Northern Alliance fighters scanning the sky from the Taloqan front in the far north to Jabal Saraj, near Kabul, those massive clouds of smoke, dust and debris could mean only one thing: the long-awaited American command to take the fight to the Taliban had at last arrived. "Finally the U.S. is doing something useful," said Mamor Hassan, a commander near the Taloqan front. "We have been waiting so long for this to happen. It is our dream come true." The Alliance is still bogged down outside the key cities of Kabul and Mazar-i-Sharif, and there were reports of disappointment that America's big planes had missed targets and failed to dislodge the Taliban. But the rebels are excited nonetheless, ready to believe something has changed. "I'd never seen anything like this," says Baryalai, 29, a fighter in Jabal Saraj. "This was something quite different."

It isn't just Alliance soldiers who welcomed a change. One month into the conflict, the U.S. war effort is under siege from a global chorus of critics — chiming in everywhere from the streets of Quetta to the hallways of Congress — who say the campaign to crush the Taliban and seize Osama bin Laden is hurtling toward either humiliating defeat or inescapable quagmire; that U.S. bombs are doing either too much damage, not enough or both at the same time; and that the U.S. had better produce some "wins" soon, before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan (which begins Nov. 17) and the first snowfalls allow the Taliban to rally the public and replenish its forces. In short, the U.S. is fighting a perception of the war as ineffectual as much as it is fighting the war itself.

Among some congressional hawks, anxieties run high about the apparent timidity of the American strategy: too few troops, too much dependence on the Northern Alliance, precision bombing that's too precise to scare the Taliban but not precise enough to spare civilians. Behind closed doors — and always out of the President's earshot — some of these complaints have reached the Administration. "War is a miserable business," says Arizona Senator John McCain. "Let's get on with it." Fissures in the international coalition are becoming visible, with Europeans encountering more hostile public opinion. In Britain support for the war has slipped from 74% to 62% in two weeks. "The carping takes a toll," says an aide to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, "especially if you don't have any Iwo Jimas to point to — and we don't have any yet."

"What are we doing, why are we doing it, how long will we be doing it?" Rumsfeld asked last week, running through some key questions during a Pentagon briefing. "Are we doing it in a way we're pleased or disappointed with?" The Defense Secretary insists that all these questions still have happy answers. But he and his generals know battle plans are often the first casualties of battle. After weeks of bristling at complaints about the campaign's sluggishness, the Pentagon may have finally concluded that the best way to silence the grumbling is to heed it. Rumsfeld and his generals say there has been no abrupt shift in strategy. "We're in the driver's seat," says Rear Admiral John Stufflebeem. But now the commanders are stepping on the accelerator. As many as 100 commandos are already on Afghan soil and hooking up with Northern Alliance forces. The "forward air controllers" among them call in B-52 strikes to pound Taliban positions without hitting Alliance troops. Until now the Taliban's front lines have been spared the weight of American bombs, but last week the U.S. unleashed 80% of its firepower on Taliban soldiers in Mazar and Kabul. There's more to come. Rumsfeld promises a relentless carpet-bomb barrage and a four-fold increase in the number of special-ops troops on the ground inside Afghanistan. "The only way to win a war is to beat the other guy," says an Air Force colonel. "So we're hitting them harder than we were before."

It will be instructive to see whether the Taliban notices. The regime appears to be somewhat surprised — and more than a little cocky — to find itself still standing after a month of war with America. U.S. officials believe that the Taliban has exploited the slackening of support among some U.S. allies to dissuade defectors and lure new recruits. "They feel they have the means to actually win this," says a U.S. diplomat in Pakistan. A Time reporter who spent three days in Kandahar last week interviewing key Taliban commanders and officials, including Tayeb Agha, spokesman for the supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, found the Taliban brass oozing bravado. No senior leaders, the officials claimed, have died from U.S. bombings. Omar and bin Laden, Agha says, remain safe. The propaganda message, which Taliban leaders may actually believe, is this: the U.S. has taken its best shot but has hardly bruised them. Said Akhtar Muhammed Usmani, the region's military chief: "We're waiting to fight the Americans — if they dare."

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