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Chris Burns: Bombing aims to soften Taliban front

CNN's Chris Burns
CNN's Chris Burns  

NORTHERN AFGHANISTAN (CNN) -- The Bagram Air Base in northern Afghanistan was the latest target of U.S.-led airstrikes Tuesday. It marked the third day of raids in the area as the coalition forces sought to weaken the Taliban front line there.

CNN'S Chris Burns is based near the strikes and filed the following report:

BURNS: There's a lot of action going on. There are U.S. war jets streaking overhead as we speak. Not sure if you can pick that up, but there were rapid-fire explosions in the last 20 to 30 minutes. You can see more smoke rising from points where there are bright red and orange flashes in the last few minutes. And there were at least 20 or 30 explosions in the last 15 minutes alone.

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This is the third day of airstrikes along this very key front between here and Kabul. Kabul is about 25 miles to the south of here. This front line is about five miles from here, and we're watching where these airstrikes have been going on, not only Tuesday, but in the last two other days.

The hope among the Northern Alliance is that with repeated airstrikes like these, they can soften up those Taliban positions and move ahead toward the capital, Kabul. However, the Taliban have been fighting back fiercely. There have been fierce exchanges overnight of machine gun, mortar and artillery fire.

Also around Mazar-e Sharif -- the strategic northern town the Taliban are holding on to desperately -- the Northern Alliance has been trying to advance but is facing counterattack. U.S.-led airstrikes overnight have been trying to soften up those Taliban positions. So far, the commanders say that they still need more of these airstrikes to move ahead.

CNN: As I understand it, even if these airstrikes are able to soften up the Taliban position, it's not going to be a clear shot for the Northern Alliance to just march on through to Kabul. The territory between the Bagram airport and Kabul is very dangerous.

BURNS: Absolutely. If you can see some of the outline of that mountain range there, that is ... extremely rugged terrain. Hardened Taliban fighters are dug in those mountains -- extremely hazardous. That is where U.S.-led airstrikes also have been raiding in recent days, trying to soften them up as well.

It's a very hazardous route to take toward Kabul that the Northern Alliance is, so far, reluctant to advance on until there are more U.S.-led airstrikes. They say that the airstrikes are nice, but they are not enough yet. They are waiting to see more. If Tuesday is any indication, perhaps they will get their wish.

CNN: What exactly is being bombed? What is in that area near the Bagram airport?

BURNS: If it's anything like what it was in the last couple of days, there are troop positions, tank positions, artillery positions. The Taliban outnumber and outgun the Northern Alliance, and this is what these airstrikes are aimed at -- leveling the playing field, as it were, trying to make it more of an even match, so the Northern Alliance can try to advance. However, they are undergunned, undertrained in some ways and undermanned.

Will they be able to advance toward Kabul? Will they be able to advance toward Mazar-e-Sharif and other cities? The best test now is to see whether U.S. airstrikes can actually be effective in advancing that and putting more pressure on the Taliban.

CNN: You say it's tense, but I can't help but notice the guys over your right shoulder are just sitting on someone's roof, watching the action like it's a spectator sport.

BURNS: That's what's kind of surprising about this conflict. Now these are people who have lived with war for more than two decades, and nobody flinches when you hear gunfire unless it's very close. It was around about an hour ago that it passed by very closely, and people hit the deck.

But aside from that, it's sort of a background noise, if I may say so, and people don't flinch at that. They are used to this kind of conflict. There's war everywhere around you. You see the wreckage of war. You see trashed Soviet tanks around you. You see houses with bullet holes in them. It's all part of the surroundings and the environment, quite sadly.


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