They moved in for the kill - and then they were gone

When the time came for ground troops to take on the Taliban, they did not hang about: the operation that began with a parachute drop under the cover of darkness
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They went in during the very darkest hours, after the Muslim holy day had ended but well before the sun had risen on the mottled brown hills around Kandahar.

There were perhaps 100 of them, mostly US Army Rangers, whose creed urges them to "move further, faster and fight harder than any other soldier". They were flown to the sites by "Combat Talon" MC-130 planes – low-flying, radar-avoiding aircraft designed for such operations. The soldiers dropped in by parachute and arrived at two targets close to the Taliban stronghold, where they emerged with weapons bristling and with night-sight goggles revealing the installations they had come to hit. There was an exchange of small-arms fire as the special forces took on the Taliban though as had been expected the opposition on the ground was "light".

And then, within no more than a couple of hours, the men of the 75th Ranger Regiment were gone. Presumably borne out of Afghanistan by helicopters, they were spirited away either to camps in Pakistan or else the USS Kitty Hawk in the Arabian Sea. They had "accomplished their objectives" and there were just two people hurt in the drops. The only fatalities were two personnel on a search-and-rescue helicopter on standby in Pakistan which had not even entered Afghanistan.

This, at least, was one version that emerged yesterday of the first confirmed strikes against the Taliban and the forces of Osama bin Laden involving US ground troops. Yesterday lunchtime, General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, revealed video footage taken by the Special Forces themselves, which showed them preparing, boarding their plane, parachuting, clearing out a target and then blowing up an arms base. "US forces were able to deploy, manoeuvre and operate inside Afghanistan without significant interference from Taliban forces," said the general.

"They have never let us down and yesterday was no exception," he said. But despite the mesmerising visual display, bathed in the strange alien-green light of the video camera's night-vision sight, details of the raids on Kandahar airport and a command centre near the city once used by Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, were still scant and officials gave only sketchy details.

And that was deliberate. The unnamed Pentagon sources who were authorised to initially confirm the strikes around Kandahar – spiritual and political stronghold of the Taliban and location of many of the training camps set up by Mr bin Laden – also briefed reporters that the size of the airborne assault force was intended to send a clear psychological and political message to the enemy. One suspects it was equally aimed at those parts of the American public hungry to see retaliation for the attacks of 11 September.

That message was again spelt out yesterday morning in Shanghai by President George Bush, who was attending a summit of Asian and Pacific leaders. Having received an hour-long briefing at 8pm Washington time, he seized on the death of the two search-and-rescue soldiers.

"The thing that's important for me to tell the American people is that these soldiers will not have died in vain. This is a just cause," he told reporters. "I think the American people now fully understand that we are in an important struggle, a struggle that will take time, and that there will be moments of sacrifice. We've seen two such examples today. We are slowly but surely encircling the terrorists so that we can bring them to justice."

Later, at the Pentagon, General Myers said: "One of our primary objectives was to gain intelligence. We are in the process of evaluating the information we brought out." There is another version of yesterday's raid to that given by the General and his officials – the Taliban's.

In some respects the stories are the same: the Taliban say the Rangers arrived inside Afghanistan in the early hours of yesterday, perhaps first touching down sometime after midnight. The official Bakhtar news agency said four helicopters landed in Kohi Baba, a camp 20 miles northwest of Kandahar. The agency went on to say that the soldiers found the camp deserted and, contrary to reports of a firefight, the US troops left without engaging any Taliban.

"The American air operation in Afghanistan has made no gain and the helicopter operation has failed," the agency said, making no mention of the paratroopers, which it is understood were dropped on to the airfield some miles away from the compound.

But even the Taliban's story changes. Indeed, the Taliban spokesman, Amir Khan Muttaqi, contradicting the earlier report from his colleague, said there was an engagement between forces but the American commandos were driven off by the regime's fighters. "I can say that this commando attack has failed," he told the al-Jazeera satellite network. "I think we hit one of the helicopters, but I am not sure. The important thing is that they faced defeat. Their plans have failed and, God willing, all their aggressive plans will fail."

Just to confuse the situation even more, there is a third – slightly more sophisticated version of yesterday's raids which suggests the Rangers attack on the airport was designed to mask the second, more covert raid on the compound at which it was hoped the special forces troops would find members of the Taliban and al-Qa'ida leadership.

The New York Times reported that one official had suggested the second raid may have been carried out by the ultra-secretive counter-terrorist Delta Force. The paper said the Rangers have in the past operated in tandem with the Delta Force and perhaps tellingly, General Myers offered no video footage of the second raid. That second operation may still be going on, the paper said.

It was always predicted that the effectiveness of any ground operations inside Afghanistan would be difficult to gauge – harder still for the general public to make any intelligent assessment on what was really going on. Ten years on from the Gulf war, the videogame-style images of "smart bombs" making their way towards an intended or unintended target have been replaced by real-time images taken through night-vision sights.

In theory, such images should make things easier. But as one commentator pointed out yesterday, however beguiling the images taken by and of the special forces may appear, the Pentagon only showed us what it wanted us to see. Night-vision or not, yesterday's operations remain cloaked in darkness.