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Afghanistan - Zhawar Kili

On January 3rd, 2002, coalition aircraft began striking an al Qaeda leadership complex in Zhawar Kili, eastern Afghanistan. On that day, four B-1B bombers, four F-A/18 Hornets and an A/C-130 gunship were involved in the airstrike on the complex.

The SEALs and Navy Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) personnel involved in Sensitive Site Exploitation (SSE) missions in the area destroyed more than 70 "caves" and 60 structures in the area by using on-ground explosives and air strikes.

The complex is located southwest of Khowst, in Paktia province, in eastern Afghanistan. It is a known al Qaeda training and terrorist base camp, which al Qaeda leadership had utilized in recent weeks as a regrouping and sanctuary area. The facility had been used for training, storage and command purposes. This area had previously been a support haven of al Qaeda and the Taliban, with known sympathies to the Taliban regime and forces there, and where little anti-Taliban coordination has taken place. This and its location, slightly north of Tora Bora, made it an area of particular interest to the DoD, with a high-likelihood of finding al Qaeda forces there.

According to DoD, airstrikes on the complex have been prompted by intelligence already collected which indicated the presence of multiple targets of interest.

Al Qaeda used the camp as a logistics base, a command and control center and a training ground. The camp, is composed of three areas as it moves down a large wadi (an above ground and two separate cave areas). DoD officials said there were at least two areas in caves or tunnels and one set of buildings. CENTCOM officials have in turn admitted that the complex had proven to be more extensive than previously thought, covering a area of roughly three by three miles with more than 60 above-ground structures, and at least 50 caves.

Additional airstrikes have been called on buildings, caves or bunkers, armored personnel carriers, tanks and other Al Qaeda war materiel as it has been found. A number of tracked military vehicles and artillery pieces were observed there after the first week of strikes, and DoD struck at those targets from the air too. The lack of anti-Taliban forces there has in turn made the task easier, with a high-likelihood that such targets are al Qaeda.

Initial reports suggested that coalition forces that are in the Zhawar Kili area had not encountered resistance, and as of January 14, 2002, no thermobaric bomb had yet been used in Afghanistan; these munitions being considered by DoD inappropriate to the task at hand in Zhawar Kili, namely the destruction of above-ground facilities and the closing of cave entrances.

This same complex had previously been struck by U.S. cruise missiles in 1998 in response to U.S. embassy bombings in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

Soviet forces, during the 1980's war in Afghanistan have fought a number of battles in the area. Pre-existing litterature in fact already pointed to the existence of a large cave/bunker complex. Lester in the general vicinity W. Grau and Ali Ahmad Jalali remark that:

Zhawar was a Mujahideen logistics transfer base in Paktia Province in the eastern part of Afghanistan. It was located four kilometers from the Pakistan border and 15 kilometers from the major Pakistani forward supply base at Miram Shah. Zhawar began as a Mujahideen training center and expanded into a major Mujahideen combat base for supply, training and staging. The base was located inside a canyon surrounded by Sodyaki Ghar and Moghulgi Ghar mountains. The canyon opens to the southeast facing Pakistan.

As the base expanded, Mujahideen used bulldozers and explosives to dig at least 11 major tunnels into the south-east facing ridge of Sodyaki Ghar Mountain. Some of these huge tunnels reached 500 meters and contained a hotel, a mosque, arms depots and repair shops, a garage, a medical point, a radio center and a kitchen. A gasoline generator provided power to the tunnels and the hotel's video player. This impressive base became a mandatory stop for visiting journalists, dignitaries and other "war tourists". Apparently, this construction effort also interfered with construction of fighting positions and field fortifications.


Entrance of a 'cave' constructed in brick in the Zawar Kili area A US Navy SEAL stands in a tunnel to give intelligence officials an idea as to the Large cache of munitions in one of more than 70 'caves' explored in the Zhawar Kili area Large cache of munitions discovered by U.S. Navy SEALs during Sensitive Site Exploitation (SSE) mission Prison cell inside one of the cave complex in the zawar kili area Osama Bin Laden propaganda poster discovered by US Navy SEALs during a Sensitive Site Exploitation (SSE) mission in the Zawar Kili area
Small village in Zawar Kili area reportedly used by Al Qaeda and Taliban forces Mine recognition posters found in the Zawar Kili area

Additional Resource

"The Campaign for the Caves: The Battles for Zhawar in the Soviet-Afghan War" by Lester W. Grau and Ali Ahmad Jalali
The Journal of Slavic Military Studies, Volume 14, September 2001 - As the base expanded, Mujahideen used bulldozers and explosives to dig at least 11 major tunnels into the south-east facing ridge of Sodyaki Ghar Mountain. Some of these huge tunnels reached 500 meters and contained a hotel, a mosque, arms depots and repair shops, a garage, a medical point, a radio center and a kitchen.


Video footage of airstrikes, used during DoD news briefing of January 8, 2002
Click on the small image to view a larger version
The video footage above shows a January 7, 2001, F-14 strike on the Zhawar Kili complex. The footage is from one of two airstrikes conducted the previous day after additional buildings in caves or bunkers had been found in that area. In response, between 6:00 and 9:00 p.m. EST that night, two airstrikes occurred. In the first, an F-14 dropped two precision-guided bombs on a building as shown in the video. And about two hours later an F-18 dropped two additional guided bombs on a bunker.
Visble in the footage are vehicles near the compound, as well as an individual outside the targeted building. According to DoD, these were not friendly forces, and there was evidence that the compound was active with al Qaeda.


Pre- and post-strikes aerials and video of Zhawar Kili Cave Complex
used during DoD news briefing of January 7, 2002

Click on the small image to view a larger version
The video footage above is taken from an AC-130 video camera, and is of an airstrike from January 3rd on the camp and cave complex near Zhawar Kili. The strikes came after members of al Qaeda were observed attempting to regroup there. According to DoD, the complex has been struck on several occasions since Wednesday January 2, 2001, including over the following weekend. The strikes were conducted by B-1 and tactical aircraft from the carriers. [Warning] File Size: 7.5 Mb



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