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The Associated Press Thursday, November 15, 2001

Caves make perfect hide-outs

By John J. Lumpkin

WASHINGTON - It's not easy finding the right caves to target in Afghanistan. The clue that separates one hole in the ground from a thousand others might be faint vehicle tracks or a worn footpath that is visible from the sky. Or it could be a barely perceptible exhaust plume that shows a diesel generator is providing power inside.

Even an incongruous patch of earth - a settled pile of dirt and stone that was excavated years ago - could give away a tunnel as a hide-out for Taliban and al-Qaida fighters, and possibly even Osama bin Laden.

"There are an enormous number (of caves and tunnels) in that country," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said. "And they have been well developed. They are long. They are large. We keep finding them, and we keep working them over."

Natural and man-made

The gray mountains of Afghanistan are honeycombed with thousands of natural caverns. But many are man-made. One kind of tunnel, called a karez, is the foundation of an ancient irrigation system used to channel underground water to settlements.

Other tunnels, some vast and complex, provided mujahedeen fighters with hide-outs during the 1979-89 Afghan war against the Soviets.

John Shroder Jr., a geology professor at the University of Nebraska, estimated that bin Laden and his forces use several dozen tunnels, some dug with bin Laden's money and construction expertise.

The Bush administration has been consulting with Shroder, who studied Afghanistan's caves until 1978, when communists took power.

Most of the artificial tunnels are small, but some are part of extensive networks with several rooms, power supplies and crisscrossing corridors, Shroder said. They probably have several escape routes, so blasting the main entrance closed will not necessarily trap inhabitants inside. Many contain stored weapons, and some are spacious enough to hide large vehicles and even tanks, he said.

Havens in winter

Some have natural water sources, and the temperature inside stays almost constant, making them somewhat of a haven in the Afghan winters.

"They're skillful underground dwellers," Shroder said of the Afghan people.

Pilots flying from U.S. aircraft carriers have remarked on the difficulty of bombing cave entrances.

"They're difficult to see," said Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem, a Pentagon spokesman. "From a cockpit perspective, a cave looks like nothing more than a shadow on the ground."

Yet when properly targeted, laser-guided bombs are accurate enough to enter the mouths of the tunnels, said John Pike, an analyst with the Alexandria, Va.-based think tank GlobalSecurity.org.

Earth-penetrating "bunker buster" weapons dropped by the Air Force are also a good bet because they can dig under the surface and explode in a tunnel.

David Hackworth, a retired Army colonel, said the tunnels and caverns are too dangerous for U.S. soldiers to go inside. He would instead have bombers drop fuel-air explosives on them. The weapons spray a cloud of aerosol fuel, which ignites, creating vast destruction.

"What happens is the force of the explosion sucks out and burns the oxygen inside of the hole," Hackworth said. "It produces a tremendous downdraft of heat."


Copyright 2001 The Associated Press