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GlobalSecurity.org In the News

The Associated Press November 1, 2001

Before the bombs: Finding the right caves where Afghan terrorists might be hiding


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 foot path 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 Osama bin Laden himself. In recent days, U.S. bombers have stepped up a campaign of attacking the caves and tunnels of eastern Afghanistan.

Thursday, the Pentagon released bomber camera footage of bombs hitting Afghan caves. In one, an initial bomb blast is followed by a second explosion - suggesting the bomb detonated an ammunition or fuel supply hidden in the cave, according to Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "There are an enormous number in that country," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said. "And they have been well developed. They are long. They are large. We keep finding them, and we keep working them over."

The gray mountains of Afghanistan are honeycombed with thousands of natural caverns, most made by water coursing over limestone. But many are manmade. 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 with the then-Soviet Union.

John F. Shroder Jr., a geology professor at the University of Nebraska in Omaha, estimated that bin Laden and his forces have several dozen tunnels to operate out of, some dug with bin Laden's money and construction expertise. The Bush administration has been consulting with Shroder about caves and tunnels in Afghanistan. The professor studied the caves there until 1978, when communists took power. Since, he has frequently visited Pakistan to study the geology of the area.

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.

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. "Afghans are very brave. They have no problem going into a tunnel that looked dicey."

When a videotape of bin Laden was distributed after the Sept. 11 attacks, Shroder contacted the government, offering to locate roughly where that cave is, based on the kind of rock formations visible in the video. He has backed off his original public statement that the cave was in one of two provinces near the Pakistani border, but he did not say where he now believes that cave is, except to place it in eastern Afghanistan. Regardless, it is unlikely bin Laden was foolish enough to remain at that location.

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 and one of the country's most decorated infantrymen, 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