bin Laden's caves and tunnels (NY Times)

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NY Times 11/26/01

Heavily Fortified 'Ant Farms' Deter bin Laden's Pursuers

By MICHAEL WINES

MOSCOW, Nov. 25 The Qaeda military base called Zhawar Kili Al- Badr also has a nickname: Wolf's Hole.

Zhawar worms its way deep inside the walls of a gorge in the Sodyaki Ghar mountains of eastern Afghanistan, a half-mile lattice of caves and connecting tunnels barely 4,000 yards from the Pakistan border. The Soviet Army took it in 1986 during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, but only after 57 days of aerial bombardment and hand-to-hand combat.

"It was seized, blown up. Everything was blown up," Maj. Gen. Aleksandr Lyakhovsky, an Afghanistan veteran now retired from Russian military service, said in a recent interview. "And then the forces left. And in about six months or a year, they restored the base."

It is in a place like Zhawar, a mountain base called Tora Bora also near the Pakistan border, that the Afghan rumor mill now says Osama bin Laden is hiding with some 1,200 Taliban troops.

But Mr. bin Laden has a lot of options. Afghanistan is a virtual ant farm of thousands of caves, countless miles of tunnels, deeply dug-in bases and heavily fortified bunkers. They are the product of a confluence of ancient history, climate, geology, Mr. bin Laden's own engineering background and, 15 years back, a hefty dose of American money from the Central Intelligence Agency.

Moreover, Al Qaeda is merely the most visible example of what the Pentagon calls a clear trend among terrorists and rogue states to take their most secret and dangerous operations to earth, removed from missiles and prying satellites.

"A lot of countries have done a lot of digging underground," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said in a news briefing on Oct. 11. "It is perfectly possible to dig into the side of a mountain and put a large ballistic missile in there and erect it and fire it out of the mountain from an underground post."

Indeed, Pentagon documents for 2002 state that the military is already testing tunnel-destroying weapons at American proving grounds in the West, aimed specifically at "proliferant nations or terrorists with access to advanced conventional weapons or weapons of mass destruction."

With the United States' advanced detection devices and high-technology munitions, the network of Afghan caves and tunnels is neither as befuddling nor as impregnable as it was to the Soviets. The Pentagon says American warplanes have been bombing carefully selected caves and tunnels for weeks now, directing 500-pound bombs at their mouths to block the entrances and larger munitions to hit suspected weapons dumps and other strategic sites.

Mr. Rumsfeld said last month that some strikes had produced "enormous secondary explosions," sometimes continuing for hours after American jets first attacked.

But the system remains devilishly complex and easy to hide within. As even the Pentagon admits, the most heavily fortified parts, where Mr. bin Laden may be concealed, could well be invulnerable to the most powerful conventional bombs known.

Were Mr. bin Laden not a particular sort, he would have a bewildering maze of hiding places from which to choose. Afghanistan's mountains are pocked with thousands of natural caves. The mountains and plains alike are also latticed with karezi, an ancient system of irrigation tunnels, some dipping as much as 100 feet below the surface.

The karezi were designed to collect water seeping from beneath stream beds and aquifers, but for centuries at least since the days of Atilla the Hun, and some say since the invasion of Alexander the Great Afghans have used them to hide from enemies and to conceal troops for rear-guard ambushes after an invading army has passed.

Russian experts say many have back entrances and ventilation shafts through which Taliban forces might escape. The Soviet army extensively mapped the karezi during the 1980's war, using aerial photography and the help of local villagers, and the Russian defense ministry is said to have passed the maps on to the United States.

If Taliban forces are likely to use karezi for guerrilla warfare, Mr. bin Laden seems unlikely to seek refuge in tunnels rife, by many accounts, with scorpions and cobras. Nor can natural caves offer refuge for long.

That leaves two options: bases like Wolf's Hole (there are said to be a dozen or more), or heavily fortified mountain bunkers built to withstand everything short a nuclear attack.

One expert says Mr. bin Laden has built at least two such facilities, near Jalalabad and Kandahar, "and there could be more."

"They're multi-level, dogleg tunnels. They have air vents and escape hatches out the back," said John F. Shroder Jr., a geologist and geographer at the Universitry of Nebraska at Omaha who prepared the national atlas of Afghanistan in 1970. Mr. Shroder said he was in the region in the 1980's and is familiar with many of its karezi and caves.

Some military experts think such fortresses can be taken only by ground assaults and that even then, anyone hiding in them may manage to escape through a hidden exit. "You might live to fight another day and leave a lot of dead people behind you," Mr. Shroder said.

Bases like Zhawar and Tora Bora lack the steel doors and other security amenities of bunkers, but they are formidable in their own right. Many were built in the 1980's, when millions of dollars of American aid flowed to Afghan rebel forces fighting the Soviet invasion, and have since been taken over by Al Qaeda.

Tora Bora, where Mr. bin Laden is suspected of hiding, began life as a C.I.A.-financed base for Afghan rebels. Mr. bin Laden took up residence there when he was forced to leave Sudan in the late 1990's.

Zhawar, the biggest of them all, was pummeled by dozens of cruise missiles in 1998 after terrorists linked to Mr. bin Laden killed hundreds of people in bombings of American embassies in Africa. But it was originally built in the mid-1980's as a depot and military base for American-financed supplies streaming to rebels across the Pakistan border two miles away. The rebel who supervised its construction, Maulvi Jalaluddin Haqqani, is now head of the Taliban's armed forces.

Forty-one caves in all, it had everything then: a bakery, a hotel with overstuffed furniture, a hospital with an ultrasound machine, a library, a mosque, weapons of every imaginable stripe; a service bay with a World War II-era Soviet tank inside, in perfect running order.

"The caves were up to 10 meters long, four meters wide and three meters tall," Viktor Kutsenko, who led the Soviet sappers whose job it was to destroy the base, wrote later. "The walls were faced with brick. The cave entrances were covered with powerful iron doors, which were painted in bright colors. How many of our aircraft had worked this site over and the hotel and caves were still intact."

The rebels, learning from the assault, dug 600 yards of connecting tunnels so that a blocked entrance in one cave would not trap its occupants. Mr. bin Laden is reported to have upgraded both it and a nearby camp in the 1990's.

In recent years, it is said to have been used not just by Al Qaeda but also by Egyptian Islamic Jihad and other foreign terrorist organizations.

To the Pentagon, what troubles most about the tunnels may not be how to find terrorists there, but the implications of their use worldwide.

Worried by North Korean and Iraqi efforts to hide their programs to develop weapons of mass destruction, the military has been studying since the late 1990's how to build bombs that can collapse tunnels and penetrate mountainside fortresses.

A 1997 Pentagon report said that weapons used in the Persian Gulf War were of limited use against tunnels built with modern equipment. It said that some tunnels were "nearly invulnerable to direct attack by conventional means," even with earth- penetrating "bunker-busters" like those now used in Afghanistan. And it warned of "a clear worldwide trend in tunneling to protect facilities."

Since 1998, government documents state, the Pentagon and other agencies have tested bombs and explosives at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico against blast- hardened structures above and below ground in a program aimed specifically at terrorist tunnels and other hardened targets.

Among the techniques being tested are "thermobaric" bombs that detonate a mixture of fuel and air to cause a huge shock wave. Such bombs already have devastated Taliban positions in Afghanistan, but early this year, senior Pentagon commanders gave the go-ahead to test a thermobaric weapon customized for attacking tunnels.

The goal was a modified version of a bomb like the GBU-28, a 4,700- pound laser-guided "bunker buster," or the AGM-130, a guided missile with a 2,000-pound warhead, both of which are being used in Afghanistan. Such a weapon could be fired into a tunnel precisely, but would explode with much greater force than current bombs.

At the end of the crash project, in 2004, the military expected to have as many as 20 weapons left over from the tests.

If Mr. bin Laden is still holed up then, they should be ready to use.



-- (lars@indy.net), November 26, 2001

Answers

I wonder if there aren't some critters that could be dumped into caves to make them uninhabitable. Diseased rats, snakes, insects, bats come to mind. Also, why not pump every cave we find full of tear gas?

I just can't believe it is necessary for soldier boys to crawl into these places.

-- (lars@indy.net), November 26, 2001.


Set up 800 watt speakers at the mouth of each cave and play rap 24/7 til they scream "Allah sucks"!

-- (nemesis@awol.com), November 27, 2001.

I know we're at war and all that, but a part of me dislikes the destruction of these natural caves. Kindof like those missionaries, I can imagine myself on a trip to Afghanistan simply to check out the natural caves. Yeah. It would have been one huge, "Whoops...poor timing" on THAT vacation.

-- Anita (Anita_S3@hotmail.com), November 27, 2001.

Ahh, Anita,

Save your money and go to Carlsbad. Besides, it sounds like those caves were dug out even more and reinforced, completely ruining the aesthetic aspect...

Lookin' down a hole...

The Dog

-- The Dog (dogdesert@hotmail.com), November 27, 2001.


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