Terrorist Hiding Places
Terrorist Hiding Places
"U.S. Forces Find Troubling Items in Afghan Caves"
Date: January 27, 2002
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The nation of Afghanistan has a long history of conflict and invasion. In the second half of the twentieth century, the Soviet Union spent more than a decade in an unsuccessful attempt to prop up the Soviet-sponsored government there. The results for the Soviets were disastrous by almost any measure: 60,000 casualties and costs of more than $20 billion per year. Yet the results for the Afghan people were far worse: six million refugees driven into neighboring countries, 70% of the nation's paved roads destroyed, and 1.5 million people dead. Economically, the war reduced the country's net worth by as much as one-half and left it few resources with which to rebuild.
Following the September 2001 terrorist attacks, U.S. attention quickly turned to this impoverished nation, where Osama Bin Laden and his advisers had been guests of the ruling Taliban since 1996. United States President George W. Bush promptly gave the Taliban an ultimatum requiring the handover of Bin Laden and full access to the terrorist training camps. A similar demand for Bin Laden's surrender was adopted by the United Nations. When the Taliban refused to comply with the demands, the United States and its allies launched an invasion on October 7, 2001.
In a few days, the allied air campaign destroyed most air defenses and terrorist training camps. Pinpoint air attacks and carpet bombing (the dropping of many bombs in a particular area) against Taliban troops were also employed and significant land attacks began as well. The capital city of Kabul fell on November 13, just over a month after the invasion began.
While the capture of Kabul was a moral victory in the invasion, the conflict continued throughout the rest of the nation. With few valuable fixed assets, the Afghan fighters were highly mobile, and coalition forces found the rugged terrain difficult, just as the Soviets had two decades before. In particular, a network of caves in the rugged Tora Bora region became a focal point of much of the ongoing conflict, including the search for Bin Laden.
Tora Bora is located in eastern Afghanistan, near the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar and the Pakistani border. While few details are known about the area, it is generally acknowledged to include an extensive network of facilities concealed in interconnected caves. While the term "cave" may be technically correct, the rugged image it conjures up is not; some reports from the Soviet era suggested that the facilities might include elaborate underground structures complete with hydroelectric power, although these reports were unverified.
Despite enormous progress toward self-rule by the Afghan people, fighting remains widespread in the outlying regions of the country. The region around Kandahar has remained particularly volatile.
Kandahar, Afghanistan (AP)— The guns and ammunition were expected. The poster of New York's Twin Towers set against Afghan mountains was not.
Marines who joined elite Navy SEALS in searching al-Qaeda caves said yesterday they made some unsettling discoveries: a photo of President George W. Bush with blood running down his face and another of Osama bin Laden holding a Kalashnikov rifle and marked with the words "Leader of Peace."
The Marines' accounts, given during interviews at the U.S. military base here in southern Afghanistan, provided a rare glimpse into the cave-by-cave war being waged by U.S. forces hunting for elusive al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters and any tidbits of information about bin Laden's worldwide terrorist network.
With the Taliban ousted from power and hiding out in Afghanistan's rugged mountains and valleys, U.S. bombing is winding down.
Instead, the battle against terrorism has shifted to the painstaking search of caves and other remote locations for al-Qaeda and Taliban renegades as well as intelligence information to prevent further terrorist attacks.
It's dangerous, daunting work.
Marines described the cave complex they searched this month as elaborately constructed. Reinforced with concrete and tall enough to walk freely around, the caves had an irrigation system to water trees and flowers outside.
"It didn't look like a cave. Someone put some time into this place," said Sgt. Charles Calfee, 28, of Dublin, Va. "It reminded me of the Flintstones."
Originally, the 50 Marines from Lima Company, Battalion Landing Team 3/6 of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit were flown to the caves in the area between Khost and Gardez in eastern Afghanistan to guard the SEALS while they searched.
The SEALS, along with special forces from the Army and Air Force and CIA operatives, are taking a lead in the current phase of the Afghan conflict, which began after the U.S.-backed northern alliance routed the Taliban in last year's fighting.
The mission was meant to last 10 hours. Instead, it took several days, and the SEALS—overwhelmed with the amount of intelligence information they found—had to enlist the Marines in their search.
"Every day we found more," said 1st Sgt. Joseph Bolton, of Gillette, Wyo.
The Marines, stationed at Camp Lejeune, N.C., refused to reveal the exact locations of or give details about the caves. They also would not say what type of information or how many weapons and rounds of ammunition were found.
Marines spokesman 1st Lt. James Jarvis said the information is being analyzed and could help American forces find suspected Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters.
"Obviously it's still early in the campaign," Jarvis said. "There are still Taliban and al-Qaeda forces in the region."
The caves have proved a headache even for the high-tech U.S. military. U.S. aircraft targeted some caves with "bunker-busting" bombs that pierce concrete and with 15,000-pound "daisy cutters"—the most powerful conventional bombs in the U.S. arsenal—to kill al-Qaeda and Taliban forces thought to be hiding inside.
U.S. forces chasing leads on the whereabouts of terror mastermind Osama bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar have also come up empty-handed.
Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of the Afghan campaign, said yesterday he did not know the whereabouts of either man. But he said they get fresh leads daily.
"Some of it turns out to be good information, and some of it not," he said.
The Marines said it is clear that those who hid in the caves left in a hurry. They found flour, sugar, corn meal and eggs, which the U.S. soldiers baked into bread because they were short of rations for the first few days of their search.
In nearby mud-walled huts, where the Marines used to sleep, they also found a chilling reminder of what brought them to Afghanistan in the first place: the date Sept. 11, written in Arabic-style writing on the wall.
"There was no doubt we were in bad guy country," said Capt. Lloyd Freeman, 34, of Bells, Texas.
"It felt good to be part of the force, like we came out here to do what we came to do, fix what started the whole thing in the first place."
Prior to September 2001, the U.S. military was designed and deployed to counter the threats found in a Cold War-style conflict, in which the enemy consists of well-organized, well-financed nations offering numerous high-value fixed targets. In such a conflict, the primary consideration is generally how best to attack a heavily defended, but clearly identified target.
The war on terror has forced a radical rethinking of U.S. military doctrine, specifically in terms of the hardware used to fight wars. While showpieces of the U.S. arsenal such as the B-2 bomber have seen relatively little use, tiny flyweight unmanned aircraft such as the Predator have been used with devastating impact. And while heavy bombing with so-called bunker buster bombs had limited success in rooting out cave-hiding insurgents, smaller automated search devices now being developed and deployed will allow ground troops to search caves more efficiently and with more safety.
As U.S. military planners look to the future, they anticipate few large threats such as the old Soviet Union. Instead, they expect the United States to find itself in a series of asynchronous (not following an expected pattern or timeline) conflicts in which the enemy is difficult to find and destroy. Because asynchronous conflicts are fought in a fundamentally different way than traditional wars, U.S. spending and planning is already shifting in preparation for this new type of conflict.
Another change brought about by this new type of warfare has been felt by U.S. reservists called up for active duty. While past deployments of reserve units have been rare and generally short-lived, this new type of warfare has required some reservists to spend extensive tours of duty away from home.
Lindroth, David. First In: An Insider's Account of How the CIA Spearheaded the War on Terror in Afghanistan. New York: Presidio Press, 2005.
Micheletti, Eric. Special Forces in Afghanistan 2001–2003: War against Terrorism. Paris: Historie and Collections, 2003.
CNN.com. "US Bombers Pound Afghan Caves." <http://www.cnn.com/2003/WORLD/asiapcf/central/02/13/afghan.bombing.ap> (accessed June 23, 2005).