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Background: Cave War

A background report on the military assault on Afghan cave complexes.

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  • KWAME HOLMAN:

    Today's assault on the al-Qaida cave complexes began early this morning with U.S. Air strikes. Anti-Taliban tribal fighters followed with a ground attack, reportedly capturing several caves as they moved forward. The battle zone is a mountain range near Jalalabad in northeastern Afghanistan, near the village of Tora Bora. The mountains include 13,000- foot peaks, and are three hours on foot from the nearest road. At the Pentagon, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said the operating theory is that Osama bin Laden is hiding somewhere near Tora Bora.

  • PAUL WOLFOWITZ:

    The best indications we have of where he might be tend to point, I would say, almost entirely, but mostly to that area. I can't guarantee there isn't some crank caller right now saying that he's in another country, but we don't have any credible evidence of him being in other parts of Afghanistan or outside of Afghanistan. But the kinds of reports that we're working on are very fragmentary, not very reliable.

  • REPORTER:

    Do you think U.S. troops might have to be used to, as you put it, "root" al-Qaida out of these caves and tunnel complexes?

  • PAUL WOLFOWITZ:

    Well, U.S. troops are playing a role in supporting the Afghans, who are doing most of this work right now, and we will do what we need to do. Obviously, just in terms of sheer numbers, but for many other reasons, the more we can get local allies to do that job for us, the better.

  • KWAME HOLMAN:

    To hit the caves, U.S. warplanes are employing a number of weapons: One type of bomb is capable of burrowing through 20 feet of rock, before detonating. Another is designed to pinpoint a cave entrance and seal it with a blast. The U.S. also is using one of its largest conventional bombs, the Daisycutter. Weighing 15,000 pounds, it explodes just above the ground and incinerates everything within 600 yards. Rear Admiral John Stufflebeem said there are two reasons to use the Daisycutter.

  • REAR ADMIRAL JOHN STUFFLEBEEM:

    One is that there is a psychological effect of having a munition of 15,000 pounds of explosive capability that's brought into a very narrowly defined area. This cave complex is literally on the sheer walls of a valley, and therefore, the reverberation effect that goes up in those caves should have some kind of a negative effect. (Laughter) And the other… The other would be just the obvious effect of the high explosive yield. It was… It was at a target, at a cave target, and that cave target should no longer be usable for anybody to get in or out of.

  • KWAME HOLMAN:

    Why that specific cave target?

  • REAR ADMIRAL JOHN STUFFLEBEEM:

    Well, it was believed that that's where some substantial al-Qaida forces would be, and possibly including senior leadership.

  • REPORTER:

    You said "senior leadership." Does that include bin Laden?

  • REAR ADMIRAL JOHN STUFFLEBEEM:

    It would certainly– would hope– be hopefully so.

  • REPORTER:

    Let me just ask you one other question, too, about Tora Bora. We have a correspondent on the ground there who… He says he hears choppers right now. Are there gun ships that are being used? Are there people being ferried in or out?

  • REAR ADMIRAL JOHN STUFFLEBEEM:

    Well, our special operating forces are in there. The fact that they may be resupplied for what they need probably is ongoing. The air forces that are being used to support the strikes that are requested by the opposition groups are primarily fixed-wing aircraft and not helicopters, so the attack gunship wouldn't necessarily be there.

  • KWAME HOLMAN:

    The cave complexes in northeastern Afghanistan have been used in war fighting for more than a century. The tunnels are substantially man-made. They were upgraded, with help of the U.S., during the 1980s, when the Afghans fought off soviet occupation. Entrances to many of the 40 or so caves are inside the mountain valleys, making access difficult. Some of the many entrances are angled to frustrate head-on attacks; others are wide enough for tanks and trucks. Most caves have holes for ventilation. As this schematic drawing shows, the structures are said to have multiple floors and rooms. Some areas are used for storing general supplies, others to house weapons, others for living quarters. The Pentagon calls its strategy denying al-Qaida its caves.

  • REPORTER:

    When you say denying caves, are you talking about collapsing, destroying…

  • REAR ADMIRAL JOHN STUFFLEBEEM:

    Entrances to caves.

  • REPORTER:

    …Entrances to caves?

  • REAR ADMIRAL JOHN STUFFLEBEEM:

    Correct.

  • REPORTER:

    Are these believed to be one- way caves, or is there a doorway in here and then it takes a left and then it comes out somewhere down the way?

  • REAR ADMIRAL JOHN STUFFLEBEEM:

    Just about every conceivable type of cave is there: One-way; small caves; large, extensive tunnels with multiple entrances; all of that.

  • KWAME HOLMAN:

    Officials also say al-Qaida leaders inside the caves now are far less able to communicate with the outside world.

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