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Cave War

Anti-Taliban forces step up cave warfare efforts to search for al-Qaida leaders in Afghanistan.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    For more on the challenges of cave warfare, we turn now to four guests. Jack Shroder is a professor of geography and geology at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. In the 1970s, he directed the Atlas of Afghanistan project, which produced detailed maps of the region. Ali Jalali is a former Afghan army colonel who fought against the Soviets in the 1980s. He co-authored the book The Other Side of the Mountain: Mujahadeen Tactics in the Soviet-Afghan War. He is now the chief of Farsi Service for Voice of America. Frank Anderson is a retired CIA Official who directed the agency's covert operations in the MidEast and South Asia from. He ran the CIA's Afghan program during the Soviet invasion. And Michael Vickers is a former CIA and Special Forces officer. He's now director of strategic studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, an independent policy research group.

    Professor Shroder, tell us some more about the caves we just saw in Kwame Holman's report. What kind of stone are they made of? How do we maneuver in or out of them?

  • JACK SHRODER:

    That particular area of Afghanistan is crystalline rock. It's really tough granite and nice and other tough rocks. The Afghans have been building caves in that area for a very long time. Actually al-Qaida, I think, has at least two bunker complexes, the Tora Bora and another one nearby that I'm not supposed to name, but I suspect he's… If he's got at least two he might even have more than that.

    They have multiple entrances and exits, multiple air holes, lots of different ways to get away from whoever is coming after you. There are altogether a fairly sophisticated and rather expensive set of bunkers that they've built.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    What's a bunker and what's a cave? When we think of caves we think of unfinished walls as places people go to hide. We don't think of the sophisticated set-up we saw in that piece.

  • JACK SHRODER:

    Yeah, when I call something a bunker, it's got concrete and steel and it's been built for a specific purpose for combat as opposed to just a cave like a mine or a hole in the ground where he could go and hide, something like that. These are pretty sophisticated bunkers. I've seen photographs of them with concrete and steel hardening. So I know that they're fairly strongly built.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Mr. Jalali, explain that some more for us. What were these bunkers and caves used for?

  • ALI JALALI:

    They were used during the 1980s as bases for Mujahadin who needed them, who needed them to stage operations, to, you know, to protect themselves against air bombardment and also to use them as transfer stations. However, later on, they were improved to become major defensive complexes. During the Afghan war they were not meant to be defense complexes because guerillas actually prefer to conduct their operations by offensive action.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Who made those improvements and who paid for it?

  • ALI JALALI:

    The improvements were gradually in that during the past five years some of the al-Qaida elements and units improved caves in three majors areas in Baktiar province near Java, in Tora Bora area and also another province. These were the three major locations where they based their three, you know, units that they had.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Mr. Anderson, what does U.S. Intelligence tell us about where these caves are and how accessible they are to U.S. forces or to opposition forces?

  • FRANK ANDERSON:

    The way U.S. Intelligence would gather its understanding of those caves is, in fact, the way that this program has gone. We begin going to someone like Professor Shroder. You'd collect the geographic and basic intelligence that is known publicly.

    Then we'd go to people like Colonel Jalali and go for the history of those caves as known by people who are out and we can now immediately access. And the third thing you do is what is the classic duty of the clandestine services of the CIA, and that's build relationships with people who are on the ground, who are there now and are able and willing to provide intelligence.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Is there any evidence from what you've been able to see watching this operation that that kind of normal intelligence gathering works in this case or is something more extraordinary required?

  • FRANK ANDERSON:

    Actually I think the evidence in this case, like this whole war, is very clear that there's been a very successful application of those, let's call it, traditional intelligence collection and relationship-building skills that are applied by the agency and by Special Operations soldiers who use people on the ground to collect intelligence and then, in this case, to then apply that knowledge in operations against the enemy in those caves.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    When it comes, Mike Vickers, to applying that knowledge, how does the United States begin to decide what it takes to conduct cave warfare? It's not just being in the air. It's not necessarily just being on the ground. What is it?

  • MICHAEL VICKERS:

    It's a combination of both air-ground assault. The air power that the U.S. is using is really doing three things. One, it's doing sort of a pre-emptive denial. That is to close off entrances to certain caves, perhaps trapping al-Qaida fighters inside but also to deny the number of caves that they can use particularly in a confined area.

    The second thing that it does is force them to disperse into smaller groups or move on the run so that they don't provide a large concentrated target where one strike might kill them. Of course, the third is to actually penetrate those caves as your lead-in clip showed either through television-guided bombs through the entrance or so- called bunker-buster bombs, penetrating through the rock and dirt.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    In the end, is that… is using bombs enough or does it have to come down to hand-to-hand combat?

  • MICHAEL VICKERS:

    No. It will most likely come down to a major ground assault as we're seeing currently in the Tora Bora or White Mountains area, a large-scale assault in this case by Afghan opposition forces. There's also the Special Forces option although I don't think it would be used here. The British Special Air Service that did a cave assault in the Kandahar area about a week or two ago.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Professor Shroder, what do you think about that? Is this kind of operation based on your knowledge of how these caves are constructed which can be undertaken from the air or does it require something more complicated than that?

  • JACK SHRODER:

    I suspect that we all hope that we can take care of it through the air, but I don't think it's going to work potentially because bin Laden would have known that an air assault would be conducted in certain ways, and I think those bunkers are built big enough with enough air vents and enough ways to escape that it might not work.

    And if it doesn't work, that means people have to go in on the ground, into the cave and go underground and fight underground. That's going to be a very tough job. I hope it works. I hope the air assault works but I'm not confident that it's going to work.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    There's been some discussion also, professor, about gassing out the combatants or smoking them out, literally. Is that practical in this case?

  • JACK SHRODER:

    Well, I'm not a military guy, and I don't know that much about gas attacks but there are certainly plenty of different kinds of gas including smoke that could drive people out from underground for sure. And maybe that would be the best way to do it.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Mr. Jalali, how about that? What do you think is the best approach in this case?

  • ALI JALALI:

    Well, the final outcome of this war is not going to be decided by tactical elements but by strategic and political. That area is now surrounded by hostile forces — it is an isolated defensive position. So therefore one can wait them out.

    At the same time once the supply routes are cut off, once the tactical situation has become such that the defenders are entrapped, then I think they have no other choice but to come out and then the fight… the combat will be conducted in conditions unfavorable to the people who occupy these caves. Instead of attackers going inside the caves I think it is preferable to flush them out and give them battle outside the cave.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    So are you suggesting that the caves themselves have to be encircled by other forces in order to stop people from coming out?

  • ALI JALALI:

    Yes. I think the time is not on the side of the defenders of caves, nor the attackers are in a hurry to flush them out. So therefore the isolation of the caves, the cut-off of your supply routes is going to eventually force the defenders of the cave to fight in an unfavorable condition, instead of going to fight them cave to cave and from one cave to another.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Mr. Anderson, how important is it for the U.S. forces to have some sort of collaboration from local forces or locals who know how these caves are laid out?

  • FRANK ANDERSON:

    It's more than important; it's vital. It's the way in which we need… we have and needed to collect intelligence. I believe from observing the conduct of this war, it appears to be our intention that the way we're going to do this is to build those relationships with the locals. They have the interest.They have the understanding.

    They have the capability to surround those caves, cut them off, starve the inhabitants and eventually, if necessary, go in — but certainly be available to fight them when they're driven out.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    If intelligence has allowed us to find out where the entrances to these caves are, are we sure where all the exits are?

  • JACK SHRODER:

    We know where some of them are.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Mr. Shroder, go ahead.

  • JACK SHRODER:

    We know where some of them are. Actually some Afghans who don't want Osama bin Laden and his people in their country have been sending me photographs over the Internet showing me where some of the entrances and exits are. So for sure some of the Afghans want him out and are showing us where to go and look for him.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Go ahead.

  • FRANK ANDERSON:

    This is not a great intelligence challenge. As I had said earlier, there is basic and historical intelligence available. We have some very advanced sensors, both individual and outside that range that can identify almost any unnatural opening in a cliff face or on a mountain. And then we have the current intelligence coming from the people who probably built until recently occupied those caves.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    How about the proximity of these caves to the Pakistani border and the porousness of that border and the degree it gives an avenue of escape.

  • MICHAEL VICKERS:

    Pakistan has recently taken steps to reinforce its border but it is a porous border. The cave complexes are very close. One concern would be since bin Laden apparently has a fairly large force would be that if he fought a delaying action, if he sacrificed a lot of his troops in holding down the opposition, a small group potentially might get away. There always is that possibility which Secretary Rumsfeld and others have talked about. But I agree with Colonel Jalali, I think time is really running out on these guys.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Let's turn back to Mr. Jalali because I'm very curious about whether you have noticed or whether you know other problems that have faced forces in other areas of the country, let's say land mines and other booby traps, would that also exist inside these caves?

  • ALI JALALI:

    Yes, I think it's natural. When somebody is defending caves they will use mines, booby traps, to make it difficult for the attacker to go. That's why I'm saying that instead of going directly into that mine area or booby trap area, there are other methods to use.

    You know, defenders rely on fortifications while an attacker uses maneuvers to outmaneuver or to… To create the situation for the defenders not to impose its will on the attacker but the attacker can impose its will on the defenders if the attacker uses the maneuver and firepower in coordination.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Do you agree with Mr. Anderson that in fact in some ways this is a pretty simple intelligence matter in that we know so much already about what's there and it's just a question of execution?

  • ALI JALALI:

    Yes I do believe… Agree with him. I think it is something that the area is surrounded by hostile people to al-Qaida; all people in that area, they want these people out. They have seen what they have done to their country. At the same time, there are people in that area, they know every, every part of that, you know, terrain. So therefore, there is no lack of intelligence about it.

    But there's one point: If they want to… The part of it is going to get away, it is not the Tora Bora area that it can find a way because the access to Pakistan across the mountains in that area is very difficult especially at this time of the year, which is snow covered. If they want to get away, I think it will be Milawa, not Tora Bora, about 40 or 50 kilometers east of Tora Bora.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Professor Shroder, what do we know now that we didn't know when you were mapping Afghanistan and these caves some 20, 30 years ago. How different is the landscape now?

  • JACK SHRODER:

    Well the landscape is not a lot different. It's lost a lot of its trees in the last 20 years but there's still plenty of trees there. For my money, if Osama bin Laden tries to get away, he'll probably go to the south of the Khyber Pass down through Parachinar which is south of the White Mountains. That was a major access route through there. People would go when they didn't want to see any troops at the Khyber Pass, they'll go through Parachinar. I think that's why bin Laden has two sets of bunkers right near the Pakistani border there. That's for my money where he'd try and escape.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Briefly, is that what your understanding is? Does that sound right?

  • FRANK ANDERSON:

    Yes, there's a little chicken and egg here. Those fortified complexes were built close to the Pakistani border and close to sort of a parrot's beak that extend from Pakistan into Afghanistan largely because they wanted to be close to the border into those lines of supply during the war. Parachinar is an area that might be a little easier for someone to evade Pakistani patrols and other forces, but I frankly think that this is not a great challenge for the Pakistanis or for us to cut off and prevent the escape of al-Qaida from that area.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Okay. Gentlemen, thank you all very much.

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