- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 11, 2001

U.S. commandos set to begin search-and-destroy missions against terrorists in Afghanistan must be prepared for a new kind of combat cave warfare.
The mountainous Central Asian country has numerous deep caves favored as hideouts by the Taliban militia and America's most wanted fugitive Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden, accused by the United States of masterminding the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, often has been photographed or videotaped camped in natural limestone caves with his 40-strong security force.
"I can assure you that the smartest people in the Army are working on these types of problems," said a special forces soldier who asked not to be identified. "Caves and subterranean targets are extremely tough. The easiest way to deal with them is to blow them up, preferably with a large bomb dropped by the Air Force."
"Without an informant, there will be no way to surmise the layout of the cave network prior to entry. It has the potential to go very wrong. Caves are easily booby-trapped," the soldier said.
There are other mountain hiding places in Afghanistan. Historically, Afghans have built rudimentary fortifications in which to wait out various attacks by invaders such as the Soviet Union in the 1980s. And, there are "qanats" tunnels dug at the foot of mountains to provide irrigation.
"A favorite Soviet tactic was to pour diesel fuel into these qanats and ignite it in an effort to eliminate them as hiding places," says a report on Afghanistan by Maps.com. "Afghanistan's rugged topography, numerous caves and massive system of qanats are likely to continue to play a role in military intervention by outsiders."
Stephen P. Cohen, a State Department official in the 1980s and now an analyst at the Brookings Institution, said the country's rugged landscape will make hunting down terrorists difficult.
"The country has a series of caves and redoubts in the mountains," Mr. Cohen said. "The terrain of Afghanistan is a cross between Arizona and Texas. Enormous mountain ranges and arid land. Once you are mobile, it's pretty hard to pin people down."
Authorities on bin Laden and his al Qaeda network say he moves from cavern to cavern in the Texas-size country, especially in the hills north of Kandahar, the birthplace of the radical Taliban militia movement.
However, U.S. troops have the ability to find and invade an inhabited cave.
"Caves aren't known for 'escape routes' and it could give modern meaning to what the president called 'smoking them out,'" said an Army officer who asked not to be identified. "The likely spots for caves are easy to narrow down geologically, even from space. It would have the effect of narrowing the places to look."
Military sources say American special-operations troops have been trained in the art of storming underground bunkers, but do not normally practice attacks on a cave-hidden enemy. Still, military officers interviewed yesterday suggested some possible tactics.
"If confronted with an enemy in a cave, why go in after him?" said the Army officer. "Fire in the entrance would suck out all the oxygen, or seal the entrance for a calm, slow death."
The United States' fourth day of air strikes on the Taliban militia and bin Laden's network targeted ammunition dumps and field forces. The Pentagon is approaching the time it will give the go-ahead for helicopter-borne Army commandos to infiltrate Afghanistan and kill or capture terrorists.
Officials have told The Washington Times they do not want to rush the ground search for bin Laden. Some officials believe the offensive should not begin until the Taliban is ousted from power and its military is degraded by air strikes and opposition Northern Alliance forces.
Eventually, a limited number of commandos must enter the country to uproot terrorists, officials say. The most likely scenario is for small teams of Army special forces soldiers to enter with the help of low-flying Black Hawk helicopters, armed with precise intelligence on the location of the enemy and how they are defended.
Search-and-rescue teams, and hundreds of backup troops, will stay outside Afghanistan until needed.
In some cases, the trail will lead them to a cave, complete with rooms and connecting tunnels.
Said a Navy source, "It's time to get down and dirty. We have to send in ground troops of some quantity and root the bad guys out of the caves and tunnels. If I had my way, we'd be filling those caves and tunnels with napalm and fuel air explosives and torching the rats out."

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