Afghanistan's "Hidden Caves" a Myth, Experts Say

Bill Marvel
The Dallas Morning News
October 16, 2001
The underground war in Afghanistan is about to begin.

President Bush has announced the U.S. armed forces are "mounting a sustained campaign to drive the terrorists out of their hidden caves and to bring them to justice."

According to Aviation Week magazine, the U.S. Air Force has revealed it will be using powered AGM-130 bombs, which can be fired horizontally into the mouths of caves.

But despite talk of vast underground labyrinths, Afghanistan has few real caves, according to the cave explorers and the few outsiders who have visited the region.

"Talk of caves is overdone," says a former CIA agent who spent three years on the ground in Afghanistan. "Most of these are dugouts, man-made things," said Milt Bearden, who was "running the agency's part of the war against the Soviet Union" in the mid-1980s. Bearden has written The Black Tulip, a novel loosely based on his experiences in that war.

"During their ten-year war," he said, the mujahidin "just burrowed into the side of the mountains in these narrow switchback valleys to put their ordinance out of harm's way."

Limestone Found in Only Two Places

Limestone, the rock in which most caves and caverns form, is found only in two very small areas of the country, according to "The Underground Atlas," a survey published by British cavers in 1986: the high tablelands north and west of Kabul, and a lower, desert massif in the region northeast of Kandahar.

Afghanistan is conspicuously absent from the list of the world's impressive caves, said Bob Gulden, a Washington, D.C., caver who maintains a list of longest and deepest caves on the Internet.

Citing a French atlas of cave exploration, Gulden said expeditions to Afghanistan in the 1950s by a Swedish biologist and in the mid-1970s by French and Spanish teams turned up only three natural caves of any importance. The longest, the 1,120-foot (341-meter) Ab Bar Amada, is high in the mountains northwest of Kabul.

But that area is not where Osama bin Laden frequents, Bearden said. "He hangs out generally in the eastern and south-central mountains."

Nevertheless, it will be very difficult to smoke him out of his underground lair, as the president has promised.

The dugouts where al Qaeda is holed up are about 10 to 30 feet (3 to 9 meters) deep, Bearden said. "You have to drop bombs down sheer walls and rock faces. Most were built to be safe from any air or missile attack.

Finding Cavities Would be Difficult, Expert Says

"All you're doing is bouncing rubble around. If you hit a guy, you're lucky."

Even finding the underground cavities presents a difficult technical challenge, said Mats Lagmanson, a geophysicist and president of Texas-based Advanced Geosciences Inc.

All three techniques that geologists use require that the searchers and their equipment be on the ground near the cavity.

Lagmanson's company has used electrical resistivity to find a previously unknown cavern, Sting Cave, north of Austin, Texas. In this method, he said, an electrical current is injected into the ground and its resistance measured at several points. He likens it to a CT scan.

Researchers also measure the gravity at ground level, looking for tiny variations. A lessening of gravity may indicate a large underground void.

The third method, ground-penetrating radar, has been used to locate underground archaeological sites. "It's beautiful when it works," Lagmanson said. But it works best at shallow depths and certain kinds of soils block the signal.

Those searching for bin Laden and his caves have their work cut out for them.

"Most people think it should be an easy task," Lagmanson said. "But it's not that easy to find."

Copyright 2001, The Dallas Morning News

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