Taliban Secret Weapon: Ancient Irrigation Trenches

Paul Kelso
The Guardian Unlimited
November 5, 2001

For centuries the people of Afghanistan's parched plains and valley floors have been sustained by hundreds of miles of irrigation channels, known as karez, delivering water from distant rivers to low-lying orchards and fields.

The greater part of this ingenious system of tunnels, trenches and wells sunk deep into Afghanistan's mountains has been dry for the last three years during the most crippling drought in memory, but over the coming months they will run thick with Taliban troops defending themselves against allied ground forces.

The karez criss-cross the plains of the south, and their strategic advantage to the Taliban lies in their secrecy. They are unmarked on maps, but to local forces with an intimate knowledge of the terrain they will form a vital part of the guerrilla campaign ahead.

Largely invisible at ground level, the karez allow troops to move quickly and safely from position to position, mounting swift surprise attacks and moving on before the enemy has time to respond. Up to ten feet deep and equally wide in places, the karez also provide vital supply lines and food storage facilities. Many have been fortified to augment the caves in which Osama bin Laden and his retinue are thought to be hiding.

According to Charles Heyman, editor of Jane's All The World's Armies, the karez could provide a major obstacle to any western ground offensive. "They have always proved a really good route for guerrillas to operate in. Local knowledge is vital to combating them, but it doesn't take the brains of an archbishop to work out roughly where they are," he said.

"If you're in an area of sparse rainfall, but crops are growing, there are likely to be irrigation tunnels nearby. It's an issue that platoon commanders are going to have to be aware of."

As the karez supply water, they are usually close to occupied areas and are already in use by Afghan civilians sheltering from bombardment.

The tunnels often go deep underground and have provided shelter for centuries. It is thought the karez have been in use since around 300 B.C., when Alexander the Great became the first and last invader to conquer Afghanistan. They have been a defensive bulwark ever since, being used to repulse everyone from Genghis Khan in 1224 to the Soviets in the 1980s.

During the Soviet invasion, mujahidin camped in the karez network besieged the town of Khost for almost ten years. The town's Russian defenders ranged Scud missiles, bombers, artillery, helicopters and commandos against them, but could not shift them from the tunnel system. Eventually Khost was retaken.

They may also have been used by Osama bin Laden to evade the 1998 U.S. missile strikes launched by President Clinton in retaliation for the African embassy bombings. Some have said he escaped that attack by using the karez near Khost.

Copyright 2001 Guardian Unlimited

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