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RESPONSE TO TERROR

Afghan Caves Daunt the U.S.

War: The more troops see of the mountainous region, Joint Chiefs deputy says, the bigger the challenge of rooting out Al Qaeda seems.

January 15, 2002|ESTHER SCHRADER and ERIC SLATER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — The extensive Al Qaeda training complex that U.S. warplanes have been pounding since Jan. 3 is one of dozens in dry, cave-riddled valleys of southeastern Afghanistan where groups of terrorist fighters may be hiding, a senior Pentagon official said Monday.

Rear Adm. John D. Stufflebeem, deputy director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said there are so many of the complexes--not simply cave hideaways but compounds with large, above-ground training camps--that the work is overwhelming the small number of special operations troops locating them and calling in airstrikes.

"We don't have the number of forces on the ground that are going to get through all of them," Stufflebeem said. "So it's a matter of priority which ones appear to be the ones we want to go look at now."

The more the U.S. military learns about the region around the Zhawar Kili al Badr training camp, the bigger the task of shutting the complexes down seems, Stufflebeem said.

"This entire part of the country is riddled with hillsides and valleys of caves and above-ground structures," he said. " . . . Therefore, there are likely other valleys with other complexes, and they, in fact, may very well have [Al Qaeda militants]."

As Stufflebeem spoke Monday, airstrikes on Zhawar Kili were tapering off. Over the weekend, B-52 and B-1 bombers and F/A-18 Navy jet fighters pummeled the camp, using precision bombs to blow up cave entrances and level buildings in an area of more than three square miles.

Sunday's bombing appeared to be the heaviest since last month's strikes on the cave complex at Tora Bora to the northeast.

Asked why the Zhawar Kili complex, the same camp hit by cruise missiles in 1998 in an unsuccessful attempt to kill Osama bin Laden and his top aides, had not been thoroughly destroyed earlier, Stufflebeem said the Pentagon had been surprised at its size.

"We just didn't know how extensive it was," he said.

The camp contains more than 60 buildings and more than 50 caves, he said, many high in the walls of cliffs and accessible only by experienced climbers.

The site was first struck by U.S. warplanes shortly after the air war began Oct. 7. But on Jan. 3, after intelligence reports indicated that it had become a refuge for Al Qaeda leaders seeking to regroup, strikes on the training camp began in earnest.

Stufflebeem said the bombing has been painstakingly slow, with special operations teams first locating and searching each cave and building in the now-abandoned complex for intelligence on terrorist activities. Then they direct U.S. warplanes where to strike and whether or not to eradicate any structures.

As U.S. intelligence analysts pondered their next move, the U.N. special envoy to Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, joined a growing chorus calling for an immediate infusion of cash to keep the interim government of Prime Minister Hamid Karzai from collapsing.

The nation needs money "immediately, not next year," said Ahmed Fawzi, Brahimi's spokesman in the capital, Kabul. "This country needs millions of dollars tomorrow. Otherwise, there will be no country when the billions are ready."

A coalition of countries pledged in December to donate a combined $20 million to get the government up and running, but less than half of that has been wired to a special bank account, Fawzi said, and little is believed to have made its way to Afghanistan.

The country has about 210,000 civil servants and 25,000 police officers, the vast majority of whom have not been paid in six months.

"They can't buy bread," Fawzi said.

The U.S. is considering releasing Afghan assets that were frozen following the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, but it is unclear how much money might be involved and how quickly the release might take place.

For the longer term, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell has said that rebuilding the country might take $8 billion over the next three to five years. Afghan reconstruction will be taken up at an international conference next week in Tokyo that Powell will attend.

Pakistan reopened its embassy in Kabul on Monday and pledged $100 million to help rebuild Afghanistan.

Refugees continued to return from Pakistan to some northern areas of Afghanistan, as others in the south continued to flee. About 13,000 people have now fled the southern provinces because of bombing, destroyed homes and drought, according to the World Food Program. The refugees are just across the border in Pakistan, but the Pakistani government has not allowed them to move farther inland.

Pakistan already has more than 3 million Afghan refugees and has resisted accepting more. The 13,000 are stranded on an open plain with little shelter or food, where nighttime temperatures dip below freezing, said World Food Program spokesman Jordan Dey.

Afghanistan, which is entering its fourth year of drought, has just received a much-needed storm that dumped heavy snow in several mountain ranges. The skies cleared across most of the country Monday.

Half a world away, at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, 30 more Al Qaeda prisoners arrived at a high-security jail, the Pentagon announced, joining 20 flown there last week.

All the prisoners arrived from the southern Afghan city of Kandahar, but they include at least three British nationals, officials said Monday night. There was no further word on their identities.

The Kandahar airport is the site of the main detention center for Al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners from the war. Officials said 464 are now in U.S. custody--413 in Afghanistan, the 50 in Cuba and American John Walker Lindh on the amphibious assault ship Bataan in the Arabian Sea.

*

Schrader reported from Washington and Slater from Kabul.

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