Change of Season Poses Afghan Threat; Vegetation Zones Afford Al Qaeda New Hiding places.(WORLD)(BRIEFING: WESTERN ASIA)

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), April 20, 2002 | Go to article overview

Change of Season Poses Afghan Threat; Vegetation Zones Afford Al Qaeda New Hiding places.(WORLD)(BRIEFING: WESTERN ASIA)


Byline: Timothy Gusinov, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Spring in Afghanistan brings a new challenge to American and British troops: green vegetation zones and agricultural lands.

As fresh leaves and sprouts grow with warming weather, they provide cover from observation, concealment and freedom to maneuver.

During the Soviet-Afghan war of the 1980s, severe fighting was going on in such agricultural-land zones in Charikar Valley, a huge green basin in Parwan province, Arghandab, Daman and Panjwai counties of Kandahar province and the Muhammad Raki area in Logar province.

Abandoned orchards, grape vineyards, dense poplar groves, thickets of thorny acacia and bushes stretch for hundreds of yards and, in some cases, for miles.

They are surrounded by dividing packed-mud walls, which are easily turned into firing positions.

Irrigation ditches cross such areas in all directions, making it less accessible for combat vehicles.

By directing the flow of water and flooding roads and passable routes, the enemy can block them entirely.

Such pockets of agricultural land are also porous with karezes, underground irrigation tunnels. During the Soviet-Afghan war, karezes were developed into a sophisticated web of underground warfare.

Existing tunnels have been widened and fortified by concrete and bricks, and spacious underground pockets have been dug to provide room for weapons and ammunition dumps.

Additional concealed entrances have been added from houses in nearby villages, usually from a water well in the yard or hidden under a floor.

Very often, karezes located close to the roads used by military convoys have been used by snipers: after firing several rounds, they would disappear in dark tunnels.

Underground combat in karezes is dangerous, and only occasionally Soviet Spetsnaz (Special Forces) units took their chances if they had information about enemy headquarters or a weapons depot underground.

At the initial stage of war, Spetsnaz units didn't have sufficient experience for such missions, and next Special Forces teams used sewerage systems near their training centers in Russia before going to Afghanistan.

Their experience can be compared with the one of the U.S. "Tunnel Rats" soldiers fighting the Viet Cong in Vietnam.

Soviet troops had their own tactics to challenge the invisible enemy underground. After securing the area around a karez, a fuel tanker would be brought to the surface opening and pump fuel into it.

The water flow at the bottom would carry fuel downstream along the tunnel. The fuel was then ignited by firing a flare or throwing a hand grenade.

The result was quite spectacular: Huge tongues of fire would shoot out of the openings like erupting volcanoes, killing everyone trapped inside.

After that, the surface openings would reek for weeks of burnt fuel and charred decomposing bodies buried in narrow underground tunnels.

Often, ammunition and explosives in underground depots were detonated by heat, tearing the earth's surface into a new gaping crater.

While in the mountains, Afghan fighters rely on caves and fortified defenses; their tactics in green vegetation zones are based on ambushes, concealment, maneuverability, and outflanking and cutting off the enemy.

U.S. and British troops are now searching the mountains east of the main battlefield of Operation Anaconda for al Qaeda and Taliban fighters.

The main city in the region is Khost, the largest trade and contraband center in southeast Afghanistan.

Traditionally a part of Paktia province, Khost during the years of the Afghan-Soviet war was designated "Special District Khost" owing to its strategic importance.

Contrary to common belief and "Rambo" movies, Soviet troops were never based in Khost.

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Change of Season Poses Afghan Threat; Vegetation Zones Afford Al Qaeda New Hiding places.(WORLD)(BRIEFING: WESTERN ASIA)
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