Geology in the Age of the War on Terror

A few months after September 11th, the New York Times published a kind of geological look at the War on Terror.
In a short but amazingly interesting – albeit subscriber-only – article, the NYTimes explored how ancient landscape processes and tectonic events had formed the interconnected mountain caves in which Osama bin Laden was, at that time, hiding.

[Image: The topography of Afghanistan, a sign of deeper tectonics. In a cave somewhere amidst those fractal canyons sat Osama bin Laden, in the darkness, rubbing his grenades, complaining about women, Jews, and homosexuals…].

“The area that is now Afghanistan started to take shape hundreds of millions of years ago,” the article explains, “when gigantic rocks, propelled by the immense geological forces that continuously rearrange the earth’s landforms, slammed into the landmass that is now Asia.”
From here, rocks “deep inside the earth” were “heated to thousands of degrees and crushed under tremendous pressures”; this caused them to “flow like taffy.” And I love this next sentence: “Just like the air masses in thunderstorms, the warmer rocks rise and the cooler ones sink, setting up Ferris wheel-shaped circulations of magma that drag along the crust above them. Over time, these forces broke off several pieces off the southern supercontinent of Gondwanaland – the ancient conglomeration of South America and Africa – and carried them north toward Asia.”
Of course, Afghanistan – like most (but not all) of the earth’s surface – was once entirely underwater. There, beneath the warm waves of the Tethys Seaway, over millions of year, aquatic organisms “were compressed into limestone.”
Limestone, incidentally, is less a rock than a kind of strange anatomical by-product – something the living can become.
In any case, these massive and shuddering tectonic mutations continued:

Minerals from the ocean floor, melted by the heat of the interior, then flowed back up near the surface, forming rich deposits of copper and iron (minerals that could someday finance an economic boom in Afghanistan). The limestone along the coasts of Asia and India buckled upward, like two cars in a head-on collision. Water then ate away at the limestone to form the caves. Though arid today, Afghanistan was once warm and wet. Carbon dioxide from decaying plants dissolves into water to form carbonic acid, and in water-saturated underground areas, the acid hollowed out the limestone to form the caves, some several miles long.

The story gets really interesting here, then; think of it as the CIA-meets-geology.

[Image: Via the Telegraph].

What happened was that Osama bin Laden, in hiding after 9/11, started releasing his famous videotapes – but those tapes included glimpses of cave walls and rocky hillsides behind him.
When John F. Shroder – a geologist specializing in the structure of Himalayan Afghanistan – saw the tapes, he tried to interpret their setting and background, looking for mineralogical clues as to where bin Laden might be. Like a scene from The Conversation – or, hermeneutics gone geo-cinematic – Shroder pored over the tapes, fast-forwarding and rewinding, scanning for subtle signs…
It was the surface of the earth on TiVo.
“Afghanistan’s fighters find shelter in the natural caves,” the New York Times continues. “They also make their own, often in the mountains of crystalline rock made of minerals like quartz and feldspar, the pieces of Afghanistan that were carried in by plate tectonics. ‘This kind of rock is extremely resistant,’ Dr. Shroder said. ‘It’s a good place to build bunkers, and bin Laden knows that.’ Dr. Shroder said he believed that Mr. bin Laden’s video in October was taken in a region with crystalline rocks like those south of Jalalabad.”
All of which makes me think that soldiers heading off to Afghanistan could do worse than to carry bulletproof copies of Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth along with them.
As another New York Times article puts it: “Afghanistan is a virtual ant farm of thousands of caves, countless miles of tunnels, deeply dug-in bases and heavily fortified bunkers. They are the product of a confluence of ancient history, climate, geology, Mr. bin Laden’s own engineering background – and, 15 years back, a hefty dose of American money from the Central Intelligence Agency.”
Bin Laden et al could thus “take their most secret and dangerous operations to earth,” hidden beneath the veil of geology.

(Elsewhere: Bryan Finoki takes a tour of borders, tunnels, and other Orwellian wormholes; see also BLDGBLOG’s look at Terrestrial weaponization).

4 thoughts on “Geology in the Age of the War on Terror”

  1. Quoting the second NYTimes article at great length:

    “With the United States’ advanced detection devices and high-technology munitions, the network of Afghan caves and tunnels is neither as befuddling nor as impregnable as it was to the Soviets. The Pentagon says American warplanes have been bombing carefully selected caves and tunnels for weeks now, directing 500-pound bombs at their mouths to block the entrances and larger munitions to hit suspected weapons dumps and other strategic sites.

    Mr. Rumsfeld said last month that some strikes had produced ‘enormous secondary explosions,’ sometimes continuing for hours after American jets first attacked.

    But the system remains devilishly complex and easy to hide within. As even the Pentagon admits, the most heavily fortified parts, where Mr. bin Laden may be concealed, could well be invulnerable to the most powerful conventional bombs known.

    Were Mr. bin Laden not a particular sort, he would have a bewildering maze of hiding places from which to choose. Afghanistan’s mountains are pocked with thousands of natural caves. The mountains and plains alike are also latticed with karezi, an ancient system of irrigation tunnels, some dipping as much as 100 feet below the surface.

    The karezi were designed to collect water seeping from beneath stream beds and aquifers, but for centuries — at least since the days of Atilla the Hun, and some say since the invasion of Alexander the Great — Afghans have used them to hide from enemies and to conceal troops for rear-guard ambushes after an invading army has passed.

    Russian experts say many have back entrances and ventilation shafts through which Taliban forces might escape. The Soviet army extensively mapped the karezi during the 1980’s war, using aerial photography and the help of local villagers, and the Russian defense ministry is said to have passed the maps on to the United States.

    If Taliban forces are likely to use karezi for guerrilla warfare, Mr. bin Laden seems unlikely to seek refuge in tunnels rife, by many accounts, with scorpions and cobras. Nor can natural caves offer refuge for long.

    That leaves two options: bases like Wolf’s Hole (there are said to be a dozen or more), or heavily fortified mountain bunkers built to withstand everything short a nuclear attack.

    One expert says Mr. bin Laden has built at least two such facilities, near Jalalabad and Kandahar, ‘and there could be more.’

    ‘They’re multi-level, dogleg tunnels. They have air vents and escape hatches out the back,’ said John F. Shroder Jr., a geologist and geographer at the Universitry of Nebraska at Omaha who prepared the national atlas of Afghanistan in 1970. Mr. Shroder said he was in the region in the 1980’s and is familiar with many of its karezi and caves.

    Some military experts think such fortresses can be taken only by ground assaults — and that even then, anyone hiding in them may manage to escape through a hidden exit. ‘You might live to fight another day and leave a lot of dead people behind you,’ Mr. Shroder said.

    Bases like Zhawar and Tora Bora lack the steel doors and other security amenities of bunkers, but they are formidable in their own right. Many were built in the 1980’s, when millions of dollars of American aid flowed to Afghan rebel forces fighting the Soviet invasion, and have since been taken over by Al Qaeda.

    Tora Bora, where Mr. bin Laden is suspected of hiding, began life as a C.I.A.-financed base for Afghan rebels. Mr. bin Laden took up residence there when he was forced to leave Sudan in the late 1990’s.

    Zhawar, the biggest of them all, was pummeled by dozens of cruise missiles in 1998 after terrorists linked to Mr. bin Laden killed hundreds of people in bombings of American embassies in Africa. But it was originally built in the mid-1980’s as a depot and military base for American-financed supplies streaming to rebels across the Pakistan border two miles away. The rebel who supervised its construction, Maulvi Jalaluddin Haqqani, is now head of the Taliban’s armed forces.

    Forty-one caves in all, it had everything then: a bakery, a hotel with overstuffed furniture, a hospital with an ultrasound machine, a library, a mosque, weapons of every imaginable stripe; a service bay with a World War II-era Soviet tank inside, in perfect running order.

    ‘The caves were up to 10 meters long, four meters wide and three meters tall,’ Viktor Kutsenko, who led the Soviet sappers whose job it was to destroy the base, wrote later. ‘The walls were faced with brick. The cave entrances were covered with powerful iron doors, which were painted in bright colors. How many of our aircraft had worked this site over and the hotel and caves were still intact.’

    The rebels, learning from the assault, dug 600 yards of connecting tunnels so that a blocked entrance in one cave would not trap its occupants. Mr. bin Laden is reported to have upgraded both it and a nearby camp in the 1990’s.

    In recent years, it is said to have been used not just by Al Qaeda but also by Egyptian Islamic Jihad and other foreign terrorist organizations.

    To the Pentagon, what troubles most about the tunnels may not be how to find terrorists there, but the implications of their use worldwide.

    Worried by North Korean and Iraqi efforts to hide their programs to develop weapons of mass destruction, the military has been studying since the late 1990’s how to build bombs that can collapse tunnels and penetrate mountainside fortresses.

    A 1997 Pentagon report said that weapons used in the Persian Gulf War were of limited use against tunnels built with modern equipment. It said that some tunnels were ”nearly invulnerable to direct attack by conventional means,” even with earth-penetrating ‘bunker-busters’ like those now used in Afghanistan. And it warned of ‘a clear worldwide trend in tunneling to protect facilities.’

    Since 1998, government documents state, the Pentagon and other agencies have tested bombs and explosives at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico against blast-hardened structures above and below ground in a program aimed specifically at terrorist tunnels and other hardened targets.

    Among the techniques being tested are ‘thermobaric’ bombs that detonate a mixture of fuel and air to cause a huge shock wave. Such bombs already have devastated Taliban positions in Afghanistan, but early this year, senior Pentagon commanders gave the go-ahead to test a thermobaric weapon customized for attacking tunnels.

    The goal was a modified version of a bomb like the GBU-28, a 4,700-pound laser-guided ”bunker buster,’ or the AGM-130, a guided missile with a 2,000-pound warhead, both of which are being used in Afghanistan. Such a weapon could be fired into a tunnel precisely, but would explode with much greater force than current bombs.

    At the end of the crash project, in 2004, the military expected to have as many as 20 weapons left over from the tests.

    If Mr. bin Laden is still holed up then, they should be ready to use.”

  2. In the great BBC documentary series, The Power of Nightmares (available at, download fans), there’s a glimpse of Rumsfeld on some tv news show holding up a cutaway diagram with an artist’s impression of a multi-level Taliban underground complex. Would be hilarious if it wasn’t so dismaying, seeing the Defense Secretary trying to pass off a James Bond style villain’s lair as a believable construction somewhere in Afghanistan.

    One thing we do know: Osama is a Mac-user. One photo of him circa 2001 in a UK paper showed him with a couple of CRT iMacs behind him. Can’t imagine Apple using that in their Think Different campaign somehow.

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