"Kyareses": Taliban's death trap or escape route? (Enduring Freedom).
Beneath his cool pomegranate-trees,
Clutches his sword in fierce surmise
When on the mountain-side he sees
The fleet-foot Marri scout, who comes
To tell how he hath heard afar
The measured roll of English drums
Beat at the gates of Kandahar.
--Oscar Wilde, Ave Imperatrix
Now, when complete victory of the Northern Alliance seems to be assured, there is no doubt that the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, and other AI Qaeda leaders will intensify. The majority of the public believes that if they are still in Afghanistan, their most likely hideouts will be fortified caves in the country's remote and almost inaccessible mountainous areas.
I know how true that can be. During my two tours in Afghanistan, I saw the caves, masterpieces of fortification and cornerstones of the entire system of defense in Javara (see Figure 1), Sari-Pul (Ghazni Province), the Zarkeshan Mountains in Zabol Province, and many other places. I have seen a Soviet company commander crying bitterly in rage and helplessness as heavy machine guns firing from the dark cave mouths pinned down his men, while supporting artillery shells harmlessly struck the slopes around the caves. Only a few weapons could destroy the enemy hiding in those caves to include--
* Laser-guided "smart" bombs delivered with pinpoint accuracy.
* Fuel-air munitions that created a smashing blast wave and inferno inside the caves and their tunnels.
* The Shmel ("Bumblebee") portable grenade launcher and its 93-mm thermal warhead grenades (see Figures 2 and 3).
There is, however, a significant disadvantage in defending one of these caves. If the cave does not possess multiple access routes, the defender may find himself trapped, after which it is only a matter of time before he is captured or killed. Given their losses at the hands of the allied forces, the surviving AI Qaeda and the Taliban leaders need a refuge that provides not only cover and concealment but also multiple escape routes. Afghanistan's unique topography provides numerous opportunities for small groups to escape once they have left the caves.
Much has been written about the caves in Afghanistan. Almost overlooked, however, are the nation's numerous underground irrigation and water supply tunnels, the dreaded "kyareses."
Anyone flying over Afghanistan's bleak plains can see long lines of holes on the ground that look very much like miniature craters. These are "kyareses" (the singular form is "kyares"). The kyareses are a typical feature of the Afghan landscape, serving as an ancient but effective irrigation and water-supply system. Some of the kyareses are several hundred years old. They were created to prevent water from evaporating under the country's ferocious sun and heat. There is similar construction at Masada, Israel, where a unique combination of channels and cisterns carved from the rocky peaks supplied and protected the water needed to defend that facility against the Romans. In Afghanistan, however, the kyareses first served as shelters and later as fortified positions.
At the surface, the opening to the kyares is recognizable by the presence of a small crater, usually nine to sixteen feet wide and surrounded by a circle-shaped bank of dug out soil. A typical kyares is up to forty feet deep (see the photograph) and a series of the larger kyareses may stretch for a mile or more. Depending on their location, they may provide reliable cover from air and artillery attacks, ground and air surveillance, enemy pursuit, movement into an enemy's territory, and a protected storage area for weapons, ammunition, and other supplies. They may also serve as strongpoits since users can fortify and camouflage them.
Making Use of the Kyareses
During the Soviet-Afghan War, kyareses were initially used by mujahedin and the local population to hide from Soviet troops and communist government troops and air raids. Over time, they developed into a sophisticated and interconnected web of fortified underground facilities and lines of communication (LOCs) that spread under vast areas of the rural countryside. Today many of these natural rock kyareses have been reinforced through the use of steel-reinforced concrete, timbered sections, and multiple-access tunnels. Many of the original tunnels serving them have been widened to allow the rapid passage of men and equipment to and from selected areas. During my tours in Afghanistan, we found many kyareses in use as weapons and ammunition depots, food storage facilities, headquarters, and even underground hospitals.
Additional concealed entrances have also been added, sometimes the materials are from the houses of nearby villages or from water wells, stables, and the like. Some kyareses had electricity although for the most part they employed generators located somewhere above ground and were hidden in a building of some kind.
The use of kyareses became an important part of guerrilla warfare in Afghanistan. The mujahedin used them in both offensive and defensive roles. In the defense, they were part of the area's defenses. It was easy to fire a few bursts from one opening on the ground, jump down, go to the next opening, and again fire on the enemy. This had the added benefit of deceiving the enemy about the defender's strength.
The approaches and entrances to kyareses were often mined. Because the defenders knew the locations of the mines, they would frequently use a visible path that led to the entrance. People attempting to follow along the trail would, however, be at risk because they did not know the locations of the mines. Additionally, the surface openings leading to the tunnels were usually guarded, both on the surface and underground. The guards at the beginning of the tunnel were usually inside pockets dug at a certain angle to increase their protection from a hand grenade or other explosive.
The kyareses could also support offensive operations. On numerous occasions they were used as underground approach routes in attacks on our positions. In many cases, the assault force arrived undetected, offering the enemy an element of surprise that cost us dearly. Very often snipers used kyareses, especially those located close to the roads. They would fire several rounds at our convoys or patrols and then disappear into the dark underground areas where it was virtually impossible to get at them.
Some ground openings into the kyareses were large enough to serve as antiaircraft positions. Here they would emplace and camouflage DShK or KPVT heavy machine guns, usually of Soviet, Chinese, or Egyptian manufacture. The heavy machine guns, with an effective range of up to 1,200 yards, could often reach an unsuspecting aircraft. Should the aircraft attempt to return fire, it would find that it was difficult to destroy such a small target. Usually such a position could only be destroyed by use of pinpoint bombing, salvo firing of unguided munitions, or infantry assault. Even then, if the return fire was too heavy, the weapons' crew could lower the machine gun using an improvised rope winch and escape into a fortified kyares or move through a tunnel.
Underground combat in kyareses was extremely dangerous and difficult to operate in, and only occasionally would the elite Soviet Spetsnaz (Special Forces) units take their chances there. Usually such an assault would only occur if the target was considered high priority (an enemy headquarters or weapons depot, for example). Remarkably, during the initial stages of the war, the Spetsnaz units did not have any experience in this environment. In preparing for such missions, Spetsnaz units had to rehearse in the sewage systems of nearby cities. I believe their experiences are comparable with those of the "American Tunnel Rats" in their operations in tunnels and similar fortifications along Vietnam's Ho Chi Min Trail.
Dealing With the Kyareses
In Afghanistan, however, these underground irrigation systems are usually on flat terrain which, with exceptions, was usually less of a risk than those faced by the American Tunnel Rats. Soviet troops learned to deal with the kyareses without having to challenge the invisible enemy underground. After securing the area around the kyares, we brought a fuel tanker to the surface opening where it would pump fuel into it. The water flow at the bottom, usually from knee to waist deep, would carry the fuel downstream a long way along the tunnels. Throwing a hand grenade into the well then ignited the fuel. The result was quite spectacular, as huge tongues of flame would shoot out of the openings, much like lava from an erupting volcano. The combination of flame, heat, and smoke would most often kill everyone within. Ammunition and explosives were often stored in the kyares and in such cases the explosions and fire would often tear the earth apart, creating a gaping crater on the surface. For weeks after the assault, the surface openings would reek of burnt fuel and the charred, decomposing bodies buried in narrow underground tunnels.
Other methods of addressing kyareses included booby-trapping the surface openings, using large explosive charges to seal the entrances, and using canisters of "Cheriomuha" (bird-cherry tree) tear gas to smoke the enemy out. I must stress that Cheriomuha was tear gas, similar to that used for riot control operations. I never witnessed the use of poison gases by Soviet troops in Afghanistan. There was no need for it, the above mentioned methods were at least as effective and did not require that our troops use special equipment or protective gear.
Because water in underground irrigation springs in such tunnels is usually very clean, we looked for muddy or murky water that came to the surface. This often signaled the movement of troops or the construction of facilities below ground. During the Soviet-Afghan War, strong explosions in some of the kyareses led to the disruption of underground water sources. In those cases, the water stopped flowing and turned the kyareses into dry but comfortable underground catacombs.
I have no doubt that as the hunt for Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders intensifies, these underground irrigation systems will once again become important. Many of them may be larger and much improved from those of the Soviet-Afghan War. I believe, however, that they will be used in much the same way. As many may also be in use as shelters for local noncombatants, their neutralization will require a very special response from the coalition forces.
In summary, the Afghans are tough and stubborn fighters who have an intimate understanding of their environment and maximize their use of the region's natural and manmade features. Focusing specifically on the caves and kyareses, the mujahedin employed them to offer an asymmetric threat in an effort to counter Soviet technological advantages. As the war progressed, however, they clung to these methods, even when faced with the almost certain and terrible death of being burned alive or suffocating from high concentrations of gasoline or tear gas. In many cases, Soviet commanders used loudspeakers to warn them about the action they were about to take in the hope of persuading them to surrender. At times this worked, but in many cases, the mujahedin lacked a technical understanding of the effects of these weapons. They truly thought themselves safe in the kyareses, not understanding the horrific effects of these weapons. Even though many died there, the Afghans continue into the present to employ them. Any futur e U.S. involvement in the hunt for Bin Laden and other Al Qaeda leaders must include consideration of the kyareses, as they can be a key feature of the tactical environment.
Timothy Gusinov served two tours of duty in Afghanistan (4.5 years) with the Russian military advisers, Soviet troops, and Spetsnaz (Special Operations) units. He speaks Farsi and Dan languages as well as English, and has earned the equivalent of a Masters degree in linguistics. His duties included facilitating coordination and liaison between Afghan Government units and Soviet troops, and negotiations with local authorities, tribal leaders, and field commanders. He was wounded twice and received the Russian equivalent of two Purple Heart Medals and earned a number of medals including the Order of the Red Star. He achieved the rank of Major at the age of 28. After the 1991 Gulf War he served as a United Nations (U.N.) military observer in the U.N. Iraq-Kuwait Observation Mission and later in the former Yugoslavia. Mr. Gusinov retired in 1993 and moved to the United States; a permanent resident now, he has applied for U.S. citizenship. He teaches English as a second language, works with the computer education industry, and acts as a consultant. Readers may contact the author via E-mail at gticomp@netwiz and by telephone at (415) 989-4733.
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|Title Annotation:||War on Terrorism|
|Publication:||Military Intelligence Professional Bulletin|
|Date:||Apr 1, 2002|
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