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Jack Shroder: Afghan terrain and the search for bin Laden

Jack Shroder is a professor at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, which boasts the country's largest repository of maps and geological documents pertaining to Islam. Dr. Shroder is a former director of the National Atlas of Afghanistan. He joined the chat room from CNN Center in Atlanta, GA.

CNN: Welcome to, Dr. Jack Shroder. Thank you for joining us today.

JACK SHRODER: Happy to be here! Most interesting place to work in! Controlled, or uncontrolled confusion, but not too different from a university!

CNN: How would you best describe the terrain of Afghanistan?

JACK SHRODER: It's extremely rugged, barren, no trees, like the Mojave Desert, full of high passes, canyons, dark defiles. It's a rugged, rough place to work in, or to try to invade and get back out again. But having said that, it's an extremely fascinating place, and I loved it when I was there.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Dr Shroder, are you the same geologist who recently stated he recognized the mountains where bin Laden made his most recent video?

JACK SHRODER: Yes. When you've walked through areas as a geologist, you can recognize certain features that you can see clearly, or certain kinds of rocks, in the same way that a forester can identify tree species, where we only see the forest. Any geologist can identify rocks to a certain extent.

Since I was the National Atlas director of the National Atlas of Afghanistan, I've been all over the country, so as both a geologist and a physical geographer, I can recognize certain areas. But I should also tell you that the state department has asked me to be not as explicit as I was when the media got me the first day!

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CHAT PARTICIPANT: How deep are these caves and is it possible to detect activities in them through radar or sonar?

JACK SHRODER: The caves are quite deep, and I think the short answer is no. The hard rock caves are very hard to see through, and they're deep. The Afghans are very skillful at digging caves. They've been doing it for thousands of years to find water. Now they're doing it for defense and to hide malefactors like Osama. There are literally thousands of caves in the country. Many are artificial. There are perhaps more artificial caves than natural caves.

There are two kinds of artificial caves, the famous Karez, which are dug for irrigation, and then the military caves. Osama's family made their money in engineering construction, so I'm certain he's had a hand in helping plan caves, mostly in Pashtun tribal territory, where we presume he resides at present. Radar and sonar would only work to a shallow depth. We can use a heat signature with thermal bands in satellites and airplanes, a thermal signature that we can detect comes out of the mouths of some of the caves.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Dr. Shroder, how does the winter season affect the terrain?

JACK SHRODER: Afghanistan has winters like I have in Nebraska. It's very cold, but not much snow, except in the high mountains. Raw winds come down from Siberia. Those winds are blocked by the Hindu Kush Mountains. Southern Afghanistan, along the Pakistan border, is warmer in the wintertime, and would resemble a climate more like southern Arizona in the winter. In the old days, the rich Afghans would go down to Jalalabad, near the Khyber Pass, and spend the winter there.

CNN: What are the types and sources of photographs and maps of the region that are being used in the military campaign?

JACK SHRODER: Good question. In fact, in the 1950s and the 1960s, the U.S. made a deal with the Afghan government of the time to make aerial photographs of the whole country, and make high quality topographic maps for development purposes. The Soviet Union protested mightily, and so the Afghans told the United States to not photograph the northern one-quarter of the country. So, the Soviets [photographed] the northern quarter of the country, and we took the other three quarters, and we both made very high quality maps.

Those maps became part of the basis of the atlas of Afghanistan of which I was the director. In the late 1970s, when the Communists took over, they tried to get all my maps, but they were successfully delivered to the U.S. embassy by my cook, and so they came out in a diplomatic pouch. Then in the war with the Soviet Union in the 1980s, many more large-scale detail maps were made by the Department of Defense. We have those in the University of Nebraska-Omaha, for continued use to this day.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: How were the current Afghan and Pakistani borders established?

JACK SHRODER: In the 19th Century, the British were interested in putting borders around Afghanistan as spheres of influence for Russian, and the British Raj. Afghanistan was created as a classic buffer state that both the Russians and the [British] were supposed to stay out of. It was then a country, the borders of which were drawn mainly by the British, with Russian collaborators.

The Russians never really liked the borders. The northern border was a river, and they said that rivers make bad borders. The southern border, with Pakistan, was called the Durand line, which was put deliberately by the British right through the middle of Pashtun tribal territory. The Durand line is really only a line on paper, and is very difficult to defend. Present day Pakistan military stays well back from the border, as it is Pashtun private territory, and regarded as Pashtun business.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Dr. Shroder, last week there was an explosion and fire from two caves after a smart bomb was sent down them. Is that what you think the U.S. will continue to do? Make the caves death traps?

JACK SHRODER: They'll try. The Soviet military used high explosives and poison gas, and I presume the U.S. military will mostly try smart bombs. But I'm not a military expert.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Do you think they have built underground shelters?

JACK SHRODER: Yes. Probably many.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Can bin Laden stay hidden in Afghanistan despite the attacks?

JACK SHRODER: I think he probably will stay well-hidden for quite a long time before we finally get him.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Dr. Shroder, are the caves found all over Afghanistan or primarily restricted to one geographical area?

JACK SHRODER: They're found all over.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Are all the passes you talked about between Afghanistan and Pakistan controlled by either the Afghan or Pakistani governments?

JACK SHRODER: Most of the passes are actually controlled by the Pashtun tribes. The main government-controlled passes are the Khyber Pass in the north, and the Chaman pass, which is a wide-open desert. Many of the passes are just open places to walk through. There are literally thousands of them.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Are there many photographs that can be seen on your web page?

JACK SHRODER: My web page, up until today, had stuff that people can't see, and my students are frantically trying to get it open. It'll be at the University of Nebraska-Omaha [web site] probably tomorrow. Our web page was sealed due to research security reasons, but you can find some things at Global Land Ice Measurements from Space (GLIMS). That's a satellite link we're using over Afghanistan and Pakistan. It's not real-time, to you technologically literate people.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Dr. Shroder, do you think we face any similarities to Vietnam as far as the type of combat is concerned?

JACK SHRODER: It's a wide open desert. There would be no jungle warfare. There's also high mountain terrain.

CNN: Thank you for joining us today.

JACK SHRODER: Thank you!

Dr. Jack Shroder joined the chat room by telephone, and CNN provided a typist. This is an edited transcript of the interview which took place on Thursday, October 18, 2001.


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