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Geologist: Afghan landscape offers clues, lessons

Shroder says the rock behind bin Laden is only found in two abutting Afghan provinces, both southeast of Kabul.  

(CNN) -- Within hours of the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, the world's attention turned to Afghanistan, as officials and experts looked for clues as to the strategy, ideology and location of al Qaeda and Taliban leaders and forces.

Prof. Jack Shroder, a University of Nebraska geologist who has worked parts of the last four decades with the land, culture and people of Afghanistan, offered his insights into the region in an interview with

CNN: What did you think when you saw the October 7 tape of bin Laden, the day U.S. began launching airstrikes on Afghanistan? What can we learn from it?

SHRODER: To me, the rocks tell a story. The rocks are giving me all kinds of info. And that country has been my special area -- I've visited almost every part of Afghanistan over the years.

Looking at this tape, it seems highly likely that bin Laden was in the Paktia or Paktika provinces, a Pashtun stronghold southeast of Kabul along Afghanistan's border with Pakistan. That's the only place you'll find those rocks behind him. Of course, there's no telling where he is now.

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But this shows that there clearly is a reason the U.S. State Department needs to know science.

CNN: What are your experiences in Afghanistan and the region in general?

SHRODER: I first came to Afghanistan in 1973-74, over the winter, to get an Afghan studies program started at the school where I teach, the University of Nebraska-Omaha. A few years later, beginning in 1977, I lived there again.

I cleaned up the U.S. Embassy's map collection, and I used to fly over the country in the plane of the U.S. Ambassador (to Afghanistan) with a camera. Afghanistan was not on the U.S. radar screen in the mid-1970s at all. Around then, I testified before Congress that these people are going to fight the Soviets, and we need to help the mujahideen (a Muslim guerrilla force).

When the Communist coup occurred in 1978, I mapped out the (then) Soviet border with Afghanistan for three months. When I got back to Kabul, the Afghan authorities put me under house arrest for three months and I left the country in November 1978.

In 1983, I returned to Pakistan, doing scientific work and working with Afghan refugees. I returned in the winter of 1985, and I've gone back most every year for three months or less each time. But I haven't been there in three years.

CNN: What are the Afghan people like?

SHRODER: The Afghans are the most hospitable people I ever met. I helped a lot of them by putting up my name to sponsor them as refugees. They're so un-American, in that Afghans hug and kiss you once they know you're not a threat. They were wonderful people to work with.

On the flip side, the Pashtun code of badal, or revenge, says that a vendetta is passed down from father to son. In a blood feud, if you killed one of them, then either you or a member of your family will be killed. The Pashtuns are among the most martial people in the world, although the military is largely based outside Afghanistan in Pakistan.

CNN: What are your feelings about Afghanistan's future?

SHRODER: It's going to be extremely difficult to fight a war there. If we go in with U.S. troops, I worry about an inevitable escalation when things go wrong, like in Vietnam. It has to be done so cleverly.

We can deal with the Northern Alliance. Many of them are not fundamentalists. They want a coalition. And there are certainly Muslim Pashtuns against the Taliban.

(If the Taliban are ousted), we have to be there. We're going to have to rebuild the country and fill up the vacuum. We've got to bring people in and get them educated. Afghanistan cannot be left like this.

The U.S. just walked away and left a vacuum (after the Soviets left in the late 1980s). I wish they would have listened to a few people and not left the place such a vacuum.


• Univ. of Nebraska at Omaha Geography-Geology Department

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