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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Finding Bin Laden No Easy Task

APAlexander Popov says he was unprepared for Afghanistan`s high mountains and cliffs.
Major General Alexander Popov was prepared for the high mountains, bitter cold and blistering heat. But when the Soviet army crossed into Afghanistan in 1979, he didn't know the caves would be so deep, the tunnels so long or the Afghans so clever at hiding in the daunting terrain that has defied so many invaders in the past.

"I'd worked in the mountains, but those high mountains and cliffs were really impressive. We had to get over our psychological unpreparedness," said Popov, now a senior officer in Russia's peacekeeping forces. "The mountains are difficult to reach. The level of physical preparation has to be very high."

Former Soviet officers say top-flight intelligence will be key to whatever operation the United States and its allies may undertake against Afghanistan, where Osama bin Laden, the chief suspect in the terror attacks in New York and Washington, is believed to be hiding.

"Strictly from my experience, I want to say that for the preparation of such an operation, above all full-scale intelligence in all forms and methods is needed," Lieutenant General Boris Gromov, who led the Soviet retreat from Afghanistan, said in written answers to questions.

Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said last week that Russia already is providing the United States with intelligence about Afghanistan as part of the Kremlin's efforts to cooperate with the war against terrorism and the search for bin Laden.

Russian military officials have declined publicly to be specific about what intelligence their country will provide. But interviews with veterans of the Soviet Union's failed 10-year war in Afghanistan indicate they could have a lot to share.

"The U.S. secret services must use our experience and knowledge in preparations for the strikes against Afghanistan," said Major Valery Misil, who was a deputy commander of a special KGB task unit in Afghanistan. Misil served in Paktika province south of Kabul near the border with Pakistan.

"I can draw the maps of this province, and I can recollect how the terrain looks with all the caves, passes and brooks. One of the Taliban bases is located there," sai Misil, who is now a reserve officer. "We are ready to share our experience with the U.S. and work with them as military experts."

Popov, a paratrooper who commanded a tactical unit and a reconnaissance group during two tours of Afghanistan, says knowledge of the country's geography is paramount.

The United States has sophisticated satellite mapping capability, electronic surveillance and a host of other technological intelligence means. But that's not all it will take to provide a comprehensive picture of the whereabouts of the Taliban forces -- and bin Laden.

Major General Makhmud Gareyev was a senior military adviser during the Soviet occupation to Afghan President Najibullah, who was overthrown by Islamic insurgents in 1992 and hanged by the Taliban four years later. After the Soviet pullout in 1989, Gareyev stayed behind to support Najibullah.

Afghanistan, Gareyev says, is crisscrossed by caves, tunnels and trenches, some of which go back more than a hundred years to the time when the Afghan tribes fought the British.

"Some of them have been dug and developed since" the Soviet departure, said Gareyev, now president of the Academy of Military Sciences in Moscow. "There are thousands of them. You don't have to agonize over it to get information on them. You have to pay."

The Russians warn that the Americans will have to know the languages, recruit agents and win over the Afghan people. "The most difficult thing will be to set up an intelligence system, a network," Gareyev said.

Even after a network is established, further dangers lie ahead. Veteran organizations in Russia and other former Soviet republics are testament to the treachery of waging war in Afghanistan. Almost every veteran knows somebody who lost a leg, or an arm.

"One of the most dangerous things is the mines," said Popov. "They are specialists in mines, surprises." Doorknobs, television sets, even cigarette packages can be mined, he added.

With all those traps laid so carefully for so long, bin Laden could hide for a very long time, the Russians believe. "If you can't identify where he is," Popov said. "You won't be able to get him."