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WASHINGTON -- U.S. military officials are expanding their search of al-Qaida cave complexes in Afghanistan's Tora Bora region into what promises to be a huge and dangerous engineering project involving hundreds of American soldiers, specialized equipment to dig through tons of rubble and weeks or even months of labor.
Pentagon officials had hoped to delegate the treacherous cave search to Afghan allies. But the task has become more difficult because of the heavy bomb damage inflicted on the caves, and officials say some Afghan fighters are losing interest now that Taliban and al-Qaida forces largely have been routed.
Military officials are poised to order hundreds of U.S. Marines and Army troops to the eastern mountains to take over the job, the Los Angeles Times reports, quoting U.S. officials. The first Marines may leave as soon as this weekend, if they receive an order from Gen. Tommy Franks, the U.S. commander of the campaign in Afghanistan.
Although the Afghan war has featured an impressive array of high-tech gear, the cave search will probably involve some of the same risky tactics that U.S. infantrymen used against Vietnamese "tunnel rats" in the 1960s and Japanese defenders in Okinawa in 1945.
Once the entrance to a cave is open, U.S. forces will want to send in a "little wiry guy with a flashlight, a pistol" and a lot of guts, said retired Army Col. Richard J. Dunn, who was a combat engineer.
Most al-Qaida fighters had either been killed or trapped in the collapsing caves or fled the area by last weekend. But U.S. authorities hope to find some remaining die-hard troops, as well as extensive intelligence.
They also expect to find many bodies, perhaps including that of Osama bin Laden, who has disappeared.
Some bodies could be buried beneath many feet of rubble and difficult to locate and identify. (In case it becomes necessary to prove bin Laden's identity, U.S. officials have reportedly collected DNA samples from members of his family.)
Experts say the job of digging through bomb-damaged caves that may hold enemy fighters and booby traps would be difficult under any conditions. In this case, it will be especially so because of the icy winter weather and the soaring heights of the mountains, which rise to 13,000 feet.
Hundreds of caves honeycomb two valleys on the east and west faces of the mountains; many of them have been partially crushed by the two-week U.S. bombing campaign that began at the start of the month.
The air assault, in which U.S. B-52 and B-1 aircraft dropped 2,000-pound "penetrator" bombs -- and sometimes even larger ordnance, including at least one 15,000-pound "daisy cutter" -- have left the entrances of many caves buried under tons of rock that now must be cleared away.
Experts say it will be difficult to bring in large excavation equipment, either by ground or air. The roads narrow to little more than rough pathways as they rise into the mountains, and helicopters lose their ability to lift heavy equipment at such high altitudes. Even if the military could bring in heavy earthmoving equipment, it would be difficult to operate amid the sheer mountain faces and rock-strewn and wooded terrain, they said.
As a result, forces may need to rely on equipment such as smaller earthmoving vehicles, jackhammers, chain saws and the like. Using such relatively small tools "makes it very manpower intensive, time-consuming and very hard to do," Dunn said.
The engineers will need to be careful to clear away the rocks so there are no landslides or collapsing ceilings. The condition of the cave interiors is anybody's guess.
Troops may rely on explosive charges to clear away some of the rubble. That will speed up the process but raises the risk that some of the contents of the caves may be damaged.
Another difficulty lies in the strain of having to resupply the work force in such a distant and harsh location. The U.S. forces will need to regularly fly in food and equipment, and they will need to relieve troops quickly worn out by the job.
The small number of Special Forces troops who worked with Afghan allies in beginning the cave search in the past few days have already suffered frostbite, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said.
Meanwhile in Pakistan, troops shot and killed one al-Qaida loyalist Thursday and recaptured about a dozen others, a day after the fugitives overpowered guards and fled into mountain ravines near the Afghan border.
Seven al-Qaida fighters were still missing. Authorities believed they were surrounded in a cave.