PAKTIA PROVINCE, Afghanistan – The four caves contained one of the biggest munitions caches found by the U.S.-led coalition, and it took British bomb disposal experts just a second to blow it all up.
But in a country where the mountains and hillsides are honeycombed with caves that have been used for decades to hide arms for warlords, Islamic rebels, the Taliban and Al Qaeda, few coalition commanders have any illusions about searching through them all.
"We'd have to be here for a hundred years," British Lt. Col. Tim Chicken said, looking out over an expanse of desolate hills covered with desert shrubs in southeastern Afghanistan.
A thousand soldiers led by Chicken began sweeping through Paktia province two weeks ago, combing the countryside on foot for possible Al Qaeda or Taliban holdouts. None have been found.
The mostly British force also is looking for caves and weapons caches that could be used by the enemy. "They're not generally easy to locate," Chicken said.
Aided by intelligence reports, his troops found and searched four caves dug into rocky hills with pickaxes at Sarom, a few dozen miles south of Gardez. Some were 100 yards deep, stacked floor to ceiling with Russian and Chinese rockets and mortar shells. In all, the caves housed up to 40,000 bombs, some dating back to 1940.
Used by Afghan guerrillas to fight Soviet troops in the 1980s, the arms were handed on to warlords and then taken over by the Taliban when they seized power in the mid-1990s. Chicken said nobody claimed to own the caches today.
On Friday afternoon, Chicken ordered all of them destroyed in a single controlled explosion that British officers said was among the largest conducted by Royal Engineers since World War II.
Local villagers were warned to stay far away. British troops watching from a hill a mile from the caves turned and ran when huge plumes of black smoke and fire turned into a mammoth wall of brown dust and debris moving rapidly toward them.
Several rockets soared over the valley and explosions continued for hours into the night. On Saturday, fires still smoldered at one of the collapsed caves. A huge crater that partially collapsed a hill was all that was left of another.
"The first goal is that munitions that are destroyed cannot be used against us," said U.S. Army Capt. Tony Rivers. "The second goal is that destroyed munitions cannot injure someone else."
The search for arms caches is a daunting task in a country where every hill and mountain seems filled with tunnels, caves and underground bunkers. Rivers said searching them all is out of the question.
"It's not conceivable to search an area the size of Texas overnight. It's literally filled with caves. It's definitely a long-term process," he said.
Few people the British troops have come across have offered information on where such caves are. A U.S. special forces soldier, speaking on condition of anonymity, speculated the people fear angering warlords who want the arms.
Chicken said his troops, laden down with backpacks, tents and rifles, had traveled only about 12 miles since Operation Snipe began — averaging roughly a mile a day. Sleeping in the open under stars, they are resupplied with water and food by helicopter.
When arms caches are found, they have to be checked slowly for booby traps. When the British searched through the caves near Sarom, they called in bomb disposal experts from the main allied air base at Bagram.
At times crawling on their knees to feel for mines in the dirt and using laser pens to check for tripwires, it took five hours to make a superficial check in a single cave 30 yards deep.
Chicken said his men would build a fence around the site to keep locals from wandering too close. Any bombs still unexploded could be unstable and could pose a risk.
"We don't want these things," said Hazir Mohammad, a 31-year-old goat herder. "These foreign soldiers are getting rid of them. It's good."