KANDAHAR, Afghanistan -- The guns and ammunition were expected. The poster of New York's Twin Towers set against Afghan mountains was not.
U.S. Marines who joined elite Navy SEALS in searching al-Qaida caves said Saturday they made some unsettling discoveries: a photo of President Bush with blood running down his face and another of Osama bin Laden holding a Kalashnikov rifle and marked with the words ''Leader of Peace.''
The Marines' accounts, given during interviews at the U.S. military base here in southern Afghanistan, provided a rare glimpse into the cave-by-cave war being waged by U.S. forces hunting for elusive al-Qaida and Taliban fighters and any tidbits of information about bin Laden's worldwide terrorist network.
With the Taliban ousted from power and hiding out in Afghanistan's rugged mountains and valleys, U.S. bombing is winding down. Instead, the battle against terrorism has shifted to the painstaking search of caves and other remote locations for al-Qaida and Taliban renegades as well as intelligence information to prevent further terrorist attacks.
It's dangerous, daunting work.
Marines described the cave complex they searched this month as elaborately constructed. Reinforced with concrete and tall enough to walk freely around, the caves had an irrigation system to water trees and flowers outside.
''It didn't look like a cave. Someone put some time into this place,'' said Sgt. Charles Calfee, 28, of Dublin, Va. ''It reminded me of the Flintstones.''
Originally, the 50 Marines from Lima Company, Battalion Landing Team 3/6 of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit were flown to the caves in the area between Khost and Gardez in eastern Afghanistan to guard the SEALS while they searched.
The SEALS, along with special forces from the Army and Air Force and CIA operatives, are taking a lead in the current phase of the Afghan conflict, which began after the U.S.-backed northern alliance routed the Taliban in last year's fighting.
The mission was meant to last 10 hours. Instead, it took several days and the SEALS -- overwhelmed with the amount of intelligence information they found -- had to enlist the Marines in their search.
''Every day we found more,'' said 1st Sgt. Joseph Bolton, of Gillette, Wyo.
The Marines, stationed at Camp Lejeune, N.C., refused to reveal the exact location of or give details about the caves. They also would not say what type of information or how many weapons and rounds of ammunition were found.
Marines spokesman 1st Lt. James Jarvis said the information is being analyzed and could help American forces find suspected Taliban and al-Qaida fighters.
''Obviously it's still early in the campaign,'' Jarvis said. ''There are still Taliban and al-Qaida forces in the region.''
The caves have proved a headache even for the high-tech U.S. military. U.S. aircraft targeted some caves with ''bunker-busting'' bombs that pierce concrete and 15,000 pound ''daisy cutters'' -- the most powerful conventional bombs in the U.S. arsenal -- to kill al-Qaida and Taliban forces thought to be hiding inside.
U.S. forces chasing leads on the whereabouts of terror mastermind Osama bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar have also come up empty-handed.
Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of the Afghan campaign, said Saturday he did not know the whereabouts of either man. But he said they get fresh leads daily. ''Some of it turns out to be good information and some of it not,'' he said.
The Marines said it was clear that those who hid in the caves left in a hurry. They found flour, sugar, corn meal and eggs, which the U.S. soldiers baked into bread because they were short of rations for the first few days of their search.
In nearby mud-walled huts, where the Marines used to sleep, they also found a chilling reminder of what brought them to Afghanistan in the first place: the date Sept. 11, written in Arabic-style writing on the wall.
''There was no doubt we were in bad guy country,'' said Capt. Lloyd Freeman, 34, of Bells, Texas.
''It felt good to be part of the force, like we came out here to do what we came to do, fix what started the whole thing in the first place.''
Peninsula Clarion ©2013. All Rights Reserved.