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Geology adventures in Afghanistan

Jack Shroder was drinking his morning tea on September  11 when he saw the World Trade Center in flames. After seeing  the second plane crash, he knew it was not an accident.

He called up to his wife, Susie, who came running down the stairs. A half-hour later, he turned to his wife and said, “This just changed our lives big time,” Shroder recalls. “They’re going to find me. This is from Afghanistan. It’s Osama bin Laden and
Washington is going to remember my expertise.” They did. And Jack Shroder’s life took a big turn.

Shroder is a geoscientist at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and an expert on the geology and geography of Afghanistan. Just as he suspected, the events of September  11 cast him into the media spotlight, as he became an important information source for the U.S. government. Shroder remembers how he first became involved in Afghanistan. “It was all sort of a fluke,” he says.

In the early 1970s, when Shroder was doing geomorphology at the University of Nebraska, he decided to help a doctoral student named Christian Jung with grant work in Afghanistan. But, Jung died before completing his work. Shroder took their joint $8,000 grant and went to Afghanistan to create an atlas in Jung’s memory.  “One thing led to another and some 60 to 80 million dollars later over the last 30 years in grant money from Washington, we had this huge Afghanistan Studies Center,” he says.

Shroder first visited Afghanistan in 1973. The U.S. Embassy made him head of the Kabul University Seismic Station. “They didn’t tell me that they were looking at Soviet and Chinese nuke explosions north of the border. And I wasn’t sophisticated enough to know,” Shroder says. He would bring the seismic data back and forth from the University to the embassy. Then the embassy, with permission from Henry Kissinger, gave Shroder security clearance to take control of its map collection. “To a geologist/geographer and a university professor with no restrictions on publication, I was smart enough to know when I saw things that I shouldn’t have really seen not to publish any of that. But, they basically let me have a carte blanche look at Afghanistan and this was all before the Russian invasion and the Communist time, so everything was open.”

In 1978, the Afghan Communists interned and then deported Shroder. But his cook was able to bring all the maps Shroder had collected and created to the embassy on his bicycle. And the maps made it to the United States in a diplomatic pouch. “That stuff was very important to us back here,” Shroder says.

Young and “fearless,” Shroder went to Pakistan in 1983 — where he “helped the U.S. government wage war on the Soviet Union in a funny way, as an educator.” He taught Afghan refugees and showed them how to dig water wells away from their latrines. At the same time, he acquired Soviet documents about Afghanistan’s resources — some from Afghans pirating them out of their ministries. “It would come to me because I was the only American who was paying attention to the geology anymore,” Shroder says. “Since then, I sometimes feel like a spy, but I’m not. Spies don’t publish, and I do.”

After the Soviets left, Shroder and his colleagues from the Afghanistan Studies Center told U.S. government officials, “We need to look after Afghanistan. We’re going to have trouble with this place.” Over a decade later, this past summer, he expressed similar sentiments to the U.S. State Department about the need for an American presence in Afghanistan. Jack Shroder wishes he hadn’t “hit that nail on the head” quite so well. After September  11, local reporters contacted Shroder and others at the Afghanistan Studies Center. Then, one day, a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle called and asked him if he knew where Osama bin Laden was in the September video that aired on CNN. “In an inadvertent moment, I let that San Francisco Chronicle guy know that I knew where it was and all hell broke loose after that.” Shroder says he knew the rocks and landforms and could place them in the western Spinghar (White Mountain) region of Tora Bora and nearby. “I was smart enough to know that I ought to mislead the media a little bit before I gave away something that I shouldn’t have.” So, to protect the sensitivity surrounding bin Laden’s whereabouts, Shroder told the reporter a location he knew was probably not exactly right. He didn’t want the press to have that precise information before the U.S. government did.

An hour later, a federal agent called him. Since then, he has advised the FBI and other top U.S. officials on the geology of the region. Dozens of media organizations have sought interviews with him. “It’s been a real interesting adventure for an old college professor.”   One of the biggest challenges through this time, Shroder says, has been balancing the needs of his country with his role as an academic geologist. “I’m paid by taxpayers to talk and to explain and educate and give people information. I am not trained to be in a manhunt and to be secret and keep my mouth shut, and that’s an odd place.”

Shroder says it is his duty, though, to do the best he can to help the United States. “And I think that’s true of all geologists,” he says. “It is up to us, if there are good resources in Afghanistan, which I firmly believe there are, to help the Afghans develop their country by exploiting their own resources. And I’m going to help American capitalist companies help the Afghans. So, the resources come out of the ground and the country gets rebuilt in a good, American, sort of capitalistic but not exploitatively capitalistic operation.”

He hopes that more American geoscientists will contribute their skills to help both the United States and the people living in third-world countries. “We need lots of new people who are trained and educated and paying attention to this kind of stuff all over the world and geologists more than anybody are the kinds of people who do that stuff. So I’m hoping that there is going to be a whole new generation of patriotic Americans that go over there and are nice. We need nice Americans who get along with the local people but present a good face for America and come home with some expertise that is going to help us out in these difficult times to come.”

Lisa M. Pinsker

Read Afghanistan: Geology in a Troubled Land.

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