You could march through Afghanistan without ever setting foot on the ground because of all the military debris that has accumulated from centuries of warfare. But chances are you wouldn't get too far. The land, covered with more mines per square meter than anywhere else on Earth, presents the classic dilemma of unexploded ordnance--locating and safely removing the antipersonnel land mine.
A billion-dollar industry, removing unexploded ordnance engages economic and logistical complications for which neither bureaucratic indiscretion nor military indifference are entirely responsible. This is dangerous, labor-intensive work. There are millions of land mines and no magic wand for removing them.
These are terror weapons. Concealed and indiscriminate, a Khmer Rouge general described them as "the perfect soldier: ever courageous, never sleeping, never missing." More than 2,000 types are designed not to kill but to maim. "Bouncing Bettys" rise from the ground to crotch level and then detonate. "Toe poppers" do just what their name suggests.
But what makes mines effective also makes them problematic. They neither stop attacking when war is over nor discriminate between soldiers and civilians. The Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, an antimine organization, has fitted hundreds of thousands of prosthetics during postwar projects, mostly for civilians. They report that children are 20 percent more likely to die or suffer severe limb damage from a detonated mine. Abandoned minefields only rarely are marked or mapped and, even when they are, many children can't read posted warnings. Baseball mines and other configurations even resemble toys.
The Center for Security Policy states that where there are U.S. mines, civilians would have to climb fences to enter the minefields. The organization also says that "of the mines causing problems, none are made by the U.S." The center insists there is responsible and irresponsible mining. That is, the United States makes maps of minefields, while terrorists and rogue regimes rarely do so. Never mind that unstable antipersonnel ordnance frequently is dropped indiscriminately from aircraft.
Despite the flourishing of tremendous political opposition during the last decade, mines have remained a part of military strategies and operations. Some say they are necessary evils. Former president Bill Clinton never quite outgrew the antimilitary prejudices of his Vietnam-era youth, his critics say, but when even he ordered a ban on only "the most dangerous types of mines," some were surprised. Clinton argued that "high-tech smart mines ... will be needed for a few more years to protect troops."
The Pentagon, meanwhile, is of the opinion that a mine is a terrible thing to waste. "A complete ban will cripple legitimate defense against invasion, terrorism and nuclear weapons," a senior Pentagon official tells INSIGHT. He cites South Korea, where potential invasion routes from the north are heavily mined, and names Colombia, where "we need to protect small forward bases in the drug war; otherwise they would be overrun." Insecure Russian nuclear facilities also are cited as in need of such protection. In any case, the United States, Russia and China, to name a few, have refused to sign the 1997 Ottawa Treaty outlawing land mines.
The International Red Cross produced a report in 1997 by military professionals on the effectiveness of mines as weapons in warfare, examining 26 conflicts since 1940. The report concluded that "mine use has rarely been consistent with international law.... Even when used on a massive scale, they have usually had little or no effect on the outcome of hostilities ... and often overlooked are the cost and dangers for forces employing antipersonnel mines." The report also claimed "self-destructing and self-deactivating" smart mines "are considered unlikely to significantly reduce civilian casualties."
While most military officers insist selective mining is important if not crucial, a few have stepped forward to agree with antimine campaigners that mines are cruel and ineffective. A handful of retired officers last year wrote to President George W. Bush that "the United States doesn't need to retain antipersonnel mines." They said that although "Clinton portrayed mines as critical to the defense of the Republic of Korea ... they may in fact slow a U.S. and ROK [Republic of Korea] counter-invasion."
For those who uncover, detonate and otherwise dispose of unexploded ordnance (UXO), however, these are the facts of life: The older the mine, the more likely it is inert or completely unstable. The worst minefields rarely are mapped. Clearing them often puts the disposal teams on their hands and knees, prodding at UXOs with archaic tools. New technology has made their jobs a little easier, but most tools resemble their World War I counterparts. Disposal usually comes down to the judgment and experience of a few brave men clearing devices that can be as small as one-half stick of dynamite and range up to 20 kilograms (44 pounds) of explosive fill.
"Both of the two main types of land mines, antipersonnel and antitank, are designed critically to injure. Antipersonnel mines pose the greater threat to pedestrians as they can be set off with considerably less pressure," says John Wilkinson, vice president of operations for RONCO Consulting Corp., a State Department contractor for humanitarian clearance.
The first step in demining is surveying an area, followed by a search for minefield records, technical surveys and interviews with combatants and victims. The field then is divided by ropes into 10 meter by 10 meter (33 feet by 33 feet) working areas. "In Afghanistan, one 100,000-square-meter area held 900 UXOs," Wilkinson says.
Three methods of identification are involved: people, dogs and machines. "Ideally, you get to use all three," Wilkinson says. "In the best of cases, when you have all the time needed, the equipment uncovers, the dogs locate and the people prod and destroy.
"The equipment ranges from small self-propelled flails attached to remotely controlled carriers to huge machines such as the South African Mine Guzzler. Often these don't destroy mines but merely expose them. I remember a flail kicking a UXO up into the air toward a team waiting to work," Wilkinson says. "Such equipment may be good for flat areas, but in heavy terrain like Mozambique it is less useful."
After the machines have been through the area the handlers and dogs start. Dog noses are 1,000 times more sensitive than those of humans. When a dog sniffs a concentration of explosives, it gets between the bomb and the handler. They do this once again for confirmation, after which they are rewarded. The dogs even detect antihandling/antitamper devices such as wire trips. The animals begin their training at 18 months, work for about six years, then are deactivated and become pets. RONCO even created a mine-dog center in Afghanistan in 1989.
After the dogs detect a mine, "The handler will use a manual detector more sophisticated than the ones you see at Radio Shack for finding metal objects at the beach, but essentially like those used in World War II," Wilkinson says. At this point, the deminer usually is on hands and knees. "They are digging away at what may or may not be an inert rod," Wilkinson says, "but they always treat it as a life-threatening situation." Once they can, they put in a charge and explode it in place.
There are all sorts of archaic tools involved: whiskers (to check for trip wires), clippers (for cutting vegetation), metal detectors, prodders (often a screwdriver or knife used to excavate), probes (long thin rods used to locate and uncover), small picks (for digging in hard ground), stakes and sticks (to mark locations) and ropes (to set up the course).
So what advances have been made in the last 50 years? The UXO people say radio waves now can be used to perform a sonogram of sorts to locate bombs and mines, but they are too inaccurate to be deemed safe. Robots, also unstable, only work after an operator is familiar with the area. Satellite photos and global-positioning-system locators help make preliminary field maps. New algorithms help get rid of location errors in the photos.
"Otherwise, the old methods suffice--handheld equipment, tanks, plows, threshers and flails--though some people are thinking of some really wild stuff. I heard of one guy working on radio waves to detonate bombs--a Russian in New Jersey," Wilkinson says. "He has been working on it for several years. But what if you hit an antitank mine near a building you don't want to destroy?" Another invention sets charges inside a mine that destroys the UXO. "This takes a lot of skill-setting binary explosives, components that are inert when separate," he says. Other ideas involve detonating mines with lasers and using such things as ion bombardment, impulse radar scans and X-rays to locate and destroy land mines.
Even with the paucity of development, companies such as RONCO don't blame the United States for the mine problem. "The U.S. contributes more money unilaterally to demining than any other nation," says Wilkinson, who hopes there may be some electronic magic in the future to deal with this problem wholesale. But he remains skeptical. He says of his company's current methods, "Since 1989, only three people have been killed while working. One dog was injured, but that was a hormonal thing" when a female dog went running by.
How is it going in Afghanistan? "Right now, we are within a kilometer of a 5,000-pound bomb, one of those for the caves, but we still haven't located it. I guess no one wants to find that one," Wilkinson says with a laugh.
U.N. List of Countries With the Most Land Mines Afghanistan 9-10 million Angola 9 million Iraq 5-10 million Kuwait 5 million Cambodia 4-7 million West Sahara 1-2 million Mozambique 1-2 million Somalia 1 million Bosnia 1 million Croatia 1 million…