Expert: Mines a ‘Significant Problem’ for Troops

The Sept 11 terrorist attacks in the US and subsequent air strikes against Afghanistan by the US and Britain could soon lead to a full-scale military campaign.

But one weapon capable of bringing an entire ground force to a halt is small enough to fit in the palm of one’s hand.

“Land mines will pose a significant problem to any military operation in Afghanistan, whether the operation is carried out by the Taliban government or Ameri­can,” said a mine expert who has worked in Afghanistan on and off since 1992.

The mine expert—a Halo Trust international staff member—declined to be identified. But he said he worked in Afghan­istan between 1992 to 1994 and later served as an adviser to Afghan deminers working for the Halo Trust from 1996 to 2000.

Speaking at the Halo Trust country office in Phnom Penh, the expert said most of the land mines in Afghanistan were laid during the former Soviet Union’s decade-long occupation of that country, beginning in 1979.

The Soviet military units and opposing Afghan rebel forces planted mines to protect internal infrastructure such as military installations and transportation routes, and although Halo spent more than 12 years demining Afghanistan, mines pose a serious threat along “the old front lines” in the area west of Kabul, the expert said.

While the expert was not particularly critical of the Taliban government, he said “it was a fundamental tragedy that bin Laden has settled in Afghanistan.”

He said that while “around        1 million land mines” are still hi­d­den underground, the problem in Afghanistan is not nearly as bad as some international NGOs have reported. Unicef has written that “Soviet forces spread [mines] by the millions in Afghanistan.”

Even though US President George W Bush has not spelled out in absolutely clear terms that the US will send ground troops to Afghanistan, he told the US Congress on September 20 that “this war…will not look like the air war above Kosovo two years ago, where no ground troops were used and not a single American was lost in combat.”

With the airstrikes Sunday marking what could be, in Bush‘s words, the start of a “lengthy campaign” against Osama bin Laden and the terrorists suspected of carrying out the Sept 11 attacks that killed an estimated 5,000 people, many countries, including Cambodia are offering their allegiance.

Prime Minister Hun Sen declared his support for the US and British attacks in Afghanistan against the Taliban government Monday, saying he would send demining experts to Afghanistan if asked.

Demining experts will be needed in Afghanistan, according to the Halo Trust expert. He said that while the Halo Trust and the Taliban had a good working relationship “because the Taliban was always for Halo because they wanted mine clearance,” the Halo Trust stopped all mine operations in Afghanistan following threats of attack by the US.

The entire foreign staff of Halo Trust was pulled out of the country a few days after the Sept 11 attacks and only the Afghan staff remains.

At the height of Halo Trust’s mine clearance work in Afghanistan, they employed 1,300 Afghan deminers and their operations extended from Kabul and the surrounding districts to provinces inear Baghan, Kunduz, Samangan and Balkh, he said.

As in Cambodia, land mines claimed huge numbers of Afghans victims as refugees began repatriating the country, the expert said.

Up until about 1998, Afghanistan and Cambodia experienced very similar land mine problems, especially in respect to how mines were laid, the expert said. He noted the civil war between the Cambodian government, supported by Vietnamese forces, and opposition forces including remnants of the Khmer Rouge, took place during the same 10-year period as the civil war in Afghanistan.

“Cambodia, however, is enjoying stability, peace and major funding from international donors, while Afghanistan is isolated and is considered the international pariahs of the world,” the expert said, adding that Afghanistan would need at least 10 years of stability before they reach the level of mine safety that Cambodia is now experiencing.

Cambodia continues to be haunted by mines. Sixty-five people in August were killed or wounded by land mines and unexploded ordnance in Cambodia, bringing the total number of people killed or wounded this year to 624, according to the Cambodia Mine/UXO Victim Information System monthly mine report.

While this number has decreased greatly since 1998, when 1,991 people were reported killed or wounded, Cambodia remains one of the most heavily mined countries in the world.


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