Afghanistan's killing fields are blighted by landmines
12 March 2012
Following the deaths of six British troops in a Warrior armoured vehicle last week, defence analyst Anthony Tucker-Jones reports on how Afghanistan's terrible minefield legacy and porous borders allow landmines and IEDs to proliferate
The recent deaths of five soldiers from the Yorkshire Regiment and one from the Duke of Lancaster's Regiment are a stark reminder of how mines and Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) continue to blight military and civilian lives the length and breadth of Afghanistan.
Since the late 1970s a staggering 640,000 mines have been laid in Afghanistan, making it one of the most heavily mined countries on the face of the earth, according to British mine clearance charity the HALO Trust.
Mines were laid throughout the Soviet-Afghan War, during the Afghan Civil War and during the conflict with the Taliban. They were laid with the aim of protecting major roads, air bases, military outposts and the main cities and were also used to impede supply and escape routes through the mountains.The Warrior incident
While British families mourn the loss of loved ones, the question remains: how did the Taliban manage to kill these soldiers when they were travelling in the relative safety of a Warrior armoured vehicle?
The Warrior, a British Army workhorse, first entered service in the late 1980s, with all 790 delivered by 1995. It was originally produced in six variants, all of which took part in Operation Desert Storm in 1991, and has since seen active service in the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan. It has also gone through a number of upgrades in its 25-year career, and can be fitted with a Combat Dozer Blade or Surface Mine Plough.
For operational security reasons, the exact cause of the blast is unlikely to be made public. Nonetheless it is clear that this attack required considerable planning and a very large IED or anti-tank mine.
One known Taliban tactic is to combine large mortar rounds with 107mm rockets to create IEDs. They also have access to 122mm shells from the Soviet D-30 field gun. However, more modern shaped charges pose the biggest threat to NATO armoured vehicles such as Warrior, and reports indicate that Iran has been supplying the Taliban with a shaped charge mine known as the 'Dragon'.Legacy mines
During the Soviet-Afghan War the Soviet Army employed huge numbers of mines, for example they laid two million anti-personnel mines in the mid-1980s in support of a single campaign. Key amongst these was the tiny PFM-1 'butterfly' mine, which was often dropped by helicopters onto supply routes. As a result, Afghanistan remains littered with Soviet-era ordnance. The British Army first came into contact with legacy minefields at Kajaki Dam in 2006, with terrible results.
During the Soviet-Afghan war, the Mujahideen were also supplied with large quantities of a plastic anti-tank mine. Although not made in Italy these were called 'Italian' mines by Soviet Sappers, and the Mujahideen themselves received so many of them that they were known to use the explosives to fuel their stoves.
Since the late 1980s, the HALO Trust has managed to destroy 736,000 mines in Afghanistan, of which 195,000 were emplaced mines that were largely cleared by hand and another 541,000 were stockpiled mines. This is on top of NATO's efforts to counter the ever-present Taliban IED threat.
The Mines Advisory Group (MAG) has also assisted in mine clearance in Afghanistan through its work with the Organisation for Mine Clearance and Afghan Rehabilitation. Today MAG is working the other side of the border, helping Pakistan, a country which still manufactures anti-personnel mines and is believed to have a stockpile of some six million.
The destruction of the Warrior and its crew comes at a time when relations with Afghan President Hamid Karzai are fraught after the death of six US servicemen and 30 civilians in the wake of Korans being accidentally burned by US officials. In the latest incident to damage relations, a US serviceman went on the rampage in Kandahar province killing 16 civilians.
Karzai is now demanding an end to NATO night operations and wants all Afghan prisoners handed over to his jurisdiction. He is insisting NATO respect his country's sovereignty.
In the face of what might be perceived as ingratitude, many in the West now feel NATO's withdrawal in 2014 will not be before time.