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War’s lethal leftovers

Kabul, Afghanistan

Last October, shortly after a U.S. plane dropped a cluster bomb on Shakar Qala, a village adjacent to the western city of Herat, Afghanistan, Dan Kelly got a phone call. The hit at Shakar Qala killed nine people, injured 14, destroyed 24 of the hamlet’s 50 houses and left Kelly, the U.N. coordinator for mine removal in Afghanistan, dealing with a new threat on the ground.

The caller was a local Herat de-miner who didn’t know how to defuse the bright yellow bomblets, the size of soda cans, still lying around Shakar Qala. One had already killed a curious villager. Women and children were too terrified to leave their houses.

Last autumn’s air war on Afghanistan, with its use of cluster bombs, wreaked havoc on the country’s de-mining program.

“The significant use of cluster bombs caused us to change our whole operation,” said Kelly, who is program manager for the U.N. Mine Action Program in Afghanistan. The program oversees an extensive mine clearance program run by eight regional offices and 15 nongovernmental organizations.

Kelly reports that 234 air strikes used cluster weapons, dropping between two and 16 bombs per foray. Each bomb scattered submunitions, also called bomblets, many of which failed to detonate, leaving a lethal litter of more than 15,000 “duds” on a land already saturated with mines and unexploded ordnance.

Despite a decade of well-coordinated mine clearance, Afghanistan in September 2001 was still one of the most mine- and unexploded ordnance-affected countries in the world, according to Landmine Monitor, a publication of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines.

Mines were first laid by Soviet troops during the 1980s and then scattered haphazardly by retreating mujahideen during the civil war of the 1990s. Along with unexploded ordnance -- the war trash of battles long past -- the mines have impeded the resettlement of the country, curtailing farming and killing or maiming, on average, 150 to 300 people a month.

Calculating the number of injuries and fatalities caused by mines or unexploded ordnance in Afghanistan is difficult. Often people are hurt in remote areas far from any medical facility. The country has only one doctor for 50,000 people. Some victims die en route to a hospital.

According to U.N. Mine Action Program, the estimated number of mine and ordnance victims in 1999 was between five and 10 people a day. In 1993, the toll was 20 to 24 casualties per day. A large proportion of mine victims are men of working age who are often the only family breadwinner.

The severity of Afghanistan’s mine problem required the Mine Action Program to prioritize its plans for clearance. Areas where people were getting blown up were dealt with first, then homes, fields and irrigation systems, and finally farmlands and pastures.

But the U.S.-led air war, which started in early October, completely changed the U.N. de-mining program. Kelly said air strikes forced the withdrawal of most of the 68 de-mining sites dispersed throughout the country because, from the air, de-mining camps look like military operations.

“We kept an emergency team in major centers, but we had to close most of our tented sites,” Kelly said.

At least three de-mining operations were bombed. The first hit, which occurred within 48 hours of the start of the war, “killed four and left 11 shell-shocked people,” he said. In addition, $14 million worth of de-mining equipment was destroyed, primarily by war looting.

By late October, U.S.-led forces were using cluster bombs -- weapons that break open in midair, dispersing bomblets over a wide area of land. Dispersal of the bomblets depends on several factors, such as release altitude, spin rate of the munition and wind speed. But the weapons are designed to scatter submunitions as far and wide as possible. A drop of several canisters can create kill zones of a square kilometer or greater in size.

Many bomblets fail to explode on contact, becoming in effect the equivalent of a land mine. Estimates of failure rates range from 5 percent to 30 percent, depending on the weapons system and conditions of use. Kelly estimates that the failure rate for the CBU-87, a cluster munition used in Afghanistan, is 10 percent.

In addition, the unexploded yellow bomblets were confused with similarly colored food packages dropped from U.S. planes in Afghanistan. Pentagon officials have said they plan to change the color of the food packages. Cluster bombs in general are attractive to children, who often mistake them for toys.

Manufactured by Alliant Technology in Hopkins, Minn., the CBU-87, and its variant, the CBU-103, are described by Afghan de-miners as “the newest and most dangerous bomb.”

Each CBU-87 scatters 202 canister-shaped bomblets, creating a “footprint” 200 meters wide and 400 meters long.

“These are not precision weapons,” said Kelly. Strikes that dropped multiple cluster bombs complicated the identification of unexploded bomblets. “When you superimpose 16 footprints in one area, it’s difficult to get an accurate reading,” he said.

Most cluster munitions are anti-tank or anti-personnel, designed to destroy a tank and its crew or spray hundreds of shards of steel at ballistic speeds over a wide area. The CBU-87 has multiple capabilities. The highly volatile, canister-shaped bomblet, set off by human touch, is equipped with a “three kill” mechanism. It can burn, shatter into 300 flesh-piercing pieces and penetrate up to five inches of tank armor.

Within each canister is an armor-piercing shape charge or “slug” capable of traveling a kilometer. Kelly said the flying slug makes detonation extremely treacherous, able to kill the de-miner as well as onlookers standing a good distance away. Sometimes the nylon parachute attached to each bomblet snares in trees. When that happens, the weapon becomes hellishly difficult to defuse.

The U.N. Mine Action Program spent most of last November and December providing capacity training for its 4,400 de-miners and has since increased its personnel to 7,000, primarily to deal with the legacy of last fall’s air war.

“Our survey teams had to be taught what a footprint is and then how to destroy these things, which are much more dangerous than an anti-personnel mine. These things kill. We had to come up with a way to destroy them,” Kelly said. U.N. military sanctions, imposed on Afghanistan in 1998, prevented the de-mining program from buying detonators. So Kelly purchased supplies from Pakistan and designed a defuser to implode the bomblets.

By mid-October of last year, the United Nations had a liaison officer at Central Command in Tampa, Fla., to identify the location of de-mining operations in order to prevent further bombing of these sites. The Tampa connection, Kelly said, enabled the de-mining program to get fairly accurate information from the U.S. military about the location and number of air strikes using cluster bombs.

Last winter, Human Rights Watch reported that U.S. airplanes dropped 1,150 cluster bombs on 188 locations in Afghanistan. Kelly’s data of cluster bomb use in 234 U.S. air strikes puts the number of drops between 468 and 3,744 bombs -- 94,536 to 756,288 bomblets. Five thousand of the duds have been defused, which is about 35 percent of the necessary cleanup, Kelly said.

Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. David Lapan said, “Cluster munitions were used early on in last fall’s air campaign. Their use was limited to certain targets -- large groups of enemy forces, vehicles and equipments, tanks. … About 60 percent of the weapons [used in last fall’s air campaign] were precision-guided, 40 percent were not.”

But a chart provided by the Arms Trade Resource Center of the World Policy Institute identifies five different types of cluster bombs used against Afghanistan, including the GATOR described as “a scatterable mine.” The 1,000-pound bomb holds 72 anti-armor and 22 anti-personnel mines.

Landmine Action, a British-based organization working for the elimination of mines and unexploded ordnance, reports that more than 13 million cluster submunitions were dumped on Iraq during the six weeks of bombing in the Gulf War. The Pentagon estimates that 1,392 cluster bombs were dropped during the U.S.-led NATO bombing in Kosovo.

First used by the United States in the Vietnam War, the prevalence of cluster munitions in modern warfare, with their capacity to kill indiscriminately long after a conflict is over, have led many humanitarian organizations to call for an immediate ban on their use. Cluster weapons are not covered under the Mine Ban Treaty because technically they are not victim-activated and are designed to explode on impact.

The Call for a Moratorium on Cluster Bomb Use, sponsored by the Mennonite Central Committee, proposes restricting the weapons under the Convention on Conventional Weapons. The moratorium also would require cluster bomb users to be accountable for ordnance clearance and assistance to victims.

The U.S. military is not assisting with mine clearance in Afghanistan. But the Department of State’s Office of Humanitarian Demining Programs has allocated $7.03 million for fiscal year 2002 to support various mine action activities in Afghanistan. The State Department said $3.1 million of the year’s total will finance a commercial U.S. de-mining organization that will, among other things, train Afghan de-miners in the removal of unexploded bomblets. Of the $500 million provided by the United States for humanitarian mine action worldwide since 1993, nearly $28 million has been given to Afghanistan.

Claire Schaeffer-Duffy, a freelance writer living in Worcester, Mass., traveled with a 19-member interfaith delegation to Kabul in June. The trip was organized by the San Francisco-based human rights group Global Exchange.

Related Web sites

Afghan Victims Fund campaign

Arms Trade Resource Center

Call for a Moratorium on Cluster Bomb Use

International Campaign to Ban Landmines

Landmine Action

Peaceful Tomorrows

U.N. Mine Action Program for Afghanistan

U.S. Department of State Office of Humanitarian Demining Programs

National Catholic Reporter, August 2, 2002 [corrected 08/16/2002]