In-depth: Laying Landmines to Rest? Humanitarian Mine Action

AFGHANISTAN: Demining dogs responsible for half of all cleared land

Photo: IRIN
Mines dogs have added spectacular speed to some aspects of mine clearance in Afghanistan.
NAIROBI, 1 November 2004 (IRIN) - Sniffing the dry soil of a mined road in Bakhshikhail village, Suzi, a demining dog, sat and immediately looked back, indicating that she had detected explosives under her feet just two metres from her handler, Shahzada.

"It's a landmine," the 35-year-old shouted. "It takes a day to clear just two square metres by manual detection but just minutes by mine dog," Shahzada, team leader of the Mine Detection Dog Centre (MDDC) NGO, told IRIN on a minefield in the city of Charikaar, around 90 km north of the capital Kabul. Dogs such as Suzi are in the vanguard of Afghanistan's efforts to rid itself of landmines - the legacy of decades of conflict.

A German Shepherd, Afghan-born Suzi is one of 250 dogs involved in the clearance of landmines throughout the country. While several thousand Afghans are working as mine-clearance operatives, mine dogs are proving more effective in this, one of the most heavily mined countries in the world.

Most of the millions of landmines that litter Afghanistan were laid between 1980 and 1992 during the Soviet occupation and subsequent communist regime. Landmines were also used extensively in fighting between armed factions after 1992, particularly in Kabul and its outskirts.

The problem was exacerbated by mines and booby traps reportedly used by the Northern Alliance, Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters, and by unexploded cluster munitions and ammunition scattered from storage depots hit by air strikes following the late 2001 US-led battles to unseat the Taliban from power.

Demining these huge areas is complicated by the fact that many of the mines are plastic and cannot be detected by manual means. "We train these dogs to sense explosives no matter if it is in a metallic or plastic container. They are very efficient and cost effective," Shah Wali Ayubi, MDDC operations manager, told IRIN. "We have some areas where dogs are very suitable for demining. For example, dogs are very efficient at clearing roads." Most of the major highway rehabilitation projects, including the Kabul-Kandahar highway, have been cleared by mine dogs.

The safety record of the dog teams speaks for itself. "Since the beginning of our operation in 1989, we have only had 30 incidents that killed 10 [dog] handlers while there have been several hundred incidents involving manual detection teams," Ayubi added

The Afghan trainers have to build up a close relationship with their dogs if clearance is to be effective and safe.
Credit: IRIN
According to Shah Zaman, a dog trainer at the school, it takes the agency nearly two years to train a puppy before it is deployed to the field. "We have two kind of dogs: those that we produce here in our breeding centre and those that we import from Thailand, Germany or other countries," Zaman told IRIN.

One imported puppy costs the agency US $4,500 while a local dog costs only $1,500. "We produce 60 puppies a year and these dogs can work for nearly 10 years before they are too old." The demining dogs have an impressive record, responsible for around half the entire area demined in Afghanistan to date. "From 1994 until now, our mine dog groups have cleared 120 sq km which is 50 percent of all the area cleared by demining operations in Afghanistan."

According to the United Nations Mine Action Centre for Afghanistan (UNMACA), so far 2.8 million explosive devices, including mines and unexploded ordnance (UXOs), have been cleared from 320 sq km of land. But around 800 million sq m of land must still be cleared to ensure the safe return of hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people (IDPs).

The UNMACA strategy is implemented by 15 national and international organisations. Afghanistan is expected to be clear of mines in 10 years as required by the Ottawa treaty, but that's only if the campaign can secure funding of around $60 million per year to continue the programme.
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A special thanks to the Mines Advisory Group and Sean Sutton for generous use of their excellent photos used extensively in this report.
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