Demining Afghanistan

Kabul — After 15 years of intensive demining work, Afghanistan still remains the most mined country in the world. It is estimated that some 4.5 million Afghans living in 2,400 communities, over an area of 715 square kilometers, are affected. An average of 100 people are killed or injured by landmines monthly. USAID, recognizing the critical importance of clearing lands for reconstruction and long-term development, continues the endeavor for mine action, which it first began in 1989 with the establishment of the War Victims Fund.

“The genius of USAID is that it had the foresight to coordinate between organizations and agencies to push forward with demining,” said Patrick Fruchet, External Relations Officer with the United Nations Mine Action Center for Afghanistan (UNMACA). “USAID works very closely with local deminers, which is cost effective and contributes to capacity development. The investment stays in Afghanistan.”

USAID’s active demining efforts in Afghanistan once more began in November 2002, when it contributed to the establishment of the Thematic Trust Fund (TTF) for demining. The funds are channeled through UNMACA, the mine action division of the United Nations, to carry on the Mine Action Program for Afghanistan (MAPA), which began in 1989.

Under TTF, UNMACA manages all mine and unexploded ordnance clearance activities nationwide for USAID-funded projects, including schools, clinics, canals, power transmission lines, dams and roads. The demining activities are done in consultation with the Louis Berger Group (LBG), an American international engineering firm and head contractor for USAID’s $665 million initiative, Rehabilitation of Economic Facilities and Services (REFS) program, aimed at bringing political and economic stability in Afghanistan by restoring the country’s infrastructure. With the program’s expansion, the TTF fund grew from $7 million to $48 million over the past three years.

“With all major rehabilitation work, it was evident that USAID had to coordinate with the United Nations and contractors and the government of Afghanistan to ensure an effective response to the problems of landmine,” said Lieutenant Colonel Tom Allen, USAID’s Liaison Officer and Cognizant Technical Officer for Security and Demining. “The demining work in Afghanistan is challenging because there is lack of understanding of the entire process,” said Allen.

A major challenge of Allen’s position involves cultural issues surrounding work ethics. “We learned that one of the challenges facing the road contractors was the inability to enforce western standards of time management on the Afghan workers,” he said. “There was limited accountability on the part of Afghan contractors to complete projects within time constraints. Significant progress is now being made to improve coordination between the deminers and the contractors.”

USAID, through MAPA, supports scores of mine action implementing partners and contractors from Asia, Europe and America to employ national labor force, providing clearance service for project sites, management support, mine victim assistance, mine-risk education and community base mine clearance. UNMACA deploys supervisors to USAID project sites to coordinate between different implementing partners and contractors. One of the clearing agencies is also appointed as the lead agency and is responsible for the overall control and reporting of clearance activities.

With USAID’s support, more than 8,500 Afghan deminers currently work under the supervision of less than 30 expatriates who plan, manage and provide oversight for mine action activities. National staff manage six mine action centers in Herat, Mazar, Kandahar, Jalalabad, Kabul and Gardez.

“USAID is very supportive of building capacity and helping the economy and utilizing national capacities,” said Dan Kelly, UNMACA’s program manager. “When the international donors started to support demining, UNMACA already had the massive capacity that was completely nationalized. USAID is promoting that capacity.”

The demining of the Kabul-Kandahar Highway, one of the country’s most high profile rehabilitation projects, presented extraordinary challenges. The original timeframe of three years quickly became 13 months, as the political significance of the project escalated. USAID promptly coordinated between and provided assistance to UNMACA, LBG, sub-contractors and a security company to make the scene of much hostility over the past 24 years safe for construction crews. Demining and reconstruction work proceeded simultaneously, and despite the enormous coordination challenges and security threats, including vehicles getting shot up and deminers getting killed by anti-government elements, USAID was able to provide good risk-reduction for the restoration effort. Clearance for the road constituted 40 percent of land clearing, and the rest was needed to clear quarries, camp sites and detours. Moreover, after the road was opened to traffic, USAID returned to clear additional areas of road bank on each side, totaling 25 meters, for the annual migration of the nomadic Koochis.

With the experience of clearing the Kabul-Kandahar Highway project, USAID undertook the task of demining another major highway between Kandahar and Herat. While USAID is rehabilitating only three of the five sections of the road, it is funding and coordinating land clearing activities along four sections of the road, totaling 441 kilometers. USAID is also managing demining efforts of the Kabul-Gardez road project, Pul-e-Alam road, Ghazni to Gardez road, Sheberghan to Sar-i-Pul road, Jalalabad to Asmar road and Charikar to Panjsher valley. The Kajakai Dam site in the southern province of Helmand was cleared recently. USAID is also coordinating the land clearance for a major power line project which covers an area from the northern region to the nation’s capital.

USAID supports three different stages of mine action activities comprising survey, clearance and monitoring. Areas that need to be cleared are normally divided into 200 meter sectors. A landmine survey team utilizes backpack sniffers as well as vehicle mounted sniffers drawing air into micro-filters and transporting the air samples from each sector to laboratory, where mine dogs sniff them to identify contaminated areas. This provides risk-in-area reduction. Developed by a South African company, this technique, the Mechem Explosive Detecting Dogs System, was used for the Kabul-Kandahar Highway project, resulting in 400 percent increase in productivity. Following the survey, a manual team, mine dog group or mechanical demining team is dispatched to clear the contaminated areas. The areas are then assessed by a team of an external quality control monitors.

Demining5Mine dogs search for mine or unexploded ordnance, whereupon it is marked and detonated. Funding from USAID enables MAPA to keep 250 working dogs to identify contaminated areas and clear mines. Most of the major road projects, including the Kabul-Kandahar Highway, have been cleared by mine dogs. Mechanical ways to clear land include the use of trackers, which sifts dry soil to locate mines, and flails, which beat the ground with rotating chains to detonate mines. Once an area is cleared, a clearance certificate is issued and sent to the UN repository. While mine incidents have been reduced drastically, about 70 deminers have been killed and 600 have been injured clearing land since 1990.

USAID’s endorsement of all aspects of mine action is supporting the transition of the mine action program from the United Nations to the government of Afghanistan, thereby creating an agency reporting directly to the president. Upon the completion of this transition UN personnel will function as technical advisors. The Mine Action Consultative Group oversees this transition, which has been making steady progress. After nine months of discussions and 17 drafts, legislation for the transfer process, making a mine action law, has been drafted. The legislation is currently awaiting approval to support this transition. An agency solely responsible for mine action still has to be established for the government to be able to meet the “success criteria” for handover.

“Afghan people are really dedicated when it comes to mine action program,” said Kelly. “They want to be empowered to be responsible for their own citizens. And the governance is very strong. They want to have the responsibility for mine action.”