Issue 6.1, April 2002
by Timothy Gusinov, Soldier
"Oh Gods, from the venom of the cobra, the teeth of the
tiger, and the vengeance of the Afghan—deliver us"
The Mine Problem
Now, when the days of Taliban’s rule in Afghanistan are over and American troops have established their land bases and continue a full scale hunt for Al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders, more dangers await American and international security forces, as well as humanitarian convoys, in this country. Even though they use helicopters for their missions, and they already have armored vehicles on the ground, all will still have to use the roads. And for me, roads in Afghanistan immediately bring to mind only two things: mines and ambush. There were mines planted by all sides during the Soviet-Afghan and civil wars; even after the current victory of the Northern Alliance, there will be many Taliban supporters remaining in the country who will try to stop international peacekeeping, relief and reconstruction efforts by mining the roads.
Name any type, any country-made mine, and you will find these mines in Afghanistan. Most of them are Soviet-type landmines, and that does not necessarily mean Soviet made, because such mines have been manufactured in China, Egypt, Eastern Europe and some other countries as well. Their lethality may also be exaggerated. In Afghanistan’s climate, with its sharp changes from hot summers to cold winters, and its autumn rains and melting snow in spring, any mine will hardly keep its lethality for more than ten years-unless it has been purposely planted to do so. Examples would be mines planted inside a building, deep in the ground or under any other kind of protection from nature and environmental factors.
During the Soviet-Afghan war, I have seen mines, which have been laid only a couple of years ago, harmlessly crushed without explosion under tank tracks. This was a surprise to the Soviet military engineers concerned about their mines’ endurance. But still, we should treat every discovered mine as if it were "live", even if it looks old and rusty. However, it is also worth mentioning that many, but not all Soviet mines were equipped with self-destroying devices so they would explode after a certain period of time.
Mining efforts of Soviet troops in many cases were poorly coordinated: one unit often laid a mine field and marked it only on its own map without informing other units. A military convoy would lay mines around its bivouac to prevent a surprise night attack and depart in the morning without removing the mines or even marking them on the maps for the next convoy; Spetsnaz (Special Forces) teams would mine and booby-trap their way of retreat after the raid into the enemy’s territory to discourage the enemy from pursuit (and not giving a damn about infantry, who might have to conduct combat in the same area in the future). Additionally, the Air Force would lay mine fields without considering anyone on the ground. Because of this type of mine clearance, the best solution for military and humanitarian aid convoys is to be accompanied by military engineers units trained in mine clearing.
Tank-mounted mine sweeps are often not effective if a mine is planted deep enough. The mine sweep, the tank and a number of other vehicles can pass over the mine before the soil gets compressed hard enough to put sufficient pressure on a mine to cause an explosion. It is impossible to determine under what vehicle in a convoy it might happen.
Detection and Demining: The Tools
Standard mine detectors perform poorly in Afghanistan because most of the mines have plastic casings. Also, after many years of war, battlefield debris (bullet casings, splinters, etc.) plagues detectors, making mine clearance a long and painstaking process. A better solution might be a relatively new nuclear quadrupole resonance (NQR)-based mine detector, which has been tested in Bosnia. However, during the Soviet-Afghan war, Soviet military engineers relied heavily on ancient-looking but reliable probe poles. An experienced sapper could feel even a slight anomaly in the soil’s structure even before the probe touched the buried mine. Another favorite and very effective method was using specially trained mine detection dogs. Very often, the enemy tried to fool the dog’s senses and suppress the smell of explosive by pouring some gas or diesel fuel in the mine’s nest before burying it. In many cases, particularly in the hot season, the fuel evaporates inside the warm soil, creating circular oily spots that are slightly visible from a certain angle and are different from those left by passing vehicles in color and density. The history of the Soviet-Afghan war shows many cases of relationships between dogs and men, who, after sharing the same dangers and hardship, developed a close relationship. I know of one story of a military engineer who dragged his mine dog to safety under enemy fire after he had been severely wounded.
Disarming and Disengaging Mines in a War Zone
... an Afghan chief, who lies
Beneath his cool pomegranate-trees,
Clutches his sword in fierce surmise
When on the mountainside he sees
The fleet-foot Marri scout, who comes
To tell how he hath heard afar
The measured roll of English drums
Beat at the gates of Kandahar.
Oscar Wilde, Ave Imperatrix
As a foot soldier or civilian, it is strongly advised, whenever possible, not to disarm or try to extract the mines. The mines themselves may be booby-trapped by another explosive device (a simple hand grenade under the mine’s bottom, for example) or equipped with an anti-extraction mechanism. Use a small explosive charge on the top of the mine to eliminate it in place. If for some reason this is not possible (for example, if the mine is on a bridge or near a building) use a long rope with a wire loop or a hook to move the mine from its nest first, and then disarm it. In both cases, take good cover, there might be another mine, or an additional strong explosive charge (very often an unexploded artillery shell or even an aerial bomb) under the detected mine, and the explosion will be much stronger than you expect. Russian military engineers have a saying: "A sapper makes only ONE mistake in a lifetime!" Have in mind, there is a high possibility that the places nearby that you may choose to take cover (a ditch, a stone boulder, a packed-mud wall by the road) might be purposely mined as well, and instead of providing shelter, they might turn into death traps. If a convoy or a military unit is ambushed or attacked, keep in mind, that the most likely places where dismounted personnel could take positions and cover along the road on the ground, as well as possible ways of retreat, will be mined and ranged by enemy grenade launchers, mortars and recoilless weapons.
On many occasions, an enemy would lay some mines in a way that they can be easily detected and disarmed, while other mines in the same place are much better concealed and laid with much more resourcefulness. An example would be laying a mine with an easily detectable metal casing, surrounded by mines in plastic casings, which are much harder to detect or combining pressure-detonated mines with remote radio or wire-detonated mines and charges. The power of remotely and pressure-detonated charges and mines is often increased by putting pieces of cut thick metal, nails or splinters collected on battlefields, etc., around them or stones on top.
Home Made Mines
Despite the fact that a lot of modern weapons (including modern landmines) are used in Afghanistan, a lot of homemade devices are also in use. Finding a pile of empty artillery and tank shell cases, as well as unexploded aerial bombs and other kinds of munitions, clearly indicates that the place is used for explosive devices manufacturing. When conducting combat actions, it is strongly advised not to leave empty artillery and tank shell cases in the area. They will be carefully collected by the enemy, filled with explosives and used as anti-vehicle mines. If the situation permits, collect them, put them together and run a tank over them to make them unusable. Finding great amounts of cheap soap and empty glass bottles indicates the production site of Molotov cocktails. Soap is grated, placed in a bottle and mixed with gas. Thrown on a vehicle, the bottle breaks, and the burning mixture of soap and gas sticks to the surface.
If your convoy or a military unit has to camp for the night along the road, be very careful in choosing the place for your bivouac. Because of mountainous terrain, there are only a limited number of flat and safe places for such camps, and the enemy is aware that the convoy will most likely stay in this particular place, so there is a very high possibility that the place will be mined. Pay special attention to checking for mines at the point where the convoy leaves the main road to camp alongside. Try not to use the exit from the main road that has been used by previous convoys.
Be aware that animals (usually donkeys and camels) can be used to deliver explosive charges to military bases and facilities, camps, shopping areas, bazaars and other public places frequented by troops. These tactics have been used in Kabul at the shopping area near the residential district populated by Soviet military advisers and Afghani government officials. The animals (donkeys) were carrying some merchandise and accompanied by several freedom fighters posing as delivery people or traders. After reaching the area, they left quickly, and the charges hidden under merchandise had been remotely detonated. Be aware of unattended animals with loads on their backs!
Navigating the Mined Irrigation Canals
All populated areas in Afghanistan (villages, towns) have well developed irrigation agricultural systems consisting of water canals and irrigation ditches (Ariq or Jui in Dari language). The local population uses simple but effective methods to direct flow of water by creating little clay and soil dams. To prevent loss of water from evaporation, water distribution usually takes place in the evenings and nights. If directed into dry creek beds and irrigation canals, water turns clay and sand on the bottom into mud, making them significantly more difficult to cross. Drivers have to stop to go in low gear. The distance between vehicles becomes shorter, making them easy targets. If one vehicle gets stuck in a canal, the entire convoy comes to a halt. Such crossings–even on considerably flat terrain and especially when surrounded by green vegetation zones–are good places for ambushes and may be mined as well. If your troops are in the area, be cautious if water comes flowing into such irrigation canals especially during the hot time of day. It is usually a clear indication of hostile activity in the area trying to complicate movement and organize ambushes at crossings.
Using the help of local authorities, tribe leaders, field commanders, village elders, etc., divide the roads frequently used by military or humanitarian convoys, into the zones of responsibility between local tribes and villages located along these roads. Request local populations to organize and maintain permanent surveillance of the roads and report any hostile or suspicious activity in their areas of responsibility such as individuals laying mines, or destroying or damaging bridges and other road facilities, and any armed groups presence or movement through the area. Reward them for good information by providing food, medical supplies and fuel.
Local bazaars and trading centers can be a good source of information about the mine situation in the area. Watch what roads and routes locals use to bring agricultural goods and other merchandise for sale or to take it home. Pay attention to the movement of refugees and nomads in the area; their routes usually indicate what roads are safe from mines.
In Afghanistan, you can survive an ambush. You can fight the enemy in the mountains and in cave, because you know where he is and can use a weapon of your choice to defeat him. Landmines are an invisible and treacherous enemy, and this makes them especially dangerous. When Soviet units in Afghanistan were departing for combat from their locations, drivers used to wish each other "clear route." So let me wish the same for American and international troops on the ground in Afghanistan.
Timothy Gusinov served two tours of duty in Afghanistan as an area specialist/military interpreter with Russian military advisers, Soviet troops and Spetsnaz (Special Operations) units. He speaks Dari (Afghanistan) and Farsi (Iran) languages. His duties included facilitating coordination and liaison between Afghani government troops and Soviet units, and negotiating with local authorities, tribe leaders and field commanders. He has been wounded twice (the yellow and red strips on his uniform are the Russian equivalent of Purple Heart Medals). He has been awarded a number of orders and medals, including the Order of Red Star, and promoted to the rank of Major at the age of 28. After the Gulf War in 1991, he was the United Nations military observer/liaison officer in the UN Iraq-Kuwait and Bosnia missions. He resides in the United States.