Troops ready for winter, land mines, officials say

Cold training, equipment and limited deployment taken into consideration

War On Terrorism

Military Response

October 21, 2001|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - American ground forces in Afghanistan will face a brutal winter and millions of land mines buried beneath the bleak landscape, but current and former U.S. military officials say the troops are trained and equipped to handle both threats.

Past military campaigns, from the one waged by the British in the 19th century to the Soviet invasion that began in 1979, have traditionally taken a four-month winter hiatus beginning in November, when low temperatures and heavy snows can close off mountain passes and virtually stymie maneuverability.

A more recent problem comes in the form of anti-personnel and anti-tank mines, laid by the Russians and competing Afghan rebel groups, that number in the millions, say Pentagon officials.

Last year, there were an estimated 88 casualties per month from mines and unexploded ordnance, according to Landmine Monitor, a publication of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines.

Mines are studded through an estimated 61 percent of all grazing land and 26 percent of agricultural land, the organization says. And some estimates have placed their number as high as 10 million.

But as U.S. special operations forces begin entering Afghanistan, military officials and analysts say the twin hazards of weather and mines can be overcome.

American troops are well trained and equipped for cold-weather fighting, particularly the hundreds who have been deployed to the region, officials insist. Moreover, the relatively small numbers of commandos that seem destined for the fight will probably arrive by helicopter.

That would reduce the threat of land mines, which are generally more of a danger to large numbers of troops and armored vehicles moving along roads or cross-country.

"If this were a classic military operation, the weather and the land mines could be a problem," said retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, a former commander of U.S. forces in the region. "If you're going to have massed ground troops, you'd have to be careful."

`We have the ability'

Zinni, as well as a number of Pentagon officials, brushed off concerns about the Afghan winter. "We certainly have the ability to operate in all weather," he said.

Last week, Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called the U.S. military an "all-weather force" and indicated that Operation Enduring Freedom would continue into the frigid months ahead.

"We're well aware that winter is coming on, and we're planning around and through that," said Myers.

Zinni and others say the weather and land mines could present more of a problem for the millions of refugees who are fleeing the fighting. "They start moving. They don't know where the land mines are," he said. By contrast, some U.S. officials say they expect to get minefield maps from the Russians but concede that the location of other mines laid by Afghan guerrillas may be unknown.

A senior Army general agreed that as the operation continues in Afghanistan, land mines could be more of a concern, particularly for civilians. "We're taking a hard look at it," the general said, comparing Afghanistan to Bosnia, where "we had de-mining as a major effort every day."

The International Coalition to Ban Landmines fears that the food rations being dropped into Afghanistan by U.S. C-17 cargo planes could result in civilian casualties if the rations land in unmarked, mined areas.

The Army Special Forces - Green Berets - bring along mine-clearing equipment, said Army officials, as do other special operations units.

The Army has a variety of tools for mine-clearing. One Austrian-made detector can pick up mines containing as little as 0.2 grams of metal. A soldier operates the hand-held detector with a headset inside his helmet. When a mine is detected, the operator hears a loud squeal.

Larger Army systems designed to destroy mines include an armored vehicle that launches a rocket containing a line of demolition charges that explode mines and clear a path. The container holds more than 100 meters of detonation charge.

Michael Vickers, a former Army Green Beret and CIA officer with experience in the region, said there are many worthy tools to clear mines, but they are time-consuming and leave soldiers exposed.

`Countermine capability'

"We have countermine capability," he said, "but it bogs you down and makes you vulnerable to snipers."

All nonmilitary de-mining in Afghanistan ceased one day after the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, according to the coalition.

Most of the mines were laid by Soviet troops after their invasion in 1979. Other mines were laid by often-competing Afghan groups during the Soviet invasion and after Soviet troops pulled out in 1989.

Many mines were in and around the capital of Kabul until the Taliban militia seized power, according to the coalition.

William Taylor, a retired Army colonel and Vietnam combat veteran, who once directed national security studies at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, scoffed at the concern over land mines.

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