Demining in War Zones Creates Paths to Peace

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A technician uncovers a potential buried improvised explosive device (IED) in Ramadi, Iraq. [Photo Courtesy of Janus Global Operations]
A technician uncovers a potential buried improvised explosive device (IED) in Ramadi, Iraq. [Photo courtesy of Janus Global Operations]

Demining in War Zones Creates Paths to Peace

A key component of the United States’ ongoing stabilization efforts in areas of Iraq liberated from the terrorist group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) involves the safe disposal of landmines, unexploded ordnance, and improvised explosive devices (IEDs). As ISIS retreats, they are leaving behind thousands of deadly explosive hazards, particularly around critical infrastructure like power and water utilities. Before Iraqi families can return home and rebuild their communities, these hazards must be thoroughly cleared.

Officials from the U.S. Department of State recently discussed these challenges at an event hosted by The United States Institute of Peace (USIP) on “Demining in War Zones: Opening Space for Building Peace.” USIP worked with The Halo Trust, one of the world’s largest demining non-governmental organizations and a recipient of State Department support through the Political-Military Bureau’s Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement (PM/WRA), to bring together experts on the topic, including senior State Department officials. The event highlighted the increasingly important challenges of working together to save lives on the edge of conflict.

Since 1993, U.S.-funded conventional weapons destruction programs have invested more than $2.8 billion in conventional weapons destruction programs, which have worked to clear explosive hazards in more than 95 countries. Previously much of this work has taken place long after hostilities ended, as is the case in U.S. supported unexploded ordnance clearance programs in Angola, Laos, or Colombia. However, like the U.S.-funded efforts in Iraq, these programs are increasingly focused on clearance in cities, towns, and villages which often remain in close proximity to active conflicts.    

On one of the panels, Deputy Assistant Secretary (DAS) of State for the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs Michael Rothstein discussed some of the unique challenges to these efforts, including the increased presence of IEDs. He talked about how there is no standard type of IED: some IEDs are simple, single-switch devices that act like certain types of anti-personnel mines, while others have multiple switches and contain varying amounts of explosives. Some are made in workshops that produce dozens and dozens of identical devices, and others are put together on the spot by experienced bomb makers. This makes these devices particularly tricky for humanitarian clearance operations.

DAS Rothstein also discussed how humanitarian clearance operators are neutral parties concerned with protecting civilians, and that working closer to conflict often requires extra measures to maintain that neutrality. For example, civil-military cooperation can better identify areas where it is appropriate for humanitarian clearance operations to take place, be they unexploded ordnance clearance, mine clearance, IED disposal or a combination of all three. Given the fluid situation in conflict zones, information exchange with both military forces and the local population is essential for any humanitarian operator to maintain safe operations. 

PM/WRA supports a variety of implementing partners who undertake humanitarian mine action tasks in areas in Afghanistan and Iraq where it is safe to operate and where they can maintain their impartial humanitarian status. The Mine Action Program for Afghanistan has tasked humanitarian clearance operators to clear thousands of IEDs that they have designated as abandoned and no longer involved in active conflict. This helps avoid jeopardizing the non-governmental organizations’ status of neutrality among state and non-state actors engaged in conflict.

An Afghan deminer trained by The HALO Trust with support from the United States clears land near Surobi Kabul province, Afghanistan, for nine families. [Photo courtesy of The HALO Trust]

In Iraq, PM/WRA works with a combination of humanitarian mine operators and contractors to clear the explosive remnants of war, including IEDs, in areas liberated from ISIS. The extent of the contamination and security risk presented by ISIS’ unconventional tactics require a blended approach and extensive coordination from all stakeholders. This blended approach used in Iraq consists of contractors clearing priority critical infrastructure identified by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and local governments to support immediate humanitarian assistance. Humanitarian mine operators meanwhile work on the periphery, clearing villages and community sites to facilitate the safe return of civilians.

Humanitarian clearance operations are vital to protecting civilians on the edges of conflict. PM/WRA is proud to support these efforts in a number of countries suffering from the effects of recent and ongoing conflict. The United States urges the international community to work together on these important efforts dedicated to making communities safer and enabling civilians to return home.

About the Author: Rachael Chen works in the Office of Congressional and Public Affairs in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs.