LOGAR PROVINCE, Afghanistan – On the heels of President Barack Obama's announcement that 30,000 more U.S. troops will be heading to Afghanistan, it's important to remember one thing that makes the fight there so difficult and unique: Afghanistan is one of the most heavily mined countries in the world.
However, one of the few success stories to be found here is the slow, but steady, demining of the war-ravaged landscape by an unlikely ally – specially trained dogs.
"We have cleared 60 percent of the country," said Dr. Mohammad Shohab Hakimi, the director of the Mine Detection Center in Kabul, referring to the Mine Action Program in Afghanistan, overseen by the United Nations. The program is focused on locating and disabling mines planted during the war with the Soviet Union (1979-89) and the era of mujahideen fighting that followed in the 1990s.
|VIDEO: Dogs sniff out deadly mines in Afghanistan|
Leading the way is the Mine Detection Center, whose record for accuracy, speed, and safety is rooted in its use of mine-detection dogs. The only organization of its kind in Afghanistan, the center was established in 1989 – with U.S. government funding – by Hakimi and other Afghans refugees in Peshawar, Pakistan.
"We thought this is our country," said Hakimi, a former professor of agriculture whose colleagues on the project were other university professors, engineers, and doctors. "And we should work on this particular subject, and we should solve this problem."
When the opportunity finally came to safely return home, Hakimi and his colleagues went back to Afghanistan in 1998. "In those days, the Taliban were in power," he recalled. "When we had discussions with them, they were very positive about de-mining operations in this country."
In fact, the Taliban donated a large swath of land up on Nadir Khan Hill overlooking the capital for the project to use. The Mine Detection Center quickly set up shop, with Hakimi making sure that trees were planted everywhere. The open compound now feels like a national park – dotted with fir trees and carpeted with grass.
|Adrienne Mong / NBC News|
|An instructor at the Mine Detection Center in Kabul engages in some "ball training" with German shepherd puppies.|
A rigorous training program
The first group of dogs ever trained by the center came from Thailand and only obeyed commands in Thai. Afterwards, the dogs came from Germany so the instructors and handlers now use primarily German commands. (Although we heard a lot of praise in English – "nice, easy, good dog" was a common refrain.)
Today the animals are mostly German shepherds and Belgian Malinois – known for their keen sense of smell. And all of them are bred in Kabul by the center, which now receives grants from a number of foreign governments to keep their work going.
There are 107 dogs stationed at the center while 151 more are currently deployed across Afghanistan. "And we have now about 21 puppies," said Jabar Baser. (Typically, most dogs work until they are nine years old and then are retired.)
Among the 1,700 Afghan staff employed at the center are technical experts, field workers, de-miners, paramedics, veterinary experts, and instructors who focus on both personnel and, of course, dogs.
|Adrienne Mong / NBC News|
|A dog handler watches his partner scout the area at the Aynak Copper Mine.|
We watched as Bismullah trained the puppies. The 55-year-old former dog handle, who goes by just one name, used to go out into the field with the dogs, but he lost his left eye in a de-mining operation in 1993 and has been an instructor ever since. He was firm but affectionate with the animals, teasing and directing them the entire time.
"This stage is the most critical," he told us as the one-month old animals nipped at one another around our legs. During this period, the dogs are socialized and become used to interacting with humans and accustomed to vehicles. (Judging by the amount of attention my boots were getting, the dogs were quite socialized.) After six months, the animals are introduced to "ball training."
"This stage is so important for us that the dogs – or the small puppies – are so eager, and they're [interested in chasing] the ball," said Baser. The ball is used as a teaching tool and as a reward for locating explosives (the dogs sit when they find one). If the dog shows a great deal of interest in the ball, fostering an association with finding explosives is that much easier.
The animals are paired off with handlers at the next level of training, and the two are given a couple more months to grow familiar before they're finally sent on missions. By that point, the dogs are about 20 months old and, on average, will work until they're nine years old. Throughout their career, all members of dog teams are given refresher training on a regular basis – even when they're out on in the field.
|Adrienne Mong / NBC News|
|The Aynak Copper Mine is one of the Mine Detection Center's most critical projects.|
Success … but with new challenges
The thorough training has paid off. Not just in reputation – the center has posted dog teams overseas, most recently to assist on operations in Yemen and Tajikistan – but also in safety. In 20 years, the group has lost only five dogs, and up to 20 personnel in de-mining operations.
In fact, recent casualties are mostly due to insurgents who accuse the Mine Detection Center teams of working for the U.S.-led international security force in Afghanistan. And as the war has intensified in the past two years, more and more of the staff have come under threat from insurgents, mostly in southern provinces like Helmand and Kandahar.
The turn of events is ironic, given that the Mine Detection Center was once welcomed by the Taliban, who "consider mines are 'haram' ("forbidden" in Arabic)," according to Hakimi. "Still…we face security problems."
The de-miners repeatedly argue they are neutral in the current war and remind everyone their mission is not to clear IEDs (improvised explosive devices) but anti-personnel or tank mines and unexploded ordnance planted during the Soviet and mujahideen eras. (Although a report on Afghanistan by the International Campaign to Ban Landmines noted that the Taliban insurgents have been accused of using antipersonnel mines.)
The de-miners, added Hakimi, are "peace workers."
For a monthly wage of $350 that includes a food allowance, they're more than peace workers. They're patriots.
"It's my duty to do this job," said Saifullah, a 42-year-old dog handler who joined the Mine Detection Center nine years ago, and also goes by just one name. The former farmer has lost 20 relatives and friends in mine blasts and believes by doing this work, "I am serving my country."