Dogs get basic training to clear Afghanistan’s many minefields
KABUL, Afghanistan — The dogs that reclaim war-torn Afghanistan’s minefields for peaceful use marched with a brisk gait around a grassy training field in the city center.
They are training to sniff out mines at Kabul’s Mine Detection Center, which first began in 1989 as a small U.S.-funded pilot program during the waning days of the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan. Since then, the center has cleared more than 1.8 billion square feet of minefields.
“All the dogs in Afghanistan, they are trained here and we support them,” said Zainuddin Quraishi, the lead instructor at the center, which has 140 German shepherds and Malinois.
The program began with 14 aging mine-detecting dogs from Thailand and two captured Soviet dogs, with training from Thai instructors and two U.S. Army officers attached to the United Nations, according to a history of the program. The center now trains handlers in other countries, such as Tajikistan, Yemen, Sudan and South Sudan.
A powerful sense of smell enables dogs to detect the fumes of a mine. Trainers teach the dogs to identify the smells of dozens of explosives, including plastic and ceramic mines that would go undetected by magnetic mine detectors, Quraishi said. The dogs can also find mines in areas where there is too much metal in the ground for mine detectors to handle.
“The mine detector goes, ‘Beep, beep, beep, beep,’ but the dogs — they go right to it,” Quraishi said.
The U.S. and other NATO partners currently have two dog-training facilities at Bagram Air Base and Hamid Karzai International Airport, where they school Afghan security forces on handling military working dogs to sweep vehicles and checkpoints.
Training Afghan handlers means overcoming different ways in which Afghans and Americans view dogs, as few Afghans keep dogs as pets and some Muslims consider them unclean.
“It was kind of rough at the beginning … asking them to do things they weren’t accustomed to doing, and they were getting ridiculed by everybody for doing it,” said Air Force Tech. Sgt. Joshua Giles, an adviser for the Train, Advise and Assist Command-Air.
Afghanistan is one of the world’s most heavily mined countries. Mines have been planted here during the last four decades of war, including ones provided by the U.S. as part of covert assistance to resistance fighters against the Soviet Union.
At least 23,000-30,000 Afghans have been killed or injured by mines between 1979 to 2015, according information from HALO Trust, a U.K. nonprofit organization, and a report by PBS. One survey found at least 100 people a month lose their lives in explosions caused by mines and similar devices, according to a report by Swiss-based Landmine & Cluster Munition Monitor.
About half of the mine clearance work in Afghanistan is performed by the center’s dogs, said the center’s chief executive, Mohammad Shahab Hakimi. In nearly 30 years, the center has trained about 1,100 dogs, he said.
Most of the animals come from the Netherlands, but since 1994 the center has also bred its own dogs.
About half of the puppies pass the 18-month course and become mine-detection dogs, Quraishi said. The rest are trained to sniff for bombs at checkpoints or become watchdogs. They must pass obedience and dummy minefield tests.
Trainers start with young puppies by tossing rubber balls and teaching them to retrieve.
During a recent obedience test, the dogs turned in tandem with their trainers, facing left, right and then walking in a large circle around the training fields.
Dogs must find every mine to pass the final dummy minefield test, Quraishi said.
One handler, Mohammed Sharif, held the leash of Olga, his 7-year-old Malinois, as he squatted at the corner of a 10-by-10-yard square in the center of the field.
Olga sniffed in a straight line until she got to the end of the box. She doubled back, traversing the field in parallel lines in accordance with her training.
On her second pass Olga stopped, sat down and looked back at her partner. She had found a mine.
Sharif held a ball up and Olga scampered to him. A second dog and handler entered the course to sniff and verify.
Over the years, numerous dogs and their handlers have been harmed while clearing mines – including the center’s director, who was kidnapped in 1994.
Sharif said he joined the center 14 years ago to help people. He’s worked with five dogs on missions to 16 provinces clearing mines. Olga is his favorite.
“I always trust my dog. I’m never scared,” Sharif said.