Afghanistan explosives recovery effort yields enormous weapons cache
January 20, 2005
HERAT, Afghanistan — Between the majestic snow-capped mountains of the Band-e Baba Range and the historic city of Herat in western Afghanistan looms a powerful menace of man’s making.
“If this went off,” Mark Holroyd said, “all the windows in Herat would probably shatter.”
Not every household in Herat has windows, but the observation is enough to make even the coolest of the cool sweat at the thought.
Holroyd, an explosive ordnance technician for Ronco Consulting Corp., calls it “the biggest open-air arms cache in the world.” There are about 8,000 tons of explosives — an estimate he characterizes as conservative — on the ground and under 24-hour guard. Much more was here, and much more is expected to arrive in the coming months.
The cache is the result of a United Nations program, with U.S. military assistance, to disarm the warring militias in western Afghanistan. Dubbed Task Force Saber, the effort began in August and by October tons of ammunition started being consolidated in a field east of Herat.
“When I first came here,” Holroyd said as he stood near the cache, “it was the scariest place I had ever seen.”
Much of the ammo came from the town’s 700-year-old citadel, controlled by Ismail Khan, the regional warlord who is now a minister in the Afghan government. The storage site, estimated to be three to four acres in size, includes a wide array of arms, from bullets to 1,000-pound bombs. Crates and other containers indicate the stuff was manufactured in the former Soviet Union, Pakistan, the United States and a handful of other nations.
The team assembled to handle the ammo sorts it out and then determines what the Afghan National Army can use and what should be destroyed. Every day, Holroyd said, the team blows up roughly 70 tons of ammo. Since more is still being turned in, Holroyd figures the job will take about a year.
One of the U.S. soldiers involved in the program is Capt. Chris Kennedy of the 25th Infantry Division, based in Hawaii.
“I did something close to this in Bosnia,” Kennedy said, “but never to this magnitude. This is five times the size that I saw in Bosnia.”
Those who see it for the first time are amazed at such a sea of destructive power.
“I wish I had my camera,” Spc. Dean Brazzell, 151st Infantry Battalion, Indiana National Guard, said as he climbed a small hill to get a better look.
Largely absent from the cache are AK-47 rounds and rocket-propelled grenades.
“That’s disturbing,” said Army Col. Randy Smith, head of the Regional Command Area Group-West, “because that’s the weapon of choice for terrorist activities.”
Still, Smith is pleased with the results so far, though he admits: “We don’t think we’ve scratched the surface yet.”