Besmila Qalandari, who was injured by a land mine, works with Jimmy at the Mine Detection Cente
By William M. Welch, USA TODAY
ABUL — In the struggle to bring peace to Afghanistan, few can claim a more dangerous job than the one Betty and Jimmy are preparing for.
Friendly and eager young German shepherd dogs, they are being trained to search for the remnants of war — hidden land mines and unexploded bombs.
Not only do unseen explosives kill military troops, they take a heavy toll on the innocent. More than 700 civilians are killed or maimed annually in Afghanistan, over half of them children, says the International Committee to Ban Landmines.
More than a dozen programs and contractors are working to eliminate forgotten mines in Afghanistan. One, the Mine Detection Center of Afghanistan, known as MDC, focuses its efforts on breeding, training and using dogs to detect mines.
Funded by international partners including the United States, its dog handlers and mine teams are Afghans.
"Dogs are very sensitive animals — loyal and accurate — and they are very cost effective and efficient," says Mohammad Shohab Hakimi, MDC director.
The 20-year-old program, based on a hilltop overlooking the capital, has more than 260 dogs at locations around the country. Last year the group cleared 3,248 acres of Afghan land, according to the MDC's annual report.
Like other de-mining operations, the program also uses heavy machinery and human-operated detection equipment. But Hakimi says the dogs are better and faster because of their powerful sense of smell. Dog teams can clear about five times the area human teams can and 2½ times the area heavy machinery can clear in the same period, he says.
"The dog is very quick," Hakimi says. "Dogs use their nose first, second their ears, and also their vision."
They are trained to search in straight lines, back and forth across the mine field. When it detects a mine, the dog sits and looks to its handler until given a command to return. As a reward, it gets a little play time with a toy. The spot is marked and the mine detonated.
Since the program began in 1989, the MDC has lost seven dogs and about 30 people to explosions, Hakimi says. Besmila Qalandari, who is training 1-year-old Jimmy, lost his left eye when a mine exploded at Jalalabad in 1993. His dog, Axle, died.
"I felt sad," Qalandari says. "I had worked with that dog for 2 years."
Sayed Mustafa, the assistant training manger, lost his dog, Amy, in an explosion at Kabul Airport during that same period. But he presses on with his animals.
"Dogs make our jobs fast, and some mines, Italian and Iranian particularly, are very hard to find with machines," he says.
The program uses German shepherd and Belgian Malinois dogs, a similar, slightly smaller breed. Mustafa says females tend to do better than males.
"The females more love the handler and obey all the rules," he says. "They are more lovely."
By the time they are a year-and-a-half old, dogs such as Betty and Angi are working with their handlers and finding bombs daily. Angi quickly finds one for an observer. "A gift from our Russian friends," says her handler, Abdul Hafeez, kicking dirt aside to reveal the device.
Dogs are worked about four hours a day, plus breaks, starting at 6 a.m. and ending by noon because of the heat. After two months in the field, each dog gets 15 days' rest. Dogs that wash out, or reach the end of their careers, are offered to embassies as pets. Some are destroyed.
Mines sown over Afghanistan come from many sources. Many date to the Soviet Union, which invaded in 1979 and stayed for 10 years. Some, such as "butterfly mines," were dropped from aircraft.
Besides endangering people, the mines deter reconstruction and development.
As the Taliban steps up terror attacks, the danger increased to the demining teams. Dogs and their handlers have been killed and kidnapped by insurgents.
Three MDC workers were shot dead in southern Kandahar province in 2007, and two more were killed in 2008 in Kunduz province. Five people from another de-mining group were killed in Jowzjan province. Last July, gunmen kidnapped 16 MDC workers in eastern Paktiya province; they were released after intervention by local leaders.
In Kabul, Betty, at 20 months, is readying for her final exam and certification by a United Nations evaluating team. The dog easily finds a series of mines, some in the ground three years.
"We used to have only one enemy, the hidden enemy, the mine," Mustafa says. "Today we have other enemies — insurgents, unknown gunmen. It is very dangerous."