Australian peacekeepers in Afghanistan and Pakistan from 1989 to 1993

 

The Soviet Union occupied Afghanistan for about 10 years, beginning in 1979. This decade of fighting led to millions of landmines and unexploded ordnance across the country.

In early 1989, the United Nations Mine Clearance Training Team (UNMCTT) was set up in Pakistan. At first, its aim was to train Afghan refugees to recognise and clear mines and ordnance. This role broadened to include planning and supervision of mine clearance activities in Afghanistan.

Later that same year, Australia began sending personnel on 4-month-long tours with UNMCTT. Over the next few years, 92 Australian combat engineers were deployed to Pakistan and Afghanistan.

In April 1991, the head of the UN's office coordinating humanitarian aid to Afghanistan, Benon Sevan, told the Australian ambassador in Geneva that the Australians were regarded as 'being among the best we have had'.

Soviet occupation of Afghanistan

Afghanistan is a landlocked country at the crossroads of Central and South Asia. Pakistan lies to its south-east, and Iran to the south-west.

Until 1991, the north of the country bordered what was then the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (Soviet Union). After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991, this territory became the independent countries of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

In April 1978, the communist People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan seized power in a bloody coup against President Mohammed Daoud Khan. This was the start of the Afghan War, with the government fighting anti-communist Muslim guerrillas (the Afghan Mujahideen).

That same year, the Soviet Union and Afghanistan signed the Soviet–Afghan Friendship Treaty. The 2 countries agreed to provide economic and military help.

At the end of December 1979, the Soviet Union sent thousands of troops into Afghanistan. This was an attempt to shore up the newly established pro-Soviet regime.

The Soviets took complete military and political control of Kabul and large portions of the country.

The Soviet Union remained in Afghanistan until mid-February 1989. The agreement governing the withdrawal — the Geneva Accords — was signed in Geneva on 14 April 1988.

The Soviet occupation and the Afghan War led to about 2 million Afghans being internally displaced. Millions more fled the country, mainly to Iran and Pakistan.

It is thought the cost of the war in Afghanistan played a significant role in bringing about the fall of the Soviet Union a few years later.

United Nations Mine Clearance Training Team (UNMCTT)

The Soviet invasion and nearly a decade of fighting resulted in millions of landmines and unexploded ordnance in Afghanistan.

Some human rights organisations claimed that 10 million mines were left behind. The International Committee of the Red Cross suggests this number was closer to 40 million.

In 1988, a UN representative in Peshawar, Pakistan, told the Christian Science Monitor:

Edward Girardet, Land mines: Soviets leave dangerous legacy behind in Afghanistan in Christian Science Monitor, June 22, 1988.

The UNMCTT was a humanitarian activity mounted under the auspices of the Geneva-based UN Coordinator for Afghanistan (UNOCA).

Codenamed Operation Salaam (a greeting meaning ‘peace’ in Arabic), its initial role was to train Pakistan-based Afghan refugees to recognise and clear mines and ordnance. The former UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, led the operation.

In January 1989, the first international de-mining teams and support staff arrived in Pakistan. They set up a training camp in Risalpur, 40 km east of Peshawar. In March, more teams arrived and established a second training location near Quetta.

Two large khaki canvas bivouacs shelters pegged into the ground in a dry and desert-like landscape, with some trees in the foreground and background.

Afghan tents serve as lecture theatres at the UN De-mining Training camp at Risalpur, Pakistan. Afghan instructors at this camp learned about mine clearance procedures from members of the United Nations Mine Clearance Training Team (UNMCTT), 30 October 1989. AWM P02121.006

Although the initial intention was to train Afghan refugees, the training courses evolved to include information about:

  • safe extraction of people from mined areas or from mine incidents
  • basic techniques to destroy landmines and unexploded ordnance using explosives.

In January 1991, the UNMCTT's role broadened to include planning and supervision of mine clearance activities in Afghanistan.

One of the major challenges facing the training teams was the variety of mines used during the Soviet occupation. The Australian Army's Training Information Bulletin, issued in 1992, listed 36 different types of mines.

One of the most common were plastic 'butterfly' mines, used to maim rather than kill. These sensitive mines looked like toys, and injured many children. There were also various anti-tank and anti-personnel mines of Soviet, Pakistani, Yugoslavian, Czechoslovakian and Italian origin.

I was asked to go and have a chat with the ‘engineer’ from one of the Mujahideen groups. They had discovered and finally managed to recover something they had never seen before. I didn’t recognise it either but we took some photos and measurements. Later we were told that it was a VP-12/13 – a nasty little device that controls the electric detonation of several anti-personnel mines based on the triangulation from two geophones. The reason that it had taken so long to recover one of these was that everyone who had tried was killed. The one that had been recovered had apparently malfunctioned or the battery had run flat.

[Carl Chirgwin, second-in-command, Australian first contingent, quoted in Dealing with a Deadly Legacy – Aussie Soldiers Clearing Land Mines in Afghanistan]

Australian involvement

In July 1989, Australia began sending Army troops from the Royal Australian Engineers and, later, Royal Australian Infantry assault pioneers on 4-month long tours with the UNMCTT.

The Australians joined international teams from:

  • New Zealand
  • Turkey
  • France
  • Norway
  • Canada
  • Italy
  • the United Kingdom
  • the United States (US).

Over the next few years, a total of 92 Australian combat engineers were deployed to Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The labyrinth of alleyways in the Peshawar’s old city provided a unique opportunity for a few fascinating hours of browsing and haggling. Many old British service medals and bayonets were for sale.

[Captain (now Colonel) Marcus Fielding, in 'Demining in Afghanistan – United Nations Mine Clearance Training Team (UNMCTT) 1989 to 1993']

Australian service personnel were highly regarded. In April 1991, the head of the UN's office coordinating humanitarian aid to Afghanistan, Benon Sevan, told the Australian ambassador in Geneva that the Australians were regarded as 'being among the best we have had'.

Three things critical to the success of the Australian commitment were:

  • The teams overlapped, providing continuous support.
  • Several officers and NCOs stayed on as civilians.
  • Members were authorised to go into Afghanistan to check how successfully the program was being implemented.

No Australians were killed or injured as part of the mine clearing program.

First contingent

Major Graham Costello led the first contingent, which was 3 groups that each had 4 team members. By the time they got to Pakistan, the mine clearing program had been going for about 6 months.

The Australians arrived in Peshawar on 16 July 1989, with daily temperatures over 40ºC. The security situation was risky. In their first week, a bicycle bomb exploded in the old bazaar, killing 14 people.

The Australians initially wore jungle green Australian Army working dress, with desert boots, slouch hats and no insignia. This caused issues locally as it was very similar to the Soviet uniform. Instead, local tailors made khaki safari suits for the Australians. Subsequent contingents all wore the safari suit with desert boots and no headwear.

Once they had completed their orientation, the Australians began their training work. Each course lasted 17 days, with classes of 30 Afghans. They were run in 3 languages: Pashto, Urdu and Dari. Many students were illiterate, which presented a challenge.

It also became clear that training large numbers of Afghan refugees to return to their villages was not working. The equipment handed out at the end of each course would often find its way to the Peshawar bazaars. There was also no way of knowing how many refugees returned home and used their training to clear mines in and around their villages.

The solution was to train Afghan leaders to deploy to Afghanistan under central control.

In October 1989, the first contingent began to hand over to the next group of Australians. They passed on what they'd learned, as well as their administrative procedures and training manuals.

The first contingent was very much challenged with a steep learning curve as we arrived and were expected to get cracking into a project that nobody had really sat down and thought through… so we were literally making the rules of the training up as we went along.

[Bob Kudyba, first contingent, quoted in Dealing with a Deadly Legacy Aussie Soldiers Clearing Land Mines in Afghanistan]

Second to fifth contingents

Australia deployed 4 more contingents between 1989 and 1991. Each tour lasted 4 to 5 months.

The second contingent had 9 members. The third contingent had 5 members, with 6 in each of the fourth and fifth. While they continued to oversee the training, the responsibility was transitioning to the trained Afghan leaders.

The Australians faced several challenges in Pakistan.

Security risks

Apart from general lawlessness, such as hijacking and small arms fire, there was a constant threat from mines and unexploded ordnance. Meanwhile, the Afghan civil war continued, and with the Afghan Interim Government based in Peshawar, bombings happened there regularly.

Working and living conditions

Dysentery was common, and the Australians lacked access to basic facilities and medical support. Road accidents were frequent too.

Bureaucracy

The Pakistan Red Crescent society managed the administration. Its procedures frustrated the Australians, who were familiar with more efficient and streamlined processes.

Cultural differences

It took a while for the Australians to understand the local culture. However, they found many cultural differences could be overcome by talking about cricket.

9 men in khaki uniforms pose for a formal group photo in front of a banner that reads 'Operation Salam', the Australian National flag, and an obscured boxing kangaroo flag.

Members of the second Australian contingent to the United Nations Mine Clearance Training Team (UNMCTT). Back row, left to right: Warrant Officer Class 2 (WO2) Graeme Toll, Staff Sergeant (SSGT) Ian Mahoney, WO2 Chris Reeves, SSGT Alan Mansell. Front row: Warrant Officer Class 1 Les Shelley, Contingent Sergeant Major; Captain Bruce Murray, Contingent Second-in-Charge; Major Bill van Ree, Commanding Officer; Captain Andrew Smith, Executive Officer De-mining Headquarters, Peshawar, Pakistan and Warrant Office Class 1 Phil Palazzi, instructor. Photographed in Pakistan in about October 1989. AWM P02121.001

Sixth contingent

In late February 1991, the US withdrew its UNMCTT members. In response, the sixth Australian contingent doubled from 6 to 12 members.

On 30 March, 4 days after they arrived in Peshawar, they were told their deployment had been extended from 4 to 6 months.

They were also allowed to cross into Afghanistan. Major Graeme Membrey become the first Australian UNMCTT member to cross the border.

After that, members of the Australian contingents regularly went into Afghanistan. They supervised refresher training and undertook quality control surveys of the de-mining operations. They also investigated de-mining activities.

It was during the first month or so of my posting that I actually travelled inside Afghanistan and, like a kid in a lolly shop, I wanted to see and do everything, largely ignoring the dangers... At one point, just after passing the border guards, we paused on some high ground in the mountains and looked over a wide valley, with a clear track seen in the far distance. With my military eyes scanning the horizon I saw two Soviet vehicles, a T55 tank and a BRDM scout vehicle, destroyed and now stationary beside the track in the distance. I admit, even today, a smile emerges on my face and I can feel the eagerness yet that little bit of concern I had going into this wild and risky place.

[Major Graeme Membrey, technical advisor and first Australian Army member to travel into Afghanistan, quoted in Dealing with a Deadly Legacy Aussie Soldiers Clearing Land Mines in Afghanistan]

Seventh to ninth contingents

The seventh contingent arrived in Pakistan in September 1991. One of its goals was to set up an Afghan base for the program.

The working conditions of later contingents were similar to their earlier peers, with the added risk of operating in Afghanistan.

A group of Afghan men and 2 Afghan women pose informally in front of a light brown building. A white man with a long grey beard is kneeling at the front of the group.

Group portrait of members of the Afghanistan Red Crescent Mine Awareness Training Team in Kabul with Warrant Officer Class 1 John 'Bubba' Raddatz (kneeling). Photograph by Captain Mark Willetts. AWM P01906.003

The last members of the New Zealand contingent left on 10 December, leaving just the Australians and 3 Norwegians as the only military contingents in Operation Salaam.

This meant the Australians, along with Afghan NGOs, were almost completely running the mine clearing program. By 1992, only Australia remained part of UNMCTT.

At the same time, while the Pakistan training programs were ongoing, operations in Afghanistan were expanding. By the end of 1992, Australians had been conducting cross-border operations for about 18 months. However, there was also an increase in the fighting between the Mujahideen, various warlords and the Afghan Government.

10th contingent and withdrawal

In late 1992, the 10th contingent began arriving in Pakistan.

By 1 February 1993, however, a security assessment concluded that the risk to foreigners was high in Afghanistan and medium in Pakistan. That same day, 4 UN officials were murdered on the main road from Peshawar in Pakistan to Jalalabad in Afghanistan. Australians were withdrawn from Jalalabad and Afghan operations suspended.

In Australia, there was disagreement about whether Australians should stay despite the high security risks. Ultimately, the Australian Minister for Defence decided to withdraw the Australians.

The last Australians officially left in December 1993.

Reflections on the experience

A bearded man in a khaki shirt and pants posing in front of a crumbling wall above a town of sprawling mud-brick buildings with an army tank rolling past.

Captain Marcus Fielding above the town of Ghazni, Afghanistan, as viewed through the ruins of the Bala Hissar fort, 19 July 1992. Fielding was a member of the United Nations Mine Clearance Training Team (UNMCTT). AWM P01728.003

Captain Marcus Fielding went to Pakistan as part of UNMCTT in 1992. On his return, he reflected:

In what is probably the most extraordinary and hazardous circumstances ever faced by Australian soldiers, ninety-two combat engineers helped to clear minefields in the midst of an ongoing civil war.

Unarmed, dressed in mufti, disguised with beards and working through interpreters they helped to forge local expertise.

Adding to the risks they had only a medic on hand in the event of becoming the victim of a mine blast; and the nearest hospital was over a full day’s drive away.

How none of them were killed or injured is remarkable.

[Fielding, Marcus (2020), Dealing with a Deadly Legacy -Aussie Soldiers Clearing Land Mines in Afghanistan]

Anti-landmine campaigner

Lieutenant Colonel Ian Mansfield's experience in Pakistan led him to become an active anti-landmine campaigner. He spent 9 years as the Deputy Director of the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining (GICHD), based in Geneva.

In 2015, he told The Canberra Times:

I was exposed to the [human] impact of landmines for the first time. [There were] people whose limbs had been blown off, leaving them to die in areas with no medical facilities; children were being killed needlessly. I realised these were weapons that continued to kill and maim long after the wars they had been used in were officially over.

Read the full article.

Commemoration

National Peacekeepers' Day

On 14 September each year, we observe National Peacekeepers' Day. It's the anniversary of the day Australia became the world's first peacekeepers to deploy into the field, in the Netherlands East Indies (now Indonesia) in 1947. It’s a day to recognise the important work of those who have served, and continue to serve, in the name of global peace.

Learn more about Australia's peacekeeping missions since 1947.

International Day of UN Peacekeepers

29 May is a day of commemoration and acknowledgement of all military, police and civilian personnel who have served as peacekeepers with the UN. Since UN peacekeeping began, more than 4,000 peacekeepers from many countries have lost their lives while performing their duties under the UN flag.

Sources

Australian War Memorial (undated), accession number P01728.003, accessed 5 September 2022, https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C266031

Australian War Memorial (undated), accession number P02121.001, accessed 5 September 2022, https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C294938

Australian War Memorial (undated), accession number P01906.003, accessed 5 September 2022, https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C278913

Australian War Memorial (undated), accession number P01728.003, accessed 5 September 2022, https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C266031

Horner, David (2011). Australia and the New World Order: Volume 2, The Official History of Australian Peacekeeping, Humanitarian and Post-Cold War Operations. Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.

Ellery, David (2015), 'Landmine campaigner Ian Mansfield began his journey towards peace in Canberra', The Canberra Times, 31 October, accessed 5 September 2022, https://www.canberratimes.com.au/story/6059185/landmine-campaigner-ian-mansfield-began-his-journey-towards-peace-in-canberra/

Fielding, Marcus (2012), 'Demining in Afghanistan – United Nations Mine Clearing Training Team (UNMCTT) 1989 to 1983', 11 March, Military History and Heritage Victoria Inc, accessed 5 September 2022, https://www.mhhv.org.au/demining-in-afghanistan-united-nations-mine-clearance-training-team-unmctt-1989-to-1993/

Fielding, Marcus (2020), Dealing with a Deadly Legacy - Aussie Soldiers Clearing Land Mines in Afghanistan, Echo Books.

Girardet, Edward (1988), 'Land mines: Soviets leave dangerous legacy behind in Afghanistan', Christian Science Monitor, 22 June 22, accessed 5 September 2022, https://www.csmonitor.com/1988/0622/omine.html

Government of Canada (undated), 'Operation Decimal', last updated 19 July 2019, accessed 5 September 2022, https://www.canada.ca/en/department-national-defence/services/military-history/history-heritage/past-operations/asia-pacific/decimal.html

Human Rights Watch (2001), Landmine Use in Afghanistan - Human Rights Watch Backgrounder, October, accessed 5 September 2022, https://www.hrw.org/legacy/backgrounder/arms/landmines-bck1011.htm

Landmine & Cluster Munitions Monitor (undated), 'Afghanistan: Country report summary for Landmine Monitor', accessed 5 September 2022, http://archives.the-monitor.org/index.php/publications/display?url=lm/1999/afghanistan

Wikipedia contributors (2022), 'Afghan refugees', Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 3 September, 19:36 UTC, accessed 5 September 2022, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Afghan_refugees&oldid=1108325369

Glossary

  • de-mining
  • deploy
  • dysentery
  • illiterate
  • landmine
  • occupation
  • treaty
  • unexploded ordnance

Last updated:

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) ( ), Australian peacekeepers in Afghanistan and Pakistan from 1989 to 1993, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 18 May 2024, https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/wars-and-missions/peacekeeping/summaries/afghanistan-pakistan-1989-1993
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