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Cluster Bombs: These are Landmines by Any Other Name

26 October 2001

In the House of Commons on Wednesday, Clare Short denied point blank that coalition forces were dropping landmines on Afghanistan. As for cluster bombs, she would “look into them”. To my mind, they are one and the same.

To comfort her backbenchers Ms Short added that all ordnance and targets were vetted by the law officers of the Crown. Since she is the proclaimed conscience of the war party, her denial must be taken seriously.

Let us clarify what we are debating. As long as ground troops are not employed, bomb performance is plainly crucial to the Afghan operation. It is crucial militarily, politically and diplomatically, as well as being an issue of common humanity. I have come across few supporters of this war who advocate deploying chemical, biological or battlefield nuclear weapons, even against those who would use them. There is productive bombing and counter-productive bombing. There are limits to any war. Tony Blair constantly parades his humanitarianism. This must extend to the choice of bombs.

The weapon that Ms Short denies is in use is the CBU-89 “Gator”, much used by the US Air Force in the Gulf War. The military description of a Gator is a “1,000lb cluster munition . . . with 72 antitank and 22 antipersonnel mines and an optional FZU-39 proximity sensor”. Each bomblet “sends high-velocity fragments in a horizontal plane over a wide area”. Armies rarely reveal their weapons, but the use of CBU-89s by B52 bombers out of Diego Garcia was confirmed by the Pentagon to The New York Times on October 11. The Ministry of Defense flatly denies this, although it could not say whether there were any Gators on Diego Garcia for future use.

What of the weapon that Ms Short is now “looking into”, alongside her denial that any anti-personnel cluster bombs are being dropped? Her confusion is strange as she is a member of the War Cabinet. While she was speaking in the House, UN mine-clearing officials in Pakistan were screaming for ordnance details, flight paths and bomb footprints from the Americans to help them to rescue people from the village of Shaker Qala. It had suffered an attack the night before and was full of yellow, unexploded bomblets.

The bomb that the Americans are using is a CBU-87/B, containing 202 bright yellow BLU-97 submunitions. It is a “combined effects munition for attacking soft target areas with detonating bomblets”. These are described as “effective against armor, personnel and material . . . designed to break into approximately 300 preformed ingrain fragments for defeating light armor and personnel”. It is unquestionably an antipersonnel device. The “dud rate” is approximately 5 per cent.

Such a dud rate means that each CBU-87 leaves roughly ten de facto landmines. But since informal estimates put the failure rate of cluster bombs in missing targets or vanishing at roughly 50 per cent, the “long-term area denial” is massive and hardly different from that of the Gator. I call these things mines.

At least the Gators have a feature not possessed by conventional cluster bombs. They come with a “programmable self-destruct facility set prior to aircraft take-off”. This can be fixed at four hours, 48 hours or 15 days. It renders the airborne mines less lethal in the long term. The Americans hoped such weapons would be defined as not landmines under the 1997 Ottawa Landmines Convention. The other signatories disagreed. They took the view that the 10 per cent failure rate of the self-destruct mechanism was too great for safety. In 1999 the Ministry of Defense warned its mine clearers that self-destruct mechanisms were wholly unreliable. “Once dispensed from its carrier any submunition should be considered armed.”

Failure rates lie at the core of this whole wretched business. Unexploded cluster bombs are a horror to clear because they often go “sub-surface”, inches beneath the soil, and the bright yellow coloring of the canisters makes them horribly appealing to children. As reported yesterday in The Times, these weapons are killing one civilian a week in Kosovo. They are still killing one civilian a month is Laos, 30 years after being dropped by America along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Cluster weapons of all sorts are worse than old-fashioned landmines which already litter the Afghan landscape. Traditional mines may remove an arm or a leg; a cluster bomblet is a killing field in a canister. It is designed to massacre anything within 100 feet. In Kosovo alone NATO is estimated to have dropped 35,000 unexploded and unmapped bomblets.

Normal minefields are laid manually and usually mapped, for the simple reason that the mappers hope one day to recapture them. Air-dropped mines and bomblets are, by definition, unmappable. Hence the eagerness of many states to extend the Ottawa landmines treaty to include all antipersonnel cluster munitions. They are acts of lasting aggression against a territory and its long-term inhabitants.

I am not squeamish about war. It is a messy business and means must be employed appropriate to ends. But weapons that exact so heavy a human toll should not be in the armory of any civilized state. Before the Gulf War, the deployment of Cruise missiles was advanced as the bombardment of the future. It would render dumb bombs dropped from safe (and therefore inaccurate) height obsolete. Tomahawks were meant to be sufficient to “deny the Taleban air superiority” and “bust bin Laden’s bunker”. Yet dumb bombs are still being used.

After Kosovo it was accepted that the accuracy of dumb bombs was unacceptably low. Air forces struggled to improve their targeting, but because all bombing was regarded as contributing to a military victory, collateral damage was considered “innocent by association”. As a result, I am not aware of any supporter of the Afghan war protesting at the use of airborne cluster munitions today.

I admire Ms Short’s feisty and belligerent approach to politics. When in government such people can find collective responsibility a hair shirt and wear it in silence. Ms Short shouts her pain. During Kosovo she defended killing civilians in the Belgrade television tower. She is now party to American attempts to assassinate Mullah Omar and his family, and to the successful killing this week of 22 members of the Harket ul-Mujadeddin group in a direct missile attack on their Kabul home.

In the light of this, I cannot understand the reported official squeamishness over assassinating bin Laden. Night after night coalition forces are trying to assassinate his various protectors. American bombers, backed by British law officers, are struggling to do what the Israelis are doing far more efficiently. They are trying to target and kill the leadership of the declared enemy. International law, not to mention morality, does not distinguish between an assassin’s bullet and a Tomahawk missile.

The Americans themselves are committed to abandoning landmines by 2005 — or were under Bill Clinton. They are committed because they too recognize that these weapons should not be part of a civilized arsenal. For the moment they have too many in their stockpiles. Every human rights organization also wants to see antipersonnel cluster bombs banned. The UK Working Group on Landmines last year called for a global moratorium on their use and a massive worldwide campaign of mine clearance. I find it inexplicable that Ms Short and her colleagues feel the military advantage of these weapons still outweighs their political, diplomatic and humanitarian cost.

In 1997 Ms Short put on a mine-clearer’s suit for the photographers and paraded on Brighton beach. She wanted to publicize her support for Diana, Princess of Wales’s Nobel prize-winning campaign against landmines. In December that year she went to Ottawa to trumpet her dismay that “it will take 1,000 years to clear the mines already laid”. Now she sits in a War Cabinet that is supporting the scattering of just such weapons. Small wonder her colleague, Hilary Armstrong, has had to give Labour MPs moral absolution. Such bombs, the Chief Whip is reported to believe, are not a matter of conscience.

Simon Jenkins.
Published in The Times (c).

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