I believe the past few years demonstrated the folly of “banning” landmines.

The treaty is called Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on Their Destruction (pdf). The basics are simple: it calls for states to abandon the use of anti-personnel landmines.

Article 1 forbids states from using, manufacturing, and distributing anti-personnel landmines. The treaty calls for states to destroy their current stockpiles of mines.

This treaty is flawed both as a matter of law and as a matter of military necessity. The treaty does not actually accomplish anything.

First, military powers refuse to sign the treaty. Belligerent nations refuse to sign and they’re the ones that continue to use landmines. Non-state Actors are becoming military powers and they use improvised explosive devices to substitute for landmines.

The states that do not use landmines decided to “ban” landmines. The states that use landmines ignored the treaty and continued using landmines. The treaty acts contrary to customary military practices without any enforcement mechanism that can change the practice.

Second, the treaty does not determine the difference between responsible and irresponsible use.

Due to this flaw, the treaty encourages irresponsible use.

Here’s an example of responsible usage. The US Armed Forces have a set of regulations governing the proper use of landmines. Mine positions must be clearly marked on maps and removed at the end of hostilities. For example, United States and South Korea know the location of mines at the Korean DMZ. These mines have not affected civilians.

Irresponsible use poses a greater danger. The Soviet Union indiscriminately mined large sections of Afghanistan without leaving markets. These mines pose a danger to civilians.

The anti-landmine treaty prohibits the use of standardized mines that can be safely disarmed after conflict. Militants, especially non-state actors like insurgents must use improvised explosive devices instead. IEDs are less stable and there are no regulations governing their use. They are planted irresponsibly.

The customary use of landmines

Landmines are best considered as a component of static defenses. If your unit is outnumbered and about to be attacked, you fortify your position to better your odds of surviving.

A commander faces a decision:
Imagine if you needed to defend a position on a lightly wooded-hill with a platoon of soldiers. A full company is about to assault you, but you cannot refreat.

Your platoon can concentrate their field of fire on two zones that lead up the hill out of a possible 10 approaches. You cannot distribute your firepower everywhere without being weak everywhere. In short, your position will likely be overrun unless you change terrain.

You can do so by laying out obstructions and booby-traps. This obstacles obstruct this approach. A smaller number of soldiers can guard that zone. Enemy forces will be diverted to the easier approaches up the hill. If you properly fortify your position, you leave two open approaches on your position. These are your two kill zones.

The commander has to weigh the value of mines. If he places mines, he can kill a larger portion of the enemy and reduce his own casualties. This improves his chances of defending his position.

If he does not place mines, more of the enemy will survive to attack his men. This decreases his chances of victory and increases the chances of his men dying.

Given this game theory scenario, many commanders choose to use deadly traps and mines.

Fortifications can be simple impediments or deadly impediments.

Simple impediments are obstacles. This includes walls, moats, barricades, or natural terrain. Going back centuries to Agincourt, the English Longbowmen planted sharpened wooden stakes in front of them to halt the French cavalry charge. Today, armies use barb-wire and dragon teeth (tank traps).

Deadly impediments range from traps to mines. They are not necessarily intended to kill. They pose a more dangerous obstacle to the enemy. The enemy must slow down to circumvent the threats, so deadly traps are more effective than simple obstacles.

Booby-traps are very easy to create. Look at the infamous Vietnamese trap – the punji stake. It is a sharpened baboo stick that will pierce your foot or calf. and likely infect it if a soldier carelessly stepped down. That would immobilize the soldier and possibly cause a severe infection due to the tropical environment. The Punji stake function as an explosive mine that would blow a leg off. They can be planted in the hundreds and there is little reason that the defending soldiers will actually go tramping back through the muck and leaves looking for their own traps.

Punji Stakes in Vietnam and IEDs in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan present a major threat to civilians even after combat ends.

The danger of disarming booby-traps should be self-evident. Even a trap as simple as a grenade attached to a trip-wire is very hard and dangerous to disarm. The best way is to just set it off. Booby-traps are single use creations, unlike some modern landmines.

Back to the scenario

If you are a US soldier, you have claymores and standardized mines to fortify your position. Doctrine requires you properly mark them on maps and remove them from the battlefield at the end of combat. These mines can be safely recovered.

The Anti-Landmine treaty eliminates these mines and encourages commanders to use more dangerous traps.

If you are an insurgent, you have no standardized mines and doctrines. Yet you are in the same situation as a US commander. So you throw down your punji sticks, your IEDs, your ad-hoc bombs and tripwires, and pray for the best. These traps will work almost as well as real mines, but you cannot safely recover them after the battle. If you even remember where you put it.

The widespread use of IEDs damns the entire point of the treaty. In some respects, it made the situation considerably worse. In the past, de-miners dealt with standard models and knew how to disarm them. They could publish manuals and guides to classify mines and methods of disarming or removing them. Today, every IED is unique and unstable. Many do not even use metal, so classic mine detectors are ineffective.

In my opinion, IEDs are a graver threat to civilians than factory produced mines. The treaty was at best ineffective, and at worst, encouraged the rise of IED usage.