US Use of Depleted Uranium Weapons in Afghanistan
BETWEEN THE LINES Q&A
from the nationally syndicated radio newsmagazine
"Between The Lines"
A weekly column featuring progressive viewpoints on national and international issues under-reported in major media
For release March 18, 2002
U.S. Uses Unprecedented
Quantities of Depleted Uranium Weapons in Afghan War
Interview by Scott Harris
Major news outlets reported recently that the Pentagon is in the process of developing new nuclear weapons and tactics for use against U.S.-declared enemies such as Iraq, North Korea, Libya or China. One element of the planning calls for the development of low-yield nuclear weapons that will be capable of destroying underground bunkers built to protect an enemy's command and control centers.
Over the past decade, the U.S. military has used depleted uranium munitions in Iraq and the Balkans to destroy tanks and other shielded or "hardened" targets. Deep penetrating depleted uranium-tipped shells or warheads burn extremely fast and hot, enabling projectiles to easily destroy heavily-protected targets
Between The Lines' Scott Harris spoke with Robert James Parson, whose article titled, "The Big Lie About Clean Wars: The Reality of Depleted Uranium," appeared in the March edition of the French publication Le Monde Diplomatique. In the piece, based on the research of Dai Williams, Parson reports on the U.S. military's unprecedented use of large quantities of depleted uranium in the war against Afghanistan and the possible public health disaster which it may produce for both civilians and combatants.
Robert James Parson: The article is built around a recent report that Dai Williams has just brought out and it's entitled, "Mystery Metal Nightmare in Afghanistan?" The reason for the question mark and that he calls it "mystery metal," is that in all his and my research, we have never come upon the term "depleted uranium." Williams has done a great deal of the legwork. He's been a constant monitor of the war in Afghanistan since Oct. 7, and the Web sites also. What it boils down to is that when these weapons burn -- the depleted uranium burns, that is --it's transformed into microscopic, non-soluble ceramic-like particles which are inhaleable. And when they are inhaled into the lungs, they sit in the lung tissue and then irradiate the body and are a source of internal radiation and needless to say, ultimately they are lethal.
Between The Lines: So the Pentagon is not admitting thus far, to the use of depleted uranium in these much larger weapons, with as you said -- up to more than a ton of depleted uranium.
Robert James Parsons: No. In fact, in December, there was an article in the New York Times about the new movement in the arsenal in the United States and the creation of these penetrating weapons and so on. And this was, I suspect, to make the public aware that this was happening and soften up public opinion. On the other hand, what they said, for example, they gave instances of certain weapons that they said were under study or that had passed into prototype and would be going into production. These we know from the manufacturer's Web sites are already on sale and have been purchased in large numbers. But, they don't mention depleted uranium, they simply speak about the amazing penetrating capacity of them. There has to be something that's doing this. And it is essentially the depleted uranium. It could conceivably be tungsten, or some alloy of tungsten, but again, the tungsten won't burn once it's penetrated and it's down in what the Web sites call "the void." These things go through 30-40 meters -- you may as well say 30-40 yards of rock, or whatever. The penetration is measured by a computer that's included in the missile. And when it reaches the void -- or when it simply attains an established depth, then the detonator sets fire to the depleted uranium and it goes off. Again, this is what's burning; tungsten simply won't do this. The whole system of missiles in the United States has been upgraded since 1997 so that the conventional warheads can be and are replaced by depleted uranium warheads now.
Between The Lines: In comparing what was used in the previous conflicts in Iraq and Yugoslavia and what we may be seeing used in the field right now in Afghanistan, what's the magnitude of increased use, if you could quantify it for us?
Robert James Parson: Well, in southern Iraq, they figured it was 310 tons, maybe more. The Laka Foundation which is based in Amsterdam and which has done a great deal of work on radioactive contamination, the nuclear question, and so on, sent people over in 1998 to do samplings and test them and in the function of the time that had passed and what the stuff had been exposed to, how it could have been dispersed and they came to the conclusion that it had to be at least 800 tons. Now the Center for Defense Information was publishing a daily tally of the weapons that were used in the bombing of Afghanistan up until the first week of December. So we've got what should be a close to accurate and complete record of what was dropped during the first two months. Based on that, Williams made the assessment that it had to be at least 500 tons of DU, probably 1,000 would be much closer to reality. But after that, the bombing intensified tremendously; also the use of the big missiles. So Williams and myself since then we've figured that up until now that the figure is probably closer to 3,000 tons, so you can compare this to 800 tons in Iraq and the 310 tons or so that the Pentagon has admitted to using. An order of magnitude of 10.
Between The Lines: So what is your fear from the people you spoke to in writing this article about the health consequences for the civilians living in Afghanistan and for the combatants who were inhaling the dust from these depleted uranium munitions?
Robert James Parson: Dai Williams is an occupational psychologist, which is how he started to get involved in this, and his recommendation is that -- for example I opened the article with a quote from him -- "The immediate concern for medical professionals, for employees of aid organizations and for employers of other expatriate personnel in the field remains the threat of extensive DU contamination in Afghanistan." He thinks it’s a very serious threat and that is just the immediate concern.
Now, further than that there are the local people that have to live there. A lot of this (DU) has been used on the mountains along the border of Afghanistan with Pakistan. This is the watershed area for the Indus Valley. And it is the Indus Valley that provides the water for the whole of the agriculture of Pakistan, which is the one real wealth of Pakistan. What this means is that in the long run this whole area, most of the agricultural productivity of Pakistan and most of the mountains are permanently contaminated. There's also the question of the contamination of the cities where DU was used such as Kandahar, Mazar e-Sharif and Kabul for example, where they were bombing targets right there in these cities and they were obviously using missiles and missiles of great penetrating quality. So these areas would be permanently contaminated also. So Williams said in the long run, we'd have to envision an evacuation of these areas.
I close the article with a short anecdote about the Jefferson Proving Ground in Jefferson County, Ind.. The Pentagon has more or less realized that it's impossible to clean this up; this is where they used to test the anti-tank (DU) penetrator rounds. And the talk now is simply to close it off forever and turn it into a "national sacrifice zone." So as to what that means for Iraq, Baghdad, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Pakistan, you can only imagine.
Robert James Parson's article, "The Big Lie About Clean Wars: The Reality of Depleted Uranium," appeared in the March 2002 edition of the French publication, "Le Monde Diplomatique." (A link to an English translation of this article will be posted on this site when it becomes available.)
See related links and listen to an excerpt of this interview in a RealAudio segment or in MP3 on our Web site at: http://www.wpkn.org/wpkn/news/btl032202.html
for the week ending 3/22/02.
Scott Harris is the executive producer of Between The Lines. This interview excerpt was featured on the award-winning, syndicated weekly radio newsmagazine, Between The Lines, for the week ending March 15, 2002.