As founder of the nonprofit demining group The Halo Trust, he went to Kabul to assess how many mines would have to be removed after 10 years of Soviet occupation. He and other demining experts were well aware that until the mines were cleared, millions of Afghan refugees would be unable to return home.
"The rumors were that there were between 10 million and 30 million land mines left behind in Afghanistan, mainly laid by the Russians but also laid by some of the mujahedin factions. We didn't believe these rumors at all. We simply couldn't work out how that number could possibly have been laid in the previous 10 years," Willoughby said.
Willoughby said records kept at the time by the Soviet-supported government of Ahmadzai Najibullah showed instead that there were about 250,000 mines in the country.
"We worked very closely with the Afghan Ministry of Defense of the Najibullah government, who were extremely cooperative, and they had copies of the Russian minefield records. The Russian engineers handed over many of their minefield records to the Afghan government, and it was clear that the figure [when the Soviets left in 1989] was more like 260,000 or 270,000 land mines," Willoughby said.
But while that number was considerably less than what the public imagined, it still posed an enormous challenge. So, too, did the fact that the laying of land mines did not end with the Soviet pullout but continued for more than a decade afterward.
Willoughby says the Najibullah government laid new mines to protect its main supply routes and garrison towns before its collapse in 1992. Subsequently, more mines were laid by factions trying to hold Kabul and other areas against the Taliban, which captured the capital in 1996.
The demining expert says that by the time peace finally came to Afghanistan with the U.S.-backed toppling of the Taliban in 2001, the total number of land mines had increased substantially.
"Overall, Halo believes that the grand total figure for Afghanistan will be about 450,000 land mines. We will be amazed if it is more than that. So, the estimates of millions and millions of land mines were just wrong. And there has been a huge amount of clearance in Afghanistan, and all the clearance so far has given no indication that the figure will be [much] above 400,000," Willoughby said.
Willoughby says that, so far, some 200,000 land mines have been cleared in Afghanistan. Much of that work has concentrated upon the Soviets' once heavily mined supply line that extended from Kabul north to the former Soviet border. But lower priority areas, particularly heavily mined hilltops around former garrisons, are unlikely to be cleared for many years more.
The task of clearing away the country's hundreds of thousands of land mines falls to some 7,600 deminers currently operating in the country. They work under the auspices of a number of mostly Afghan organizations which -- with Western funding -- trained deminers in the refugee camps of Pakistan. Whenever conditions after 1989 permitted, the demining groups moved into Afghanistan to pursue their dangerous work.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Geneva says that mines and other buried explosives in Afghanistan continue to kill civilians.
Camilla Wasznik, a spokesperson for the ICRC Mines-Arms Unit, says some 60 people are reported killed or maimed by land mines across Afghanistan each month. Many other injuries are believed to go unreported.
"In 2003, the ICRC recorded 728 new victims of mines and other explosive remnants of war. And this equals about 61 victims per month or four new victims every day. But, in fact, in addition to these recorded incidents, you would have to count in probably quite a high number of unrecorded incidents, so the ICRC estimates there might be as much as about 100 incidents per month still taking place in Afghanistan," Wasznik says.
Wasznik says some 18 percent of the victims are killed in the explosions, while another 25 percent suffer loss of limbs. She says the number of casualties today is down from an estimated 150 a month in previous years, which she says reflects the progress of the demining efforts.
The Afghan government and the United Nations last year embarked on a joint 10-year plan to rid the country of mines and buried explosives by 2012.
Mohammed Shahab Hakimi, the chairman of the Afghan Campaign to Ban Land Mines, says the plan calls for increasing the number of deminers in the country to almost 9,000. He described the effort by telephone recently from Geneva, where he was attending a land mine symposium.
"To implement this strategic plan, we need to expand our personnel to achieve our goals, and maybe by the end of 2007, the number of personnel will increase to 8,800 people, and also equipment and other things will be expanded. [But] implementation of this strategic plan depends on the availability [of funds] from the donor side," Hakimi said.
Demining activities in Afghanistan are funded by donor countries both within and outside the UN system. The UN has budgeted a reported $80 million for mine clearance and associated activities in Afghanistan this year, including maintaining 5,600 deminers.
The Halo Trust -- the largest foreign charitable demining group operating in Afghanistan -- has budgeted $8 million and is fielding 2,000 deminers in the country this year.
Afghanistan is considered by mine experts to be one of the three most heavily mined countries in the world. The other two are Cambodia and Angola.