LAND mines are the biggest threat to NATO forces in Bosnia. It was no surprise that the first serious injury to an American there, on Dec. 30, resulted from a land mine explosion. The largest number of casualties suffered by UN peacekeepers during their Bosnia mission came from the same source - 224 peacekeepers were injured by land mines, 85 were killed.
The Clinton administration has acknowledged the danger. ''Land mines constitute the greatest threat to American soldiers and the greatest obstacle to the reconstruction and rehabilitation of Bosnia,'' Timothy Connelly, a member of the White House Task Force on Bosnia, said recently. His remarks clearly reflected President Clinton's feelings about this insidious weapon. In his address to the United Nations General Assembly in the fall of 1994 the president called for ''the eventual elimination of land mines.''
His remarks, along with legislation sponsored by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont and Rep. Lane Evans (D) of Illinois establishing a moratorium on the sale and export of land mines, made the United States the international leader on this issue. Since then, 27 countries have halted all or most of their exports of antipersonnel land mines, and 19 nations have supported a total ban.
Last August, more than two-thirds of the US Senate, including several senators who were awarded Purple Hearts for their combat service, voted in favor of a Leahy initiative that would impose a one-year moratorium on the use of antipersonnel land mines. The provision passed both houses of Congress despite strong opposition from the Pentagon. Senate and House conferees made the provision part of the 1996 foreign operations appropriations bill and it was signed into law by President Clinton on Jan. 26.
Leahy's moratorium has widespread public support. It won the approval of both houses of Congress and even reflects Mr. Clinton's personal views. So why is the administration still waffling on the question of a complete ban on land mines?
In its own Orwellian way, the United States is advocating the use of ''safe mines'' - those mines that contain a self-destruct mechanism - in negotiating a new protocol to the 1980 convention on conventional weapons. But there is no such thing as a ''safe mine.'' By their very nature land mines remain indiscriminate killers. By advocating the use of ''safe mines,'' the US is signaling the world community that it is not interested in banning this weapon at all, but in making certain that US-manufactured ''safe mines'' take the place of the $3 specials that now plague the world. What army is going to pay the United States 10 times more for such mines when it can make its own for much less? What nation is going to sign an international covenant requiring it to use US technology? The proposition is ludicrous.
It is in America's economic interest to ban land mines now, and to work for an international covenant making their use illegal. The United Nations estimates that in 1993 alone more than 2 million land mines were laid around the world. In that same year 100,000 were ''lifted'' - disarmed. But the cost to accomplish even that modest reclamation was $70 million. In Croatia alone the cost of removal is estimated to be more than $400 million, and the demining work will take 10 years.
Providing that no more land mines are laid, anywhere, ever, it will cost the world community $33 billion to remove the land mines that have already been laid. And it will take decades. But the costs of demining are minuscule compared with the costs of reconstruction and rehabilitation for nations recovering from war. Land mines constitute a national crisis not only in Bosnia and Croatia, but also in Cambodia, Angola, Mozambique, and Afghanistan. In these countries, and in scores of others, land mines represent the single most destabilizing obstacle to reconstruction.
I am not under any illusions. As the head of the organization that coordinates the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, I understand the difficulties with enforcing such a ban. Will all nations follow our lead and cease the production and sale of these weapons? No. Will there be violators of an international treaty barring their use? Certainly. But we must begin somewhere. As has been shown time and time again, if the United States, the most powerful nation in the world, provides leadership during an international crisis, others will follow. It is not only in our national and economic interests to do so, it is (as the president himself would say) ''the right thing to do.''