I have never been to Afghanistan, but I am the mother of two young children. So when I imagine what life must be like there after 18 years of war, my mind conjures up the children most vividly – the ones who have been affected by the conflict – and their parents. I think of the 12-year-old boy who was carrying water to a military checkpoint in a remote part of that country, earning pennies to help sustain his family, whose legs were blown off by a landmine. Or the group of children at a wedding party, playing behind the house where the ceremony was taking place. One of them picked up an unexploded shell, fired from a helicopter, that hadn’t detonated in battle. It blew up, killing two children, Basit and Haroon, and wounding 12 others.
What must it be like to care for a five-year-old – the age of my oldest child – who is maimed and who needs to learn how to walk, play, and live again with ill-fitting prosthetics?
A major legacy of the US “war on terror” in Afghanistan, which began in October 2001 and shows little sign of actually ending any time soon, will be the “explosive remnants of war” – a term for all the landmines and unexploded bombs and other weaponry that have been left behind in the earth. This debris of America’s endless war, still piling up, is devastating in many ways. It makes it so much harder for an agricultural population to sustain itself on the land. It wreaks havoc on Afghans’ emotional wellbeing and sense of security. And it poses special hazards for children, who are regularly injured and killed by the left-behind explosives of an already devastating war as they play, herd livestock, or collect water and firewood.
Given the expected drawdown of American troops in Afghanistan – despite the recent breakdown in peace negotiations with the Taliban, President Donald Trump continues to indicate that he may pursue such a path – and the possibility of an official end to the US war there, this topic is both pressing and relevant to public debate in America. Offering aid and reparations for the horrific ongoing costs of explosive military waste should be a priority on Washington’s future agenda.
“The Human and Financial Costs of the Explosive Remnants of War in Afghanistan,” a new report issued by the Costs of War project, which I co-direct, at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, offers a sense of the scale of the damage in Afghanistan. According to the report’s authors, Suzanne Fiederlein and SaraJane Rzegocki of James Madison University, at least 5,442 people have been killed and 14,693 have been injured by devices embedded in or left on the ground since the start of the US-led war in 2001.
Of those victims, the great majority are boys and men. A casualty analysis by the Danish Demining Group in 2017 suggested that boys are particularly vulnerable because of their day-to-day activities and chores, but women and girls, too, are increasingly becoming casualties of unexploded ordnance, particularly when traveling. In 2017, the United Nations Mission in Afghanistan expressed concern about a “65% jump in the number of children killed or wounded by explosive remnants as fighting has spread to heavily populated civilian areas.”
The US has provided significant financial support for humanitarian mine-clearing programs in Afghanistan. In recent years, however, that funding has been dropping. According to the United Nations Mine Action Service, Afghanistan has made some genuine progress toward its goal of freeing itself of landmines and other unexploded debris by 2023. Yet international financial support for such activities has dropped to 41% of what it was in 2011. Even if the Afghan war truly ended tomorrow, a sustained commitment of financial aid over many years would be necessary to clear that country of all the ordnance sewn into its soil as a result of the last 18 years of America’s war.
A legacy of war
The new Costs of War report reveals that the leading weapons causing such damage have changed over time. Even before 2001, when the US-led coalition invaded Afghanistan, that country stood near the top of the list of those afflicted by abandoned landmines. The devices remained from the 1980s conflict between the Soviet Union and extremist Islamist rebels, the mujahideen, backed by Washington and funded and supported by the Central Intelligence Agency.
In the wake of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, international and Afghan clearance groups worked hard to clean up those minefields. Their efforts were, however, often thwarted by brutal new conflicts, including an Afghan civil war from 1992 to 1996 and the period from 1996 to 2001 in which the Taliban largely controlled the country. Still, over the past few decades, such groups managed to remove 2 million pieces of unexploded ordnance.
As the latest data indicate, landmines from the Soviet conflict have still been causing 7% of remnant-related casualties since 2010. Most of those hurt by explosive ordnance, however, are victims of the ongoing, complex armed conflict that emerged from the US-led invasion – that is, a range of weapons used and left behind by American forces, Taliban fighters, and Islamic State-affiliated groups. These include grenades, projectile weapons, mortars, cluster munitions, and large bombs that failed to explode as intended, but are still live and prone to going off if touched or moved at a later date.
Taliban and ISIS militants are also increasingly relying on improvised explosive devices (IEDs) set off by someone stepping on them or otherwise unwittingly activating them. If not triggered at the time of battle, they can kill or injure civilians long after, even in areas in which there is no longer active fighting.
Since 2015, casualties from explosive remnants of war and abandoned IEDs have been rising rapidly. One reason is an increase in fighting between the US-backed Afghan National Security Forces and both the Taliban and ISIS, as well as intensifying conflict between these extremist groups themselves. According to report author Suzanne Fiederlein, improvised explosive devices are growing more common in Afghanistan and other conflicts across the Middle East, partly thanks to the Internet, which has spread knowledge of how to build them. Such information, she writes, is “commonly available now, not just on dark-web sites. Such knowledge is also linked to the manufacture of more sophisticated and complex devices, such as anti-handling devices (booby traps).”
In addition, since 2017, the US has dramatically increased its air strikes against the Taliban and other militant groups in Afghanistan, while the Taliban themselves, as they gain ever more territory, have expanded their attacks on government targets as well as on Afghan and international security forces. In the past year, as US and Taliban officials have engaged in peace talks, both sides have only ramped up their aggression further, assumedly in order to strengthen their hands in the negotiations.
Finally, in recent years, as the American-led coalition has closed down bases in advance of a prospective US military withdrawal, more and more Afghans have died or been injured by military waste exploding in abandoned areas once used by international security forces as firing ranges. From 2009 to 2015, the United Nations recorded 138 casualties from explosions in or around such former training facilities. Seventy-five percent of those victims were children.
Living with explosive military waste
It’s important to grasp just how long explosive remnants of war can remain active in a landscape after a conflict ends. If uncleared, they pose a danger to people living nearby or passing through for generations. In Belgium, for instance, more than a century later, significant numbers of explosive shells are still being removed from former World War I battlefields. Many countries struggle with this problem, including Bosnia-Herzegovina, Colombia, Korea, Laos and Vietnam, but Afghanistan has been one of the hardest hit.
As of 2018, roughly 1,780 square kilometers of that country is considered contaminated by military waste. As the Costs of War report points out, this is “roughly 10 times the area of Washington, DC, but spread across a country almost as large as Texas.” Danger zones include farms and grazing land, roads that people regularly use to get to markets, schools and hospitals, and lands surrounding militant strongholds, allied military bases, and those former firing ranges.
From the research I’ve done, it’s clear why people continue to use such contaminated lands. At the most basic level, it’s a story of inequality. Many Afghans undoubtedly know which areas pose a threat. In addition, risk education programs have made progress in getting teachers, midwives and police officers to spread awareness of how to recognize and avoid such dangers. However, poverty often forces Afghans to make terrible and terrifying decisions about the risk of injury and death.
Dilemmas of this sort are commonly faced in places marked by such legacies of conflict. Anthropologist David Henig, for instance, describes how rural villagers in the Bosnia-Herzegovina highlands still knowingly enter contaminated forest areas to gather firewood. For them, living with the danger of landmines left over from the Bosnian war of the 1990s is a matter of economic survival. Many Afghans face a similar plight. I can only suppose that the boy who stepped on a landmine while carrying water for soldiers would not have been earning money in that fashion if his family had any other way to scrape together an existence.
While people learn to live with the presence of explosive waste in their landscapes, doing so exacts a grim toll. Imagine the fear and emotional distress you might feel at merely passing through places where a misstep could kill you, no less your children. Henig recounts how one Bosnian woman, returning from a mined part of the forest where she had filled her wagon with wood, broke down and cried, yelling feverishly, “Why, why do we have to do this?”
In Afghanistan, the Costs of War report points to the “deep psychological impact” of such long-lasting contamination: “For Afghans, the fear of being harmed by these weapons is magnified by knowing or seeing someone injured or killed.” People are terrorized and traumatized by the threat of explosions, and this continuous sense of foreboding must create an undertone of anxious melancholy that runs through every minute of the day.
Then there are the thousands of Afghans who live not only with the fear of such explosions, but also with the need to rebuild their lives after being maimed by one. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) physical rehabilitation program in Afghanistan manufactures more than 19,000 artificial legs, arms, and other orthopedic devices each year. Groups like the ICRC and Handicap International post photos of children on their websites as they are being fitted with and trained to use prosthetic legs.
In one, a boy of no more than five looks bleakly at the camera, his hands resting on two parallel bars at his sides, the stumps of his legs settled uncomfortably in new plastic devices. In another, Nilofar, a young woman in a wheelchair, prepares to shoot a basketball; hers is a remarkable story of recovery, of moving from complete paralysis, after a back injury due to an explosion, to partial mobility. Today she works for the ICRC’s Kabul Orthopedic Center as a data entry operator, a job that has given her an income, a sense of purpose, and renewed hope.
The United Nations Mine Action Service has called for more long-term support for survivors of such wounds. They need such care to learn to walk on and use prosthetic limbs, as well as to deal with the depression and other psychological effects that accompany such injuries. According to the ICRC, they also require “a role in society and to recover dignity and self-respect.” All of the more than 800 staff at the seven ICRC orthopedic centers across Afghanistan are former patients. But there are thousands of others and no one can doubt that, in a war seemingly without end, there will be thousands more.
Imperial debris and US responsibility
Scholars have called landmines and other explosive remnants of war “imperial debris” – the detritus, in particular, of imperial America and its expansive global military footprint, including its forever wars around this planet. Even if US troops are finally withdrawn, as Afghans encounter such debris from the “war on terror” and find their lives eternally shaped by it, the association with the American project in their country will remain alive for years into the future, as such weaponry keeps right on killing. In the process, it will undoubtedly seed hatred of the United States for generations to come.
Sadly, American funding for the humanitarian mine-clearing program in Afghanistan has been in decline since 2012. Afghanistan today has some of the best-trained demining technicians on the planet, but the scale of the problem is massive and the money available for it far too modest. The very goal of achieving mine-free status by 2023, a project once expected to cost $647.5 million, is likely unattainable, even if the fighting ends, because funding targets have fallen so far short of being fulfilled.
The US has been the single largest donor to that program, making $452 million in contributions since 2002. Since 2012, however, it has been another story, as Washington has dispatched much of its funding and resources for such programs to Iraq and Syria instead. In fiscal year 2018, the Mine Action Program of Afghanistan raised just $51 million of its $99 million funding goal and only an estimated $20 million of that came from Washington, less than half what it gave between 2010 and 2012.
Americans have an obligation to clear explosive hazards in that country, a large portion of which are of US origin. Given the taxpayer dollars Washington has already spent on or committed to the war on terror through fiscal year 2019 – $5.9 trillion, according to the estimate of the Costs of War project – what it has donated to deal with imperial debris in Afghanistan is scarcely more than a drop in the bucket. A multi-year funding commitment to clear the explosive remnants of the “war on terror” there would be one small way to carry out a tiny portion of America’s responsibility to the Afghan people after so many years of destruction.
Someday, Afghanistan stands every chance of becoming America’s forgotten war. The conflict will be anything but forgotten in that country, however, and therein lies one of the saddest stories of all.
Copyright 2019 Stephanie Savell