In Afghanistan, Landmines Are Making Peace Deadly

On the morning of April 1, seven children were playing in the lush wheat fields of Afghanistan’s Marjah district, in the southern Helmand province, by tossing around a metal object. Moments later, it exploded. The blast claimed five of their lives, including the youngest in the group, a 5-year-old boy.

“My daughter has not only lost her three sons, but also her senses,” Haji Abdul Salam, a 55-year-old farmer who lost two children and three grandchildren in the explosion, tells me at his home while attending to visitors there for the funeral. “She neither sleeps nor eats.”

But Salam is too devout to blame the ill-fated incident on the decades of war in Afghanistan, which have cluttered the country’s sprawling landscape with mines and munitions. “Allah prepared in Jannah that this event will happen in my home, and that He will take my children on this date,” he says.

When the Taliban took over Afghanistan last August, bringing an end to 40 years of war, they inherited all of the country’s challenges. That includes the problem of landmines and explosive remnants, many of which were in fact planted by the Taliban’s own fighters during its clashes with the ousted Afghan government.

As of last December, 41,677 civilians have either been killed or injured in Afghanistan by landmines and explosive remnants of war since 1989, according to data shared by Paul Heslop, chief of the United Nations Mine Action Service, or UNMAS. Seventy percent of the victims were children, including many that had discovered unexploded devices while playing outdoors, just like the children in Marjah.

The two survivors of the Marjah mine blast suffered serious injuries and are seeking treatment at Emergency Hospital in Lashkar Gah, Helmand’s provincial capital, which had been a site of conflict for many months before the Taliban takeover. Bibi Sakina, a 6-year-old, lost part of her stomach due to the explosion.

The U.N.’s mine program in Afghanistan, known as MAPA, was created in 1989 to link the various donors, coordinating bodies and implementing partners working on demining projects. By August 2021, MAPA had successfully removed 81 percent of the landmines, including those planted by Red Army in the 1980s, during the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. As a result, the civilian casualty rate fell to 2 percent of what it was previously, according to Heslop.

However, a large number of the mine-related casualties reported over the past 20 years were not caused by standard landmines like those used by the Soviet Union, but by homemade improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, according to a report by Landmine Monitor. Since the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan in 2001, IEDs have become a “weapon of choice” of nonstate actors, due to their relative ease of deployment and multiple triggering options. They are often placed under harmless looking objects, such as rocks, doors and windows, making it easy for unintended victims—such as young children—to trigger them.

According to a UNICEF statement released following the Helmand blast, as many as 301 children have been killed or injured in Afghanistan by landmines and other explosive remnants of war, or ERWs, in the past seven months. Yet efforts to remove these explosives have struggled to move forward, hampered by funding shortages and political divisions.

And in the meantime, the violence keeps on coming. On April 18, according to a local news report, another landmine explosion claimed the life of another child and injured another, this time in Urozgan province, in central Afghanistan.

Renewed Risks

Afghanistan’s landscape is scattered with old and new explosive ordnances owing to its history of back-to-back armed conflicts: the Soviet intervention between 1979-1989, followed by the civil war that ended with the Taliban’s ascension in 1996, and then the U.S.-Taliban conflict that followed the U.S. intervention in 2001. The country is now one of the most heavily mined in the world, with one of the highest casualty rates from mines and ERWs. And now, as war gives way to geopolitical isolation and economic crisis, Afghans have become even more vulnerable to ERWs than they were before.

“There are now a lot of new contaminated sites since the summer, when there was a high degree of conflict,” said Jared Rowell, the Danish Refugee Council’s country director in Afghanistan, referring to the months preceding the fall of Kabul in 2021.His humanitarian nonprofit has been a leading participant in Afghanistan’s mine clearing program, but has struggled to clear erstwhile battlegrounds of the ordnances since the U.S. withdrawal.

Afghanistan is now one of the most heavily mined in the world, with one of the highest casualty rates from mines and ERWs.

Now that fighting between the U.S. and the Taliban government has died down, civilians are more likely than ever to wander into contaminated sites and accidentally trigger a mine.

“There is more exposure to contaminated sites that were previously off-limits,” Rowell explained. In response, his organization has emphasized programs to educate civilians about mine risk, in the hopes that behavioral changes could reduce the risk of injuries from mines and ERWs.

Today’s economic realities make this mission all the more important—and difficult. One Kabul resident, Shah Alam, lost his leg in a landmine accident more than 20 years ago, when he was fighting as a mujahid against the Soviets. He told me that in the wake of the Taliban takeover, he is not only dealing with a lifetime of disability caused by landmines, but also joblessness.

“When I see the situation in Afghanistan, I feel so helpless,” he told me, as he sat outside the Red Cross hospital in Kabul, waiting to receive free prosthetics. “There is nothing I can do for my kids and my family. Life is harder and harder every day. If I had died that day, my soul would be with Allah.”

As a result of international sanctions on the Taliban government, Afghanistan is now facing an acute food shortage that has left 95 percent of Afghans without enough to eat. More than 97 percent are expected to slide into poverty by mid-2022. In this context, the buried explosives risk both the lives and livelihoods of civilians.

According to Fahim Sadat, a former political and security analyst and head of the International Relations Department at Kabul’s Kardan University, the humanitarian crisis caused by the punitive sanctions has “hampered the Taliban’s desire for a smooth transition” and “severely impacted their prospects of peace and security, as people are hungry.” Still, the Taliban have other “sources of income” to rely on, Sadat noted. It is the people who are suffering.

Political Impasse

The increased access to mined lands is bad news for civilian safety, but it could also offer opportunities to organizations like the Danish Refugee Council to do their work. Unfortunately, the political and economic challenges brought on by the Taliban takeover are complicating all demining efforts.

When the Taliban assumed control of Afghanistan, many in the international community withdrew funding for aid work in the country. U.N. entities, for their part, suspended support for Afghan government offices—including the Directorate of Mine Action Coordination, or DMAC, which had coordinated demining work there since 2012. Without financial aid and support, DMAC’s responsibilities were significantly reduced.

To avoid a rupture in its work in Afghanistan, UNMAS proposed setting up a temporary stand-in to take over the DMAC’s coordination work called UN-EMACCA: the United Nations Emergency Mine Action Coordination Center for Afghanistan. All funds for demining-related activities were to be channeled through this entity, instead of the DMAC, which would allow international donors to avoid offering financial support or legitimacy to the Taliban’s de facto authorities. But it failed to take off.

“I wanted to stop the brain drain after the change of government last year,” said Paul Heslop of UNMAS. “EMACCA was tasked to provide coordination of humanitarian mine action for six months. But in October, the donors reviewed the way we structured EMACCA and found that there was a substantial possibility of support being given to the de facto authorities. They were not prepared for that.”

In much the same way that sanctions meant to pressure the Taliban to respect human rights have driven Afghan civilians into poverty and hunger, withholding aid from the Taliban government is in effect stalling efforts to protect Afghans from landmines.

But there is also skepticism on the Taliban side. “We have serious problem with UNMAS. They are trying to destroy this center by taking away our authority,” said Qari Nooruddin Rustamkhail, the new director of DMAC, which is now under Taliban control. Rustamkhail believes that, rather than working with his office, the U.N. is now attempting to “build a parallel organization … so that they can do whatever they want.”

Heslop denies this claim, explaining that UNMAS’ main objective is to maintain a coordination mechanism for humanitarian activities until a government is either recognized or is able to self-fund the demining activities. With that in mind, he has put forward another new entity, the Humanitarian Mine Action Coordination Centre of Afghanistan or HMACCA. But it, too, is likely to fail due to another impasse with the DMAC.

“After three months of negotiations with the DMAC, we identified responsibilities between them and UNMAS. But the final sticking point is that they want us to be co-located, which would mean that we would have to pay the rent, pay the salaries and fuel the demining vehicles,” Heslop said. “Donors refused to fund it on the grounds that it lends substantive support to the de facto authorities.”

The lack of cooperation is a disappointment to advocates like Rowell. “Before August, the DMAC was one of the global success stories in mine action,” he told me. “They took on a lot of work and were very strong in terms of collaboration with NGOs. But as of April 1, 99 percent of the employees who were with the previous directorate—doing good work with the mine action—have been laid off due to funding shortages.”

Stuck in the Middle

Even before the Taliban takeover, funding for mine action in Afghanistan had been decreasing steadily, dropping from $113 million in 2011 to $32 million by 2020. But it ceased entirely when the Taliban took control of Kabul, the Afghan capital. Without consistent demining efforts, farmers cannot till their lands, children cannot safely go to school, and war-weary Afghans cannot build a safe future for themselves.

Crippling international sanctions and economic downturns have marred all efforts to rid the country of landmines, unexploded ordnances and ERWs—the legacies of war. This is particularly true due to the impacts of funding freezes on staffing. According to Heslop, UNMAS and DMAC together employed more than 5,000 Afghans for mine clearing and related activities. Now, that number has been reduced to 3,000, not to mention the impact it has on coordination bodies like the DMAC.

“They don’t have the capabilities,” Heslop said. “They have 12 people and no funds.”

In the absence of effective coordination, mine-related accidents have increased and data collection has taken a hit, he added. Eventually, the financial pressure introduced by the sanctions could lead to the complete disintegration of the demining directorate, which would be a dangerous setback for Afghans, who continue to traverse mine-laden fields.

Without consistent demining efforts, farmers cannot till their lands, children cannot safely go to school, and war-weary Afghans cannot build a safe future for themselves.

Rowell said the Danish Refugee Council had a good working relationship with the previous staff of the DMAC, who were appointed by the U.S.-backed Afghan government. But they also work well with newer staff appointed under the Taliban’s de facto rule.

“There is commitment on their part to do strong mine action work, but all the challenges around sanctions have made that very difficult. They are stuck in the middle of a lot of international politics,” Rowell noted.

Mine action is not only crucial to saving lives across Afghanistan, but is an essential first step for any developmental or humanitarian efforts.

“As this program is a humanitarian program, it is independent of politics,” Rustamkhail, the DMAC director, told me. “Without donations and the support of the international community, it is not possible for us to do our work. Our coordination center is near collapse. We can’t even pay salaries.”

According to UNMAS, the total funding for mine action in Afghanistan in 2021 was less than 20 percent of what it was in 2011, and civilian casualties resulting from ERWs and IEDs persist. Demining work would require at least $200 million in 2022-2023, and as of now, achieving that level of funding seems all but impossible.

Waiting for Aid

Since the beginning of mine-clearing programs in 1989, humanitarian organizations have cleared more than 1,200 square miles of land and destroyed almost 19 million explosive devices in Afghanistan, according to data Heslop shared with WPR. That is notable progress, but they still have roughly 575 square miles to go. Since the Taliban takeover, more than 165 people have died and 177 have been injured, but only 9 square miles of land have been cleared.

Fully demining Afghanistan will take time. As of 2021, only one of the country’s 34 provinces, Bamyan, was completely mine-free. The remaining 33 provinces still had explosive ordnances in 262 districts.

Afghanistan ratified the United Nations’ convention on landmines—known as the Ottawa Treaty or, in full, the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and their Destruction—on Sept. 11, 2002, thereby taking on the responsibility to destroy all of its mines by March 1, 2013. The U.S.-backed Afghan government later submitted a request to extend that deadline to March 2023, but the Taliban is unlikely to finish demining by then. Worse, it may not be able to request another extension, since no country currently recognizes it as the official government of Afghanistan.

Rustamkhail, though, says this technicality will not be a problem. The Taliban previously requested an extension to a deadline under the Convention of Cluster Munitions, and that was accepted and approved.

But even if the deadline is moved with nothing done to facilitate international donations and funding, it will be impossible for demining work to continue, Rustamkhail said.

Mine-clearing operations were once a rare success story for Afghanistan, saving lives and improving well-being even in the midst of conflict. The Afghans helped by these missions received a new lease on life, becoming able to move about freely and allow their children to play outside without fear. Demining has also opened up roads for travel and lands for grazing, agriculture and infrastructure development. Not many donor-funded programs in the country can boast such success.

According to a 2021 evaluation report by MAPA, the Taliban government may not actively hinder demining efforts in Afghanistan undertaken without its cooperation. The report points to an instance in 1988, when the armed group allowed demining activities to continue, with Mullah Omar, at the time the group’s spiritual leader, even instructing his soldiers to facilitate the projects.

Now that aid groups have access to previously inaccessible areas, this may be the best chance Afghans have to finish demining. But doing so depends on international funding. Until aid returns to Afghanistan, people like Salam will continue to lose loved ones to explosive ordnances.

“I haven’t seen my daughter since the day she was admitted to the Emergency Hospital,” Shaoli, the father of another victim in Helmand, told me. “I hope that the government removes this disease from our lands.”