The Killing Fields
In the absence of a process to fully eliminate landmines, large-scale information campaigns are needed to educate the people about how to protect themselves from these deadly devices.
Many areas of war-ravaged Afghanistan are still strewn with deadly landmines and unexploded ordnance, putting the lives of the residents at risk and increasing the casualty figures which are already in the millions due to the continued conflict and strife in the country. According to the Mine Action Coordination Centre of Afghanistan, 100 people suffer casualties each month on average in explosions caused by these devices. In 2002, mines and unexploded devices inflicted casualties on 25 persons per day on average. Over the past 35 years, thousands of people have been killed and maimed in Afghanistan in landmine explosions.
Although there have been significant developments in removing and defusing landmines and unexploded ordnance ( UXO) in the last one decade, the threat is far from being neutralized.
Most of the landmines were placed during the Soviet occupation by Soviet troops as well as the Afghan militant groups fighting them. After 2001, the Afghan Taliban fighting the international troops started using roadside bombs, known as Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), excessively to target the soldiers of the United Statesled International Security & Assistance Forces as well as the Afghan National Security Forces. Since many of these IEDs and bombs failed to explode, or were left unexploded by the militants, they continue to cause casualties, especially in the countryside.
The Mine Action Coordination Centre of Afghanistan estimates that over 4000 areas of the country are still littered with mines and UXOs. Keeping in view the functioning of state and civil society institutions in Afghanistan, the figure seems conservative as there may be many more areas containing these deadly devices. Landmines are a threat to the civilians and security forces personnel alike and have also been putting a damper on the motivations of international construction and relief workers stationed in Afghanistan. Their presence has significantly impeded the process of construction and development in war-torn Afghanistan as investors refuse to work in the areas where landmines and UXOs are believed to be in abundance for fear of losing their precious and costly equipment.
To date hardly any assessment of the economic cost of mines and UXOs has been done. The human and economic cost of landmines and UXO makes it a very important issue which has failed to receive the attention of the Afghan government. The role of the international security forces in the removal of landmines is quite commendable. In fact, it is because of their efforts that hundreds of thousands of mines and UXOs were detected and defused. However, the capabilities of the international forces to neutralize the threat are limited. Lack of motivation and personnel has also impeded their endeavors to fully eliminate landmines and UXOs from Afghanistan.
On the other hand, the Afghan government has failed to lead from the front. Its belief that the removal of landmines is the responsibility of international forces is extremely erroneous. Expecting others to do what they are supposed to do for themselves, especially in the context of security, has
become a part of the Afghan psyche. This mindset has its roots in the Afghan social psychology of doing nothing and blaming others for their country’s misfortunes. Many Afghans believe that whatever has happened in their country since the Soviet occupation is a conspiracy of foreign powers, with the Afghans having nothing to do with it. This belief is largely unfounded. If the Afghans have to deal with the repercussions of what has happened to their ill-fated country, they have to take responsibility of their situation. The issue of human and economic cost of landmines and UXOs is no exception.
If the threat from these deadly devices has to be effectively contained and ultimately eliminated, a multipronged strategy needs to be adopted. The foremost strand of this strategy should be the use of state-of-the-art technology. Keeping in view the quality of technology available in Afghanistan, it seems difficult that Kabul could undertake the job on its own. The task requires advanced technologies such as geological and geographical mapping through satellite and robotics which can only be provided by the U.S. and other developed countries. Fortunately, the U.S. and Afghanistan have signed the long-delayed Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA), which would allow around 10,000 U.S. forces personnel, including engineers and technologists, to remain in Afghanistan beyond December 31, 2014, the date by which most of the troops would have left the country.
Afghanistan should take maximum advantage of their presence, especially to remove and eliminate landmines. In the meanwhile, government institutions of Afghanistan should develop the capacity to decrease the threat from the devices. The state should earmark resources to buy technology like robots to track and defuse landmines and other unused ordnance. The nature of risk to human lives from these devices is such that only an excessive use of technology could eliminate the threat.
While technology could be instrumental in dealing with the grave problem, the personnel needed to use it and the physical work required is going to prove quite daunting. In the absence of a skilled workforce, Afghanistan should send its officials abroad for relevant training.
In order to mitigate the threat and reduce casualties from landmines and UXOs, large-scale information and communication campaigns are needed across the country. The campaigns should educate the people about how to protect themselves from these devices. The people should also be told that if they spot a suspected device, they should immediately inform the relevant state authorities instead of attempting to defuse the device themselves.
The loss of human lives due to landmines and UXOs, as well as the economic losses, could be significantly decreased by adopting precautionary measures. The Afghan authorities are also expected to end the blame game and start taking ownership of the process of dealing with the aftereffects of the conflict. The writer holds a Ph.D in International Relations. He specializes in political ideologies, regional studies, conflict and peace studies, terrorism-counterterrorism and governance.