Book Review

Endless Afghan War

A nation plagued by unexploded bombs

By Jon Queally

As seen in other abandoned battlefields in the annals of U.S. wars overseas, new reporting out of Afghanistan shows that among the other deadly legacies left behind by foreign troops are tens-of-thousands of unexploded munitions dropped from the sky or left in the ground that will continue to kill and maim civilians long after the “official” fighting has stopped.

Reporting from the Afghan city of Khost, Guardian foreign correspondent Sune Engel Rasmussen reviewed data and spoke with members of the UN’s Mine Action Coordination Centre of Afghanistan (MACCA) to learn that unexploded bombs and shells in Afghanistan “are killing and maiming people at a rate of more than one a day”—the vast majority of whom are children.

Citing MACCA statistics from 2014, Rasmussen reports “there were 369 casualties in the past year, including 89 deaths. The rate rose significantly in October and November when 93 people were injured, 84 of them children. Twenty died.”

Offering a tragic account of siblings from a single family, Rasmussen relays the story of 10-year-old Mohammad Yunus and his eight-year-old sister, Sahar Bibi. “The grenades that killed Mohammad and Sahar, as they were combing through dry branches to collect firewood for their family, should have detonated long before they were picked up. Instead, the shells exploded in the children’s hands and ripped through their bodies, killing them instantly. The blasts also injured their two brothers, aged five and 12.”

In a war that has spanned more than twelve years—with no end in sight—it is not surprising that the number of unexploded ordnances (UXOs) has risen to alarming rates, but as was true in the U.S. war in southeast Asia—where the nations of Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia continue to suffer the consequences of years of carpet bombing by the U.S. military—the problem will not go away just because the war is at some point declared over.

As the Guardian reports:

“Though first steps have been taken to tackle [UXO], agencies complain the U.S.-led forces are withholding information about where they may have dropped explosives.

“‘We ask for information about battlefields that may have UXO, but we have received coordinates for only 300 locations. It’s not enough,’ said Mohammad Sediq Rashid, director of MACCA.

“Colonel Calvin Hudson, NATO’s Combined Joint Task Force chief engineer in Kabul, says NATO gives as much information to mine-clearing agencies as possible without compromising operational security—coordinates for areas where Afghan forces continue their operations are withheld.

“Much of the fighting in Afghanistan has taken place in and around residential areas, increasing the risk of civilian casualties in the aftermath of the war. UK and U.S. diplomats emphasize that international law does not give their countries a responsibility to clear battlefields. But that does not absolve NATO countries of their duty to clean up after themselves, said Rashid.

“‘It is a moral responsibility,’ he said, adding that scattering unstable explosives around the country defeats the initial purpose of the war. ‘Military intervention is the last resort, and it’s intended to protect people and stabilize the country,’ he said.”

Common Dreams, January 29, 2015