Demining Afghanistan during war

WASHINGTON–Afghanistan has 10 million land mines.

And while a war may end, casualties continue.

According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance to Afghanistan, as of 2010, an average of 50 Afghani citizens were killed or severely injured each month due to landmines.

Between 2004 and 2009, this accounted for over 4,000 civilian casualties.

“Mines persist after war is over,” said Andrew Lyons, the U.S. vice president of Halo Trust, the world’s oldest and largest humanitarian land-mine clearance organization.

Afghanistan has one of the highest levels of contamination from landmines and explosive remnants of war. Kabul is the most heavily mined capital in the world.

This contamination is mainly a result of the Soviet invasion in 1979 followed by internal armed conflicts from 1992 to 2001. Most recently, mine-laying has been carried out between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance. Complicating this landscape, various forces have frequently mined the same areas at different times.

And while mine clearance teams have made significant progress, according to Lyons, the U.S.-led insurgency since late 2001 has added considerable quantities of unexploded ordinances.

(This includes bombs, bullets, shells, grenades, land mines and naval mines that failed to explode when they were employed. They still pose threat of detonation decades after used or discarded.)

The US has not used antipersonnel mines since 1991, nor produced them since 1997. However, leftover unexploded ordinances still cause casualties.

“We cleared over half a million landmines from Afghanistan,” Lyons said.

Between 1988 and  2010, HALO Afghanistan destroyed over 736,000 mines, 10 million items of large caliber ammunition and 45.6 million bullets.

But this still leaves over 9 million landmines.

“We go and clear the areas where combat is over and people are trying to move back,” Lyons said. “We’re up in the northern and central parts of Afghanistan and out in the West.”

From 2005 to 2007, Lyons ran Halo’s clearance operations in Afghanistan. He said Halo’s work focuses on clearing minefields from various phases of past conflict rather than in current combat zones.

“We’re not down there clearing unexploded ordinances from the current conflict,” Lyons said. “Having said that, I have no doubt there’s a lot of ordinance being fired at by both sides that fails to explode.

And although it is the U.S. troops currently leaving unexploded ordinances, it is U.S. funding that provides for the mine-clearing.

According to Lyons, “the U.S. government is one of the largest donors to Halo’s operations around the world.”

U.S. donors to Halo include: its Agency for International Development, Department of Agriculture, Department of Defense, and the Department of State.

According to a spokesperson for the U.S. Humanitarian De-mining Research and Development Program, “Humanitarian de-mining, as carried out by Halo Trust, is the vital first step for reconstruction in post-conflict areas.”

“Our donations help accomplish our goal to remove lingering remnants of war, allowing refugees to return to their homes safely.”

“We’re making steady progress in clearing up the land mines and other explosive remnants of war, dating back to 1979 and going through 2001,” Lyons said. “And that’s very heartening.”

But, mine-clearing in Afghanistan has much further to go.

“What’s less heartening,” Lyons add, “is in other parts of the country there’s a current conflict going on that’s going to produce more remnants of war for us to clear up in the future.”

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