Dangerously Digging for a Safer Afghanistan


Afghanistan is currently one of the most heavily affected countries by mine and explosive remnants of war (ERW) contamination. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and its subsequent ten-year occupation left a long-lasting legacy of contamination and casualties. Humanitarian Demining programs in Afghanistan started in 1989, but the internal conflict that followed in the early to mid 1990s only added to the degree of the problem and the impediment of clearance programs. Another source of harm began in 2001 when the United States and coalition partners intervened in Afghanistan and left behind massive amounts of unexploded ordnance (UXO). Despite extensive national and international efforts to demine Afghanistan, the country still faces the challenge of demining 591.68 km2 (legacy contamination attributed to the conflicts pre-2001) of land as of 2016. There are many factors still delaying progress. Along with the great toll on human life, the current contamination greatly impedes development, economic growth and has stopped many Afghans from safely returning to their homes. In addition to the scale of legacy contamination figured above, a recent survey which has been carried out in early 2017 identified over 450 km2 contaminated by ERW and Pressure Plate Improvised Explosive Devices[1], all attributed to the post 2001 and current armed conflicts.

Afghanistan is party to both the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Treaty and the Convention on Cluster Munitions, facing deadlines to clear and destroy all mines and cluster munitions from its territory respectively by 2023 and by 2021. The Directorate of Mine Action Coordination (DMAC), as part of the Afghanistan National Disaster Management Authority (ANDMA), has been managing programs to reach these deadlines since 2016, programs previously run by the United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS). The programs now run by DMAC focus on the surveying of land, and the clearance of mined areas and destruction of explosive devices. The Afghan government works with over 40 mine action[2] organizations out of which seven of them are the main and largest including five national non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and two international NGOs to clear and secure the land.

However, to reach the requirements set by the Mine Ban Treaty and the Convention on Cluster Munitions, there are still scads of work to be done with multiple factors working against the Afghans’ goal of fully decontaminating their country.

Current Challenges

The first major factor disrupting the decontamination process in Afghanistan is that the demining is being done not in a time of peace, but during a time in which the security situation in some areas is still very risky. The increase in internal strife has been caused by a rise in Taliban activity since the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces left Afghan security to national forces in 2014. Demining is all the more difficult when some areas are being cleared at the same in which new areas are being contaminated. There is also the direct physical risk for any mine action worker if there is little protection provided to them, furthermore most organizations and governments would reasonably not be willing to take that risk. For example, the new surveyed areas in 17 provinces are mainly contaminated by ERW and pressure plates make up a majority of the devices currently under target to be cleared, but an estimated 50 percent of these areas are challenging due to insecurity. So far the humanitarian mine action program clears landmines and ERW but not IEDs to ensure the neutrality of the program is not affected but due to the fact that PPIED[3], which is victim activated and by definition comes under the antipersonnel mines, studies are being undertaken to assess the circumstances around engaging the humanitarian mine action program in clearance of these lethal devices too, but of course measures will be needed to be put in place to sustain impartiality of the program.

The second factor blocking plans for DMAC is funding. In 2013, the Afghan government was forced to apply for an extension to fulfil their obligations under the Mine Ban Treaty, one of the main impediments being financial resources. Five years later the case has remained the same, in the past two years only 40 percent of the estimated necessary funds have been received. Funding becomes more complicated when the situation changes after the planning stage, such was the case when there was an upsurge in the use of mines and munitions from the Taliban.

A majority of the land cleared thus far has been used for agricultural and grazing, while much of the remaining antipersonnel contaminated land is mainly mountainous. Of the remaining legacy contamination, almost half of it is contaminated by anti-vehicle mines. Also, since the transition from internationally managed to nationally managed projects, the priority of mine action has risen in Afghanistan. Mine action is now included in projects of almost every national development strategic paper such as the Afghanistan National Peace and Development Framework, Sustainable Development Goals, some of the National Priority Programs (agriculture and minerals) and the Afghanistan National Development Strategy. There is currently a law awaiting approval to implement fully both the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Treaty and the Cluster Munition Convention’s requirements. This law, however, is being held up in the Ministry of Justice. Currently DMAC is advocating for the passage of the law, along with numerous NGOs, applying pressure via highlighting this issue in the reports the office of the President receives from DMAC every six months, among other avenues.

Along with pushing for the passage of national regulations to assist in the process of decontamination, DMAC is also attempting to raise necessary funding for its project whilst funding has been decreasing in recent years. Afghanistan depends heavily on international donors to complete its land clearing programs. In a country, whose economy is mainly agriculturally based, land clearance is critical for sustainable development to continue and for national economic independence to increase. It is also crucial that there be increased efforts to rid the country of the Taliban and passage of national laws to reach the deadlines outlined in Articles 4 and 5 of their respective treaties, as well as provide a safer future for Afghanistan.

Information for this editorial was gathered from Mr. Mohammad Shafiq Yosufi, Director of the Directorate of Mine Action Coordination (DMAC) of the Afghanistan National Disaster Management Authority (ANDMA) and the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor’s Afghanistan country profile.

[1] This type of devices by APMBC definition are classified as antipersonnel mines

[2] Mine action organizations are involved in various pillars of mine action i.e. demining, mine risk education and victim assistance

[3] A type of IEDs being used in Afghanistan out of many others i.e. remote controlled, magnetic, etc.

Ryan Perry is an Analyst at IB Consultancy and holds a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and International Relations from Syracuse University. He is currently enrolled in a Master’s of Science in Political Science at the University of Leiden. 

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Ryan Perry is an Analyst at IB Consultancy and holds a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and International Relations from Syracuse University. He is currently enrolled in a Master's of Science in Political Science at the University of Leiden.