Afghanistan, a country torn apart by decades of conflict, is the world’s most contaminated country in terms of mines and explosive remnants of war (ERW). This contamination dates back to the Soviet intervention from 1979 to 1989 and has continued through the civil war and Taliban regime, the US-led campaign to overthrow the Taliban in 2001, and the ongoing conflict between insurgent groups and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and the Afghan National Army (ANA).
History of the programme
What is known as the Mine Action Programme of Afghanistan (MAPA) was established after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 and was initially coordinated from Pakistan. Once security improved with the emergence of the Taliban in 1994, the NGOs opened offices in Afghanistan and were able to operate in areas under both Taliban and Northern Alliance control. Indeed, mine action was widely recognised as one of the most effective aid programmes in the country.
The collapse of the Taliban regime ushered in a new phase of expansion for the programme. The NGOs resumed operations rapidly to conduct an assessment of new hazards resulting from coalition fighting. The mine and ERW risk education (M/ERW RE) programme was overhauled, with female instructors re-engaged and programmes implemented to reach refugee camps and transit centres. With the influx of funds, large-scale reconstruction projects began that required the support of mine action, particularly roads and airports.
In 2002, the new Government of Afghanistan requested UNMAS to assist it in coordinating mine action. UNMAS thus assumed responsibility for the UNMACA, which moved from Islamabad to Kabul. In 2008, the UNMACA rebranded itself as the Mine Action Coordination Centre of Afghanistan (MACCA) as a step towards nationalisation and the eventual transition of the programme’s coordination responsibility to the Afghan Government.
The programme today
Today, the programme coordinated by MACCA comprises over 40 organisations and employs 8,800 Afghans. MACCA itself is now an all-Afghan entity. Some coordination functions such as post-demining impact assessments have been transferred to the government agency for mine action, the Department of Mine Clearance (DMC) under the Afghanistan National Disaster Management Authority (ANDMA).
The remaining challenge is significant. While 78% of the contamination has been cleared, the remaining 22% makes Afghanistan the most contaminated country in the world. Over 4,300 minefields and battlefields covering more than 500 square kilometres continue to impact over 1,600 communities. While there has been an 80% reduction in civilian casualties since 2001, Afghanistan still suffered more civilian casualties in 2013 than Cambodia, Colombia or Iraq, having recorded an average of 39 mine and ERW casualties per month. Moreover, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) recorded 2,890 civilian casualties in 2013 as a result of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), an increase of 14% compared to 2012.
New contamination has come to light following the withdrawal of ISAF from its bases and high-explosive firing ranges, around which 74 civilian casualties have been recorded since 2010. The majority of these have occurred in the past two years, indicating an increasing trend. 88% of these casualties have been children. While the full extent of this contamination has yet to be quantified, it is estimated to cover an area twice the size of New York City. Clearance of these new hazards has begun and is coordinated by MACCA as the body mandated to accredit clearance organisations, monitor operations, and issue completion certificates. The US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) has cleared 66 square kilometres in 17 firing ranges. To date, it has removed or destroyed over 30,000 items of unexploded ordnance and almost 12,000 small arms ammunition. While work continues to quantify ground fighting and air munitions sites, the manner in which clearance is proceeding is a good example of the coordination work that MACCA does. In light of the reduction in funding for historical contamination (ex-Soviet, Taliban, Northern Alliance), the immediate issue is resourcing this coordination function as these new clearance operations expand.
The ongoing conflict in many parts of the country and the security threats presented by the use of IEDs by insurgents pose a further challenge. In some communities, IEDs have been laid around villages in patterns resembling traditional minefields, although not to the same density as those laid by the Soviets. MACCA approaches the IED issue carefully to ensure it maintains its humanitarian neutrality and does not deal with IEDs in active conflict areas, which would lead to deminers being perceived as parties to the conflict. However, it is important to not ignore the humanitarian imperative of clearing abandoned IEDs in areas where fighting has stopped.
Clearly, the challenge of clearing old and new contamination alongside an ongoing insurgency is a major one. Nevertheless, the programme has succeeded in meeting several significant milestones. Since 1989, the programme has released over 1,900 square kilometres to communities and cleared over 22,000 hazardous areas, while almost 21 million people have received risk education. In spite of a shortfall in funding for the 2013-14 period, the programme succeeded in doing more with less and achieved the first year of Afghanistan’s workplan under the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Treaty (APMBT) Extension Request.
In addition to clearance, considerable progress has been made in the areas of M/ERW RE and victim assistance. Risk education messages have been incorporated into the national education curriculum, and, since 2008, almost 24,000 Ministry of Education teachers have been trained and provided the resources to teach M/ERW RE in classrooms. M/ERW RE training has also been mainstreamed to other government networks, such as midwives, vaccinators, community health workers, police, as well as Mullah Imams through the Ministry of Religious Affairs with the support of the United Arab Emirates. Such initiatives have succeeded in expanding the programme to reach more impacted communities. MACCA currently supports this transition to the ministries through technical advice, external monitoring and quality management.
Afghanistan’s mine action programme represents a unique case in many ways: Mine clearance is carried out by organisations managed and owned entirely by Afghans. The continuity offered by these managers who have been associated with the programme over a long period is one of the programme’s greatest strengths.
Looking to the future, the programme’s primary objective is to bring the APMBT work plan to completion by 2023. There are a number of aspects to consider to achieve this objective: continued careful and strategic planning, investigation into new technologies, continued adaptation of the programme’s structure and transition of functions to DMC and other relevant state institutions, and a significant influx of donor funds.
In the same way that bombs from the Second World War are still discovered in Europe, the issue posed by ERW will continue to be a problem in Afghanistan for many years to come. Fortunately, MACCA has proven itself capable of weathering several eras of uncertainty and transition during its 25-year history. It coordinates a capable and productive programme that enhances the wellbeing of people in mine‐affected communities; it simply needs the funding to deliver.
 See: K. Mohammad, T. Paterson, Q. Tariq, B. van Ree (2000), Review of UNOCHA’s Mine Action Programme for Afghanistan. Available at: www.alnap.org/pool/files/erd-3007-full.pdf. Last accessed: 12 April 2014.
 IED casualties are recorded by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA). See: UNAMA (2013), Annual Report on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict. Available at: http://unama.unmissions.org/Portals/UNAMA/human%20rights/Feb_8_2014_PoC-report_2013-Full-report-ENG.pdf. Last accessed: 15 April 2014.
 Data as of end of March 2014.