Attrition: Aftermath

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November 8, 2019: The effort to clear mines and unexploded ammunition in Afghanistan achieved a milestone recently when Banyan province was declared mine-free, the first province to reach that goal. One reason for that has been the use of women volunteers for demining teams. Afghan rural women have a lot of experience with these hidden hazards. Most of the landmine casualties occur early in the year as fields are prepared for planting, and then again later in the year when the crops are harvested. Women are often the first to spot unexploded devices, and nearly half the casualties from these are under 18, a lot of them young children who are curious and not yet fully aware of the danger from these metallic items rain and plowing have brought to the surface.

Afghanistan still suffers nearly 1,500 casualties a year from landmines and unexploded items. These casualties have increased since 2014 because most foreign troops left that year and the Taliban and drug gangs began using landmines to protect themselves and keep the Afghan security forces away from heroin production sites. The Taliban have been seeking to overthrow the democratic government and replace it with a religious dictatorship that would tax drug gangs rather than planting landmines and other explosives for them. This does not appeal to most Afghans. In 2014 there were about 900 mine and explosive device casualties. By 2017 that had more than doubled, to 2,300 and the casualties keep increasing. The mine-clearing effort greatly increased after the Taliban were driven from power in 2001. But in the last decade, the Taliban have been increasingly planting more mines themselves and attacking or scaring away mine clearing teams.

Mine clearance didn’t really get started until 1989, soon after the Russian invaders left. Most of the unexploded items were Russian, the aftermath of a failed nine year effort to gain control of the Afghan countryside. Then came nearly a decade of civil war followed by several years of Taliban rule. This created more unexploded stuff than mine clearance efforts could remove. There were plenty of Western nations willing to send in demining teams as well as train, and equip, Afghans to do it. But that process did not really get going until 2002 after the Taliban were gone and the fighting diminished considerably.

Since the Russians left the country nearly 19 million mines and other explosive devices have been cleared. Little mine-clearing had taken place between 1989 and 2001. At that point, the unexploded debris was a major problem as there were 19,000 casualties from this stuff in 2001. By 2006 that had been cut in half. Things changed in 2007 as the Taliban, seeking to make a comeback, found the demining effort was getting in their way. Up until then, the Taliban had not bothered the demining teams. For one thing, doing so made the locals very angry and a growing number of rural Afghans were not happy to see the Taliban making a comeback in the first place. The increase in drug production coupled with economic growth (from foreign aid and less fighting) made it possible for a growing number of young Afghans to become heroin or opium addicts. During the late 1990s, when the Taliban controlled most of the country, they taxed the drug gangs heavily and pressured the gangs to make sure their product was exported, not sold to locals. After 2001 the Taliban restrictions on peddling drugs to Afghans disappeared and the Taliban lost what little popularity they once had for ending the 1990s civil war. The Taliban effort to keep deminers out of many areas backfired but it took a decade for the Taliban to realize they were creating too many enemies in the country side with that policy and they relented. That put the demining effort back into high gear.

The drug gangs also learned to be less enthusiastic about planting landmines. Only about four percent of the items cleared are landmines. Most of the dangerous debris consists of unexploded shells, bombs, grenades and rocket warheads. A major risk for children are the bomblets from Russian cluster bombs. Many of these did not explode when they landed and were quickly covered by dirt or other debris and these items were seen as interesting discoveries by young children. The kids would use them as playthings, increasing the risk of detonation.

By 2014 the demining effort, now staffed mainly by Afghans, had made great progress. There were only 900 mine casualties that year. But as the Taliban slowly returned and the drug gangs expanded their operations, more landmines were planted and more unexploded items littered the landscape. By 2017 mine casualties had increased to 2,700.

Afghanistan was a democracy after 2008 and one thing that was sure to attract votes was real progress in clearing explosives and reducing the casualties. This eventually made it possible for women to undergo training and join the professional demining teams. There had always been a lot of women involved, informally, clearing and, more importantly detecting and marking where explosives had been found. The women tend to be more careful when clearing them as well, so now women can volunteer, go through the training and be paid to clear mines in some provinces. This is largely seasonal work. Little of it is done during the cold weather, especially when there is snow on the ground. Demining is expected to become an acceptable way for women to earn some extra money for themselves and their families a few months a year. All those efforts have reduced mine casualties nearly 50 percent since 2017.

Despite the fact that over 95 percent of the explosive items are not landmines, it is landmines that are the most widely known danger. As a result of that landmines were outlawed by an international treaty in 1999. In reality, this mainly applied to nations that didn't have landmines or didn't have any reason to use them. Islamic terrorists, rebels and drug gangs have not signed the international agreement and find the mines a cheap way to control civilian populations and slow down anyone coming after them. It takes more time, money, and effort to remove these mines than to place them. Most countries needing to get rid of mines seek to speed up mine clearing by training local volunteers to be part of the part-time mine-clearing teams. The government provides training, pay (usually pretty good by local standards), health and life insurance and other benefits. When a new bunch of mines or unstable explosives are found, usually by an animal coming across them, the team gets to work.

Despite efforts like this it has not been a promising time for those seeking to enforce the ban on the use of landmines. In the last few years terrorists and rebels in Afghanistan, Colombia, India, Myanmar, Nigeria, Pakistan, Thailand, Yemen and Burma planted landmines (and other explosive devices) while only in Burma does the military still use them. Also, there are eleven countries still manufacturing landmines (China, Cuba, India, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Singapore, South Korea, and Vietnam.) Arms dealers will still provide large quantities of Russian and Chinese landmines, many of them Cold War surplus and not very reliable because of age. China, Russia, and other communist nations were major producers of landmines during the Cold War. The mines were produced not just for use against potential enemies but to aid in keeping the borders closed and preventing citizens from leaving these unpleasant dictatorships.

There is a growing list of outlaw organizations that are ignoring the 1999 Ottawa Convention to ban landmines. The Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan are manufacturing landmines in primitive workshops and using them against Pakistani, Afghan, and foreign soldiers, as well as Afghan civilians who refuse to support the Islamic terrorist group.

Despite the 1999 treaty, landmines are still causing over 7,000 casualties a year worldwide. About twenty percent of the victims are killed and 90 percent of them are males. This is largely because men are more likely to be out in the bush or working farmlands that still contain mines. A third of the casualties are security personnel (police and soldiers). Afghanistan leads the world in landmine casualties. Most landmine losses these days occur in countries where rebels and criminals are still using landmines, either factory-made ones from countries that did not sign the Ottawa Convention or locally made models.

Landmines are simple to make and workshops are easily set up to do it. There's no shortage of mines out there, despite the fact that in the first few years after the 1999 Ottawa Convention was signed over 25 million landmines, in the arsenals of over fifty nations, were destroyed. But these nations were not users and rarely sold them either. Those who want landmines find ways to obtain and use them. The Taliban are the latest group to demonstrate this. Leftist rebels in Colombia have been making their own mines for years, as have Islamic and communist rebels in the Philippines. There are believed to be over 100 million mines still in the ground and at least as many in military warehouses for future use.

The 1999 Ottawa Convention was supposed to have reduced land mine casualties among civilians. It hasn't worked because the owners of the largest landmine stockpiles, Russia and China, refused to sign. Chinese land mines are still available on the international arms black market. China is believed to have the largest stockpile, mostly of anti-personnel mines. The old ones are often (but not always) sold before they become worthless. But even these mines, which go for $5-10 each, are too expensive for many of the criminal organizations that buy them. Land mines, competitive with the factory built ones from China, can be built for less than three dollars each. You can find all the technical data you need on the Internet. On the plus side, these locally made anti-personnel mines tend to be less potent than factory made ones and thus heavy “mine boots” provide even better protection when the wearers encounters a locally made mine.

Anti-vehicle mines are increasingly popular and are particularly common in poor countries where there are still a lot of dirt roads traveled by buses and trucks, carrying dozens of passengers each. While these mines are usually intended for military vehicles, mines can't tell the difference. Just another reason why Afghanistan has the largest number of annual mine casualties in the world.

Finally, there is the growing number of unexploded bombs, shells, grenades and such lying about. Most of these will not explode unless you handle them very roughly. That often happens when people try to salvage these items for scrap by taking the explosives out and selling the metal and explosives separately. The process often proceeds without incident but when it doesn’t there are few survivors to describe exactly what was done to cause the explosion.

 


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