The U.S.-led coalition is failing to clear unexploded munitions from the Afghan bases it’s demolishing as it withdraws its combat forces, leaving a deadly legacy that has killed and maimed a growing number of civilians, United Nations demining officials charge.
Grenades and shells left on the firing ranges where troops practiced with their weapons, and munitions fired at or from the bases that didn’t initially explode, have killed more than 50 civilians in nine provinces since 2008, nearly all of them in 2012 and this year, after the base closings began in earnest, said Mohammad Sediq Rashid, director of the Mine Action Coordination Centre of Afghanistan. His organization coordinates demining across Afghanistan and falls under the U.N.’s Mine Action Service Office.
And those are just the cases in which the U.N. has specific details about the location of the ordnance. Broadly, in 2012 there were 363 civilian casualties in Afghanistan – or about 30 per month – that were attributed primarily to unexploded ordnance, though in some cases also to mines, Rashid said. For the first half of this year, there have been 241 such casualties, an increase of about 10 per month, he said.
Abigail Hartley, the program manager for the U.N. mine office, said she firmly believes that the increase in casualties is because of the so-called “explosive remnants of war” left in and around the closed bases and ranges.
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“The international military is supposed to be here protecting civilians and basically as a result of their presence, civilians are getting killed,” Hartley said.
The failure of the American-led International Security Assistance Force to undertake a proper cleanup is a violation of its obligations under the 1980 Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, Hartley said.
ISAF has standard procedures in place to remove unexploded ordnance from firing ranges at its bases throughout Afghanistan, John Manley, an ISAF spokesman, wrote in an emailed statement Thursday in response to questions about left-behind ordnance.
“These procedures include mitigating ranges that are no longer in use,” he wrote. “Safety of civilians is one of our highest priorities.”
Hartley said her office has asked to see these standard procedures but hasn’t received them, and also has received no evidence of any cleanup.
Sarah Marshall, the deputy program manager of the U.N. mine office, said she and other officials have been meeting with ISAF officials for nearly two months trying to get more information on the closed bases and any cleanup efforts, but they have made little progress.
“And at a rate of 10 additional casualties a month, I’d say that two months is a long time,” she said.
In late 2011 there were about 800 U.S. and NATO facilities across Afghanistan, according to ISAF figures. More than 600 of them, mostly tiny bases used by a few dozen troops or less, already had been shut down or handed over to the Afghan government by the beginning of 2013, when the focus began shifting to larger bases.
Some of those closed had large, formal firing ranges with built-up berms, others had informal areas used for practice and sighting in weapons.
In many cases, those killed or injured around the bases are collecting scrap metal, grazing livestock or collecting firewood, Rashid said.
“As soon as a base is abandoned, it’s well known that people will rush towards it to find scrap metal to sell,” he said.
The ongoing U.N.-led effort to remove mines – which still has 10 years of work left – also could take on the base cleanup, but it doesn’t have the hundreds of millions of dollars in funding such a cleanup likely would require, Hartley said.
The U.N. did clean two locations where the problems were so severe that they were deemed emergencies, she said.
At a former base north of Kabul near Bagram Air Field, eight civilians were hurt in an explosion on a firing range in January. A U.N.-funded clearance team pulled more than 400 pieces of ordnance off that site, Rashid said.
Another U.N.-funded team is in the middle of cleaning up what it believes to be the firing range for the recently closed New Zealand Provincial Reconstruction Team on the edge of the town of Bamiyan in central Afghanistan, the U.N. mine office said. So far, the U.N. team, which is still working at the site, has found more than 500 pieces of ordnance.
The New Zealand military said it cleaned up its range but declined to give the range’s coordinates, Hartley said. Local officials in Bamiyan said the site in question was indeed the New Zealand range, Rashid said.
The unexploded munitions found include 40mm high-explosive grenades, hand grenades, mortar rounds and other shells that are clearly of NATO origin, he said.
Other items are of Soviet or Chinese origin and may date to the earlier conflicts in Afghanistan.
In meetings, ISAF officials have failed to give the locations of firing ranges on the closed bases, what methods they used to clean them up or where fighting took place that inevitably would have left other unexploded ordnance behind, Marshall said.
If the U.N. mine office knew the pertinent locations, it could not only do surveys of the ordnance, but also educate locals on the dangers, she said.
Marshall said that ISAF has done little more than dodge blame and offer excuses when confronted with the U.N. findings. International coalition officials insist they’ve cleaned up the abandoned bases properly, but they offer no proof and blame deaths and injuries on leftovers from earlier wars, she said. Marshall also said ISAF officials dispute the U.N. casualty data and argue about the location of some the incidents, saying the U.N. couldn’t prove they were on ranges or in proximity to bases.
She said one American colonel even suggested that Afghan children had moved non-NATO ordnance onto a NATO firing range, where it then detonated. U.S. officials did not address her charge.
ISAF officials said that since many bases are turned over to Afghan security forces that need firing ranges, it makes no sense to clean them up, Hartley said.
That’s logical, she said, but ISAF also has used that explanation for a failure to dispose of unexploded ordnance at bases that were simply demolished and turned into, say, farmland.
“The biggest question I have, is where are ISAF’s (cleanup) reports?” Hartley said. “Instead of discrediting my data, prove to me that you’ve done the clearance and due diligence. I can give you statistics for every minefield that has been cleared this year, so why can’t ISAF say how many square meters of firing range it has cleared, how many items it found, and what its process was for signing off on the work?”