Waste of War Still Killing in Afghanistan

NEW YORK – For the first time, many more civilians are being killed and maimed in Afghanistan by dud munitions than by landmines, which were more or less outlawed in 1999 but linger around the world as the wreckage of earlier wars.

A study published in Friday’s British Medical Journal [.pdf] says that the biggest problem is now unexploded ordnance (UXO) – incidentally, much easier and cheaper to get rid of than landmines – which includes grenades, bombs, mortar shells, and cluster munitions that fail to detonate on impact.

Using data collected by the United Nations Mine Action Center and the International Committee of the Red Cross, researchers discovered that in fact, the casualty ratio had precisely "flipped" in recent years. As the proportion of injuries from UXO went from 37 percent in 1997 to 57 percent in 2002, the proportion of injuries from landmines fell correspondingly from 57 percent to 36 percent.

And these numbers only tell part of the story, said one of the two lead researchers, Dr. Oleg Bilukha of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States.

"The real casualties are at least twice as much, maybe more," he told IPS. "For example, deaths represent only 7 percent, while in other countries [burdened with landmines and other UXO] we know that they are 30 to 50 percent of casualties."

In essence, if the victim didn’t live long enough to make it to the nearest clinic, their death went unreported. Tragically, nearly half of the injuries from dud munitions were among children, mostly boys, who had been playing or tampering with the explosives.

Most of the landmines in Afghanistan are left over from the decade-long Soviet occupation of the 1980s, but watchdog groups say that newer UXO accumulated during the U.S. invasion to oust the Taliban regime in October 2001.

According to Human Rights Watch, "[C]luster bombs played a role throughout the U.S. air campaign. In the first week alone, Air Force B-1 bombers reportedly dropped fifty CBU-87s, containing 10,100 bomblets, in five missions."

Bilukha was cautious in explaining the rising toll in Afghanistan, noting that the numbers started shifting before the U.S. air attacks and that the available data is too limited to map specific battle areas to specific injuries.

But he hoped the study would inform policy debates about how to modify these munitions to make them less dangerous to civilians.

"Should we make [cluster and other munitions] more noticeable, so people will not stumble over them, or less noticeable, so children will not pick them up? This is the question we are posing," he said.

In November 2003, dozens of humanitarian groups from 42 countries joined together at The Hague in the Netherlands to urge a global moratorium on the use, production and trade of cluster munitions, which scatter hundreds of "bomblets" and are responsible for the deaths of thousands of civilians worldwide.

They hoped to convince governments who had signed the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), a 1980 treaty banning the most inhumane and indiscriminate weapons, to ratify a new protocol on UXOs.

Just over a year later, the Cluster Munitions Coalition says that the lack of progress has "called into question the usefulness of the CCW" treaty itself. In an irate closing statement at the CCW’s annual meeting last fall, Coalition delegates complained that a session of military experts tasked with addressing the humanitarian impact of cluster munitions was adjourned after just half an hour.

"Some of the more progressive governments – Switzerland, Norway, Iceland, New Zealand – are starting to see that this is a problem, and made statements at the CCW," said Thomas Nash of Mines Action Canada.

"But the main holders of these weapons – the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom – have taken some measures that may be commendable but are not enough to stop the problem."

"It is very difficult to influence these countries, as we’ve seen in the landmine campaign," he said. "They have significant geopolitical security needs, and they are insulated against public opinion in many ways. The first step is to establish an international norm."

Nash said it was critical to assemble hard statistics demonstrating the extent of the problem – like Bilukha’s study, and an even more comprehensive global survey of the impact of cluster munitions due for release in March.

"When we go to the CCW, governments have said for years that the data is not there, that ‘we’re not convinced it’s a humanitarian problem’, so studies that add to the body of knowledge will really help," he said.

A Pentagon spokesman in Kabul told IPS that while the Coalition forces do not have any policy specifically designed to protect civilians, they do coordinate closely with the United Nations Mine Action Center (UNMACA) in the country.

"Mines and UXOs in Afghanistan are a huge problem, given two plus decades of conflict," said Maj. Mark McCann. "Known hazard areas are marked by UNMACA clearance teams. There is a detailed process of general and technical surveys to identify hazard areas and prioritize them for clearance."

So far, UN experts, local NGOs and privately contracted firms have cleared 2.8 million explosive devices, including mines and UXOs, from 320 million square meters of land. But at least 815 million sq. meters must still be cleared to ensure the safe return of hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people and refugees.

Bob Gannon, program manager for a U.S. State Department-funded clearance program in the country, believes that most of the UXO dates back to the Soviet era.

"I’ve been here three years and seen my share of horrible accidents," he said. "One big problem is that the value on scrap metal is quite high, so children are sent out to collect it, and a lot turns out to be UXO."

Gannon’s company, Ronco, destroyed 1.6 million UXO just last year, mostly tank ammunition, shells and projectiles. The Afghan government and UN Development Program are now in the midst of a countrywide survey to assess the scope of the contamination and come up with a timetable for remediation.

"Cluster munitions is one problem, but it is actually a small part of the global ERW [explosive remnants of war] problem," concluded Nash of Mines Action Canada. "This is fundamentally about societal capacity and poverty – we need to build up structures in affected countries to deal with the problem."