Afghanistan: U.S. Humanitarian Mine Action Helps Revive Deserted Town

April 5, 2010
Assistant Secretary Shapiro Meets With Afghan Community Leaders

About the Author: Andrew J. Shapiro serves as Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs.

Four years ago, Taliban militants drove the entire population of 30,000 people away from Now Zad in southern Afghanistan's Helmand Province. After taking control of the area, the Taliban filled homes, shops, schools, and streets with landmines and improvised explosive devices. In December 2009, shortly after President Obama's speech on our efforts in Afghanistan at West Point, Afghan security forces and their coalition allies, the U.S. Marines, went on the offensive and successfully reclaimed the area. While the Taliban were driven out, they left behind the deadly legacy of landmines and IEDs. In a recent visit to Now Zad, I met Afghan demining experts who, with U.S. support, are working to find and safely remove the Taliban's hidden explosives, an effort that is critical to allowing families to start returning home and bring this deserted town back to life.

Landmines and other explosive remnants of war affect virtually every province in Afghanistan, a tragic legacy of nearly three decades of conflict. On average, according to the Landmine Monitor, as many as 83 people are injured or killed each month in Afghanistan by these hidden hazards, with children involved in more than half of these incidents. This sad reality hit home during my recent visit when we heard a large explosion a few kilometers outside of town, only to discover a truck had set off one such device, killing an Afghan family of eleven people.

As in many countries struggling to recover from conflicts, landmines and unexploded ordnance inhibit development, disrupt markets and production, prevent the delivery of goods and services, and generally obstruct reconstruction and stabilization efforts. When you remove these deadly hazards, you enable the socio-economic development needed to further the larger goal of promoting stability and security in Afghanistan and the wider region.

For this reason, the United States is proud to be the world's single largest financial supporter of demining. Under the U.S. Humanitarian Mine Action program -- a partnership among the State Department, the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention -- the United States has provided more than $1.5 billion toward landmine clearance and conventional weapons destruction in 47 countries. This cooperative "whole-of-government" effort is coordinated through the Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs.

Since 1993, the United States has provided more than $165 million for humanitarian mine action in Afghanistan, making it the largest international donor to Afghanistan for this type of assistance. Our partners have used these funds to clear more than 160 million square meters of land.

Many Afghan non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as Organization for Mine Clearance and Afghan Rehabilitation (OMAR); Afghan Technical Consultants (ATC); Demining Agency for Afghanistan (DAFA); Mine Clearance Planning Agency (MCPA); and Mine Detection Center Afghanistan (MDC) have hard-won demining expertise and experience. We partner with a wide array of international partners in our mine action efforts in Afghanistan, but the majority of U.S. financial assistance for demining in Afghanistan goes directly to Afghan-run NGOs, which have pioneered a unique approach called "community-based demining.""Community based de-mining" means that Afghan NGOs recruit, train, and employ local workers, in close partnership with community leaders, to survey and clear explosives. It represents a unique opportunity to link Afghan and U.S. humanitarian, development, and counterinsurgency objectives. It furnishes jobs that keep young men employed, and perhaps most importantly, establishes trust with local leaders. These projects are not just outsiders coming in to conduct mine clearance; locals take pride in doing their part to take back their community, thus reinforcing local governance and reducing insurgent influence.

Projects can last for several months or more, providing income and economic opportunity to numerous families. In the case of Now Zad, we are providing $1.8 million to our Afghan partners, which in part will be used to train 120 locals for a project that will last a year. Meanwhile, as de-mining progresses, follow-on agricultural and vocational training as well as immediate development projects can commence, allowing locals to capitalize on their cleared land and an available labor force with new job skills.

While more than 100 families have already returned to Now Zad, and several dozen shops have reopened, the work ahead to make this community safe again will be a slow and difficult process. Demining of most of the town, as well as surrounding villages, roads, and farmland needs to occur before many more people can safely return.

The need is urgent and the work of these Afghan NGOs is vital. We are proud to partner with the brave Afghan men and women working in Now Zad and across their nation to remove explosive remnants of war and landmines, and improve the safety and security of Afghanistan, one square kilometer at a time.

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