on the world: a view on human rights
This is an overview of the Afghanistan – The Forgotten War: Britain’s Legacy conference held in London on Saturday 11th October 2014 by Voices for Creative Non-Violence UK (VCNVUK) to mark the thirteenth anniversary of the current war in Afghanistan.
Same Old Same
British troops will vacate their final base in Helmand, Afghanistan, later this month and 31st December 2014 is the date set for the withdrawal of foreign troops from the NATO/ISAF (International Security Assistance Forces) coalition from the country, effectively signalling the end of the current war.
Many Afghans are positive about and look forward to rebuilding their country in the post-conflict period. Having just elected not one but two new leaders, challenges lie ahead for both the leadership and ordinary Afghans.
Almost immediately upon the election of the new government, the US and Afghanistan signed a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) the previous president had refused to sign, whose terms include the retention of almost 10,000 US soldiers in the country after 2014 to work “on two important security missions: training and equipping Afghan forces and supporting cooperation against terrorism”. A similar agreement was signed with NATO, bringing the total number of foreign troops remaining in the country to around 12,000, 500 of whom will be from the United Kingdom.
The withdrawal of foreign soldiers, however, does not signal an end to fighting in the ongoing civil war between different ethnic and religious factions and war lords. With the focus on the US and NATO’s activities in Afghanistan, this war has been underreported in the international media.
The impact of the war on all parties will continue for many decades and in many ways. David Cameron’s visit to Afghanistan as the first foreign leader to meet new president Ashraf Ghani reflects this. While there, he reiterated the old fallacy that troops on the ground there prevented terrorist attacks here.
With the conference falling at the end of the annual Drones Week of Action (4-11 October) and the planned final withdrawal this month, the focus was very much on Britain’s military legacy and ongoing covert engagement in Afghanistan. The conference was hosted and introduced by Maya Evans from VCNCUK. Around 50 people attended.
The Toxic Remnants
Andy Garrity from the Toxic Remnants of War (TRW) project, which looks at the detrimental impact of military activities and materials on the environment and human health, spoke about the consequences of the NATO drawdown and the toxic environmental legacy of the war.
In the process of withdrawal, over 1200 bases will either be closed or handed over to the Afghan authorities. The BSA negotiated at the end of September does not provide adequate rules on how bases are to be dismantled or decommissioned in an environmentally and human health-friendly way. Although the 2014 Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) complies with Afghan legislation, the level of environmental protection offered is relatively low and there is no guarantee of enforcement by any of the parties.
There are many sources of environmental and health risks and pollution. Practice firing ranges, used to train soldiers, are usually abandoned due to the cost of clean-up and the lack of legislation making it mandatory. Residues and unexploded munitions stay behind. While the US says that it could take up to 5 years and $250 million to clean up such ranges, there has been no discussion on actually doing this.
According to the UN, children are at greatest risk from unexploded ordnances (UXOs): explosive weapons that did not explode at the time they were used and can still be detonated decades later. This is due to children, in particular, scavenging for scrap metal among the discarded materials to sell to earn money for their families. In addition to the risk of explosions, they are also exposed to carcinogens and UXO contamination.
Other risks are posed by MRAP (mine-resistant ambush protected) vehicles designed to withstand IEDs (improvised explosive devices) which are often simply abandoned. The cost of returning MRAPs to the US is estimated at $500 million where they would be of no use. These vehicles contain harmful carcinogenic materials, including cadmium, chromium and lead.
Before abandoning bases, many materials are disabled for “security” purposes, such as computers, fans, turbines, etc. and are of no further practical use. This scrap waste is sometimes abandoned on roadsides and poses risks to children playing and rummaging for metals to sell. Other waste from bases is consigned to burn pits, including aviation fuel, chemicals and clothing. This takes place at most bases and emits low-level pollution. Local residents have complained of increasing rates of asthma and respiratory problems. US army veterans have complained about higher rates and risks of cancer. While some compensation has been paid to veterans, following campaigns, the US maintains there is no risk of harm and admits no liability. No civilian health studies have been carried to assess the risk to Afghans or possible compensation owed to them.
While NATO and ISAF troops already adhere to low levels of environmental protection, drawdown has meant their replacement by private military contractors, who often overlook existing regulations and are not subject to public scrutiny. Currently outnumbering foreign soldiers two to one, their use is likely to increase further and their actions lack transparency, posing a concern for the future.
The total cost of clean-up has been estimated at $5.7 billion by the US. TRW believes that NATO and ISAF must be held accountable for environmental damage and damage to public health. In addition, military and security agreements must include more strongly-worded environmental protection. Seeking accountability, however, is hindered by the fact that this could set a precedent for conflicts elsewhere and claims for compensation and clean-up. Dangerous in the longer term, the focus is only on avoiding the cost of cleaning up right now.
Chris Cole from Drone Wars UK talked about the UK’s ongoing military involvement in remote control drone warfare in Afghanistan. Due to the secrecy surrounding operations, there is no data available to provide accurate statistics on strikes and casualties in Afghanistan; however, more drone strikes take place in Afghanistan than anywhere else. Cole called drones the “new form of warfare”, with remote control strikes being launched against targets from thousands of miles away.
The UK started using military drones in December 2004 along with the US as part of a joint taskforce in Iraq. Using its own MQ-9 Reaper drones, Britain has since become addicted to drone warfare; in spite of the drawdown of troops over the past few years, the number of drone strikes has multiplied. Britain has spent over two billion pounds on buying and developing drones. In 2014 alone, over £100 million has been committed to drone technology development.
Drones do, however, have certain advantages. With the war in Afghanistan longer than World Wars I and II combined, and increasing public hostility to war, especially the commitment of troops on the ground, drones offer governments a means of continuing their war games in a manner that bypasses public and media scrutiny: secrecy is a large part of the drone package.
In 2009/2010, almost half of all air strikes were by drones; that number is now over 80%. Virtually nothing is known about the impact on the ground. Following an investigation by the LA Times in 2010, only one incident in Uruzgan province, where 23 civilians were killed, including children, prompted a military investigation leading to compensation for the families. There were no prosecutions. Patchy media coverage is available; on the day of the conference, two people were reported to have been killed in a US drone strike near the Pakistan border.
An important point raised is that the secrecy surrounding the use of military drones is closely linked to a wide network of intelligences bases around the world, such as those revealed in Edward Snowden’s leaks about the activity of the US National Security Agency (NSA). With an increasing number of bases being used all over the world, the surveillance society and intelligence-gathering aspects of drones must not be overlooked. With an ongoing UN inquiry into the impact of drone warfare on civilians, it is clear that it offers no solution to global security problems.
The True Cost of War
Former military officer, barrister and author of Investment in Blood: the True Cost of Britain’s Afghan War, Frank Ledwidge spoke about the cost of the war.
The war has had a human cost for both the UK and Afghanistan; 453 British soldiers have been killed and more than 2500 injured, more than 600 seriously. Once they leave the military, they are only entitled to civilian support on the National Health Service (NHS), and not any special support, as is claimed. Although the remaining British army in Helmand have not been engaged in combat for most of 2014, the impact of their presence on the almost two million residents of the province is almost entirely unknown.
For most people in Helmand, however, the war is far from over with heavy fighting between local groups. While even NATO has recognised that most so-called Taliban are in fact local residents, as compared to the smaller contingent of asli (original) Taliban who ran the country before the war, many engaged in the current fighting are local people in gangs, drug dealers, war lords, etc.
An area now better known for its production of almost half the world’s opium harvest in 2013, at the time, the British army gave this rural area importance on the pretext of preventing domestic terrorism by placing troops on the ground to defeat the Taliban. In fact, there have been far more civilian casualties, even though official statistics are not broken down. Larger than the number of fatalities is the number of people injured or maimed. At the height of fighting between NATO/ISAF and Afghans in the province in 2010, in one month, one hospital admitted more than 4000 people.
Official government statistics have put the military cost of the war in Helmand at £25 billion, but the actual cost is over £35 billion, with fuel as one of the most expensive items. In the longer term, the single greatest cost will be care for veterans and wounded soldiers. Based on estimates for the US by experts there, Ledwidge has estimated a similar veteran care cost for the UK from Afghanistan of around £50 billion.
According to US experts, the cost of veteran care peaks 40 years after the conflict. In a freedom of information request made by Ledwidge to the MoD, he was informed that no budget has been set aside for Afghan veterans. There is only a £70 million fund for combat stress.
In conclusion, Ledwidge stated that there is no causal link between the Afghanistan war and domestic terrorism in the UK, even as this is being used as pretext right now for interference in Iraq and Syria. He stated that “we left Helmand a far worse place than we found it”. Looking at the human and financial cost of war, “going into the next war, we need to ask is this something we need to do?”
Afghan Women’s Voices
Before concluding the conference and holding a set of afternoon workshops on issues such as Afghan women, drones and the war on terror, Kabul street children, and opportunities to build peace, a short Skype conversation was held with Afghan women in Kabul from the Afghan Peace Volunteers (APV), who work closely with VCNVUK. “Saving Afghan women” was one of the main pretexts for the war.
Asked about their views on the new government, some of the women said that it was too early to tell but that people were still optimistic; others said they were not optimistic as the current government included politicians who were involved in various wars over the past three decades. One woman there would be no real change until the style of leadership changes, eradicating nepotism and the culture of self-serving war lords who have no interest in the concerns of ordinary people.
Asked their views about the retention of thousands of foreign soldiers in the country, all of the women were against this as soldiers and military strategies have failed to bring about peace. Asked about the effects of war on women, one said a major impact was the loss of their husbands and children. In 2013, most casualties in Afghanistan were children. They also spoke about being psychologically traumatised, making many afraid to leave their homes. With the focus on staying alive, support for families and building families and communities takes secondary importance.
With thirteen years of war focused on combat and not people, one of the major challenges identified by this second annual conference is how to stop Afghanistan falling off the radar completely at the end of this year. The war is not over and media and public lack of awareness and disinterest must not serve as a pretext for further abuses and atrocities.