20 years since airplanes smashed into buildings in New York City and Washington DC, another US led disaster has come to a heart-breaking end with helicopters landing on an embassy roof and civilians desperately attempting to get aboard airplanes to escape.
It was always going to end this way. When we, in our collective grief, shock, and rage, decided to respond to a devastating criminal act by launching a global war on terror, we set the stage for the current catastrophe in Afghanistan. The last 20 years only delayed this ending.
A delay that cost hundreds of thousands of lives in Afghanistan alone. A delay that did not spare Afghanistan from Taliban rule. A delay that cost trillions of dollars that could have been spent strengthening our societies’ resiliency against extremist ideologies, of any sort, that lead to terrorism. A delay that has caused unknown harm to our own country’s morale, and morality.
This isn’t just a failure of the Biden administration. To label it as such is to ignore the 20 years of government lies and secrecy, 20 years of “we’re turning the corner,” and 20 years of our own silence, our own willingness to show up for this global war on terror.
In those 20 years of death and destruction, we still have not successfully brought most of the criminals behind the crime of September 11, 2001 to trial. We have only just begun to acknowledge in scattered reports that there are likely more criminals behind that crime that the US government has spent the past two decades diligently protecting.
And we are only just beginning to see what two decades of war, a multi-generational war, will do to our own nation.
This month, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) released a report for 2016 that details civilian casualties in Afghanistan for that year. They reported a 3% increase in civilian casualties since 2015, as much as a 24% increase among children. The majority of these casualties are the result of on-the-ground fighting, airstrikes, and attacks, but there is an increasing number of civilians falling casualty to what is often called unexploded ordnance, or UXO.
The report states, “between January 1, 2016 and December 31, 2016, UNAMA documented 326 incidents of explosive remnants of war detonation resulting in 724 civilian casualties (217 deaths and 507 injured), an increase of 66% compared to 2015.” 84% of those casualties were children, 183 killed and 426 injured.
Unexploded ordnance are explosive weapons that fail to detonate when employed. They can be various types of bombs and shells, grenades, land mines, cluster munitions, etc. Cluster munitions, or cluster bombs, are particularly heinous bombs that separate in mid-air and scatter hundreds of smaller “bomblets” over a wide area. Not all of those bomblets explode, however, with failure rates estimated between 1% to as high as 30%. These can be, and often are, detonated accidentally by civilians. The UNAMA report documented the following personal account from a 13-year-old girl:
“Yesterday, I was playing with other children on the streets near our house in the village. I saw our neighbor, a boy who later died, holding something made of metal. I knew it was something explosive. He told all of us, ‘I’m going to detonate it.’
I slapped him on the face and told him, ‘don’t do it!’ and then I moved farther away from him. He began hitting the object with a stone. It exploded. I fell unconscious and I don’t know what happened next.”
According to the report, that explosion killed four children and injured three more, including the 13-year-old girl.
The report states, “children living in conflict-affected areas are less likely to have received mine-risk education, and motivated by natural curiosity, frequently pick up familiar and shiny objects near their homes while playing outside. Children also use metal-detectors to find scrap metal to sell, often searching former battlefields or farmland where stray dud ordnance can be found.” Many people collect scrap metal in spite of the known risks, and farmers are also heavily affected by unexploded ordnance as they work the land.
Afghanistan is far from alone in dealing with this horrible legacy of ongoing war. According to the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor 2016 report on cluster munitions, the estimated number of global, all-time casualties for 33 countries is 55,000. Many of those casualties have occurred in Southeast Asia, where people are still being killed today by bombs dropped by the United States over four decades ago.
By far the hardest hit country is Laos, where the United States dropped 414,000 cluster munitions, containing an estimated 260 million submunitions during it’s so-called ‘secret war’ in that country between 1965 and 1973. In neighboring Vietnam, where the US was fighting overtly, 296,000 cluster munitions containing nearly 97 million submunitions were dropped. Even at the lowest estimated failure rate, that is a lot of live bombs left lying around. It is no wonder that an estimated 40,000 Vietnamese have been killed by UXO since 1975, according to George Black in his May 2016 New Yorker article.
The cluster munitions monitor report goes on to document that in the US invasion of Afghanistan, in the years 2001 and 2002, 1,228 cluster bombs were dropped, containing 248,056 submunitions. It adds, “in 2003 in Iraq, the US and the UK used nearly 13,000 cluster munitions, containing an estimated 1.8 to 2 million submunitions in the 3 weeks of major conflict.”
In May of 2008, more than 100 nations signed the Convention on Cluster Munitions agreeing to prohibit the use of cluster munition weapons. The United States is not one of them. According to this Congressional research report, the US policy on cluster munitions is defended because “using cluster munitions reduces the number of aircraft and artillery systems needed to support military operations, and that if cluster munitions were eliminated, significantly more money would need to be spent on new weapons systems, ammunition, and logistical resources. Officials further suggest that if cluster munitions were eliminated, most militaries would increase their use of massed artillery and rocket barrages, which would likely increase destruction of key infrastructure.”
The State Department has claimed the US stopped using cluster munitions in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2003, but the US continues to profit from them by selling them to other countries, most noticeably to Saudi Arabia who employs the weapons in Yemen.
It is yet another tragedy of war that goes largely unnoticed in countries not affected by unexploded ordnance. According to the cluster munition monitor report, the degree of contamination from UXO is still unknown for Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Ukraine. Civilians made up the vast majority, 94%, of cluster munition casualties from 2010 to 2015, with children under the age of 18 accounting for 40% of those. Even if the United States were to end it’s ongoing wars of aggression around the globe, it is unlikely the casualties caused by the unexploded ordnance left behind will end any time soon.