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A hidden war: the lingering effects of US airstrikes in Afghanistan

“This is the first time in memory that our children can run around outside,” says Noural Haik, a 53-year-old man from the village of Gul Norkhil, in the Maidan Wardak province of central Afghanistan. 

He smiles and adds that he has never seen a foreigner without a weapon, despite his decades. 

The wreckage of war in this region displays the history of this country like dinosaur bones caught in layers of black sediment. The abandoned bases of the Afghan National Army, complete with skeletal vehicles, scatter the land. The mark of war lies everywhere.  

War is not a fossil, though. Here it is a way of life. Struggling against foreign invaders is a family tradition; Mustafah, a 24-year-old young fighter from neighbouring Logar province joined the Taliban because “my father and grandfather fought against the Russian occupation so, of course, I went to fight against the Americans.”

On a nearby hill lies the carcass of a Red Army tank, a relic from the Soviet Union’s doomed attempt to occupy. A white flag with black writing, the symbol of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, flutters in the wind. One hangs from the handlebars of a child’s bike, the wheels are decorated with multi-coloured hearts and stars. The boy could be no more than eight.

Something, though, has changed here. The air is silent: the bombs have stopped falling.

In both 2020 and 2021, Afghanistan was the country most affected by explosive violence in the world, overtaking other bloody conflicts such as Syria, Yemen and Somalia.

“Before we won the war, two men could not walk down the street next to each other or they would think we were a Taliban group; we could be shot by drones. Now you see us all walking down the streets and living our lives,” Hail says.

Despite being less than two hours from Kabul, this ethnically Pashtun agricultural area of the country has been under the effective control of the Taliban since around 2008. Even by Afghan standards, it is underdeveloped. Barely a quarter of people here can read and write.  It is also deeply conservative; women here are barely seen or spoken to by those outside their close family. 

The small village is nestled in a valley and Haik points to the foothills. “The Taliban used to use that way there. They hid up in the mountains so they would come down and attack the Afghan army base a few kilometres down the road. The ANA would use artillery to shell their approach in and around the town.” And their civilian dead, locals frequently caught in the crossfire, all too often went uncounted.

It was in areas like Wardak, Zabul, and Sangin that were the heartlands of the Taliban, and they saw devastation and destruction that is only now being revealed. For two decades, a hidden war was carried out in rural Afghanistan, in provinces like Maidan Wardak or Helmand. A war unwitnessed by the outside world, fiercely waged between Taliban insurgents and the Afghan National Army, in partnership with NATO forces. And while the United States and the United Kingdom were the leading contributors of troops, men from all around the world were to fight here. Forces came from as far abroad as Germany, Canada, Poland and New Zealand. In the midst of it all Afghanistan’s civilians suffered extraordinary levels of death and destruction. 

Sangin’s main bazaar, destroyed by US airstrikes causing dozens of civilian casualties. Photo: Elhan Afzali

In both 2020 and 2021, Afghanistan was the country most affected by explosive violence in the world, overtaking other bloody conflicts such as Syria, Yemen and Somalia. From 2011 to 2021, there were almost 32,000 civilian casualties from explosive violence across the country.  When those weapons were used in towns and cities, eight of ten people harmed were civilians. 

This is just what is known. It is widely acknowledged any reporting of these casualty figures is just part of the picture. For a long time, journalists, conflict researchers and international monitors were extremely restricted in terms of their ability to report on the conflict. 

Witnesses and survivors of the worst fighting of the war were sought out to fill in the spaces that the fighting created. Some did not want to be named; others preferred only one name. In rural Afghanistan, many people have only one name. 

The intention was to allow Afghan civilians to describe to the world the effects of the 21st century’s longest war effect on them, their families and their communities. As one report on civilian casualties has noted: ‘the vast majority of incidents involved one or two deaths—anonymous lives that were never reported on, never recorded by official organizations, and therefore never counted as part of the war’s civilian toll.’


The Centre of the Insurgency

Sangin was a district in Afghanistan that found itself in the eye of the storm – the centre of the heaviest fighting in the entire conflict. More fighters, both Taliban and coalition, died here than in any other part in a country that saw its fair share of death. Because of its place upon illicit routes for the black-sweet resin from the opium crop, and all the money that the drug could bring to the Taliban’s pockets, Sangin became key to the coalition’s efforts to defeat the insurgency. Its fall to the Taliban in 2017 was a pivotal moment, marking their consolidation of rural areas and allowing them to assemble forces needed to storm the cities in the hot summer of 2021. 

The journey towards Sangin District in Helmand province takes you from Kabul, through Maidan Wardak, Ghazni, Zabul, and Kandahar. Eleven hours of driving, through a land so often traversed by Apaches and Chinook helicopters. 

The road to Sangin, was marked by cars and carts filled with furniture and carpets, pots and sewing machines. These were not refugees, they were returnees. Men returning to Sangin now the US has left the country. Our driver said: “We are very happy that the Taliban took power. Because of them, we are now back in our own place, in our own land, in our own houses.” During the war, it was too dangerous for many families to live here – the epicentre of some of the fiercest fighting in the whole war.  Now families return to plant tomatoes and raise goats among the debris and detritus of war. 

“See the houses that were bombed”, said the driver, and lines of empty, ruined streets came into view. 

The driver pointed to the burned-out wreckage: “only the ruins are left now, nothing else”. 

The Afghanistan National Army outpost destroyed by the Taliban. Photo: Elhan Afzali

Two men sat outside.  They owned the property where one of the ruined houses was. They were four brothers, living in the same place, they said. But after an airstrike in mid-2017, they lost them and others.

“We were four brothers living here, but after this strike, we lost our two brothers, along with our mother and our father. It was a normal day of life in Sangin. My brother and I left to work in our fields farming, now far from our house when we heard a large explosion. We saw the area of our house covered in dust, and for a few minutes, it was not possible to see or understand what happened. We were far away so we did not get injured. But when we returned, there was nothing left of our houses or our family.” 

After that loss, they left Sangin for Lashkar Gah, the capital city of Helmand province. It was, until last year, under the control of the Afghan National Government. Now the Taliban had returned to power, they had come back to take possession of their old houses.  Their inheritance is a pile of rubble.

Because of the war, Afghanistan became one of the countries with the world’s highest proportion of internally displaced people. By the end of 2021, the United Nations estimated that 3.5 million had fled violence to other parts of their country. This displacement puts a huge strain on the resources of receiving communities, and, as in the example below, delays family formation. 


Shattered Families

We spoke to another man, Hamidullah, a 31-year-old farmer whose house next door was also destroyed in the same airstrike. He had been married three months previously, but he had been staying at his brother’s house to look after him during an illness. But that afternoon, a man from his village came and told him that the airstrike had hit his house, along with four others. When he arrived home, he found that his whole life had been destroyed in the blast. 

His wife, his younger brother and his mother had all been killed. Since then, he had remained unmarried. “I wanted to get married and start a new life,” he said, “but I was too scared to lose another family. Now that the Taliban are back, I can get married and have children, because we do not have to worry about airstrikes that will bomb us and kill our families.”

Sher Agha, whose wife was shot by an ANA sniper who mistook her for a Taliban insurgent, with his family. Photo: Elhan Afzali

Sher Agha, a 29-year-old father of three daughters, lives in a house in Sangin that is nothing but wood and straw. It has no electricity, no running water, and the only food they have is stale bread. He raises his daughters alone. 

“It was a normal day for us,” he said. “We were just eating lunch when my wife said that she was going to climb to the roof to put tomatoes out for drying. The next thing I heard she had fallen to the floor outside.” 

She had been mistaken for a sniper and was shot in the head by a US marine in a base nearby. He and his three daughters now live together and care for their grandparents. “The only thing I can hope for my children is that they will not be killed,” he says. 

Sher Agha’s daughter shows the shrapnel wound she sustained as a bystander during heaving fighting in Sangin. Photo: Elhan Afzali

Even when the Afghan and coalition armies correctly identified legitimate military targets, the collateral damage caused could be so extreme that it would far outstrip any concept of proportionality in international law.

One 81-year-old man didn’t want to be named, but recounted how he had lost nineteen members of his entire family in two airstrikes. The first was in 2011, the next was in 2016.

While the targeting of enemy combatants is legal under international humanitarian law, all reasonable efforts must be made to avoid civilian casualties. The key legal concept here is proportionality and whilst the word proportionality might not be a word that has much weight to an 81-year-old who has lost almost two dozen family members, it was clear civilian casualties here were often wildly out of proportion to the possible killing of a Taliban commander.

One witness, who did not want to be named, said he had lost two dozen members of his family. 

“We had a Talib (shorthand for a Taliban fighter) as a guest at our house. We didn’t know at that time he was a Talib, he just came with some of my relatives for lunch. But one of our neighbours, an Afghan, found out and reported to the Americans that there was a Talib here. After that, they struck our house.” 

“I came back from attending a marriage when suddenly we heard a huge explosion. When I woke up, I was on the floor. People in the village were bringing the dead bodies of my children out from under the rubble. I saw my whole family destroyed and there was nothing that I could do.”

An Afghan man who says he lost over 19 members of his family in fighting between the Taliban and the Afghan National Army. Photo: Elhan Afzali

Explosive weapons in this area took more than lives. Many members of the population were terribly wounded by the storm of steel that fell on them from the skies. Afghanistan has one of the highest rates of disability in the world; rights organisations estimate one in five households here has a disabled member. This imposes severe economic burdens on the community, as the injured or maimed person may be unable to work and need either temporary or permanent care.

Abdullah, a 30-year-old Afghan farmer, was to say how he was having lunch when his father came and asked him to herd the family buffaloes and sheep into fields, less than 100 meters away from our house. 

“After arriving in the fields,” he said, “I heard a huge blast and then I don’t remember anything. I woke up several days later in the hospital to find that I had lost my eye. My brother was in the room, and I asked him what happened. We had an airstrike on our house, and we’ve lost our mother and father. Our sisters are also injured.”

Every house has a different story of violence, a different visitation of tragedy. Gulmina was the 46-year-old matriarch of what should have been a large family. But on August 15, 2016, just after breakfast, an airstrike was to hit her house. 

“I remember we were just leaving to visit the parents of my son and bring my daughter-in-law home when we heard the first explosion. After that, I don’t remember anything. I was knocked unconscious, and when I woke up, my son was dead.” 

She lost both her legs in the attack. She now lives with her son’s widow as an invalid.

The only surviving members of a large family, all of whom were killed in air strikes. They say eighteen members of their family were killed. Photo: Elhan Afzali

In total, a dozen houses in this part of the town of Sangin were visited. Every one had lost a family member, either to an airstrike or a gunshot during the war. In one house near the river, a 56-year-old man described himself as the only survivor of his family. Once he had a large extended family.  He and his four brothers were living beside each other in a series of eleven houses. 

“I went to Sangin market to find a mechanic to fix my tractor. But when I was going there, I saw an Afghan Army convoy coming out of the camp”, he said. “The local Taliban attacked them, a fight started, and I called my family members and told them not to come out of our houses, and instead to meet at my house after the fight finished. The US forces called in an airstrike – but it was not on the Taliban – it was on my home. I could see my house burning, and I wanted to run towards it but the people in the market grabbed me by the arms and wouldn’t allow it. I was screaming as I watched everything burn for the whole night. I went towards my home and no one from my family was left alive. Everyone was burned. Most of them were children below the age of fifteen.” 

Others tell the same tales of loss. Mir Agha Jan, a 51-year-old man is one of the only survivors of an airstrike that killed almost all of his family. His son and grandson were injured in the attack that killed most of the rest of his family. “We were at home, eating lunch when I heard a huge crash and the roof fell on me. When I woke up, my brother came to me and said that the rest of his family had been killed. Of sixteen members including his wife, cousins and children, only four were left alive.” 

“My grandson looks like a puppet now. He has wooden legs and cannot walk again.”


The legacy of armed violence

While civilian casualties in the form of injury and death are horrendous by themselves, the devastation caused by the war in Helmand was not simply limited to this. 

Because airstrikes deliver such a powerful payload, it is usually very difficult for them to be precisely aimed at a specific target without delivering a significant amount of collateral damage. Explosive weapons wipe out civilian infrastructure – bridges, roads and communications. It also means local authorities and international organisations are unwilling or unable to rebuild or reconnect damaged transport or communication links. 

War retards development. Sangin district, as with much of Afghanistan, is severely underdeveloped and locals recorded that explosive violence was responsible for the destruction of much of what little infrastructure was indeed developed. There was very little access to educational or healthcare facilities, which were very difficult to operate during the pitched battles that defined the region. 

The healthcare system in Afghanistan was severely impacted by the decades-long conflict. It is one of the worst contributing factors to the fact that life expectancy is one of the lowest in the world, at only 65 years. During such fighting, building and maintaining hospitals and clinics was extremely difficult, as was training the medical staff needed to staff such facilities. Many spoken to in Sangin commented on the improved access to medical care since the Taliban takeover; this was in part because the end of the war meant that fewer combat injuries were overwhelming the already scarce resources. 

Afghanistan is one of the only countries in the world still affected by diseases such as leprosy and polio, maladies virtually eliminated elsewhere. Other communicable diseases such as tuberculosis and typhus remain endemic. 

Musafir joined the Taliban when he was eight years old. Photo: Elhan Afzali

On top of this, hospitals also became a military target during the conflict. During the October 2015 fighting in Kunduz province, a US helicopter gunship fired onto a Medicines San Frontiers hospital, killing 42 people and injuring 37. MSF reported that they had repeatedly tried to contact US authorities during the attack to no avail.

During the war, Afghanistan suffered extensive environmental damage. Fighting, explosive refuse and the detritus of war left by parties to the conflict severely affected the qualities of soil and water used for farming, which is the main economic activity in the overwhelmingly rural country. This also contributed to the flourishing drug trade in the country, as the opium poppy was one of the few stable crops that could survive the debilitating conditions of the war. 

Furthermore, US soldiers in Helmand province frequently disposed of their waste through the use of burn pits, which has become a significant issue of litigation and compensation for US veterans. The disposal of military waste in this fashion can release toxic smoke that can contaminate the environment and causes severe damage to those exposed to it.

While Department of Defense policy states that troops should only use them when ‘no alternative disposal method’ can be found, they were a mainstay of US operating bases such as Camp Leatherneck in the area. While the US congress has finally passed legislation agreeing to support and compensate American victims of burn pits, no relief for the thousands of Afghans exposed and damaged in this way has ever been raised.

Another toxic legacy of the war in this region has been unexploded ordnance. One Taliban fighter said he had spent the last several weeks collecting landmines and IEDs that had been planted during the fighting. He had recovered 60kg worth of explosive equipment- but was keeping it in his store yard in case, as he put it, the invaders came back.

Much of this can be blamed on the current Taliban government- while fighting their insurgency, they used Improvised Explosive Devices as their preferred explosive weapon for targeting ANA forces. However, coalition forces have been guilty of extraordinary neglect. In one instance in Bamyan province in 2014, seven children were killed by unexploded ordnance left by New Zealand troops at a firing range that had not been properly decommissioned. 

Deaths from this are still ongoing. In the first week of September 2022, four children were killed in Helmand province after playing with an unexploded artillery shell in their school. The war keeps producing its bitter fruit.


Accountability

Afghanistan is not the only country that has seen excess civilian casualties from civil wars, often abetted by foreign intervention. Explosive violence, especially by airstrikes, has wreaked havoc Sana’a in Yemen or Aleppo in Syria. The Irish Government’s ‘Political Declaration on Strengthening the Protection of Civilians from the Humanitarian Consequences that can arise from the use of Explosive Weapons with Wide Area Effects in Populated Areas’. If its principles are adopted and abided by, this would reduce a huge number of civilian casualties during wartime.

Yet, as Russia’s continued use of missiles, air strikes and artillery on major cities such as Mariupol, Mykolaiv and Kharkiv shows, there is much work to be done to stop conflict parties from inflicting grave harm to civilians in war zones.

As these tragic examples throughout Afghanistan demonstrate, it is very difficult for even the most technologically advanced states armed with the most discriminate and precise weapons to avoid civilian casualties. Moreover, it is extremely difficult to bring justice to the perpetrators of such incidents. 

The chief prosecutor for the International Criminal court recently said that “I am cognizant of the limited resources available to my Office relative to the scale and nature of crimes within the jurisdiction of the Court…I have therefore decided to focus my Office’s investigations in Afghanistan on crimes allegedly committed by the Taliban and the Islamic State.” 

In truth, the end of the fighting means it has never been an easier time to make a full accounting of the human toll of America’s longest war. Recently, the Pentagon announced that a review into a drone strike that killed ten civilians in Kabul in the last week of the international evacuation would exonerate the US military of any wrongdoing. They called the strike an ‘honest mistake’. 

There has been a shocking lack of accountability for British Special Forces engaged in the extra-judicial killings of civilians in Afghanistan. 

Neither of these realities – the death of civilians thought to be terrorists or the lack of any accountability for the perpetrators – would surprise the inhabitants of Wardak and Sangin.

Meanwhile, Afghanistan itself remains mired in a major economic crisis, with more than 24 million people, or around 2/3rds of the country’s population in desperate need of humanitarian aid. Civilians still remain at risk, primarily from violence carried out by Islamic State’s Khorasan province, which primarily targets ethnic and religious minorities such as the Shia Hazaras. 

After forty years of war, Gul Norkhil is now as much a graveyard as a dwelling. Despite only having around fifty houses it has three large cemeteries each with dozens of graves marked with flags instead of stones. 

“Each flag represents a precious person to us, but only the white flags are for those who were martyred,” Haik says overlooking a grave. “Everyone here knew many people who were killed. You are welcome here now. But you must never come here with your soldiers or your weapons again.” 

Western countries would do well to heed his advice. 

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Tom Mutch, the report’s author, conducted a wide-ranging reporting trip to Afghanistan in the autumn of 2021, shortly after the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban. The project was arranged with Elhan Afzali, a local Afghan journalist and former employee of the British government. It involved a trip of three days to the Sangin district in Helmand province. As per the press reporting rules of the Taliban at the time, the trip had to be undertaken with a local guide provided by the Ministry of Information. While the stated purpose of this was to protect journalists from war remnants in the area, it also meant that those on the ground may have presented a version of past events favourably to the authorities and as such could not speak with true candour.