Afghanistan, een ecologische ramp

Lynzy Billing: A river in Jalalabad, Afghanistan

Waaraan hebben de Verenigde Staten hun rijkdom en macht te danken? Als je die vraagstelling buiten beschouwing laat of deze volstrekt negeert, immers de USA staan voor vrijheid en democratie, zal het proces tot vernietiging van leven in al zijn verscheidenheid leiden tot de ondergang van de mensheid en met haar de planeet. Wat in Auschwitz begon, het uitroeien van mensen op kapitalistische grondslag, is de basis van hun hegemoniale machtspolitiek.
Bij dit alles mogen we niet vergeten dat Amerikaanse bondgenoten medeplichtig zijn aan hun misdaden tegen de menselijkheid.



Those who lived near vast bases say the US military’s lack of protections poisoned the land and sickened their children, perhaps for generations.

Birds dip between low branches that hang over glittering brooks along the drive from Jalalabad heading south toward the Achin district of Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province. Then, the landscape changes, as lush fields give way to barren land.

Up ahead, Achin is located among a rise of rocky mountains that line the border with Pakistan, a region pounded by American bombs since the beginning of the war.

Laborers line the roadside, dusted with the white talc they have carried down from the mountains. A gritty wind stings their chapped cheeks as they load the heavy trucks beside them. In these parts of Achin, nothing else moves in the bleached landscape. For years, locals say this harsh terrain has been haunted by a deadly, hidden hazard: chemical contamination.

In April 2017, the U.S. military dropped the most powerful conventional bomb ever used in combat here — the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast, known unofficially as the “mother of all bombs,” or MOAB.

Before the airstrike, Qudrat Wali and other residents of Asad Khel followed as Afghan soldiers and U.S. special forces were evacuated from the area. Eight months after the massive explosion, they were finally allowed to return to their homes. It was soon after, Wali says, that many of the residents began to notice strange ailments and skin rashes.

“All the people living in Asad Khel village became ill after that bomb was dropped,” says Wali, a 27-year-old farmer, pulling up the leg of his shalwar kameez to show me the red bumps stretched across his calves. “I have it all over my body.” He says he got the skin disease from contamination left by the MOAB.

When Wali and his neighbors returned to their village, they found that their land did not produce crops like it had before. It was devastated, he says, by the bomb’s blast radius that reached as far as the settlement of Shaddle Bazar, over a mile and a half away. “We would get 150 kilograms of wheat from my land before, but now we cannot get half of that,” he says. “We came back because our homes and livelihoods are here, but this land is not safe. The plants are sick and so are we.”

Yet the bomb residue plaguing the village is but one example of the war’s toxic environmental legacy. For two decades, Afghans raised children, went to work and gave birth next to America’s vast military bases and burn pits, and the long-term effects of this exposure remain unclear. Dealing with the consequences of the war’s contamination will take generations.

Qudrat Wali sits with his two sons in their home in Asad Khel in the Achin district of Nangarhar province. (Lynzy Billing)

America’s two-decade military occupation devastated Afghanistan’s environment in ways that may never be fully investigated or addressed. American and allied military forces, mostly other NATO members, repeatedly used munitions that can leave a toxic footprint. These weapons introduced known carcinogens, teratogens and genotoxins — toxic substances that can cause congenital defects in a fetus and damage DNA — into the environment, without accountability.

Local residents have long reported U.S. military bases dumping vast quantities of sewage, chemical waste and toxic substances from their bases onto lands and into waterways, contaminating farmland and groundwater for entire communities living nearby. They also burned garbage and other waste in open-air burn pits — some reported to be the size of three football fields — inundating villages with noxious clouds of smoke.

Afghanistan has suffered more than 40 years of rarely interrupted war. The evidence is everywhere, some of it static and buried, some of it still very much alive. The chemicals of war poisoned the land in ways that are still not well understood. Before the U.S. military arrived in Afghanistan, the Soviet forces had been accused of deploying chemical weapons, including napalm. Their bases were then repurposed by the Americans. Today, left behind, are layers upon layers of medical, biological and chemical waste that will likely never be cleaned up.

From the first post-9/11 airstrikes aimed at the Taliban and al Qaeda in 2001 through the Pentagon’s chaotic withdrawal from the country two decades later, the U.S. military dropped over 85,000 bombs on Afghanistan. Most of these contained an explosive called RDX, which can affect the nervous system and is determined to be a possible human carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Attributing specific illnesses to contamination in the air, water and soil is often extremely difficult, but villagers who lived in close proximity to major U.S. bases — and the Afghan doctors and public health officials who treated them — say the Pentagon’s unwillingness to employ even minimal environmental protections caused serious kidney, cardiopulmonary, gastrointestinal and skin ailments, congenital anomalies and multiple types of cancer.

U.S. President Joe Biden, in his 2022 State of the Union address, was unequivocal about such causality, but only as it related to U.S. veterans. He described “toxic smoke, thick with poisons, spreading through the air and into the lungs of our troops.” He called on Congress to pass a law to “make sure veterans devastated by toxic exposures in Iraq and Afghanistan finally get the benefits and the comprehensive health care they deserve.”

A few months later, Congress passed a bill known as the Pact Act, adding 23 toxic burn pit and exposure-related health conditions for which veterans could receive benefits, including bronchitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and nine newly eligible types of respiratory cancers, at a cost of more than $270 billion over the next decade. The law represented the largest expansion of veterans’ benefits in generations.

But neither Biden nor Congress said anything, or promised any assistance, to the Afghans who lived near those U.S. military bases or worked on them and still suffer from many of the same illnesses and cancers.

Under Section 120 of the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act, the Department of Defense (DOD) is required — for U.S. sites on home turf — to take responsibility for all remedial action necessary to protect human health and the environment caused by its activities in the past. However, a DOD regulation prohibits environmental cleanups at overseas military bases that are no longer in use, unless required by a binding international agreement or a cleanup plan negotiated with the host country before the transfer.

In 2011, the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan reached a peak of about 110,000 personnel — NATO forces contributed an additional 20,000 — generating roughly 900,000 pounds of waste each day, the bulk of which was burned without any pollution controls, according to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, a U.S. watchdog agency. Afghan laws forbidding burn pits were not applicable to U.S. and other international forces and, according to soldiers and residents, the U.S. military persisted in its use of burn pits until its withdrawal in August 2021, despite efforts to limit their use that began in 2009 and a 2018 prohibition on burn pits “except in circumstances in which no alternative disposal method is feasible.”

Bagram, just north of Kabul, was the largest U.S. military base during the 20-year war. Airfields in Jalalabad and Kandahar were among the largest used by U.S. and NATO forces. (Illustration by Joanna Andreasson)

My father came from Nangarhar, and I have wanted to tell this story for years. Although I was adopted and grew up overseas, when I returned to the country as a journalist, in 2019, I began to understand the true scale of the damage that America’s military inflicted on Afghanistan. Some bases were like small cities, belching round-the-clock smoke that tainted the skyline while processions of waste-filled trucks flooded out of them.

When I learned about the millions of pounds of hazardous waste that the bases produced, I filed a Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, request to SIGAR to obtain photographs of active burn pits. Using GPS coordinates embedded in the photo’s metadata, I mapped and measured the sizes of the burn pits at bases across the country. I saw the rusting hulks of Soviet-era planes and American military vehicles piled up on the bases. A 2011 FOIA photograph of the scrap in Shindand base in the western province of Herat looks exactly the same on satellite today. According to imagery specially designed to monitor active fires and thermal anomalies, several burn pit locations at Bagram were last active in mid-June of 2021.

In the summer of 2022, I visited the sites of three of the largest former U.S bases in Afghanistan — in the provinces of Nangarhar, Kandahar and Parwan — to document what was left on the ground by America.

A year earlier, I spent months traveling across Iraq to report on the effects of pollution and military contamination on Iraqis and the environment. I knew that the American military’s effect on Afghanistan and its people mirrored similar problems in Iraq, but was much less documented.

It was only after the Taliban moved back into power, ending the American war in August 2021, that I had the opportunity to dig deeper into this devastating issue. On my fourth journey back to the country since the takeover, I landed on the airstrip at Kabul airport and spotted a stub of cement “T-wall” with “clean up your fucking trash” graffitied in English, presumably by a member of the international forces during their chaotic evacuation. But the Americans had left more than just garbage: They had filled the air with toxic pollutants and dumped their raw sewage in fields and waterways across Afghanistan.

No longer facing the same threat, the enormous former U.S. bases still hold an array of poisonous detritus and now sit silently against the majestic landscape, with one or two Taliban guards lazing in watchtowers on their phones.

The skies, too, have changed since the Taliban takeover. The burn pits’ noxious black plumes, surveillance blimps and the buzz of helicopters are all but a memory now. New faces occupied the drivers’ seats of the police and military vehicles. And for many, particularly in rural areas of the country, the end of the airstrikes and night raids was long overdue and a welcome relief. There were, however, new problems to contend with under the Taliban government, including an extreme clampdown on women’s rights and a severely weakened economy.

Over the course of six months, I traveled across the country and spoke with 26 medical practitioners and 52 Afghan residents living near those bases about their health problems, which they believe are a direct result of waste from the bases.

Farmers told me that they witnessed U.S. military contractors dump sewage and waste into their fields. Residents described how, for years, they had bathed in sewage-clogged streams that flowed from inside the base walls and breathed in the billowing clouds of poisonous pollutants from the open-air burn pits. I saw young children making a living scavenging scrap metal from the bases who are now suffering from eye infections and persistent skin diseases, according to the doctors treating them.

I also spoke with Afghan and American soldiers who believe their health problems and diseases are directly related to their work on the American military bases in Afghanistan. One former Afghan soldier I spoke with, who didn’t give his name for fear of repercussions from the Taliban, trained new recruits at the Kandahar airfield for 13 years. He said he was close to the burn pits for the entirety of his service and had respiratory problems as a result. Three years ago, he was diagnosed with lung cancer.

Medical professionals with years of experience treating those affected, including military doctors who worked on U.S. bases caring for both Afghan and U.S. soldiers, told me that there was, categorically, no way that the burning and dumping of waste did not affect the health of everyone in the surrounding areas — and still does.

lees hier verder


Lynzy Billing is an investigative journalist and photographer who has reported on Afghanistan since 2019.

NEW LINES MAGAZINE25 september 2023



Bron uitgelichte foto: oorspronkelijke site

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