WCW Home News Recent News 9/25/23 America’s War in Afghanistan Devastated the Country’s Environment in Ways That May Never Be Cleaned Up
9/25/23 America’s War in Afghanistan Devastated the Country’s Environment in Ways That May Never Be Cleaned Up PDF Print E-mail

By Lynzy Billing

From Inside Climate News | Original Article

Afghans who lived near America’s vast bases say the U.S. military's lack of even minimal environmental protections polluted their land, poisoned their water and sickened their children. The consequences of the contamination may last for generations.

This investigation was co-produced with New Lines Magazine and supported in part by a grant from The Fund for Investigative Journalism.

An Afghan scientist gathers water and soil samples at a water outflow from Bagram Airfield, formerly America's largest military base in Afghanistan. Credit: Kern Hendricks

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. Soon after, Wali says, 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.”

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 contamination will take generations.

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

“Devastated by Toxic Exposures”

America’s 20-year military occupation devastated Afghanistan’s environment in ways that may never be fully investigated or addressed. American and allied military forces, mostly from NATO countries, 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 land 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, Soviet forces had been accused of deploying chemical weapons, including napalm. Their bases were then repurposed by the Americans. Left behind today are layers upon layers of medical, biological and chemical waste that may never be cleaned up.

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