By Nick Cumming-Bruce, Mine Action Editor, Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor.
At his hillside office in Kabul, Shohaib Hakimi, director of Afghanistan’s Mine Detection Centre, was in a state of mild shock. In one hand he held a paper setting out instructions received overnight to suspend work on all the projects funded by the United States Department of State. In the other was a letter from the head of the UN Mine Action Service in Kabul, Abigail Hartley, prodding Afghan demining operators to get out and raise money, not just to depend on the United Nations to do the job for them.
Only a year ago Afghanistan was winning plaudits from mine action stakeholders for probably the best-crafted Article 5 extension request produced so far. The world’s biggest mine action program could point to the demonstrable humanitarian benefits of clearing mines: more than 300km² of mined area (and many more hundred square kilometres of battle area) cleared in the last five years and with that a sharp fall in mine and ERW casualties. Moreover, it also offered donors hope of closure: Afghanistan was not just going to tackle its treaty obligation to clear antipersonnel mines, it was going to clear all antivehicle mines, cluster munitions and other unexploded ordnance as well within the space of 10 years. In fact, it might do this in less time, if donors’ commitment was up to it.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be. Fast forward a year and the Mine Action Program of Afghanistan (MAPA) is struggling to maintain coherence and targets in the face of steep funding cuts that have slashed capacity: 3,500 jobs lost in the last few months and another 1,500 on standby as political wrangles in Washington stall delivery of even the reduced funding approved for the current year. The United States, much the biggest donor, has cut its contribution by about a quarter to $30 million this year. The European Union, which the Mine Action Coordination Centre of Afghanistan (MACCA) reports provided $13 million in the Afghan year 1390 (March 2011-March 2012), stopped altogether.
The money squeeze is hardly unique to mine action in Afghanistan, but the wider implications are. Deminers, accepted as politically neutral by the Taliban, work in areas accessible to few other organizations. Through community-based demining, they generate short term employment and inject money into poor communities as well as opening up land for cultivation and housing for the return of people displaced by conflict or resettlement of refugees returning from Pakistan. The international community poured billions of dollars and lost hundreds of lives in the past decade to try to prevent Afghanistan becoming a base for terror; given the security and political uncertainties looming in 2014, it seems an odd time for donor governments to start closing their wallets on a program that helps to give people a stake in stability, not conflict.