BURN PIT IN CAMP HOLLAND NEAR TARIN KOWT, AFGHANISTAN (CREATIVE COMMONS)





Environmental War Crimes in Afghanistan




By Shah Mahmoud Hanifi




Every empire is unique but most empires share many discernible structural features and operational modes. Normative patterns of imperial conduct include transgressing geographic, cultural, political, legal and other kinds of boundaries while generating new circulations of people, ideas, technologies and practices. Historically, empires leverage inequalities and in so doing tend to commit crimes.

In the modern era, Afghanistan has been arguably the primary victim of imperial war crimes. Since 2001, these crimes have been perpetrated by a large number of colluding and competing international actors and a wide assortment of local collaborators and proxies.  It is historically rare for an empire to be held accountable for criminal conduct, and it is a bitter irony that empires present themselves as peace-loving and law-giving while imperial history can be read as repeating litanies of unprosecuted criminal conduct. Through information management predicated on censorship and propaganda, and manipulation of individual states and multinational institutions that may or may not constitute legal conduct, empires work hard to immunize themselves against their own criminality.

The International Criminal Court indictment of the US and other actors for crimes against humanity in March 2020 was diluted in September 2021 after the Taliban returned to power to now make it practically impossible for the US to be investigated and held to account by the ICC. The ICC was the last and only internationally recognized authority willing to publicly pursue US imperial war crimes against humanity in Afghanistan horrifically predicated on perpetual jet bombing, wanton drone assassination, incessant helicopter night raids, routine abductions and extrajudicial killings, and systematic renditions to black sites in country and across a globally dispersed imperial regime of torture predicated on illegal human trafficking and conscious legal obfuscation through chains of contractors and subcontractors working covertly across national boundaries. Rapidly emerging GIS-based technologies through which US imperial violence against the people of Afghanistan occurred—involving drones most notably—inherently challenged and transgressed established laws regarding war, military occupation, and universal human rights.




U.S. CENTRAL COMMAND MAPS MOVEMENT ACROSS KABUL OF WHITE TOYOTA COROLLA ON AUG. 29, 2021. MAPPING, CENTRAL TO U.S. DEFENSE COMPANIES AND MILITARY, TRACKS AN INDIVIDUAL CAR. TODAY, FORMER DEFENSE OFFICIALS AT COMPANIES LIKE JANES AND QUIET PROFESSIONALS DEPLOY THE SAME DATA TO OSTENSIBLY TRACK AND PROTECT REFUGEES. (CENTCOM/VIA MILITARY TIMES)







Here I highlight the environmental impact of the US-led international so-called “War on Terror” in Afghanistan and call for accountability and remedial action from the US and its allies for criminal negligence of the uniquely precious and life-sustaining natural resource base of the country. The US engagement of Afghanistan’s natural resources began during the Cold War in the context of the Helmand Valley Development Project involving large dams and related canals, roads, airports and new bureaucracies and administrators organized to provide a perennial supply of water to new agricultural lands where nomads were to settle and produce cash crop exports such as cotton in the south of the country. The HVDP not only failed due to a lack of basic initial soil and groundwater surveys, the over-salinated soil became usable for little else besides poppies that transformed Afghanistan into the world’s largest exporter of hashish, opium and heroin in the 1980s. During this decade while the CIA was covertly funding and arming the Mujahideen, the US Drug Enforcement Agency facilitated the processing and global marketing of Afghanistan’s bountiful opiate harvests. One result of the extensive CIA financial and military provisioning of the Afghan mujahideen was the extensive landmining of mountain passes and valley pasturelands between market settings and strategic locations in eastern Afghanistan especially.

Beginning in October 2001, a twenty-year monsoon rain of US bombs fell on Afghanistan.  Older well-tested munitions such as daisy cutter bombs designed to destroy forests in Viet Nam were used to decimate gardens, orchards and farms in Afghanistan, while innovative new bunker buster bombs devasted underground water channels, overland canals and dams, and mountainous habitats. This vengeful imperial desire to obliterate single individuals from Tora Bora in December 2001 to the “Mother of All Bombs” in April 2017, to the ‘final official’ drone bombing of an innocent family in August 2021, and the hundreds of thousands of US bombs throughout this imperial occupation, have done irreparable harm by depositing depleted uranium into the soil and ground water to such an extent that Afghanistan now joins Fallujah, Iraq, the Marshall Islands, New Mexico, Hiroshima and Nagasaki as locations where US munitions have left radiation poisoning and high concentrations of eternally disturbing birth defects among humans and animals in their wake.

Deadly chemicals have long blighted the waters and wider eco-systems surrounding many hundreds of military bases in the US.  Similarly, the habitats surrounding what were hundreds of military bases in Afghanistan have been forever tainted by deadly toxins, but this environmental assault is amplified seemingly irremediably by the noxious burn pits used by these bases to incinerate everything from paper to human waste to military equipment including full vehicles.  These bases were found throughout Afghanistan from mountain hamlets in the north, to the ever-expanding Shindand base in the southwest near the Iranian border, to Bagram in the lushly watered northern third of the Kabul valley. During the American imperium, Bagram was a city of its own, defined by a perpetually flaming and smoldering football field-sized burn pit.  The toxicity emanating from these burn pits circulated near and far from the bases, resulting in inescapable disease and infertility across the biological spectrum of organisms from insects to fish, crops, plants, trees, animals, birds and humans.

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The US military operates primarily on fossil fuels and as a result carries one of the largest carbon footprints in the world.  Nowhere is the air pollution resulting from military aircrafts and diesel-fueled wheeled vehicles more evident than in Kabul that regressed during the US imperial presence in the country from near pristine air quality in 2001 to having among the world’s worst air pollution during the US occupation.  The hyper-urbanization of Kabul from a city of roughly one half million inhabitants in 2001 to more than five million today has occurred without a sanitation system while unregulated private wells have depleted the city’s water supply that is also being undermined by climate change induced deglaciation of the Hindu Kush. 

From lack of water to radiated water, from toxic air to poisoned soil, the fully unrestrained US imperial military conduct in Afghanistan has resulted in an environmental catastrophe that requires accountability and restitution from all international powers that have contributed to what is now genocidal famine and environmental ruin, much of which did not occur within the boundaries of international law and ethical conduct.  The environmental and human injustice resulting from US military conduct in Afghanistan since 2001 is astounding and unparalleled and requires material and moral rectitude from the international community.

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Shah Mahmoud Hanifi  is Professor of History at James Madison University where he teaches courses on the Middle East and South Asia. Hanifi’s publications have addressed subjects including colonial political economy and intellectual history, the Pashto language, photography, cartography, animal and environmental studies, and Orientalism in Afghanistan.