Halo charity plans to make Afghanistan mine-free within a decade

Chief tells ‘The National’ how the Taliban are co-operating in dangerous demining operation

A minesweeper from Halo works meticulously with a metal detector along a mountainside contaminated with IEDs in Parwan Province, Afghanistan. Getty Images
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It is a bold claim, but with the Taliban now in power comes the possibility that Afghanistan might finally be free of landmines by the end of decade.

One of the unforeseen consequences of the militant’s victory is that the country has opened up to the brave mine clearance operators from the Halo charity, its boss James Cowan said.

Nearly all Taliban district governors have allowed teams to return to the seemingly never-ending task of clearing munitions that kill and maim thousands every year.

But the end might now be in sight. Mr Cowan is now in negotiations with the Kabul government to introduce a countrywide survey that will give Halo an idea of the scale of the operation to make Afghanistan safe.

The task they face is mountainous. For four decades bombs, bullets and missiles from the Soviets to the US-led Nato forces have scarred Afghanistan. And with victory, the Taliban have stopped laying improvised explosive devices and no longer require the “huge swathes” of deadly bombs to defend their territory.

“With much greater access we’ve now potentially got the opportunity to make Afghanistan IED and mine-free,” Mr Cowan told The National. “There's been a number of unexpected benefits to the situation with the Taliban now in complete control of the country.”

James Cowan, chief executive of Halo, manages removing mines and unexploded bombs in Afghanistan. Getty Images

It’s now a question of discovering how many mines there are. “We don't know the full extent of the contamination but one of our urgent tasks is get out there and conduct a full national research,” he said. “Because until that survey is done we're really only guessing at the size of our task.”

The working relationship with the militants meant that within a few days of the Taliban taking power the demining teams were allowed back to their dangerous task.

“The Taliban don't feel threatened by Halo, they generally like what we do and therefore our people are safe,” said Mr Cowan, speaking from his home in England. “There are some aspects of their victory which are positive, with security much better in rural areas. The Taliban also don’t really tolerate corruption so there’s no more fleecing of our staff at every police checkpoint.”

More importantly, Mr Cowan’s workers were willing to stay on in Afghanistan despite being given the option to leave. “They chose to stay primarily because they didn't feel threatened as the Taliban are very supportive of Halo and they’re also very dedicated. It also means that we have not contributed to the brain drain. We now have a completely intact organisation functioning in Afghanistan.”

The return to work came despite the murder of 10 Halo staff by ISIS terrorists in June, adding to the 21 who have been killed demining in the past decade. The Taliban supported Halo after the latest murders. “They went after ISIS and we heard the other day they've actually captured some of them, which is good news,” said Mr Cowan.

When the Taliban advanced across Afghanistan over the summer, uncertainty spread over whether to fly Halo’s foreign staff out of the country to safety. But the charity’s vast network realised a Taliban victory was imminent. “We have unparalleled eyes and ears around the country so we saw what was coming and extracted our internationals before the main drama.”

After the last American troops left, Halo was able to negotiate directly with the new Taliban provincial governors and within five days were out in the fields and ditches tackling mines.

While all 2,400 males are able to work, only the handful of women in the Herat and Kandahar offices have been allowed back. “It's a moving feast and I think there's still room for manoeuvre within the moderate wing of the Taliban to persuade them to take a more enlightened approach to women,” the 57-year-old said hopefully.

The charity gained international recognition for its demining work in 1997 when the late Princess Diana walked in Halo protective kit across a minefield in Angola and since then it has grown into the world’s biggest explosive-removal operator.

With banking in chaos, Halo is using the hawala system for salaries but its chief warned if the cash freeze on Afghanistan continues “we're in significant danger of precipitating an unintended economic catastrophe, particularly with winter coming – it’s an absolutely perilous situation.”

Much of the work in Afghanistan will now focus on the legacy from the 20 years of war involving the US and other Western powers. “There are huge amounts of Nato ordnance on ranges or in the ground that need to be cleared as well as the stockpiles of ammunition given by Nato that is loosely stored by police and army that need to be made safe,” Mr Cowan said.

Money is also an issue for Halo’s continued work in Afghanistan and the many other countries, including Iraq, where it removes unexploded ordnance to allow people to move safely.

Wounded people receive treatment at a hospital after an attack by masked gunmen that killed 10 people working for the Halo mine-clearing organisation. AFP

But despite being Britain’s largest non-governmental organisation in Afghanistan, all of its funding has been withdrawn by Whitehall under the £4 billion ($5.48bn) international development cut. This resulted in the charity having to make 1,000 staff redundant in Afghanistan. Its £75 million annual budget is now funded mainly by the US, Germany, Ireland, Finland, Norway and other donors.

“That is such a shame for the UK because Halo is a hugely successful part of stabilising Afghanistan,” said the chief executive.

However, Liz Truss, the new Foreign Secretary, has called for a review of the funding and the charity chief is hoping that “she shows some political leadership”.

The most important element that mine clearance brings to a country is in kick-starting war-devastated economies by making farmland and villages safe.

But when international development economists look at the return of investment in clearing a hectare of minefield versus the return from the cash crop grown, “they see in money terms it’s not worth it”, said Mr Cowan. “But we’re never going to be affordable on that count and it’s missing the point because we’re employing ex-fighters and we’re giving people confidence to work the land and return to normality.”

There were 1,538 lives lost to landmines in 2019 and an estimated 2,500 severe injuries, usually amputations. A mine-free Afghanistan would clearly be an immense benefit. “Above all else, what we do is humanitarian,” said Mr Cowan.

Updated: October 14, 2021, 12:37 PM