Troops leave behind environmental devastation in Afghanistan

The environmental impact that the war has inflicted on Afghanistan will remain for years to come: America can help. Photo: A burn pit in Afghanistan (US Air Force)

WASHINGTON, December 17, 2013 — After NATO and U.S. troops leave Afghanistan in 2014, the environmental impact that the war has inflicted upon the land and people of Afghanistan will remain for years to come.

Walk alongside U.S. bases in Afghanistan, and one will see the noxious burn pits that result in lung transplants for veterans in their twenties.  Fly over Afghanistan, and one will realize that 38 percent of the total forest area has disappeared since 1990.

The U.S. should do more to alleviate the disastrous environmental impact it inflicts upon Afghanistan in its withdrawal.

First, the U.S. must responsibly dispose of its excess equipment, recycling whenever possible.  Afghanistan has been nicknamed the “graveyard of empires” for the sheer amount of material left behind after decades of war, and this war is no different. The U.S. is leaving behind an unprecedented 628,000 pieces of equipment, worth six billion dollars.

Articles like treadmills, air-conditioning units, and other appliances are being dismantled so they can’t be used for roadside bombs. As a result, the U.S. sells an astonishing 12 to 14 million pounds of dismantled scrap metal to the Afghan people each week. This destruction of items not only prevents the Afghan people from gaining access to much needed household items, but is creating unnecessary environmental waste. Already over 170 million pounds of equipment have been destroyed. A brand-new command center built in Helmand Province – which cost $34 million to build – will most likely be destroyed soon after all of the troops leave.

Second, the U.S. military should be required to properly dismantle and remove the 2,000 Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles they are planning to leave behind, each of which cost about one million dollars to produce. Some of the worst endocrine disrupters can be found in MRAPs: Bisphenol A, which interferes with hormones and affects reproduction, and Hexavalent Chromium, a known carcinogen. General Jim Conway, a former Marine commandant, stated that the best thing to do with MRAPs after the war is to “wrap them in shrink wrap and put them in asphalt somewhere” – not exactly a reassuring clean-up technique. It is unacceptable for the U.S. to transfer the burden of its excess equipment to the people of Afghanistan.

Third, there must be a serious investigation into the connection between the open-air burn pits and the health of both U.S. and Afghan soldiers. The military’s frequent use of these burn pits as a way to get rid of food scraps, paper, plastic, Styrofoam, rubber, electronics, ammunition, explosives, human feces, animal carcasses, asbestos insulation, and even human body parts has been linked to serious long-term illnesses in many soldiers. The burn pits produce a “black snow” of toxins that include sulfur dioxide, arsenic, dioxins, and hydrochloric acid, which are associated with several kinds of cancer, neurological diseases, chronic respiratory problems, cardiovascular issues, and constrictive bronchiolitis, a disease that is unresponsive to treatment and can require lung transplants.

The military must make it a priority to understand the effects of its burn pits and remember that they are leaving behind communities that must live with the consequences of its hasty, irresponsible toxic waste disposal.

The drawdown from Afghanistan is an important opportunity for the U.S. military to take a hard look at how its operations around the world impact the environment. Real peace involves not only the absence of war, but also the health of the people and the land. U.S. foreign policy is incomplete until it takes this into account.


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Elizabeth Beavers and Emily Wirzba

Elizabeth Beavers, J.D., is a program assistant in the foreign policy program at the Friends Committee on National Legislation.  Emily Wirzba is program assistant in the sustainable energy and environment program at FCNL.

Contact Elizabeth Beavers and Emily Wirzba

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