On December 24, 1979, the first Soviet paratroopers landed in Kabul, beginning their nine-year occupation of Afghanistan, which would leave more than a million Afghans dead and millions more fleeing to neighboring countries as refugees.
Today, while coalition forces patrol the country in search of Taliban extremists and suspected Al Qaeda members, small teams of Afghans are still working to rid the country of dangerous detritus from the last war.
These Weapons Removal and Abatement (WRA) teams are comprised of locals whose mission is to recover and destroy unexploded ordnance, which can range from small fuses to 1,100-pound bombs dropped by aircraft. For villagers, these remnants pose a fundamental threat to rebuilding their lives, as much of the unexploded ordnance lies dormant for decades until stumbled upon by children, farmers, or livestock.
Aside from the physical dangers associated with handling explosives, the Afghans who carry out this work make personal sacrifices, including living apart from their families for months at a time. Despite the humanitarian nature of their work, their cooperation with foreigners has earned them the contempt of Taliban extremists, and death threats are common.
An estimated 4 million land mines were deployed in Afghanistan and more than 2.5 million pieces of unexploded ordnance were recovered in 2008 alone. Today, cleanup efforts continue amidst the backdrop of an intensifying conflict and reveal a grim trail of past mistakes.
Stoner cops, Taliban farmers, no gas in sight: Read "The Slog of War," Nir Rosen's inside account of the Pentagon's Afghanistan counterinsurgency, here.