There has been conflict in Afghanistan for many years and there is a high level of unexploded ordnance contamination across the country, including in Bamiyan Province, where the NZ PRT operated from 2003 to 2013.
The New Zealand Defence Force operated five firing ranges in the province until the PRT was shut down in 2013. These saw firing of non-explosive small arms rounds, as well as some high explosive rounds. The land used by the NZ PRT was previously used by Russian and US Forces for live firing before the NZDF commenced operations.
During the decade the PRT was deployed, a considerable amount of foreign military ordnance was discovered and disposed of by explosive ordnance disposal personnel who were deployed with the PRT. In one six month deployment in 2007, for example, one team disposed of nearly 10 tonnes of ordnance – none of which was NZDF material.
Despite the use of the ranges by other militaries previously, the NZDF takes its responsibility to ensure areas used by New Zealand forces are free of unexploded ordnance very seriously.
The NZDF operated the ranges in Bamiyan Province in accordance with Defence Force Orders. If a high explosive round did not detonate, the range conducting officer was required to notify the PRT headquarters, which would direct explosive ordnance disposal personnel to the location to dispose of the round. This was standard operating procedure. Before leaving Afghanistan the NZDF carried out firing range clearances to the agreed standards then approved by the Government of Afghanistan. It should be noted that most rounds fired by NZDF were small arms, not high explosives (HE).
After the NZDF PRT deployments finished in 2013, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) introduced a new standard for range clearance which was then adopted by the Afghan Directorate of Mine Action Coordination (DMAC).
Ordnance disposal is a complex undertaking, involving multiple agencies. The NZDF is committed to ensuring the task is carried out appropriately. To this end, the NZDF has been working with agencies of the Government of Afghanistan, in particular DMAC, to ensure all the firing ranges used by the PRT are cleared to the new DMAC standard.
DMAC completed a technical survey of areas to be cleared in late December 2018. Since then the NZDF has been engaged with DMAC to formulate a suitable plan to achieve the required level of clearance. The NZDF has set aside almost $10 million for this purpose.
In June 2018, the NZDF received a report from Human Rights Watch which asserted a link between victims of unexploded ordnance and New Zealand’s live firing ranges.
The Human Rights Watch report also linked the deaths in April 2014 of seven children to a range used by the NZDF. However, this range was cleared in October 2013 by a contractor of the Mine Action Coordination Centre of Afghanistan, and was assessed as being free from landmines and explosive remnants of war.
The unfortunate history of conflict in Afghanistan is such that the level of unexploded ordnance contamination across the country makes it extremely difficult to definitively link unexploded ordnance incidents with particular weapons used by a variety of nations, over many years.
Nevertheless, the NZDF remains committed to working with the Afghan authorities to clear the ranges to the new standard. NZDF’s experience in clearing the remnants of war in other parts of the world, ranging from demining in Cambodia, to clearing Second World War ordnance from the Solomon Islands, reaffirms that these are extremely complex and unfortunately often long-term undertakings.