James Cowan

Why were my colleagues murdered?

Why were my colleagues murdered?
A Halo Trust deminer in Afghanistan (Photo by Darren McCollester/Getty Images)
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Two weeks ago, the charity I run suffered the greatest loss of life in its 33-year history. The Halo Trust was founded in Afghanistan in 1988 following the Soviet withdrawal. On witnessing the devastating impact of landmines and unexploded bombs on the population, two British soldiers set up an organisation to train young men of fighting age how to clear mines and ordnance. Since then, Halo has cleared 850,000 landmines from 24 provinces in Afghanistan, and almost 14 million mines and other explosive items worldwide.

With support from Britain and other nations, Halo had been able to employ as many as 3,500 Afghan men as deminers. Many of these men joined us on departing the Taliban, exchanging their rifles for a metal detector and a reliable salary. We only work where we have the consent of the local population and therefore have negotiated with all powerbrokers in this contested land. However, two years ago the UK precipitately cut funding for 1,000 deminers. Halo was left with 2,400 staff, very few of whom are funded by the UK. Despite this significant cut, we are still a mass employer and now have more staff than the US army in Afghanistan.

On the evening of 8 June, 110 deminers were sleeping in a camp set up in a disused compound in Baghlan province. At 9.50 p.m. local time, a group of masked men broke into the camp, demanding my staff identify anyone from ethnic and religious minorities. Our deminers refused, standing in solidarity with their colleagues. The gunmen started shooting indiscriminately, murdering ten men in their beds and fatally wounding another, who later died in hospital. 

Early reports blamed the Taliban. They were wrong: a local group who sometimes align with the Taliban chased the gunmen off and prevented greater loss of life. An offshoot of Isis later claimed responsibility, though the picture remains murky. One thing remains clear: Afghanistan is in the midst of another bloody chapter in its history.

Days before my staff were killed, 11 civilians, including schoolchildren, lost their lives because a vehicle drove over a roadside bomb in Bagdis province. Yet this terrible event — alongside the more than 3,000 civilians killed there last year — did not make global headlines. The UK government is right to pride itself on educating girls in Afghanistan. But if children are to be educated in safety, you need to clear the paths and roads of the remnants of war and create stability first.

The murders in Baghlan led to an outpouring of grief and condemnation from global leaders and institutions, including the UN Security Council and Prince Harry, a long-time supporter of Halo. But it has also led to a stiffening of our resolve. As US and Nato troops prepare to draw down their 20-year presence, Halo is determined to stay and deliver life-saving assistance to the Afghan people. I wish I could say the same of the British government, which does not seem to have a coherent strategy for the country.

The void left by Nato's withdrawal will be filled by regional actors, not all friendly to the UK. If Britain wants the last two decades to have been worthwhile, it now needs a stabilisation strategy that can make the most of well-regarded organisations such as Halo. Mine clearance makes a vital contribution to stability because it is accepted by both the government and the Taliban. It also provides an alternative income for young men and a peaceful alternative to taking up arms or engaging in the illicit narcotics trade. It is worth remembering that 95 per cent of heroin on the UK’s streets originates from Afghanistan. Investing in mine clearance would therefore reap multiple security and strategic benefits for the UK.

Today, the global staff of the Halo Trust held a minute’s silence in honour of our eleven fallen comrades. We will continue to mourn them as we serve the Afghan people. But we cannot do so effectively if our own government remains silent on the question: what will become of the country on 12 September 2021?

Written byJames Cowan

Major general James Cowan is CEO of the Halo Trust. He commanded in the Iraqi provinces of Basra and Fallujah in 2004, returning in 2009 to fight in Helmand province.

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