Hidden on roadsides, behind boulders or on cultivated land, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) are killing or maiming dozens of civilians every month, according to rights groups and government officials.
IEDs killed 773 civilians in 2009 - over 32 percent of the total 2,412 civilian deaths - according to the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.
Afghan rights watchdog Afghanistan Rights Monitor (ARM) said it recorded 67 civilian deaths resulting from IED attacks from 1-21 March 2010.
“On average IEDs kill and injure more civilians than any other fighting tactic,” Ajmal Samadi, ARM’s director, told IRIN.
IEDs tend to inflict more harm on civilians than on military personnel who can protect themselves with armoured vehicles, technology and intelligence.
The number of people killed and maimed by IEDs over the past few years is unclear, but the International Committee of the Red Cross, which runs six orthopaedic centres in the country, said it fitted 3,734 prostheses and 9,626 orthoses (braces and splints) to people disabled by war and other causes in 2009.
IEDs and landmines also impede peoples’ movement and inhibit humanitarian and development projects in large swathes of the country.
“We can’t move freely in our area and cultivate our fields or tend to our [fruit] gardens because mines and bombs are laid everywhere,” said one elderly man from Panjwaye District in the southern province of Kandahar.
The risk of IEDs also means that those needing urgent medical treatment often have to make detours to reach medical centres - and sometimes the extra journey time can be fatal, local people said.
“People want to take their children to hospital but many are unsure they will get there alive,” said Abdul Qayum Pokhla, director of health services in Kandahar.
Despite extensive protective measures, over half of foreign military deaths in Afghanistan have been attributed to IEDs, according to NATO officials, and Taliban insurgents appear to have stepped up their use of the deadly devices.
US military officials have said IED attacks could increase further this year as thousands of additional foreign forces arrive.
From February 2009 to February 2010 NATO-led forces cleared 4,633 IEDs across the country; 8,159 IED attacks were recorded in 2009, according to NATO and US military officials.
“The death of a foreign soldier in an improvised blast often makes headlines, but we have failed to communicate to armed opposition groups and their foreign supporters that IEDs kill and maim hundreds of innocent people and this is a clear violation of all war laws,” said ARM’s Samadi.
In January the government banned the import and use of ammonium nitrate fertilizer which was reportedly used in 85 percent of the IEDs discovered in the country, but illegal imports continue.
“Pakistan is the principle source of ammonium nitrate. China and Iran are also significant suppliers,” a NATO spokesperson, who preferred anonymity, told IRIN.
No Taliban spokesman was immediately available to comment on the manufacture or use of IEDs.
Several weeks after NATO and Afghan forces retook Marjah in the southern province of Helmand from the Taliban, the main road from there to Lashkargah city remains closed due to the IED risk.
The Mine Action Coordination Center for Afghanistan (MACCA) said demining agencies operating under its umbrella look to clear areas once a conflict is over, but do not go into an area, on request, specifically to clear IEDs.
“When conflict is over in an area, the demining agencies clear minefields even if they contain IEDs,” Rafiullah Alkozai, MACCA’s information officer, told IRIN.
NATO said efforts are under way to boost public awareness of the risks of IEDs through radio and TV, billboards, posters and pamphlets.