Kneeling in the hot morning sun, a few men carefully poke and prod at the baked earth on the outskirts of the Afghan capital. As cars and trucks drive past just a few yards away, one man unearths a deadly mine and puts explosives on it.
The mine blows up with a loud thud. The men mark the spot with a green stone. Dozens of stones are already spread across the area, in one of the most heavily-mined countries in the world.
Afghanistan has cleared two-thirds of the country of deadly mines over the past two decades, and had hoped to get rid of the rest by 2013. But experts fear Afghanistan can no longer meet its goals because of an increase in fighting and a drop in international funding. The result is more danger to both soldiers and civilians, with 50 people a month killed or maimed by mines.
Violence has closed off many of Afghanistan's provinces to trained de-miners, who are increasingly targeted and killed by militants. Last year, according to the United Nations Mine Action Center, insurgents shot and killed six de-miners on one day and two the next.
Raw materials for militants
One reason is that the mines provide raw materials for militants to repurpose and use against U.S. and NATO forces. The mines are used to make roadside bombs, or what the military calls improvised explosive devices or IEDs, the main killer of U.S. forces in nearby Iraq.
A roadside bomb blast in southern Afghanistan killed two U.S. troops on June 19, and U.S. military officials have said they expect a 50 percent rise in the number of roadside or suicide bomb attacks this year. Gen. David Petraeus, the United States' top regional commander, said in mid-June that the situation will deteriorate as the war against militants escalates.
"Mines are used as part of the main charge for the IED," NATO's International Security Assistance Force said in a statement. "These devices are in the majority simple in construction, with insurgents using whatever materials — including mines — they can."
The mines in Afghanistan are a legacy from decades of Soviet occupation and subsequent civil wars. Tens of thousands of mines and unexploded bombs still pepper the rugged country. Last year, 84,900 mines, and 2.5 million unexploded bombs and ordinance were cleared.
"There is a huge problem here in Afghanistan," said Richard Evans, a de-mining officer with the HALO trust, a British charity that specializes in the removal of land mines and other debris of war. "The only way to get them out of the ground is to get teams in and get them on their hands and knees and clear the mines."
Evans said his team eliminates about 75 mines a day near Bagram air base, slowly clearing areas to eventually allow families to return. But he said the work has become increasingly difficult because there are now some areas where his team cannot go because of the violence.
He and others also bring up the problem of not enough funding. The economic turndown means less money for all charities. There are also concerns that the renewed fighting will draw attention and funds away from mine clearing.
The United Nations says it needs $500 million over the next five years to reach its goal and has received 70 percent of the $108 million it needs this year.
"In 2001 and 2002, we were thinking that everything is over, but now again it's happening again," said Najmuddin, 43, the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross orthopedic center in Kabul, who goes by one name only. Najmuddin himself lost both his legs to a mine 18 years ago. Today, he walks with a small limp on two prosthetic replacements.
Thousands of amputees in Afghanistan
The center, located near Kabul University, cares for about 250 people a day — providing new limbs, wheelchairs and physical therapy for the disabled. There are an estimated 50,000 amputees in Afghanistan, mostly mine victims.
Patients sit on benches in the buildings, trying on new limbs or resting from physical therapy. One man wraps both hands around the stump where his leg used to be, crutches by his side. He lost both legs to a mine when he was 12.
Others practice walking with their new prosthetics by placing them on footprints painted on the floor. Some are trying them on for the first time. Others, such as 78-year-old Nawab Khan, are getting replacements.
"I lost my leg a long time ago," said Khan, whose legs blew up 10 years ago while he was working on his farm. "But I feel sorry for these young people that they also have to go through this."