TARIN KOWT, Afghanistan -- Naqibullah lost his sight and his job as an Afghan policeman when an improvised explosive device (IED) he was defusing exploded in his face eight years ago.
But being blind hasn't stopped the 39-year-old former police commander from sharing his expertise with police on demining work at the frontline checkpoints around his hometown of Tarin Kowt, the capital of the southern province of Uruzgan.
Officers from Naqibullah’s former police unit also call on him sometimes to go on their missions and help them defuse roadside bombs planted by the Taliban, which controls most of the rural territory in the province.
"I do this because these young soldiers are our own people,” says Naqibullah, who joined the Afghan police in 2002 and commanded a checkpoint at Sur Murghab on the outskirts of Tarin Kowt until he was blinded.
“If I can train them and share my experiences with them to prevent their deaths and injuries, it is a great achievement,” Naqibullah tells RFE/RL. “Also, this is our homeland. As a former security officer, I consider it my responsibility to protect my people's sisters and brothers.”
‘Legacy Land Mines’ Vs. Taliban IEDs
The British-based nonprofit demining group HALO Trust estimated in early 2004 that nearly half a million land mines had been left behind in the 1980s and 1990s by Soviet troops, Afghan government forces, and the rival mujahedin factions that fought for control of the country.
HALO Trust now says more than 80 percent of those so-called “legacy land mines” have been cleared.
Nevertheless, casualties from IEDs have been on the rise in Afghanistan over the past five years.
HALO Trust says it’s clear that Taliban IEDs and unexploded ordnance from NATO-led airstrikes now pose a bigger threat to Afghan civilians than “legacy land mines.”
But the thousands of civilian deminers who’ve worked in Afghanistan since the arrival of U.S. forces in late 2001 stay clear of active combat zones where war continues to rage.
Out of more than 72,000 land mines and explosive devices defused by HALO Trust in 2020, only 226 were “abandoned improvised mines” from the past two decades.
Explosive ordnance disposal in the current battle zones is left mostly to forces in the U.S.-led coalition -- which includes Afghan police like those in Naqibullah’s former unit.
Naqibullah says proper training for Afghan police in the specialized field of demining has been lacking.
"I did not have any special training in demining,” Naqibullah tells RFE/RL. “In my short police training I learned some basic things about [conventional] mines. But here in Uruzgan we are not facing a conventional war.”
“The war here is based on local and domestic [guerrilla] tactics,” he says. “The Taliban came and planted [improvised] mines everywhere, so I used different methods to defuse them and I got into the habit of defusing them.”
“While I was working as a police officer, we would encounter mines on roads, villages, and war zones every day. And we had to defuse them. I came across a lot of IEDs planted by the Taliban," says Naqibullah in explaining how he gained experience.
“I have defused hundreds of them. Fourteen of them exploded while I was defusing them,” he says. “I was not injured by those. But I was injured by the 15th blast.”
Most Taliban IEDs Naqibullah defused during his decade in the Afghan police were made with five components, as described by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security -- a switch, a power source, an initiator, a container, and an explosive charge.
But Naqibullah says the Taliban has adapted its bomb-making techniques over the years to build improvised mines that are more complicated and dangerous to defuse.
“The mine that injured and blinded me eight years ago was very skillfully placed, using some new tactics which I had never encountered before,” he says. “It used several initiator devices.”
"We would first pull an IED out of the ground with a long-handled grappling claw,” he explains. “Then we would defuse it or give it a controlled blast."
“This one had a remote control attached to it and another device under the mine so that it couldn’t be easily pulled from the ground,” Naqibullah says. “I was able to cut off the remote-control lines. But when I tried to pull it out of the ground using my grappling claw, it stuck firmly to the ground and exploded.”
The blast sent fragments of shrapnel over Naqibullah’s head as he lay flat on the ground facing the IED. But he was caught in a shock wave and a blast of heat.
“Because the handle of my grappling claw was short and I was lying close to it on my chest, I was injured in the blast and my eyes were the most damaged,” he explained.
Voice Of Experience
Police who have been trained by Naqibullah say his work has saved their lives.
“We have learned a lot from Naqibullah in the military field,” says Najibullah, an ANP officer from the Chora district of Tarin Kowt who, like Naqibullah and many other Afghans, does not have a last name.
“He gave us training that has taught us many things about how to deal with mines and about combat techniques,” Najibullah says. “It has helped a lot.”
“Before his training, we didn’t take the fighting very seriously,” he continued. “We would move into areas without assessing the risks involved. We didn’t pay much attention to what mines are or how to deal with them. So we had a lot of casualties. But we’ve learned from Naqibullah.”
“Naqibullah comes to our posts and sometimes comes to the front-line posts,” said Basir Ahmad, a 25-year-old police officer from Tarin Kowt. “Whenever an IED is found people still call on Naqibullah to help defuse it. With his help, many police officers have been saved from explosions.”
“He has taught us some ways to defuse them,” Ahmad explains. “He’s also showed us how and where the enemy plants mines, and how they are used. He’s shown us how to look for wires near an IED from which an electrical short enters the device and causes it to explode.”
Naqibullah says one important lesson that he shares with inexperienced police officers is how to spot clues that indicate an IED has been planted.
“In my experience with them, with freshly buried mines, if it rains then the ground is a little lower than the rest of the surface around where it has been planted,” he explains. “If it doesn’t rain, the new soil will be visible around it and it will have a lot of footprints around it, as well as other signs, which can show there’s something in this place that needs to be looked at carefully.”
“Sometimes an IED can be pulled from the ground by using a long stick with a grappling claw, and then we can shoot at it from a distance to make it explode,” he says. “Or if it has a remote control we can hook it up with extra lines and connect it to a car battery so it blows up.”
“The police in Uruzgan still don’t have any other equipment for demining,” Naqibullah laments.
Working Without Pay
Life has been difficult for Naqibullah since he was blinded, particularly, trying to provide for his wife and five children and also get treatment that could partially restore his vision.
Shortly after he was blinded, Naqibullah was sent to India for treatment. But the eye operation was unsuccessful.
Doctors have told him he might regain some vision if he returns to specialists in India for follow-up treatment.
But without an income and struggling to buy food for his family, he doesn't have the financial resources to travel to India again.
“The government initially paid me a small amount for my treatment when I was injured,” he says. “But it has cost me many times more. Since then, I have paid for all my treatment at my own expense [and spent] a lot of money on my treatment these eight years.”
In fact, Naqibullah says he now owes more than $10,000 to friends and relatives who have loaned him money for treatment.
“All of them want me to pay them back and no one will lend me money anymore,” he says.
In order to feed his family, he sometimes walks to a nearby mosque -- escorted by his eldest son, 10-year-old Qasim -- and begs for alms from worshippers.
“As you know, it’s not easy to have a family when you cannot work and do not have any income,” he says. “If I was not blind then I could do any job to support my family.”
Afghan police officer Najibullah, who was trained by Naqibullah, describes the blinded former policeman as “a strong man.”
“Even though he is blind he can give us instructions,” Najibullah says. “He loves his homeland and is still determined to serve. We also call on the government to take care of Naqibullah -- to help him with treatment and financial support.”
But Naqibullah says “neither the government nor anyone else has given me anything” for the training and demining work he does.
“The doctors told me that I could regain some of my vision if I get the right treatment,” he says. “The Afghan government can help me with that. The government could also help me in providing a good education for my kids.”
Written by Ron Synovitz in Prague based on reporting by RFE/RL’s Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent in Tarin Kowt.