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Casualty of war: Deforestation and desertification in Afghanistan Open in fullscreen

Austin Bodetti

Casualty of war: Deforestation and desertification in Afghanistan

Afghanistan's environment has been a casualty of the country's years of war [Getty]

Date of publication: 15 May, 2019

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If Afghans and their allies in the international community want to ready the country for a conflict-free future, they must take the natural environment into account, writes Austin Bodetti.
While gridlock is keeping the Taliban and the United States from reaching a political settlement to the war in Afghanistan, a lacklustre peace process represents just one of many issues confronting the country.

Decades of civil wars and invasions have exacerbated the consequences of deforestation and desertification in Afghanistan, where environmental issues tend to take a backseat to counterinsurgency and counterterrorism.

If Afghans and their allies in the international community want to ready the country for a conflict-free future, however, they must take the natural environment into account.

Deforestation claimed a third of Afghanistan's trees between 1990 and 2005, and the country lost no less than half its forests by 2013. For its part, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) has long warned that desertification is harming over three quarters of the country's north, south, and west, rural areas over which Afghan authorities can rarely exert control.

Because battling the Taliban demands so many of the Afghan government's resources, Afghan officials now lack the bandwidth to address the ever-worsening effects of environmental degradation. The distraction of the conflict has kept Afghans from preparing their country for global warming.

Deforestation claimed a third of Afghanistan's trees between 1990 and 2005, and the country lost no less than half its forests by 2013

"War has been one of the greatest factors contributing to deforestation and desertification in Afghanistan," observed Ghulam Hussain Poya, an associate professor of natural resource management at Kabul University.

"In the 1980s, during the Soviet–Afghan War, anecdotal evidence suggested that the Mujahideen used the forests to hide from the Soviets, who retaliated by bombarding the forests."

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The spread of illegal logging, which has flourished as part of the war economy, remains one of the biggest contributors to deforestation in Afghanistan. The destruction of electrical grids has forced Afghans to burn wood to heat their homes, and factions of the Islamic State and the Taliban have even turned to the lumber industry to bankroll some of their operations in the country's east.

The longer the war in Afghanistan lasts, the greater the opportunities for environmental crime. Like the Afghan military, Afghan law enforcement agencies have to dedicate most of their time to fighting the Taliban.

"During the war, the smuggling of timber has intensified because there are no controls over the borders," said Abdul Aziz Mohibbi, an associate professor of natural resource management at Kabul University.

"The smugglers can carry timber freely – without any concerns. Meanwhile, the war has led to a lack of forest management, simultaneously intensifying desertification in Afghanistan."

Insurgents' influence over much of the Afghan countryside has limited the ability of the Afghan government to curb illegal logging and promote environmental protection, bringing into doubt the reach of Afghan officials' current strategy for reforestation, which seems to include relying on the UN.

"The Afghan government must develop precise, suitable, feasible short- and long-term strategies for reforestation and natural-resource rehabilitation and conservation," concluded Poya, noting that the Afghan government could partner with the Asian Development Bank, the Global Environment Facility, and the World Bank in addition to the international community as a whole.

In 2017, the Taliban called on Afghans to plant trees as an Islamic obligation

The Afghan government may find an additional partner in the Taliban, which, despite its own role in deforestation, has expressed its interest in becoming part of the solution. In 2017, the insurgents called on Afghans to plant trees as an Islamic obligation. The Taliban later added that it supported the Afghan government's own efforts to encourage environmental protection despite characterising Afghan officials as lackeys of a puppet state.

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This development raises the possibility that the Afghan government and the Taliban could find common ground by planning a joint response to deforestation and desertification.

"To curb desertification, the Afghan government can raise awareness among local communities and prevent the use of rangeland beyond its carrying capacity," noted Mohibbi.

Whether Afghan officials and their counterparts in the Taliban reach a political settlement or not, Afghan environmental organisations and the international community can assist the Afghan government with its efforts to deal with the environmental issues that have plagued Afghanistan for decades.

"The Afghan government should apply a community-based approach to forest management, build and strengthen locally managed institutions, and empower local communities in Afghanistan by allowing them to participate in decisions and giving them a feeling of ownership over forestry," Poya told The New Arab.

"This strategy can decrease deforestation and halt desertification."

In addition to UNAMA, the Afghan government can look for assistance from the Ecology and Conservation Organization of Afghanistan and other Afghan environmental organisations. The plethora of American intelligence agencies and military branches, which have long studied climate change as a threat to global security, also have a stake in protecting Afghanistan from environmental degradation.

Though war has consumed Afghan officials' attention for the Afghan government's entire history, peace may give them the chance to reflect on and respond to the long-term threat presented by environmental issues.

"Most Afghans rely on the natural environment for their livelihoods," Mohibbi told The New Arab. "The Afghan government must try to decrease the people's dependence on natural resources."


Austin Bodetti studies the intersection of Islam, culture, and politics in Africa and Asia. He has conducted fieldwork in Bosnia, Indonesia, Iraq, Myanmar, Nicaragua, Oman, South Sudan, Thailand, and Uganda. His research has appeared in The Daily Beast, USA Today, Vox, and Wired.

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