by Austin Bodetti
A solution to the war in Afghanistan has eluded American presidents of both political parties as well as generations of Afghan policymakers. Now that Taliban negotiators are discussing a political settlement to the conflict with American diplomats in the Qatari capital of Doha, however, an end to the longest U.S. war may be within reach. Still, the Taliban has yet to meet with the Afghan government, and many Afghan politicians themselves remain divided over how to proceed.
The environmental movement can help Afghans across the political spectrum bridge this gap.
The Afghan government has dedicated millions of dollars to preparing for the effects of climate change, partnering with the Asian Development Bank, the United Nations Development Program, and the World Bank. The Taliban leadership, meanwhile, has called on Afghans to “plant one or several fruit or non-fruit trees for the beautification of the Earth and the benefit of almighty God’s creations.” All the while, civil society has been leading efforts to deal with the country’s many environmental issues.
“Afghanistan’s environment is facing many challenges,” says Abdul Aziz Mohibbi, an assistant professor of natural resource management at Kabul University, pointing to environmental issues such as biodiversity loss, desertification, habitat destruction, urban sprawl, and water pollution.
Four decades of civil war, coupled with the consequences of the Soviet and American invasions, have devastated the natural environment in Afghanistan. The country’s history of droughts and earthquakes has only compounded the problem. As far back as 2003, the UN Environmental Program expressed concerns about the dangers of “serious and widespread land and resource degradation, including lowered water tables, desiccation of wetlands, widespread loss of vegetative cover, erosion, and loss of wildlife.”
“With the frequent droughts and the decline in ecosystem services, rural migration to the cities has steadily increased in recent years,” Ghulam Hussain Poya, an associate professor of natural resource management at Kabul University, tells LobeLog. “This, in turn, has created a lot of environmental and social problems in the major cities, such as Herat, Kabul, and Mazar-i-Sharif.”
Despite the looming threat of environmental issues and climate change in particular, the battle for control of Afghanistan has all but monopolized the resources of the Afghan government, the Taliban, and their foreign patrons. The peace process could contribute to overcoming this challenge.
“Environmental issues are not a major concern for most politicians on either side of the war, but environmentalism can still support negotiations,” argues Mohibbi.
In the two decades since its establishment, the Afghan government has created an environmental ministry as well as laws to promote environmental education, protect biodiversity, and regulate pollution. The Taliban, in turn, has described its previous support for reforestation as part of “the perfect plan for environmental protection,” adding that the insurgents encourage “all actions taken for the support of the environment, including the government’s efforts to invest in this sector.” The Afghan government and the Taliban could collaborate on reforestation if the peace process laid the groundwork.
“Any direct or indirect contribution to reforestation on the part of the Taliban is good news for the future of environmental protection in Afghanistan,” Poya tells LobeLog.
To succeed, any peace treaty would have to bring an end to political violence, build a national unity government, and safeguard human rights. But a commitment to environmentalism from the government and the Taliban could help them find common ground on at least one problem before negotiators move to more contentious topics. A political settlement to the war in Afghanistan would also allow Afghans to focus more of their energy on environmental issues and global warming.
“I don’t personally think that environmentalism’s impact on any peace treaty between the Afghan government and the Taliban would be significant, but peace would lead to an increase in agriculture and the restoration of forests,” says Hedayatullah Omarkhel, who heads an Afghan agribusiness.
Afghanistan lost over a third of its forests between 1990 and 2005. By 2013, no less than half the country’s woodlands had disappeared because of illegal logging. The distraction of conflict has prevented Afghan law enforcement agencies from policing the practice while insurgents, including factions of the Islamic State and the Taliban, finance some of their activities by selling timber. If the war in Afghanistan ended, Afghan law enforcement agencies could feasibly stop deforestation.
“I don’t know about the Taliban’s environmental policy, but the Afghan government’s efforts at reforestation must be more serious and efficient,” Omarkhel tells LobeLog.
The Taliban and the Afghan government have gone well out of their way to voice their vested interest in environmental protection. This rare example of consensus could help American, Pakistani, and Qatari diplomats bring the two sides to the negotiating table. An agreement on environmental policy might even enable the Afghan government and the Taliban to compromise on overlapping economic matters important to both sides, such as copper extraction and hydrocarbon exploration. For its part, the Taliban has alternated between courting and threatening the petroleum industry since the 1990s.
“Stability would give Afghans the chance to respond to environmental issues, and a political settlement would facilitate a movement in education toward environmental studies and support further research,” Mohibbi tells LobeLog, noting that Afghan officials could then design an environmental policy that better incorporated conservation biology, urban planning, and water resource management.
A conclusion to the conflict that has bedeviled the country for decades would provide the Afghan government and the Taliban the opportunity to enact the environmental policies that they have long trumpeted. Though some experts question whether an American withdrawal will benefit Afghanistan in the long term, few environmentalists doubt that a political settlement will yield political and practical dividends for the environmental movement there.
“The war consumes the largest portion of Afghanistan’s national budget,” notes Poya. “A political settlement to the war would create a lot of opportunities for the government, international donors, aid agencies, the private sector, civil society, and ordinary Afghans to think about the natural environment and invest in addressing environmental issues and encouraging environmentalism.”
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, and his research has appeared in The Daily Beast, USA Today, Vox, and Wired.