What does Taliban's takeover mean for environmental protection in Afghanistan?

Environment and climate Afghanistan
27 August, 2021

Amid the dizzying chain of events that followed the Taliban’s lightning-paced takeover of Afghanistan in recent days, environmental degradation has likely drifted far from the minds of Afghans and analysts alike. Nonetheless, the militants’ ascent has significant implications for environmental protection in the South Asian country, and the Taliban can hardly afford to ignore the consequences of climate change. One way or another, Afghanistan’s new rulers will have to confront the same cascade of environmental issues that bedevilled the Taliban’s predecessors.

In the short term, the apparent end of Afghanistan’s civil war might have removed one of the most serious obstacles to environmental protection in the country. The daily demands of the conflict prevented the previous Afghan government from focusing on long-term problems such as deforestation and desertification. Afghan security forces, hollowed out by desertions and stretched thin from fighting the Taliban, lacked the bandwidth to combat illegal logging.

The administration of Afghanistan’s former president, Ashraf Ghani, never governed the entirety of the South Asian country and struggled to police its borders. The Taliban, on the other hand, holds more territory today than when the militants conquered 90 percent of Afghanistan in the late 1990s. If the Taliban manages to retain undisputed control of the nation, its regime will find itself in a better position to tackle environmental crime, address climate change, and avert an ecological disaster than any Afghan government since before the Soviet-Afghan War.

Environment and Climate
Live Story

The Taliban’s ability to pursue environmental protection notwithstanding, the extent to which the militants plan to integrate this goal into their vision of governance remains an open question. The Taliban came the closest to articulating an environmental policy in 2017. That year, a bizarre, much-referenced announcement attributed to the group’s leader, Hibatullah Akhundzada, urged “the Mujahideen and beloved countrymen” to come together and “join hands in tree planting.”

 A bizarre, much-referenced announcement attributed to the group’s leader, Hibatullah Akhundzada, urged 'the Mujahideen and beloved countrymen' to come together and 'join hands in tree planting'

Akhundzada’s statement suggested that Afghans “plant one or several fruits or non-fruit trees for the beautification of Earth,” citing their “important role in environmental protection” and “economic development.”

Later that year, the Taliban spokesman and senior leader Zabihullah Mujahid claimed that the militants had formulated “the perfect plan for environmental protection through planting trees,” pressing “every citizen of the country” to “plant at least one tree a year.” Yousef Ahmadi, another spokesman, praised trees’ “good impact on the environment” in 2017.

This sentiment, if genuine, seemed to have a limited impact on the Taliban’s foot soldiers. In 2017 – just months after the militants’ encouragement of tree planting – tribal leaders in the east of Afghanistan accused the Taliban and the Islamic State group of engaging in illegal logging. Last year, farmers also alleged that the militants placed mines in orchards of pomegranates during an offensive against Afghan security forces in Kandahar, the Taliban’s birthplace.

It may take some time for the Taliban to reconcile conflicting signals about its commitment to environmental protection, given that the militants have to contend with a host of more immediate challenges.

Afghanistan’s former vice president, joined by the son of a revered commander from the Soviet-Afghan War, is threatening to stage an insurgency against the Taliban. At the same time, many civil servants once employed by the Ghani administration have yet to return to work despite pressure from the Taliban, undermining the militants’ capacity to provide public services.

Environment and Climate
Live Story

Afghanistan’s top environmental scientists are likely fleeing overseas or going into hiding out of fear of the Taliban, following reports that the militants are targeting Afghans who served in Ghani’s administration or worked with Western governments.

The status of the Afghan National Environmental Protection Agency, the government agency charged with mitigating environmental issues, remains unclear. The Dari, English, and Pashto versions of its website still refer to the “Islamic Republic of Afghanistan,” the name used by the previous Afghan government. The government agency’s Facebook page, meanwhile, has kept posting almost daily without acknowledging the fall of Kabul or even mentioning the Taliban. An August 18 post just says, “Protecting the environment is our Islamic and moral responsibility.”

Based on the Taliban’s 2017 directives on tree planting, the militants share this worldview that Islam and environmentalism go hand in hand. They also seem eager to engage with the international community and in particular the United Nations, Afghanistan’s most reliable partner in the fight against climate change.

Last year, the UN Environment Programme helped Afghanistan and Tajikistan reach a memorandum of understanding on environmental protection.

Environment and Climate
Live Story

Afghanistan will need all the help with environmental issues that it can get in the coming years. In addition to problems such as biodiversity loss, deforestation, desertification, and pollution, the country is dealing with worsening droughts, including one that began this summer.

In June, the International Rescue Committee published an ominous survey of 484 Afghans in the provinces of Badghis, Helmand, Herat, Khost, and Paktia noting that “75 percent respondents [sic] reported an increase in conflict arising in areas where water supplies have depleted.”

One of the tribal elders who decried the Taliban’s involvement in illegal logging in 2017 observed that the militants upheld a ban on the practice during their last time in power in the late 1990s.

The Taliban’s environmental policy, if it exists, appears steeped in pragmatism and adaptable to new circumstances. Saving Afghanistan from climate change and ecological disaster, however, demands an uncompromising approach to environmental protection.

Austin Bodetti is a writer specialising in the Arab world. His work has appeared in The Daily Beast, USA Today, Vox, and Wired. Any opinion or analysis expressed in his work is by him alone and is not associated with any other entity with the exception of appropriate source attribution.