Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai has stepped up international fundraising efforts in recent weeks, seeking a fresh package of military and reconstruction aid from the United States, together with stronger strategic guarantees. But Karzai’s relationship with his sponsors has begun to sour, in part owing to charges that his government has failed to stop the resurgence of Afghanistan’s huge opium trade.
Underlying the opium trade issue is a security threat of another kind, one overlooked since the US-led invasion toppled the Taliban regime in 2001, despite the grave risk it poses to Afghanistan’s long-term stability, and that of the region.
In countries like Afghanistan, where 80% of the population lives on what they grow and many communities live far from any water source, environmental damage can be both economically devastating and politically momentous. That lesson should have been absorbed and understood, not least by American strategists, long before the Taliban’s fall.
After all, desertification and deforestation helped fuel the rise, two decades earlier, of the Maoist guerilla group Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) in Peru. Sendero, which supplemented its income with drug production and timber smuggling, deliberately chose drought-weakened and deforested mountain villages as the stronghold of its insurgency. Similarly, the Maoist insurgency in Nepal, which has claimed 10,000 lives, exploits the desperation of mountain villagers hit by flash floods – the result of deforestation higher up.