Since occupying the Afghan capital of Kabul on August 15, 2021, many have wondered how the Taliban might govern. As one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change, Afghanistan desperately needs strong environmental policies, and if the Taliban is seeking legitimacy and official recognition, having a respectable environmental platform would be an easy way to gain supporters and improve its image. The Taliban have been portraying themselves as good environmental stewards, but given how the group has backtracked on other commitments since taking power, are their environmental policies really genuine?

The Taliban established its first government of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan in 1996, after toppling the existing interim regime and ending the 1992-96 Afghan Civil War. The following years were marked by a theocratic reversion to strict sharia law, inhibited individual liberties and a virtual extinguishing of opportunities for women. 

The Emirate was eventually overthrown following the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. But the movement was not completely vanquished, surviving instead as an insurgent group operating on the sidelines as the US military maintained a heavy presence in Afghanistan. When US President Joe Biden announced his intentions to withdraw all American troops in 2021, NATO and other allied militias were also forced to make the same decision, and left open a window of opportunity for the Taliban to return to power in a remarkably swift and efficient fashion.

The situation in Afghanistan is dire for the many involved. A herculean evacuation effort is currently underway, but many foreigners and Afghans alike are growing increasingly desperate that they will not be able to safely leave the country anytime soon. For those who can leave, a massive refugee crisis is looming that has already breached the doors of Europe. And for those who are unable to leave, promises by the Taliban to build a peaceful and inclusive government have mostly been met with cynicism and fear, concerns that have been seemingly confirmed by reports of violence, intimidation, detentions and revenge killings already emerging across the country. 

Hopeful Afghan refugees awaiting evacuation at the Kabul airport. Photo: Associated Press.

Like it or not, the Taliban is the dominant force in Afghanistan at the moment. But even though it is in power, the extremist organisation still lacks legitimacy, a factor that can make or break any change in governance, especially one involving an insurgent, unelected, militant coup. 

In the weeks and months to come, the Taliban will try to cement its legitimacy any way it can. In a country like Afghanistan, reliant on agriculture and highly susceptible to climate change, seeming to prioritise strong environmental policies would be a good way to do that.

Gaining Legitimacy

As the situation in Afghanistan continues to evolve, and questions persist over how the Taliban will govern, one certainty is that the newly empowered group will prioritise legitimising itself. Any successful insurgent power, regardless of how well-organised it is, will always be subject to lingering doubts over its right to rule, and governments established through rebellion will often make gaining recognition a political priority after taking power. For a nascent government born from insurgency, implied legitimacy can empower institutions and political factions while emboldening support to put beyond doubt that the victors of the conflict are in fact the ones in charge.

For the Taliban, gaining recognition and legitimacy will require several things. The group will have to cosy up to superpowers and avoid excessively aggravating neighbours. It will also have to show a modicum of respect for modern conventions of human rights, which have been routinely abused in the past whenever the Taliban was in power, severely tarnishing their image.

To counter this perception, the Taliban has made clear that it intends to govern differently this time. From promising to allow women to pursue professional careers to assuring that there will be no revenge attacks on people who worked with the Americans, the Taliban wants to gain legitimacy in the eyes of the world and move on from its previous state, essentially as an international pariah.

Despite the group’s promises, major skepticism abounds over whether the Taliban will actually stick to them, and a general consensus exists that even if the group was to implement changes, it would do so more out of pragmatism than any ideological shift, a common occurrence in transitioning governments. 

The Taliban has another recourse to gaining legitimacy and recognition: exhibiting qualities that would represent good governance. A major reason behind the group’s remarkable success in reclaiming Afghanistan was that it was able to take advantage of the Afghan government and army’s blatant inefficiencies and poor public image. A key strategy of the Taliban was to delegitimise the government to create openings within the public’s perception that the militant group itself could fill in. 

Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid delivers a press conference in Kabul on August 17. Taliban representatives have used press conferences to publicise their environmental policies to a global audience. Photo: Associated Press.

Militant groups such as the Taliban, which are large in number and often hold grievances against incumbent powers, can rely on populist rhetoric to draw more attention and support to their cause. Popular talking points include appeals to local rights, equitable distribution of resources and sustainable land use without succumbing to the interests of foreign powers. 

When used tactfully, this rhetoric can seem to be environmentalist in nature, born out of a concern to protect resources, to live more sustainably and eliminate the profit-seeking activities of corporations and corrupt governments. For extremist groups throughout history, including but not limited to the Taliban, this tactic has tended to work remarkably well. 

‘Beautify the Earth’

In recent comments made to American magazine Newsweek, Abdul Qahar Balkhi, a member of the Taliban’s Cultural Commission, discussed what the Taliban is aiming for politically on the global stage:

“We believe the world has a unique opportunity of rapprochement and coming together to tackle the challenges not only facing us but all humanity, and these challenges ranging from world security and climate change need the collective efforts of all, and cannot be achieved if we exclude or ignore an entire people who have been devastated by imposed wars for the past four decades.”

Afghanistan is arguably one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to climate change. The country is landlocked and does not boast anything resembling a vibrant trade economy, besides the opium illicitly cultivated and distributed worldwide by the Taliban. The nation’s economy is still largely reliant on agriculture, with 70% of Afghans living and working in rural areas, mostly on farms, and 61% of households deriving their income directly from agriculture-related activities. 

In recent years, climate change has caused several irregularities in Afghanistan’s climate, affecting the country’s crucial agricultural output. Since 1950, average temperatures in Afghanistan have risen by 1.8°C, much higher than the global average between 1.1 and 1.2°C, and heavy rainfall events have increased by up to 25% over the past 30 years. 

Higher rates of heavy rainfall and mountain snow melting earlier in the year has led to more instances of severe flooding in the spring. And while rates of heavy rainfall have risen, precipitation in general has become scarcer and more unpredictable, which has led to more frequent and lengthier droughts. A joint report by Afghanistan’s National Environmental Protection Agency and the UN’s Environment Programme and World Food Programme found that the vast majority of conflicts in Afghanistan were tied to dwindling food and water resources, scarcity that was linked to higher rates of droughts and catastrophic flooding. 

If you live in a country so reliant on agriculture, an industry which is being radically destabilised by warming temperatures, you don’t have to believe in climate change to feel its effects, and strong environmental policies from governors will always be in the public interest. It is why climate change has emerged as a tool that extremist groups can, perhaps even unknowingly, take advantage of to aid their recruitment efforts mostly directed at young, unemployed and disenfranchised men.

A common recruitment tactic of extremist groups is to draw distinctions between themselves and a failing incumbent power. Groups such as the Taliban depict themselves as sensible and caring organisations, appealing to the nativist interests of the public, while governments are described as evil and corrupt purveyors of destruction and harm. Environmentalism is just one of the many narratives that terrorist groups have co-opted as a recruitment tool. 

In the past, the Taliban has called on the Afghan government to more forcefully pursue environmental policies such as reforestation projects in an attempt to ‘beautify the Earth’. And now, after taking power, the group is advocating for coordinated global action to mitigate the effects of climate change, blaming the vulnerable state of Afghanistan’s climate on the ousted government, who are depicted as enablers of foreign intervention and have allowed deforestation, water and food scarcity and crop failure to abound.

The Taliban is not the first fundamentalist group to use climate change and environmental policies to further their goals. Following the Middle Eastern drought that preceded the Syrian Civil War, the Islamic State offered food rations and a stipend of $400 a month to farmers who had lost their livelihoods due to water scarcity, simultaneously highlighting the government’s inaction. In 2018, the Somali jihadist group al-Shabaab banned single-use plastic in territories under their control, citing the risks it posed to the environment, humans and livestock. Several terrorist organisations have enacted community service initiatives aimed at youth, which have included planting trees and cleaning public areas, to build a sense of civic identity and community engagement among potential recruits. 

In a country such as Afghanistan, which is reliant on agriculture and has endured 20 years of foreign occupation and even more times of strife and civil war, it is not difficult to see how environmental policies addressing sustainability and equity could resonate with citizens. The Taliban took advantage of very real environmental concerns in Afghanistan and used them as a recruitment tool and as a weapon to delegitimise and criticise the government.

What are the Taliban’s Environmental Policies?

So the Taliban is, among other things, attempting to leverage the legitimate environmental concerns of average Afghans to gain recognition through new environmental policies and acceptance as the ruling entity in the country. Now, is there anything wrong with that?

In the case of the Taliban, the answer is most definitely yes. The now incumbent power in Afghanistan has suddenly become a safeguard of the country’s environmental heritage, and once we remove the rhetoric and messaging, it becomes clear that the Taliban has hardly been an effective steward of Afghanistan’s natural resources. 

The Taliban has long been accused by local tribal leaders of engaging in large-scale and illegal logging activities in the country’s eastern provinces, smuggling felled timber and selling it on the black market to fund the group’s violent crusades. In Taliban-controlled areas, the group has levied hefty taxes on illicit activities, and threatened those who oppose them. In addition to contributing to deforestation, the group has also been known to support illegal, unsustainable and exploitative mining practices of coal, gold, plaster and sand throughout the country, earning as much as USD$350,000 a week from illegal mining in certain provinces.

But for years, the main source of funding for the Taliban has been opium farming and supplying the global heroin trade. In 2001, when the group last was in power, the Taliban cracked down heavily on opium production, efforts that were partially successful. Since then, however, opium production has returned to near-record levels. 

Opium poppy cultivation by province in 2015. The vast majority of opium farms are in the historically Taliban-controlled south of the country. Source: Ministry of Counter Narcotics and UNODOC, Afghanistan Opium Survey 2015/Mapping by WFP, UNEP and NEPA.

A 2020 UN report found that Afghanistan supplied 83% of the world’s opium between 2015 and 2020, and the area in the country set aside for opium poppy cultivation increased by 37% over the same period. The Taliban collects a 10% tax on opium farmers, and the group is estimated to earn anywhere between USD$100-400 million each year from the opium trade, up to 60% of their annual revenue.

As droughts and water scarcity have increased in Afghanistan, so has the production of opium. The poppy grown on opium farms requires substantially less water and land than most other crops, and the Taliban has taken advantage of this to recruit more aggressively. Many farmers who have lost their fields and sources of income have turned to the Taliban as an employer, who promises more stable work on opium farms. 

This has hampered the country’s development, exacerbated food insecurity and contributed to increased rates of deforestation and soil erosion as the number of poppy farms have grown, not to mention fuelling most of the world’s heroin trade. While poppy might be more profitable in times of drought, basing a country’s economy on drug manufacturing is not just bad environmental policy, it is a bad way to govern in general, especially if the poppy is being grown at the expense of food crops.

Since taking power, the Taliban has vowed to ban heroin, but given its dependence on income from opium farming, it is doubtful that they will be able to do so long-term. The food insecurity situation in the country is also dire. 14 million Afghans and half of all Afghan children are at risk of acute hunger and malnutrition in the coming years due to the combined forces of climate change and increased instability under Taliban rule. And as climate change worsens and droughts become more severe, the Taliban may turn to the profitable drought-resistant crop it knows well, which is opium, to boost their economy rather than essential food crops.

The repercussions of the Taliban’s poor environmental policies and stewardship may reverberate beyond Afghanistan’s borders as well. The country is home to around USD$1 trillion worth of minerals, including iron, copper and gold, but also several critical rare Earth metals. The Taliban could in fact be sitting on one of the world’s largest reserves of lithium, the crucial metal to manufacturing rechargeable batteries, electric vehicles and other technologies critical to tackling climate change.

Distribution of Afghanistan’s mineral resources. Source: US Geological Survey/Imaging by Bloomberg.

The current largest producer of rare Earth metals by far is China, which is already seeking to expand its hegemony over the market by cooperating with the Taliban, offering recognition, political impartiality and economic investment in exchange for a large share of mining rights in the country. As most Western countries attempt to distance themselves from the Taliban citing their abysmal human rights record, Chinese leaders have appeared to have no such qualms in engaging with the group as part of Beijing’s bid to become a global leader in clean energy manufacturing.

Afghanistan’s weak environmental policies and lack of infrastructure impeded these minerals from being mined in the past, and with the Taliban now in power, the prospects for the sustainable extraction and efficient use of these metals are even dimmer. Retrieving Afghanistan’s large reserves of lithium and becoming a key provider in the global economy’s move towards clean energy and electrification could be exactly what the country needs to accelerate its economic growth. Those would be good environmental policies, but with a group like the Taliban in power, it is unlikely that the dividends from these resources will be shared equitably enough among the Afghan people, if at all.

Joseph Parkes, Asia security analyst at risk intelligence firm Verisk Maplecroft recently told CNN: “The Taliban has taken power but the transition from insurgent group to national government will be far from straightforward. Functional governance of the nascent mineral sector is likely many years away.”

The instability in Afghanistan means that strong environmental policies to extract and trade the crucial rare Earth metals within its borders will probably remain unseen for too long. And if these metals are extracted soon, it will probably only be because of the Taliban’s economic and political interests with China. The issue is symbolic of the Taliban’s attitude towards the environment. The group talks about beautifying nature and fighting climate change, but this rhetoric is no different from when highly-polluting corporations put out flashy and expensive press releases and commitments to reduce their environmental impact. The word for that is greenwashing, and the Talian are prime examples of greenwashing. 

The Taliban’s policies, if the past is anything to go by, will be socially devastating. The group’s treatment of women is of primary concern to most observers, and despite promising to change their ways, the Taliban leaders have openly admitted that their soldiers are not trained to treat women respectfully. Prohibiting Afghan women from pursuing educational and professional opportunities in the future will have serious consequences for the country’s social and environmental outlook, since empowering women is one of the most effective long-term developmental and environmental policies at governments’ disposal. Given how the group has stewarded Afghanistan’s natural resources in the past, their overall environmental policies will in all likelihood be similarly disappointing.

In another part of his interview with Newsweek, Abdul Balkhi said: “We hope not only to be recognised by regional countries, but the entire world at large as the legitimate representative government of the people of Afghanistan who have gained their right of self-determination from a foreign occupation with the backing and support of an entire nation after a prolonged struggle and immense sacrifices despite all odds being stacked against our people.”

The Taliban’s big goal right now is international recognition, and the environmental narratives they share are a means to reach that goal. But the group’s checkered past with natural resource management, their reliance on opium farming for funding and the backwards social policies they have championed do not bode well for the prospects of good Taliban governance or strong environmental policies. 

The Taliban’s rise to power probably won’t represent an end to Afghanistan’s 40 years of war and uncertainty. The group faces many more rivals, both domestically and abroad, and it is likely that the Taliban will find conquering Afghanistan was much easier than governing it. And through it all, as climate change continues to batter the country, Afghanistan’s natural resources, agricultural livelihoods and social development will suffer at the hands of poor governance.

The Taliban are comfortable espousing environmentalist rhetoric to further their goals, but globally, extremist organisations like them have received over USD$200 billion in funding from the illegal wildlife and charcoal trade. So no, the Taliban are not environmentalists, nor is their environmental policy platform particularly strong. Like major corporations, what the Taliban are doing is just one of the many examples of greenwashing. As illegal mining, logging and drug production occur freely under their noses, it becomes clear that the environmentally-concerned rhetoric is mostly for show. 

Right now, our attention is rightly focused on the horrific exodus of desperate Afghans and how the Taliban might react. But knowing how the Taliban rose to power and how their rhetoric attracted supporters is crucial to understanding how other extremist groups and authoritarian powers might do the same in the future. When a corporation greenwashes itself, it can be mildly irritating. When a terrorist group does it, we risk legitimising killers.