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Illegal Logging Boosts Taliban, IS Revenues In Eastern Afghanistan

With white-water rivers, broadleaf oak forests at low elevations, and pine forests in the mountains, Kunar was once one of the most picturesque regions in Afghanistan.

ASADABAD, Afghanistan -- Tribal leaders in a remote alpine valley in eastern Afghanistan say Taliban and Islamic State (IS) militants are using large-scale logging to fund their violent campaigns.

Residents of Chapa Dara, a district in eastern Kunar Province, say loggers backed by militants are felling hundreds of pine trees every day. The timber obtained from these trees is then smuggled on mules to a market in neighboring Nangarhar Province.

Mawlawi Shah Mahmud, a tribal leader in Chapa Dara, says various clans of the Safi Pashtun tribe in the region and some Pashai communities had protected their forests during various cycles of war over the past four decades by imposing strict bans on logging and the trade of timber.

“It is very saddening to see the situation change rapidly for the worse,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “When the Taliban were in power [during the 1990s], they backed our effort to protect our forests by publicly standing behind our pledge against illegal logging.”

Chapa Dara was relatively immune from the senseless illegal logging common elsewhere in Kunar. Home to one of Afghanistan’s last natural forests, such illegal logging threatens Kunar’s already depleted oak and pine forests with extinction. With the government controlling major roads to Kunar, Chapa Dara’s timber is smuggled to a market in neighboring Nangarhar’s Darai Noor.

The Taliban and IS are falling back on a tried-and-tested strategy to ensure their survival amid ramped-up military efforts to reduce their footprint in eastern Afghanistan, where they still hold large swaths of the countryside.

Malik Sher Khan, another Chapa Dara tribal leader, says that in the past people used to listen to their community leaders and were mostly committed to protecting their resources.

“It is anarchy now. People don’t care about the value of natural resources, and that’s why some of them are complicit in destroying our forests,” he said. “It is still, however, in the hands of the government and insurgents to prevent our forests from complete destruction.”

Nasrullah Khan, another tribal leader and government adviser, however, says today’s insurgents are not interested in protecting public interests.

“Even the Taliban are locals; we are calling on them not to allow such systematic destruction of our precious natural resources,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “Why are they silent over such practices?”

It was not possible to reach insurgents for comment in remote Kunar regions. However, in past pronouncements, the Taliban have pledged to protect Afghanistan’s natural resources. Across the country, insurgent factions and warlords benefit from illegal mining, drug production, and smuggling. The Taliban often tax agricultural produce in regions they control.

In Kunar, Deputy Governor Qazi Muhammad Nabi Ahmedi says they are not allowing anyone to either engage in illegal logging or sell timber on the black market.

“Wherever we have some authority and officials can visit, we make sure our national treasures are protected,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan.

The situation in Kunar is less than perfect. While the government has been able to reduce illegal logging and the smuggling of timber on major roads has ceased after protests in recent years, such practices are rampant in remote mountainous valleys.

With white-water rivers, broadleaf oak forests at low elevations, and pine forests in the mountains, Kunar was once one of the most picturesque regions in Afghanistan.

Its precious deodar timber, however, invited trouble and instability after the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Revenues from the illegal timber trade bankrolled insurgents and aided their violent campaigns in this remote province on Afghanistan’s eastern border with Pakistan.

Following the fall of the Taliban regime, Kunar once again became a contested frontier. While the insurgents continued to exploit the region’s forests, some government officials exploited the timber business to enrich themselves.

Abubakar Siddique wrote this based on Rohullah Anwari’s reporting from Asadabad, the capital of Kunar Province in eastern Afghanistan.