On February 26, Taliban leader Mullah Hibatullah Akhundzada took to social media to ask Afghans to "plant one or several fruit or non-fruit trees for the beautification of Earth and the benefit of almighty Allah's creations."
The announcement proved strange not only because of its message but also because, though the Taliban might issue many such statements, Akhundzada rarely signs them. So I contacted Qari Muhammad Yousuf Ahmadi and Zabihullah Mujahid, spokesmen for the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the Taliban's self-styled government in exile, to talk about the insurgents' counterintuitive plans to go green.
"The US invasion destroyed many sectors of Afghanistan, including the environment, in a very bad way and for the long term," Mujahid told me via WhatsApp. "The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan has the perfect plan for environmental protection through planting trees. Every citizen of the country should plant at least one tree a year. Also, we support all actions taken for the support of the environment, including the state's efforts to invest in this sector. In fact, we support any action to this end."
Reached over Viber, Ahmadi added, "Planting trees has many benefits, which have a good impact on the environment."
The Taliban would prove far from the first terrorist organization to embrace environmentalism. Osama bin Laden, the insurgents' onetime ally, also lent his support to environmentalists by slamming climate change denial in the Western world.
Of course, the Taliban's actions contradict its statements: the insurgents have involved themselves in illegal logging, illegal mining, and—the linchpin of the Taliban's war economy—the illegal drug trade. Short term at least, the insurgents have only contributed to climate change. Deforestation hastens global warming, and mining can lead to environmental degradation. Growing opium, on which the Taliban has a near monopoly, results in habitat destruction and soil erosion while processing it often requires hazardous materials.
Captain Bill Salvin, spokesman for Resolute Support, the American-led coalition acting as the Afghan government's best hope for survival, noted how else the insurgents had failed to practice what they preached.
"The biggest environmental impact the Taliban has had in Afghanistan is hundreds of thousands of improvised explosive devices have planted [ sic] all over the country," Salvin told me. "Those IEDs kill and maim hundreds children [ sic], women and civilians every year." Resolute Support, however, has also harmed the environment by exacerbating land degradation and water scarcity.
It's likely that the Taliban just wants to lay the groundwork for a potential return to governance, and planting trees is good PR. Until then, its environmental policies amount to little more than fantasies. "The Islamic Emirate is not opposed to industrialization because we are a backward country and industrialization can play an important role in the growth of our economy," said Mujahid.
"If we could, we would do great work in this sector."