Over the past week or so, I have been working my way through the book “A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush.” Published in 1958, long before the Afghan civil war and the US’s global war on terror, it retells the adventure undertaken by former fashion magnate Eric Newby and his friend, UK Foreign Service officer Hugh Carless in travelling to the remote region of Nuristan, Afghanistan. Their goal: to climb one of the highest mountains in the country, Mir Samir. Measuring in at 19,880 ft, it is situated in one of the most secluded areas one can even conceive. Throughout their approach, Newby constantly reminds the reader that the area through which they are passing is something that one would have to see to believe.
This sentiment was recently repeated by CNN correspondent Jake Tapper in his recent interview on NPR’s Fresh Air program. His recent book, “The Outpost” tells the story of Combat Outpost Keating, and the troubles experienced at this unfortunately situated base. I have not read the book, but look forward to doing so, as Tapper describes a dire situation in which 53 Americans are attacked by around 400 Taliban, a battle which resulted in 8 US dead and the recent pinning of SSG Clint Romache with the Congressional Medal of Honor. What struck me the most is Tapper description of the area in which they were stationed:
I wanted to get across how other-worldly it was for the men to live there, because while the – you know, this part of Afghanistan is gorgeous. It’s mountains with cedar, and walnut, and fir trees; and beautiful rivers, but it is… like walking into another dimension, where the creatures are just, you haven’t ever seen anything like that.
The lizards, the horned vipers, snakes that look like they have horns, there was monkeys in trees, there are leopards. The lizard you’re referring to, they – I mean, the lizards would get as long as six feet. And then there are all these weird insects, centipedes that were longer than a man’s foot, different kinds of ants, a red bee of some sort, scorpions.
In searching for some pictures of these other-worldly animals, I came across a story by Brian Handwerk for National Geographic News in the summer of 2011, titled “Afghanistan Bright Spot: Wildlife Surviving in War Zones.” It reports that were believed to be completely wiped out in the 1970’s have made remarkable comebacks. Excursions, weight sensitive camera traps, as well as DNA analysis have led to an astonishing increase in knowledge about the various species that inhabit “probably the most biologically diverse part of Afghanistan.” This resurgence in rare animal species is made more difficult by the international community’s campaign to modernize Afghanistan. With the transition from modernity comes the exploitation of natural resources, in this particular part of the country it is the widespread deforestation, largely due to lack of governmental regulation and protection, but also various illegal lumber operations throughout Eastern Afghanistan. This process however is occurring slowly and with the withdrawal of NATO forces in 2014. The uncertainty facing the nation after that fateful date could very well halt the trend of compulsory modernization.
It seems in this particular instance, that within some modern day conflict zones, due to their violent interpersonal nature, animals are given the opportunity to grow in numbers that would be poached or over-hunted in times of relative stability. However, areas that are directly adjacent to these areas experience an increase in poaching and illegal fishing. Afghanistan is truly an exception to this rule, largely because the Mountains of Central Asia hotspot are largely secluded and in such an extreme environment at such a high altitude that is simply impractical and dangerous to conduct a significant poaching operation. This desolation is not as present in the vast African plains that are now being widely poached to raise funds for insurgencies and terror organizations in the Horn of Africa.
Violent non-state actors are almost never committed to procurement of legitimate sources of money. Particularly in Afghanistan, the Taliban takes advantage of the vast opium resources available in the Helmand Province and the insurgent group the Haqqani Network draws much of its financial support in mafia-like extortion rackets that “rel[y] on extortion, kidnapping, smuggling and ties to legitimate businesses, according to a new report by a U.S.-based think tank.” Now it appears that another insurgency with similar Taliban-like aims and tactics has sought to exploit a valuable resource adjacent to their areas of influence. Al-Shabaab has been tied to poaching activities throughout the African savannah in efforts to raise funds to help in their retaking of the Horn of Africa.
When one thinks of illegal fund raising in Somalia, piracy comes to mind first. However, the piracy phenomenon off the Horn originated from the semi-autonomous, Northern region of Puntland. Piracy and stealing are considered haram or “forbidden” in Islamic law, and the lowest levels of piracy seen off the shores of Somalia are during the rule of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU). The ICU ended the reign of warlords that characterized Somalia politics around the Black Hawk Down fiasco in 1996, it was out of their desire to impose what Hassan Dahir Aweys deemed a “Greater Somalia” out of the Horn of Africa. Military pushed towards the Northern territories of Puntland and Somaliland were largely unsuccessful and eventually the Ethiopian-backed Transitional Federal Government forces were able to beat back the mujahedeen and retake Mogadishu. The return of the TFG to Mogadishu marks the moment where the ICU stopped being a sovereign actor and continued as an insurgency, a very successful one, but an insurgency nonetheless. It is at this time in late 2006 where the militant components of the ICU became Harakat al-Shabaab Mujahedeen. An Al-Qaeda aligned movement that Mr. Aweys, himself is the spiritual leader of. During this time where the TFG could control very limited swaths of territory, AS ruled with resolution, enforcing Shari’a and making piracy haram. It is this code of law that has removed al-Shabaab from the almost $200 million annual income that results from piracy off the Horn and is channeled ashore almost solely to Puntland. For example; the 2008 hijacking of the Ukrainian tanker MV Faina caused alarm across the globe as it was soon discovered that onboard the ship were 33 Russian T-72 tanks that were bound for use by the Southern Sudan military for use after their July 2011 independence. The presence of such powerful, conventional weapons so close to such a powerful, unconventional fighting force caused many countries much unease. Yet, the situation was finally diffused and the tanks, like piracy revenues, remained out of the reach of jihadi hands.
I realize that I just went from Afghanistan to Somalia, and I do not wish to represent these conflicts and countries as similar or the same. Although links can be drawn between the two conflicts, there are innumerable reasons how each one is very unique. I find the “Country X is the new Afghanistan/Somalia” comparison’s to be hyperbolic and mostly useless and deleterious to the study or understanding of one or the other. This is increasingly true as Al-Qaeda, as an organization has been largely decentralized, and the various franchises in their respective theatres can no longer look the tribal areas of Afghanistan for financial support.
However, one similarity I will draw upon is all non-state actor’s unequivocal need to generate funding. The Taliban have capitulated on the availability of opium harvests and the extreme demand across the border in Iran. The Haqqani Network have taken advantage of the vast, previously untouched forests in Eastern Afghanistan/FATA/NWFP and the growing population and economy of Pakistan. In Lieu of extremely lucrative piracy profits, Al-Shabaab has looked westward to the terrestrial shores of Central Africa and their vast animal resources and taken advantage of close trade ties to a large demand in China.
As recently as January 25th, 2013 a man was arrested in Kenya for attempting to smuggle $18,500 of alleged ivory poaching money across the border into Somalia. This man, who could not speak a word of Swahili nor English, is believed to be linked to the poachers who killed a family of elephants in Tsavo.” As increasing international attention is being paid to Somalia, with the convergence of a fledgling political system, recovery from a disastrous famine, an AQ-allied insurgency group and a hotbed of piracy activity; Al-Shabaab does well to focus its procurement of funds somewhere less monitored. With recent conflicts flaring up in the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, South Sudan and Uganda; these national entities have reallocated financial resources historically committed to conservation and wildlife protection to national security bodies. This power vacuum has allowed the vast wildlife resource that is the beautiful African savannah to be exploited with wanton disregard for animal life. While stealing may be haram, hunting is most certainly not. So it is really not a surprise to see that Al-Shabaab has been tied to trafficking both ivory and rhino horn. Honestly, I was surprised to see that Al-Shabaab is the only Islamist group in Africa being tied to these poaching activities. There have been reports of terrorist groups in Bangladesh “raising funds for their operations via the illegal poaching of ivory, tiger pelts, and rhino horns, among other things in the Kaziranga jungle in Northeastern India.” In the future I see many other Islamic militant organizations taking advantage of this potential for funding. Boko Haram would definitely not have difficulty traveling inward and building ties with poaching organizations. With the dispersal of the insurgency in Mali, some forces will no doubt be driven southward out of the Sahara and into the plains. Historically speaking, the Congolese Army, Rwandan Democratic Liberation Forces, Janjaweed militias, Angola’s National Union for the Total Independence of Angola and the Mozambican National Resistance have been involved in wildlife trafficking.
The problem here is attention. While extreme attention has been paid to Northeastern Afghanistan by the ISAF forces in terms of sustained, kinetic military action; it has allowed endangered species like the Snow Leopard to flourish. As men as seeking to kill each other they will most likely not focus their time and effort upon killing a defenseless animal. Africa has been famously ignored in terms of Western political attention. With the indefensible abstention from the conflict in Rwanada, the political gridlock in the Sudanese civil conflict, and the general ignorance of the endemic skirmishes in the DRC; the continent has been largely left to its own violent devices. These small conflicts between what western forces could consider ‘rag-tag’ rebels leave a lot of room to generate funds, and while some like the forces in Angola’s civil war focus upon the oil and diamond niche economies, others prey upon the wildlife. I have no doubt that a well-supplied, fully-funded NATO contingency occupying some African territories would lead to a downturn in poaching (although, most likely harming the local ecology in other ways, some seen, some unforeseen). However, attention is not measure in terms of military action. The United States as well as international governing bodies like the UN and the AU could do well to recognize the areas of conflict, and look to generate and reallocate funds to ensure the local resources, particularly if they are considered to be natural ‘wonders of the world,’ are looked after. At least, better than they are now.