Forestry on the Front Lines
But the upper conifer forest—at an elevation of 2,000 to 3,300 meters—remains remarkably intact, in Bader’s analysis. Areas that other agencies had identified from satellite photographs as large clear-cuts turned out, when Bader examined stumps and drift patterns by helicopter, to be salvage cuts in the aftermath of forest fire (though such fires sometimes get set as a result of conflicts among timber contractors). In Kunar Province, where a 2009 USAID study reported that 65 percent of the conifer forest had already been permanently destroyed, Bader’s transects and photogrammetric analysis found that the conifer forest was largely intact—1,600 square kilometers of it, not the 189 previously reported. Those earlier reports often turned out to be based on little or no data, with no description of scientific methodology, or they had been analyzed by people without the necessary training. (“It happened a lot in Afghanistan,” a member of the counterinsurgency cell confides. “One nongovernmental organization or one government agency would opine on something and then it would be a fact, and there would be a series of contracts written off that and actions taken based on inaccurate data.”)
The counterinsurgency cell published its own 30-page report at the end of July. It warned of potential long-term deterioration as a result of moderate overharvesting, use of misguided reforestation techniques and high-grading of the best trees, particularly deodar cedar. But overall, it said the conifer forest was being managed with a “relatively sophisticated approach to logging,” based on group selection cuts averaging under half a hectare. “Thus, we need not expend resources protecting the conifer forest,” the reported concluded, “but rather, we can use the conifer forest as an asset to help in formulating a COIN strategy.”
The report also found that the connection to the insurgency was far more nuanced than generally believed. It detailed where the money goes in complicated networks that include landowners; village workers; logging crews; contractors who hire the crews, provide chainsaws and sell the timber; smugglers who transport the timber across the border, typically by donkey; accountants; wood depot managers; and security teams. Insurgent groups are “not the principal architects of the illegal timber trade,” the report argued, though they often benefit as landowners or contractors. More typically, local warlords dominate the trade, with the help of corrupt government officials.
The Taliban insurgents must move around too much to control the smuggling, according to the counterinsurgency team, and they can get bigger payoffs elsewhere—for instance, by skimming security money from a highway contract. Leaving the timber trade largely alone is also strategic, according to the report: “Any intrusion into this trade by the Taliban would undermine the economic interests of tribal members, creating unnecessary friction between the Taliban and locals. Noninterference in legitimate business is a cornerstone of the Taliban’s political ideology, and their local commanders are expected to adhere to it. This effectively aligns the Taliban’s political goals with the economic needs” of the people. Though the report does not put it this plainly, it suggests that the bottom line for counterinsurgency is to deny the Taliban that opportunity by doing essentially the same thing: attempts by U.S. or Afghan forces to stop the timber smuggling merely consolidate existing networks against the government. It’s also largely wasted effort: research determined that, except in two valleys, “the timber trade is not necessarily a significant financial asset benefiting the insurgency,” says Bader. “So that’s a huge tactical advantage to now have. Because when I first arrived, there were platoons who were actively engaged in interdiction and thereby creating insurgents where there were perhaps none before. We know that interdiction alienates us from the population.” A smarter approach, with a better chance of turning the turbulent northeastern provinces back to their own national government, is to tolerate the illegal timber trade—and use the tree army to put it on a more sustainable basis.
For Bader and other environmental security experts, there’s also a larger bottom line: When nations lose essential natural resources—forests, healthy watersheds, clean water, productive farms—it ultimately becomes impossible to maintain security. But once those resources are lost, security is the first thing needed to do the hard work of getting them back. “Forestry is an outgrowth of a stable society,” says Groninger, “and if you don’t have stability, you can’t have foresters out there to protect or maintain the resource.” Ideally, world leaders and resource managers would work together to identify the threat of environmental insecurity in time to prevent societies from collapsing into chaos. But it almost never happens that way. The default is for resource managers to do what they can in the aftermath of calamity—and that often means trying to rebuild nations in close collaboration with military authorities trying to enforce the peace.
Some academics—particularly an older generation reared in the Vietnam-era atmosphere of mistrust for all things military—might find that kind of collaboration disturbing or a threat to scholarly independence. But Bader argues that integrating natural resources projects with military operations can work to the advantage of both. “If I were doing this out of whole cloth, I would have been a miserable failure,” he says. “I was deliberately embedded in the S-9 shop (the Army’s civil affairs unit) to do this mission because they were already well-ensconced within local communities. That’s their job.”
The military had a hypothesis—that the insurgents controlled the illegal timber trade—but Bader says they also gave him complete intellectual freedom to investigate it. “We tested our hypothesis and we threw away the information that failed to withstand the test, and that’s why we ended up being almost 180 degrees opposite from our original hypothesis. The only thing I heard from the military was ‘hurry up, hurry up,’ because they wanted it at the onset of the fighting season. The military is an incredibly quick study, and they are thirsty for the truth because it allows them to understand what’s happening in their area of operation.”
Within the natural resources counter-insurgency cell, Bader says, getting at that truth was a daily “tug-of-war on how to interpret what was happening, how to interpret each piece of information and how to interpret when an idea has been proven wrong.” The people doing the arguing came from multiple agencies and backgrounds—a former U.S. Army sniper and a State Department natural resources economist, an Army civil affairs officer and a USDA hydrologist, “and we would have knock-down drag-out fights in our office. We had this isolated office away from everybody, because we were somewhat secretive. But sometimes people in the other offices, military people, complained about the level of angry debate that was emanating from our office, because we really took it seriously and everybody had their point of view.” It is, he reflects, “an irony” that “in this office of a tactical operations center of a combat brigade,” in the chaos of an ugly and violent war zone, he had what was “probably the best academic experience of my life.
Harry Bader, Dante Paradiso and Col. Randy George were panelists at the symposium, “Conflict and Natural Resources: Integrated Civilian-Military Perspectives and Approaches,” on November 1 in Bowers Auditorium.