Afghanistan is a green issue

The trajectory of Western intervention in Afghanistan demonstrates the pitfalls of goal-oriented, linear thinking, says Chris Nash. A green perspective, he says, would better address the current crisis.

Bagram Airfield

Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan

Chris Nash

Afghanistan is arguably a green issue, yet this perspective has so far been missing from the discussion of the issue that has been occurring in politics and the media. This absence tells us something about the limited ways in which green thinking is still seen in the UK – green issues are restricted to the category of ‘the environment’, occasionally included in the remit of ‘health issues’. If we Greens are serious about taking the power and responsibility to make meaningful changes in society, we have to break out of this box. Using green thinking to tackle a wider range of issues could have a significant impact on how voters place their ‘X’ when it comes time to vote.

So, what does it mean to claim that Afghanistan is a green issue? To understand this, we need to understand how Western, goal-oriented thinking has failed to aid the situation thus far. In the aftermath of 9/11, Afghanistan was being used as a hiding place by terrorist organisations. Western, goal-oriented thinking sees situations like these in straight lines – whatever lies in the way of the goal must be removed, even if this requires the erasure of a regime. 

Once the process of goal achievement starts, the pitfalls of this mindset are aggravated even further by linear thinking. Everything in conventional logic tells us that once the right target has been selected, it’s a matter of relentlessly allocating resources until the problem is solved. 

Unlike Alexander the Great, who famously cut through the Gordian knot, the West is not able to cut through the complex ‘knots’ of Afghani history, culture, loyalties and hostilities through military force or resource allocation any more than it could in Birmingham, England or Birmingham, Alabama.

In the evacuation itself, we saw the failure of this mindset. The focus was placed on drawing lines as quickly as possible between the evacuees and the planes on the Kabul tarmac, while the problem was actually wrapped up in the complexities of talking to the Taliban. It now appears that only in utter 'extremis', when all seemed lost, did the CIA sit down with Taliban leaders and unlock a side entrance to the airport through which the evacuees could safely pass.  

Once the solution was reached, it was clear from the speed with which the Afghan security forces melted away that efforts had not yet been made to build sustainable relationships with local communities. At this point, I'm sure the Allies would want to point to the mind-numbing amount of dollars invested in 'infrastructure'. The idea that these building projects were actually intended to win 'hearts and minds' has been an illusion. I wonder how many projects were the result of Western governments and local leaders sitting down together to answer the question, 'Here's the money. What do you want to spend it on? You're the ones who live here. You know what the real problems are.’ 

That, of course, would have been the green solution – growing trust and community from the grassroots; forming citizen assemblies at the local level that mirror how Afghan society has always worked, instead of centralised, top-down, linear structures which only feed a culture of corruption.

The Western weapons trade receives significant funding from Afghan heroin production – how ironic that the failure of Western societies to manage their own drug trades should be funding this success. Afghanistan has enormous reserves of valuable minerals, including the rare earth minerals needed for the emerging digital economy. Why have we not listened to the Afghan people, creating a conversation that would help them to make the best use of their natural resources? Green policies are worried about extractive industries, but shared expertise and partnership could see the deployment of mining techniques that minimise environmental damage. Are these opportunities now gone?

So, what is the vision of a green approach to foreign policy? There has been a lot of talk about history, comparing the current events to previous ignominious withdrawals of imperial powers from Afghanistan, including the disastrous First Afghan War of 1842. Events such as these are the result of a type of foreign policy known in the nineteenth century as ‘the Great Game’. It was a view of foreign policy built on patriarchal and racialised structures of power that had no respect for ordinary people, the pawns in the game. It was a system built on private possession and an almost paranoiac denial of any shared common interests. The real lesson of the current situation in Afghanistan is that this model of foreign policy is still at play. You can almost hear Biden saying, ‘America started this game. We won the game. Now we don’t want to play anymore.’

However, another vision for foreign policy exists. Very close to Bagram Airport is an ancient site, usually referred to as Begram. In the first to fourth centuries CE, this was one of the greatest and richest places on earth. It was a trading and cultural crossroads, a common ground where people from China, India and Persia met, talked and did business with local Kushan people. For me, one of the defining characteristics of green thinking is the ability to consider issues from a deeper, long-term perspective, rather than the short-term thinking used by other parties and their 'focus group policies'. The vision of green foreign policy should surely be to sow and nurture the seeds of an international common ground across the planet, so that places like Afghanistan, failed by centuries of interventionism, can become global leaders in the green marketplace of ideas and opportunities.