A new catastrophe faces Afghanistan - the US bombing campaign is conspiring with years of civil conflict and drought to create an environmental crisis.
Humanitarian and political concerns are dominating the headlines. But they are also masking the disappearance of the country's once rich habitat and wildlife, which are quietly being crushed by war.
The UN is dispatching a team of investigators to the region in February to evaluate the damage. "A healthy environment is a prerequisite for rehabilitation," says Klaus Töpfer, head of the UN Environment Programme.
Much of south-east Afghanistan was once lush forest watered by monsoon rains. Forests now cover less than two per cent of the country. "The worst deforestation occurred during Taliban rule, when its timber mafia denuded forests to sell to Pakistani markets," says Usman Qazi, an environmental consultant based in Quetta, Pakistan.
And the intense bombing intended to flush out the last of the Taliban troops is destroying or burning much of what remains.
Farming and firewood
The refugee crisis is also wrecking the environment, and much damage may be irreversible. Forests and vegetation are being cleared for much-needed farming, but the gains are likely to be only short-term.
"Eventually the land will be unfit for even the most basic form of agriculture," warns Hammad Naqi of the World Wide Fund for Nature in Pakistan. Refugees - around four million at the last count - are also cutting into forests for firewood.
The hail of bombs falling on Afghanistan is making life particularly hard for the country's wildlife. Birds such as the pelican and endangered Siberian crane cross eastern Afghanistan as they follow one of the world's great migratory thoroughfares from Siberia to Pakistan and India.
But the number of birds flying across the region has dropped by a staggering 85 per cent. "Cranes are very sensitive and they do not use the route if they see any danger," says Ashiq Ahmad, an environmental scientist for the WWF in Peshawar, Pakistan, who has tracked the collapse of the birds' migration this winter.
The rugged mountains also usually provide a safe haven for mountain leopards, gazelles, bears and Marco Polo sheep - the world's largest species. "The same terrain that allows fighters to strike and disappear back into the hills has also, historically, enabled wildlife to survive," says Peter Zahler of the Wildlife Conservation Society, based in New York. But he warns they are now under intense pressure from the bombing and invasions of refugees and fighters.
For instance, some refugees are hunting rare snow leopards to buy safe passage across the border. A single fur can fetch $2000 on the black market, says Zahler. Only 5000 or so snow leopards are thought to survive in central Asia, and less than 100 in Afghanistan, their numbers already decimated by extensive hunting and smuggling into Pakistan before the conflict.
Timber, falcons and medicinal plants are also being smuggled across the border. The Taliban once controlled much of this trade, but the recent power vacuum could exacerbate the problem.
Bombing will also leave its mark beyond the obvious craters. Defense analysts say that while depleted uranium has been used less in Afghanistan than in the Kosovo conflict, conventional explosives will litter the country with pollutants. They contain toxic compounds such as cyclonite, a carcinogen, and rocket propellants contain perchlorates, which damage thyroid glands.
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