When the United States launched its punative war against the Taliban regime in the fall of 2001, its high flying Air Force bombers, armed with satellite-guided bombs, rained death down upon both Al Qaida operatives and Taliban militiamen. But humans were not the only ones to perish during that air offensive. It is now apparent that Afghanistan’s avian and mammalian wildlife populations suffered and died during that American military campaign.
Afghanistan had long been a stopover location for migrating Siberian cranes, which annually flew from Russia’s vast interior regions to more southern climes. The U.S. air strikes coincided with the Siberian crane migration in October 2001. The delicate birds flew into Afghanistan at the same time that the B-52s and F-16s filled the skies with their gleaming hulks. According to Dr. Oumed Haneed, an observer of the annual bird migration, U.S. military operations severely disrupted the migration that year – and they have continued to negatively affect it ever since. With the airspace filled with all types of U.S. aircraft and ordinance, the cranes found Afghanistan inhospitable. The birds either perished from wounds suffered in bombing runs or from a loss of habitat resulting from carpet bombing raids. The birds that survived diverted their flight paths and stopover locations to less advantageous areas where they faced a greater risk of predation and/or restricted food resources.
Afghanistan’s endangered mammals also died during the military campaign. As the operation intensified and the Taliban and Al Qaida fighters fled from the lowlands, they sought refuge from America’s bombers by hiding in the caves and tunnels of the Tora Bora region of eastern Afghanistan. However, the same remote and high areas preferred by the Taliban militia and Al Qaida operatives were also the regions preferred by Afghanistan’s last remaining large mammals. Wolves, snow leopards, Marco Polo sheep, and brown bears lived in the highlands of Afghanistan – seeking refuge there from the intensive human development at lower elevations. Those animals died under American bombs and missiles. How many perished will never be known. However, wildlife biologists familiar with Afghanistan, have noted a steady decline of large mammals in the country since the commencement of U.S. operations there in 2001.
President Obama’s troop surge, his increased reliance on drone attacks along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, and his insistence on continuing the U.S. combat role until at least 2014, does not bode well for the wildlife of Afghanistan. The American people, the President, and the military men and women carrying out the war need to consider how military operations affect wildlife. Non-human species cannot be considered just another unfortunate casualty of war or necessary collateral damage in the War on Terror. We do not have the right to take their lives any more than we have the right to take the lives of human innocents in the conflict.