Scientists have long warned that climate change is not just an environmental problem but a security one.

Some experts say in some countries that connection is playing out in a disturbing way as people displaced or jobless by climate-related disasters in fragile states and war zones are driven to join militias, insurgencies or criminal organizations just to survive.

“I lost my income because of the drought, so I joined the Taliban and fought for them to earn money,” said Norullah, who lives in Afghanistan and whose name has been changed for fear of retribution. “This is not what I wanted. Our family is farmers, but in the past few years, we couldn’t grow enough crops from our land and couldn’t earn enough income. There was no other job opportunity and joining the Taliban was the only option I had.”

When the Taliban was still an insurgent force before toppling the government in August 2021, it was paying soldiers as much as $300 a month, American magazine WIRED reported. That was an irresistible sum, considering the average Afghan's annual income was only $390 a year.

Stories like Norullah’s are common and contributed to the Taliban’s victory, said Seddiq Seddiqi, Afghanistan’s former deputy minister of the interior who now lives in Canada.

Seddiq Seddiqi, Afghanistan’s former deputy minister of the interior, says droughts, population displacement, poverty and loss of livelihoods contributed to the Taliban’s victory. Photo submitted by Seddiq Seddiqi

“Persistent droughts, population displacement because of the drought, poverty and livelihood insecurity were the main drivers to Afghanistan’s conflict and contributed to the recruitment of young people into armed militancy and insurgency,” said Seddiqi. “Climate change in Afghanistan played a significant role in causing an existential threat to national security, and acted as a risk multiplier contribution to the fragility of the governance and the functions of the legitimate state at the national level.”

Afghanistan is ranked sixth in the world for countries most impacted by climate change and one of the least prepared against climate shocks, according to the 2021 Global Climate Risk Index.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) says Afghanistan is in the grip of one of the worst droughts and food shortage crises in decades.

When the Taliban was still an insurgent force, it was paying soldiers as much as $300 a month — an irresistible sum considering the average Afghan's annual income was only $390 a year. #ClimateCrisis

“Severe drought has hit more than 80 per cent of the country, crippling food production and forcing people from their land. Nearly 700,000 people have been internally displaced in 2021, joining some 3.5 million people already forced from their homes throughout the country,” the IFRC website reads.

Zbihullah Farhang, an Afghan refugee in Canada, told Canada’s National Observer he witnessed people from his province joining the insurgency because of climate change and drought.

“I know that farmers couldn’t harvest anything from their land because of the drought. Their young sons joined the Taliban to earn money,” he said. “The government couldn’t offer any job opportunities or alternative income to these farmers. Taliban needed fighters and took advantage of these vulnerable people by recruiting them.”

Climate Diplomacy, a German-based government-sponsored organization, analyzed in its report Insurgency, Terrorism and Organized Crime in a Warming Climate how large-scale environmental and climatic change contributes to creating an environment where armed militias can thrive.

“Climate change is having increasingly negative impacts on livelihoods in many countries and regions through food insecurity. This makes the affected population groups more vulnerable — not only to negative climate impacts but also to recruitment by NSAGs,” it says.

As for Norullah, he left the Taliban last year and now drives a taxi in a northern Afghan city, an opportunity he didn’t have when he joined the Taliban.

Norullah says he was able to save some of the money he received from the Taliban and bought the taxi, which he now drives to support his family.

This story was produced in partnership with Journalists for Human Rights for the Afghan Journalists-in-Residence program funded by the Meta Journalism Project.