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Water War Or Religious Strife? Trouble At The Iran-Afghanistan Border

Iran and Afghanistan have long had a tense relationship. Recent skirmishes at their shared border indicate that conflict is escalating, but the causes are unclear.

Image of a canal near Kamal Khan dam in Nimroz province, Afghanistna.

Feb. 6, 2022: A canal near Kamal Khan dam in Nimroz province, Afghanistan.

Pierre Haski


PARIS — For now, there have been only a few skirmishes, which have resulted in several deaths. But a larger conflict is brewing between Afghanistan and Iran, two neighbors that have already had a difficult relationship. Each one accuses the other, and the two have been sending military reinforcements to the border, which is more than 900 kilometers long.

The risk of further escalation has only been growing.

Like every conflict, it has its immediate causes, as well as a broader context. The immediate issue is water. Tehran is accusing Kabul of violating an accord which dates back to 1973, which governs the flow of the Helmand River, a vital source of water for both countries. For Iran, Afghanistan’s construction of new hydroelectric and irrigation dams has affected the 1,000 km river’s downstream flow, which has only exacerbated the impact of existing droughts.

Afghanistan denies these accusations, and blames climate change, rather than dams, for the droughts Iran has been experiencing. Here lies a problem that a growing part of the world is experiencing: the transformation of water into a strategic resource worth fighting for.

But this isn’t the only explanation for heightened tension in the region, which also has complex social and religious dynamics. Although both countries have Islamist regimes, the Islamic revolution in Iran relies on the support of the country’s Shia majority, while the Afghan Taliban are largely composed of Pashtun Sunnis.

A broken balance

These religious divisions are also far from the only explanation. But they are not to be ignored.

Taliban propaganda videos have been on the rise since the clashes along the border began. In them, Iranian Shia leaders are deemed infidels and threatened with subsequent attacks.

This is not the first time that the Taliban is being accused of preying on Shia communities. In the past, they have faced condemnation for targeting minorities — particularly the Shia-majority Hazaras — in Afghanistan.

Iran responded to the Taliban’s 2021 victory in Afghanistan with caution. Tehran leadership sought to balance its defense of Afghan Shia communities with a need for stability with the new rulers of Kabul.

Now, this balance seems broken.

Image of an aerial photograph of Helmand River at Gereshk, in the Helmand Province in Afghanistna.\u200b

Aerial photograph of Helmand River at Gereshk, in the Helmand Province in Afghanistna.

Karla Marshall

The border of the forgotten 

Warmongering rhetoric will not necessarily transform into armed conflict, as the two countries struggle to deal with internal issues. The Taliban’s regime in Afghanistan has not yet been recognized by the international community, and faces the difficulty of governing a livid country. Iran has been put under sanctions, and continues to reckon with the women’s rights movement, which — in spite of fierce repression — the regime has not been able to crush.

So far, neither regime shows any other promises.

This border has a history that has been fueled by violence. Aliyeh Ataei, an Iranian novelist of Afghani origin, was born on this fracture between the two countries. Now, just as tensions have reignited, Ataei is publishing The Border of the Forgotten. A poignant family history of the two countries, the book will focus on men and women fleeing war to find eternal rebirth.

“Being forced to live in this war has caused the shame of war to enter us all,” the author said during a debate at the Amazing Travelers festival this past weekend.

Who could believe that the water conflict or cultural entanglements will be solved with arms? So far, neither regime shows any other promises.

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In The Shantytowns Of Buenos Aires, Proof That Neighbors Function Better Than Cities

Residents of the most disadvantaged peripheries of the Argentine capital are pushed to collaborate in the absence of municipal support. They build homes and create services that should be public. It is both admirable, and deplorable.

A person with blonde hair stands half hidden behind the brick wall infront of a house

A resident of Villa Palito, La Matanza, stands at their gate. August 21, 2020, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Guillermo Tella


BUENOS AIRES – In Argentina, the increasing urgency of the urban poor's housing and public services needs has starkly revealed an absence of municipal policies, which may even be deliberate.

With urban development, local administrations seem dazzled, or blinded, by the city center's lights. Thus they select and strengthen mechanisms that heighten zonal and social inequalities, forcing the less-well-off to live "on the edge" and "behind" in all senses of these words. Likewise, territorial interventions by social actors have both a symbolic and material impact, particularly on marginal or "frontier" zones that are the focus of viewpoints about living "inside," "outside" or "behind."

The center and the periphery produce very different social perceptions. Living on the periphery is to live "behind," in an inevitable state of marginality. The periphery is a complex system of inequalities in terms of housing provision, infrastructures, facilities and transport.

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