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