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Thursday, September 21, 2023

Iran-Taliban skirmishes and Pakistan’s ‘Afghanistan conundrum’

Pakistan, of course, will have to play a part, in whatever capacity, to keep the conflict between Iran and Afghanistan from blowing out as it would result in further unrest in Pakistan as well but there is still a limit to Pakistan’s influence over Taliban.

Taliban and Iran border police had yet another bloody clash at the border along Nimroz province of Afghanistan. Reportedly, 2 Iranian border police personnel and one Talib has been killed. Both sides have blamed each other to be the instigator of the conflict and subsequently, both sides have stressed that matters need to be dealt via peaceful dialogue.

It marks the third major scruffle between the two sides ever since the Taliban took the reins of power in August 2021. Recently, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi warned the Taliban not to violate the 1973 agreement for the water distribution of the Helmand River and give his country its due share as per the agreement. Afghanistan has built a dam to store the water, for electricity generation and irrigation purposes, on the Helmand River.

A perpetual conflict in sight

Iran has been experiencing drought for the past 30 years and the condition has worsened in the last decade particularly. As much as 97% of the country is said to be undergoing some level of drought-like situation. Given the climate change that has been particularly hard in the region, the water situation is expected to deteriorate further leading to more bloody clashes in the future. It is because of the nature of the problem, the very existence of people at stake, that President Ebrahim Raisi did not mince words when he threatened the Taliban regime and told them to take his words seriously when he said, “We will not allow the rights of our people to be violated.”

Similarly, Afghanistan under the Taliban is unlikely to tackle the looming water crisis due to insufficient economic and human resources. The water issue is not regime specific as there appears to be a rare convergence between the incumbent Taliban regime’s policy and former President Ashraf Ghani’s stance over the matter as well.

Read more: The failure of NATO to subdue Afghanistan

Back in 2021, during the inauguration of Kamal Khan Dam on the Helmand River, President Ghani said that Afghanistan would no longer give free water to anyone, so Iran should provide fuel to Afghans in exchange for water. As per the 1973 agreement that Iran keeps referring to, Afghanistan has the sole ownership of the river water however Iran would get an annual share of 850 million cubic meters of water.

Despite all his flaws, President Ghani was the closest to what may be termed as a ‘statesman’ that Afghanistan got since the U.S. invasion. The sentiments coming from President Ghani, who has previously worked at the World Bank and understands the significance of bilateral agreements between the states, exemplify that the water issue has a nationalist fervor to it along with the obvious need for the resource.

Hence, the Taliban who are already finding it difficult to land on their feet as statesmen as per international standards and failing to secure the much-needed formal recognition from the international community are unlikely to back down. As per the latest reports, the Taliban are moving APCs, left after the U.S. withdrawal, and more personnel to the Iranian border suggesting that at least in their wargaming the conflict is going to linger on.

Pakistan’s conundrum

President Raisi chose the occasion of the Mand-Pishin border market inauguration at the Pakistan-Iran border along with Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif to threaten the Taliban regarding the water dispute. The signaling is significant as it implied that Pakistan ought to play its role to make the Taliban comply with the water agreement through its influence.

However, the assessment has two fundamental and historic inconsistencies. During their insurgency years, Pakistan was not the only country in the region having a backchannel connection with the Taliban. In fact, Iran itself was actively engaging with the Taliban during this time to the extent that the last Emir of the Afghan Taliban Mullah Akhtar Mansoor was targeted in a drone strike on his way back from Iran.

Read more: Iran’s president heads to Syria for first trip since war, eyeing rebuild

Secondly, since coming to power in 2021, the Taliban have proven that previous relations do not account for much as they have pursued their policies based on their own interest and domestic political needs. Hence, expecting Pakistan to mediate or pave the way for any peaceful settlement as the signaling suggests, would not be prudent for both Pakistan and Iran who have their own share of distrust and insurgency-related problems along the Sistan-Balochistan region.

Furthermore, Pakistan has been unable to leverage the communication it had with the Taliban during the U.S. war in Afghanistan to mitigate its own TTP threat as it was much anticipated. And no country is in a better position to understand the dynamics than Iran.

Pakistan and Iran have only started to come out of the shadow of Saudi-Iran thorny relations over the decades, courtesy of the deal between the latter mediated by China. Pakistan’s western front has been in unrest for a long time now and a small window has appeared where both Iran and Pakistan can amicably overcome their differences. Hence it should not be compromised by unrealistic expectations.

Pakistan, of course, will have to play a part, in whatever capacity, to keep the conflict between Iran and Afghanistan from blowing out as it would result in further unrest in Pakistan as well but there is still a limit to Pakistan’s influence over Taliban. Eventually, it is Iran and Afghanistan who have to diplomatically carve out a workable solution through diplomacy as both sides have indicated.

Read more: Why’d Putin’s special envoy to Afghanistan visit Kabul amidst Pakistani-Taliban tensions

The author is a Research Officer at the Strategic Vision Institute, Islamabad. The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.