Afghan Taliban move weaponry to Iran border amid tensions over water

Deadly clashes broke out last week as Tehran insisted on its quota of Helmand River water

A Dec. 8, 2020, satellite photo from Planet Labs Inc. shows Islam Qala border crossing in Afghanistan's Herat province. New satellite photos analyzed Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021, by The Associated Press show the devastation after a series of explosions and fires on Saturday, Feb. 13, 2021, consumed hundreds of fuel tankers at the same site on the Afghan-Iranian border. (Planet Labs Inc. via AP)
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Afghanistan's Taliban rulers have sent military equipment to the border with Iran amid a water-sharing dispute that led to an exchange of fire last week.

Iran has accused the Taliban of violating a 1973 treaty by withholding water from Iran's Sistan basin. The Taliban, however, has attributed the reduced flow to consecutive droughts in the region.

Referring to firing between Iranian forces and the Taliban on May 27 over the flow of Helmand river water, Admad, a resident who did not wish to reveal his full name told The National: “A caravan of military equipment was moved to Islam Qala last week after the clashes in Nimruz province”.

The heavy exchange of fire led to several deaths and injuries on both sides, according to official statements from Iran and Afghanistan.

“There is no fighting now, but they [military vehicles] are still in Islam Qala,” Ahmad said. “The border was closed for a few days after the clashes. No one was allowed to pass, not even passport holders.”

Several videos on social media showed a large convoy of armoured vehicles, as well as heavy weapons that were left behind by the withdrawing US forces, being moved across provinces.

Local media also reported that the Taliban had ordered the removal of fuel trucks from the Islam Qala and Dogharon border areas.

Many of the military vehicles were in poor condition, Ahmad said, “Some of these rangers and tanks were rusted in parts, some damaged. They were all vehicles used by Afghan army and the Americans,”

“Some of the Taliban members were sitting on the tanks and taking videos with their phones. Others were cheering and chanting. It was complete madness. I was terrified,” he said.

The war posturing between the two western-sanctioned regimes has raised concerns fears of another conflict in the war-ravaged region.

The Taliban are demonstrating a level of diplomatic incompetence in managing their regime's international affairs
Ahmad Shuja Jamal, former government official

“The Taliban are demonstrating a level of diplomatic incompetence in managing their regime's international affairs,” said Ahmad Shuja Jamal, a former government official and co-author of The Decline and Fall of Republican Afghanistan.

“They are completely failing to use existing mechanisms and, most importantly, failing to engage the Iranian diplomats in Kabul who are deeply connected to the IRGC in Tehran and have a history of relations with Taliban factions,” he said, referring to Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Mr Jamal said there were a number of existing mechanisms to resolve disputes between the two countries, including border commissars and a 60-year-old border management treaty “which, despite its age, has been used effectively to prevent border skirmishes and fully fledged wars”.

However, some security analysts speculate the reinforcement may simply be for optics.

“My read is that the Taliban are moving military gear towards the border more as support to the battle of words currently taking place between them and various Iranian government officials,” said Jonathan Schroden, director at CNA, a research and analysis organisation.

“The Taliban have a long history of leading with narrative and using military-type activities to support that narrative, and this looks to me like more of the same,” he said.

A Taliban fighter stands guard at the entrance gate of Afghan-Iran border crossing bridge in Zaranj. AFP

Though the Taliban is flexing its “inherited weapons”, it may not have the military edge over Iran that it perceives, Mr Jamal said.

“The military hardware they have inherited does put them in a position to inflict significant damage on Iran if used properly. However, it is hard to see how the Taliban would have an appreciable hardware edge over Iran in a conventional war,” he said.

Mr Schroden agreed. “The Taliban must recognise that Iran has military jets, drones, and anti-armour weapons, and the Taliban have no means of countering those capabilities,” he said.

“The surest way for the Taliban to lose the argument they are in with Iran right now would be to escalate the situation militarily,” he added.

While the Taliban have not commented on the military reinforcement of the western border, their Ministry of Finance denied the closure of trade borders.

“We reject the false reports published in this regard and want to mention that Islam Qala Customs of Herat works normally and provides the necessary services,” an official told local media on Wednesday.

However, Mr Jamal argued that the real damage would be to the lives of the people who are already experiencing unprecedented humanitarian crises. “The real harm will not be in what each side can do to the other militarily – it will be in the effects it will have on their peoples, border security, bilateral trade, the economy and ability to jointly manage transboundary waters, which are increasingly critical to both sides,” he said.

Afghans are closely monitoring the situation. The Islam Qala border crossing is an important trade and transit route between the two countries. “More than the war, we are afraid of rising prices of food and other products if the borders close again,” Ahmad said.

It also serves as a key corridor for migration and humanitarian activities and a base for many international aid agencies that support refugees and deportees returning from Iran.

“We are seeing more deportations since the border reopened,” he said.

Updated: June 02, 2023, 5:02 PM