Water, tribalism, and the "CIA connection": Why the Taliban attacked Iran

Water, tribalism, and the "CIA connection": Why the Taliban attacked Iran

What ignited the battles on the Afghan-Iranian border?

Water, tribalism, and the "CIA connection": Why the Taliban attacked Iran
Photo: DR

On Saturday, 27th May 2023, the Afghan Taliban fired mortars and American M240 machine guns into Iranian territory. This event caused hysteria on social media. Users began triumphantly taking sides in the new conflict, praising the Taliban for their "pro-Ukrainian stance" or labelling them a "US puppet".

Many media outlets have dubbed the violent clash on the Iran-Afghanistan border a "water war", as the shooting took place amid a political conflict between the two countries over the exploitation of the Helmand River. The United States' alleged "stratagem" is also being hotly debated, as they supposedly intentionally left a heap of military equipment for the Taliban during the chaotic evacuation from Afghanistan in 2021. Conspiracy theory advocates are pushing the idea that the Taliban can now punish Iran with American weapons for supplying “shaheeds" to russia that are detonating in Ukraine.

Mind offers to examine the main versions of the conflict that erupted between the Taliban and Iran.

What happened? A group of Taliban militants, as seen in the video, fired on the Iranian border post Sasoli in the province of Sistan and Baluchestan on May 27, eliciting return fire from mortars and small arms. Both sides reported casualties. Iran claimed two of its border guards were killed and two civilians were injured, while the Taliban acknowledged the loss of one fighter.

A water war? Just days before the border clash, on May 18, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi visited the province of Sistan and Baluchestan, from where he called on the Taliban to provide Iranians with their share of water from the Helmand River. "You should take my words very seriously so that you won't complain later," warned Ebrahim Raisi.

In response, the Afghan side urged Tehran not to politicise the water supply issue. "It is better to solve such problems through personal negotiations rather than creating a fuss in the press," said Taliban Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi on May 22.

The Helmand River flows from Afghanistan into Iran's arid region, where approximately one million people live. On the Afghan side, the river is dammed for power generation and agricultural irrigation. Under a 1973 agreement, Afghanistan is obliged to release no less than 850 million cbm of water to Iran every year. The Taliban claim they are unable this year due to technical problems and drought. However, they are not allowing Iranian experts to come to Afghanistan and verify that the river is not blocked.

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The water conflict has undoubtedly fueled relations between Kabul and Tehran. However, both sides have insisted that they will resolve this dispute diplomatically, and neither Iran nor Afghanistan, particularly, had any sense to wage a war over the Helmand River.

"As for the water dispute, the recent border shootout is largely unwarranted, unrelated to, and unordered by the Kabul Central Government. Therefore, it doesn't make much sense for this minor border action conducted by the Taliban to be a premeditated one relating to the water dispute. Moreover, the context of Taliban-Iran relations prior to this incident doesn't make much sense/add up to explain this border incident.," writes RTSG.

Tehran generously funded and armed the Taliban during their insurgency, and in June 2022, repatriated and handed over Afghan National Army military equipment to the Taliban, some units of which had fled to Iran simultaneously with the chaotic evacuation of the United States in August 2021.

In 2021 and 2022, Iran helped Afghanistan with post-war reconstruction, supplied energy resources, and built roads for increasing freight traffic. Just three weeks ago, on May 9, 2023, the authorities of the two countries ceremonially put into operation a new 225-kilometre railway between Iran's Khaf and Afghanistan's Herat to increase traffic between the countries to 320,000 passengers and 6.8 million tonnes of cargo per year.

Is there US intervention? "The Taliban is a US puppet" narrative is propagated by mainstream Iranian media, which predict that the US could have bribed the Taliban with the promise of returning frozen Afghan assets.

"The current tensions with the Taliban have been formed outside of the group's will... One side of these tensions are the United States and England, and at the opposite sides of this conflict are the countries of russia, China, and Iran.Currently, the Americans are creating tension to disrupt the 3-nation alliance of Iran, China," was written in an Hamshahri editorial, one of Iran's most popular newspapers.

Given that the Taliban inherited a massive amount of American military equipment after the US fled from Afghanistan in August 2021, social media users speculated that the US deliberately left the weapons to implement an attack plan on Iran.

This is inconsistent, however, with the photo facts of wrecked helicopters and the testimony that the Americans, during their retreat from Afghanistan in 2021, tried to break all sensitive electronics in the abandoned military equipment. The Forbes outlet claimed in 2021 that American vehicles, which the Taliban displayed at parades, are not fully functional and will fall apart without proper maintenance. Moreover, almost all military equipment left in Afghanistan is designed for personnel transportation and is of little use for conquering a country like Iran.

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Tribalism and misunderstanding? The Iranian agency Tasnim, affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, on Sunday, 28 May, put forward a new version of events, according to which a misunderstanding occurred on the border. Supposedly, Iranian border guards began to fire on a convoy of drug traffickers attempting to enter from Afghanistan, and the Taliban forces stationed at the border misjudged the situation and attacked those who were shooting.

This version allows both Iran and the Taliban to save face, whose soldiers often act like uncontrolled bands that attack each other and the territories of friendly states. For example, in February 2023, the Taliban instigated a shootout and wounded a Pakistani soldier in Torkham, resulting in the closure of the busiest border crossing between Afghanistan and Pakistan in this town.

This incident did not prevent Maulavi Abdul Kabir, then acting as Prime Minister, from telling the Pakistani ambassador in Kabul at a meeting that Afghanistan is building "good relations based on good intentions with all its neighbours."

Shootouts on the border with Pakistan were staged by the Taliban in 2022 and 2021, and before that, almost every year, pro-American Afghans trained and financed by the US government were involved in similar clashes. They also behaved uncontrollably, undisciplined, and ultimately proved disloyal to the central government. They tend to remain loyal only to local commanders or tribal unions. The rapid fall of the pro-American government under the pressure of the Taliban with mass renegades and desertion in 2021 showcased this Afghan characteristic in all its glory.

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