By: Hojjat Mianabadi & Seyedeh Zahra Ghoreishi
The issue of water in Afghanistan is a national and identity issue whose manifestation can be seen in the country’s common proverbs. For example, the Afghans believe:
Even though you may be the son of the mirab (a person responsible for distributing water), it is better to be one intake higher up in the upstream.
Better to be a servant in the upstream than a king in the downstream.
3- Our water is our reputation.
4- Kabul is tolerable without gold but not without snow.
Such proverbs reflect the importance of water in the beliefs and identity of the people of this country and show that the identity and ideas of the Afghan people are intertwined with water. Afghanistan has had the Helmand Valley’s development project on top of its agenda since 1910, and almost all of Afghanistan's rulers have sought to protect the country's water. Protecting water resources, developing water infrastructure, and constructing dams have always been key elements in nation-state building as well as a way to stay in power in Afghanistan. The attitude of gaining power through water resources among the Afghan officials as well as the identity of the Afghan people which is intertwined with water resources are the most important factors that have made it very difficult for Iran to gain access to its water right from the Afghan basins. In this article, the entanglement among the three issues of ‘water-politics-identity’ in the hydro-political interactions between Iran and Afghanistan will be examined and it will be clearly shown that water, as the most important factor influencing the interactions between Tehran and Kabul, can lead to the formation of an enemy or rival identity in Afghanistan's identity otherization patterns.
Water issues are generally constructed according to the ideology, values, norms, and identities of their agents. The agents shape the realities around these norms, and ultimately act and make decisions based on that reality. Thus, water issues and challenges are not necessarily objective issues facing agents, but the identity of the agents and their societies is important here. Accordingly, "identity" plays a key role in shaping cooperation or conflict over shared resources: A collective and shared identity constructed by the agents can strengthen the spirit of partnership between the parties of a conflict; and, On the other hand, a polarized identity can exacerbate a conflict. It is partly because the interests of each actor in the shared basins are not adventitious, but the interests are usually created during interactions and based on structures and identities. That is why by influencing the minds and changing the common understanding, we can influence the process of events, and by influencing the mental factors, we can increase the tendency to cooperate, and thus avoid conflicts. The identity created through water interactions can also influence the definition of water interests and policies.
One of the characteristics of identity formation is otherization. The purpose of otherization is to create a bipolar atmosphere and to distinguish between the "self" and the "other." Bakhtin believes that self-awareness occurs only if the "self" is revealed through the "other." According to this definition, self-awareness is an unfinished phenomenon that needs the "other" in order to be completed. Edward Said believes that the western countries, in order to maintain their own imperialism and colonialism, have labeled the Islamic world as the "other" and introduced western "self" as the axis of good and the other as the axis of evil.
According to van Dick (1998), there are four types of activities that can polarize the "us" and the "other" with the aim of creating unity among the "insider" groups:
Expressing information that is positive about us;
Expressing information that is negative about others;
De-emphasizing positive information about others;
De-emphasizing negative information about us.
In fact, based on these four components, our own positive points as well as the other side’s negative points are identified, and by marginalizing our negative points and the other side’s positive points, social groups can create an ideological image of themselves and the others. In this process, they label themselves as the axis of goodness, and the other as the axis of evil.
Otherization between Iran and Afghanistan by using the water issue
During the past years, the Afghan leaders were generally anti-Iran and sought to draw the western countries’ attention through intensifying otherization between Iran and Afghanistan. Westernization was very visible in Afghanistan and this strategy was defined as otherizing the neighbors, especially the Islamic Republic of Iran. Particularly, the anti-Iran western media also played a significant role in promoting Iranophobia as well as changing the Afghan people’s attitude towards the western culture. During this period, due to the influence of the US media in Afghanistan, some people even lost their negative views towards the US occupation of their own country.
In addition to the efforts of western countries and media to de-traditionalize Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani himself had an anti-Iran (pro-western) spirit. He also sought to build a westernized Afghanistan by creating a sense of otherization between Iran and Afghanistan as well as creating more distance. All of these actions intensified the anti-Iran sentiments in Afghanistan and turned Iran into the "other" for the Afghan people. Meanwhile, water was one of the most important tools in the hands of the former leader of Afghanistan and western countries to intensify the process of otherization between Iran and Afghanistan despite the existence of cultural similarities. It is because, according to many analysts, water has been the most important factor influencing the interactions between the two countries from the past to the present. The foreign media and some of the domestic media in Afghanistan have been trying to blow into the trumpet of the water war between Iran and Afghanistan, and thus tried to take the two countries away from their common social and cultural identity and make Afghanistan more sensitive towards its own water resources. These media outlets accused Iran of over-using water resources.
Another factor that highlighted the water-based otherization between Iran and Afghanistan during the Ashraf Ghani era was his attempt at "nation-building." During this period, the central government, under the illusion that state-building is over, sought to start nation-building, and thus found otherization with the neighbors, especially the Islamic Republic of Iran, as a window towards promoting patriotism. Ashraf Ghani sought to strengthen the national identity and social solidarity through a water-based otherization with Iran. Therefore, a water nationalism based on metaphorical, visual, and audio tools as well as emotional speeches were put on Ghani's agenda to strengthen the national sentiments towards the common waters that are going from Afghanistan to the downstream countries. For example, Ashraf Ghani tried on several occasions to promote the "Our Water" mentality among the people by intensifying national feelings towards the water.
"Water is our reputation and maintaining our reputation is our national goal," he told at a conference in Kabul, "we must manage our reputation." He also acknowledged at the inauguration ceremony of the third phase of Kamal Khan Dam that "our water will no longer be wasted and our water is our capital." Ashraf Ghani claimed in 2019 that every drop of the Afghan water would be more expensive than its neighbors' oil. There are different ethnicities in Afghanistan, and thus the collective experience of being together in the form of a single identity has never been formed in the country. Also, under Ashraf Ghani, the society had more power than the government and the international community could not make changes in the social structure of Afghanistan. Therefore, the government was faced with a governance gap. For this reason, Ghani tried to use water to create social cohesion and evoke a sense of patriotism and unity.
In the near future, the new rulers of Afghanistan will once again face the challenge of a nation-state building, and it will sooner or later become an important issue for the rulers of the country. This will inevitably be accompanied by a kind of nationalism and would necessarily reflect an indigenous pattern of otherization and a social understanding based on the insider/outsider (or even friend/enemy) attitude. In the meantime, we must look for ways to prevent otherization based on water, which is the most important need of the Islamic Republic of Iran from Afghanistan.
Iran's water issue with the Taliban
The Taliban leaders have so far not taken a hostile stance towards Iran, and some communications are underway between their representatives and the Iranian government. But these relations have not shown a more important characteristic compared to the Taliban's general relations with other neighbors and even regional actors. The Taliban's relationship with Iran is probably not deeper and broader than its relationship with Pakistan; and their non-hostile (and even friendly) discourse with Iran does not seem very unique compared to their cooperative discourse with Turkey. There is no guarantee for Afghanistan's neighbors to not become the "other" of the Taliban's national identity in the future. Although some scholars believe that the Taliban seek cooperation rather than tension with the neighbors for a variety of reasons, some believe that, given the religious context, historical experiences, and regional and international conditions, the Islamic Republic of Iran's chance for taking the role of "other" in the Taliban’s self/other (friend/enemy) pattern is more than other actors. Therefore, the Islamic Republic of Iran must always be careful not to become the "other" for the Taliban and avoid another strategic and identity confrontation beyond the eastern borders of the country.
Regarding the issue of water, the Taliban leaders, like other statesmen in the previous times, declared in their earliest steps that "70% of Afghanistan's water is wasted and that this government is trying to resume construction of large water dams." According to the official announcement of the Ministry of Water and Energy, several projects and plans are on the state's agenda, based on the development budget of 2022. They announce that the remaining works of the unfinished dams will be completed.
In this regard, international aid would accelerate the development projects (including water infrastructure). For example, the participants in a UN emergency meeting on Afghanistan pledged more than $1.2 billion in humanitarian assistance to deal with the humanitarian crisis in the country. Accordingly, the United States promised $64 million, France 100 million euros, and Germany 500 million euros. Denmark, Norway, China, and Pakistan have also announced that they will provide millions of dollars in humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. The Chinese ambassador to Kabul also met with Amir Khan Muttaqi, the Taliban's foreign minister, saying that Beijing would provide $15 million in humanitarian aid to Afghanistan.
Moreover, Tokyo has recently allocated about $100 million of its FY 2021 supplementary budget to improve health care as well as food and water security in Afghanistan. The Taliban will probably resume the development and construction projects after receiving international aid in order to get out of the current situation and start nation-state building projects. Afghanistan is already working on several important dams, most of which are related to the shared resources with Iran. These dams are Kajaki, Kamal Khan, Pashdan, and Bakhshabad. Recently, ministers and representatives of the Taliban have made numerous visits to monitor the condition of the country's dams.
In December 2021, engineer Mujiba al-Rahman Omar, the deputy of the Ministry of Water and Energy, met with Sulaiman Salif, the head of the Kajaki Dam’s construction company. In this meeting, Mujiba al-Rahman stressed the need to speed up the construction of the dam. Also on December 23, 2021, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, the Taliban’s deputy foreign minister, visited the Kamal Khan Dam in the Nimruz province and stated that the Taliban would protect the dam on the Iranian border and that it is working to complete the construction process as soon as possible. According to Seyed Abdul al-Wahid Qatali, the former governor of Herat, the construction of the Pashadan Dam on the Harirud has also been completed by 85 percent.
But after the Taliban foreign minister visited Tehran at the head of an economic and political delegation in January 2022, the gates of the Kamal Khan Dam were opened to Iran. Some Iranian officials also stated that the gates of the Kamal Khan Dam were opened with the order of the Taliban leaders. The Taliban’s Ministry of Energy and Water, however, announced that the water was not open to flow into Iran, and that it was released at the request of the local farmers in some areas of Nimruz province. In this case, we see that despite the release of water for Nimruz province, the Taliban did not allow water to flow into Iran. However, according to the 1351 agreement, an average of 26 cubic meters per second of water must flow from Afghanistan to Iran for agricultural purposes only.
These remarks show that the water challenge between Iran and Afghanistan persists during the Taliban era. The Taliban will not allow the release of water to be turned into a political victory and privilege for the Islamic Republic of Iran in negotiations.
What has remained unchanged throughout Afghanistan’s history is the prejudice of the Afghan people towards water resources as their national wealth. Therefore, the importance of water in Afghanistan is not only due to providing the domestic needs, but Afghans consider their water as their identity and attaché great cultural, political, and economic value to it. The water disputes between Afghanistan and its neighboring countries (especially Iran) have turned into a national issue for the Afghan people and government. On the other hand, the eastern regions of Iran are heavily dependent on Afghanistan’s water resources. Therefore, in order to establish a sustainable relationship, which can address the water needs of the east of the country, the Islamic Republic of Iran must create some interests for Afghanistan so that these interests can form sustainable interactions and prevent any identity otherization between Iran and Afghanistan.
Dr. Hojjat Mianabadi, is an Assistant Professor, Department of Water Engineering and Management, Tarbiat Modares University
eyedeh Zahra Qureishi, is an M.A graduate of Water Resources Management, University of Tehran