Taliban Threat to Water Management Projects in Afghanistan

Water management projects such as dams and hydroelectric power stations have attracted investment from multiple sources such as private companies, foreign governments and the World Bank. The Salma Dam for example is heavily funded by the Indian government at an estimated cost of US$275 million. However, the security situation in Afghanistan has at times rendered such projects unpredictable and accompanied by high risk. This high risk factor stems from the Afghanistan’s poor security situation. Afghan security is characterised by the fact that the Taliban insurgency controls approximately 40% of the country, and other militant groups such as Islamic State – Khorosan Province (IS-KP) further augment the threat to foreign investment at the hands of militant groups. Understanding the extent of this risk is therefore of great importance to any potential investors who wish to engage in Afghan development. This piece will aim to analyse the risk posed by the Taliban to water management projects by showing how the nature of the Taliban’s ideology assists in understanding the reasoning for their attitude towards foreign development.

The ideology of the Taliban in respects to foreign influence is an incredibly complex phenomena, and is further complicated by the way that local Taliban commander act with relative autonomy from central command. District commanders may use this autonomy to pursue a host of different motivations, whether they be tribal conflicts, personal conflicts or broader regional conflicts. Therefore, whilst the higher levels of the Taliban command structure may issue statements which dictate the conduct of the Taliban, how closely these statements will be followed is hard to gauge and this makes sweeping generalisations of Taliban ideology fairly difficult to support. With this difficulty in mind, this piece will aim to provide a brief overview of the specific aspects of Taliban ideology which are deemed relevant to this piece. For further and more in-depth analysis, pieces such as Gopal and Strick van Linschoten’s work for the Afghan Analysts Network are highly valuable.

The Taliban initially formed as a group in response to the fighting between various warlords  after the Soviet withdrawal from the country. The fighting between the former Mujahideen commanders degraded the integrity of the Afghan tribal structure as tribal leaders importance waned in the face of armed warlords. The degradation of the tribal structure was significant, as it was the tribal structure which the people of Afghanistan have utilised for mediation and governance for generations. The Taliban’s main appeal came from the fact that they promised to repair the tribal structure at a time in which it was being broken from the inside. Their early ideology and actions reflect this, and the group was characterised by its traditional values influenced by Deobandi Islamic thought and their interpretation of the tribal code. The result of this ideological foundation was that the Taliban were resistant to the influences of foreign nations and approached interactions with foreign companies cautiously. Logic would therefore suggest that the Taliban would naturally be opposed to the idea of extensive foreign investment in Afghan infrastructure and development.

Such an assumption is currently somewhat out of date, as the Taliban have undergone a gradual evolution. The USA’s intervention in Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11 saw the Taliban rapidly defeated and leadership of the country handed over to the victorious Northern Alliance warlords who opposed the Taliban. However, due to a poorly constructed counter-insurgency campaign, in which corrupt warlords were used to protect a relatively unrepresentative government, there was once again a demand for change.

The Taliban, recognising this demand began to plan their revival, but such as revival would not be straightforward. Before the Taliban’s removal from power in 2001, they had shown to the Afghan population that their hard-line ideology was not well suited to governance of the country. As a result, their appeal as restorers of the tribal order was tarnished. Instead, the Taliban attempted to embed themselves into modern regional politics. Rather than allowing themselves to be an insular movement, solely concerned with their own narrow objectives, the Taliban have attempted to embrace global politics. As part of this attempt, the Taliban’s rhetoric frequently refers to the way it is willing to work with regional neighbours, and the way it will protect foreign investment projects if they benefit the Afghan people. How closely the Taliban will actually adhere to their own rhetoric is open to discussion, but it is wise to view such claims with some suspicion.

Despite the Taliban evolving and embracing the globalised nature of modern politics, foreign backed water management projects remain at the receiving end of Taliban attacks since 2001. The reason for this being that aspects of the Taliban are influenced by the interests of Afghanistan’s foreign neighbours, more specifically Iran. Iran fears that increased Afghan water management projects would reduce the Iranian water supply to a level which is unable to sustain a rapidly increasing Iranian population. Iran’s fears are not misplaced, as a study by Dr M. Molanejad and Dr A. Ranjbar highlights the way in which extremes in Iranian weather, such as drought, are likely to increase with global warming. Treaties between Afghanistan and Iran also provide very little official oversight capable of mediating discussion between Afghanistan and Iran. In an attempt to remedy Iran’s concerns, Iran has attempted to use the Taliban insurgency as a proxy to target water management projects in Western Afghanistan which it perceives as a threat to its access to water from Afghan rivers. The extent of this support is hard to gauge, as Iran has denied any involvement but media outlets and analysts have all pointed towards Iranian support.

As part of Iran’s attempt to utilise the Taliban as a proxy, multiple attempts have been made to sabotage Afghan water management projects. In 2011, a Taliban commander was arrested by Afghan security forces and the arrest was not insignificant in respects to water management projects. The Taliban commander, named as Mullah Dadullah, was allegedly trained, given US$50,000 and equipped by Iran to target the Kamal Khan Dam in Nimroz Province. More recently, in June of 2017, the Taliban attacked a security forces checkpoint close to the Indian funded Salma Dam in Herat Province as an attempt to disrupt the dams progress.

The potential investor is therefore faced with a number of dynamic threats and challenges that require project specific contextualised risk analysis. The relative strength of the Taliban across the country must be taken into account, as the Taliban is able to launch increasingly bold attacks as the group grows. Therefore, the isolated security forces positions protecting the dams may begin to pose a less formidable defense as the group grows in strength elsewhere. Furthermore, the Taliban’s value as a proxy to Iran in regards to water security should also be taken in to account when evaluating the risk posed. For example, a political settlement between Afghanistan and Iran regarding water security would reduce the Taliban’s value as a proxy to Iran, and thus potentially reduce the likelihood of Taliban attacks.

Despite the threats posed by the Taliban insurgency to water management projects in Afghanistan, it is highly likely that such projects will continue. President Ghani and his Afghan National Unity Government (NUG) can reap significant benefits from water management projects. The largely agricultural societies of the Western provinces such as Nimroz, who have traditionally been at the furthest reaches of central governmental control would benefit significantly from these projects. The appeal of this to President Ghani being that the NUG’s position in the rural population’s eyes may be greatly improved, and this potential victory for the NUG ensures a particular zeal on behalf of the NUG to carry on such projects. The NUG has openly stated its dedication to the continuation of water management projects, and their determination was highlighted by their response to a recent attempt by Iran to criticise the projects.

Water management projects in Afghanistan such as the Salma Dam and the Kamal Khan Dam are seen as an important part of Afghan redevelopment. Power outages in Herat City, close to the Iranian border, as a result of insufficient electricity produced in Afghanistan only serves to highlight Afghanistan’s weak infrastructure. However, the projects continue to be accompanied by significant risk in the form of a Taliban insurgency which is partly funded by Iran in return for targeting such projects. Water management project’s importance is by no means lost on the Afghan NUG, and their determination to continue with such projects in the face of Taliban resistance provides investors with a sense of security in a highly insecure country. However, the strength of the Taliban (particularly in Southern Afghanistan) and the consequent threat they pose should not be taken lightly. To conclude, as long as Iran feels threatened by Afghan water management, and the post-2001 Taliban are willing to accept Iran’s funding, water management projects are at significant risk.