Exploring the Sources of Tension at the Afghan-Iran Border

By: Shujauddin Amini

Since the Taliban‘s reinstatement, there have been numerous clashes between the border guards of the Taliban and Iran. On May 27, 2023, a skirmish occurred between the two sides at the Nimroz border, reportedly resulting in two Iranian and one Taliban border guard being killed. Both Iranian authorities and the Taliban have accused each other of triggering the conflict. To gain clarity on this issue, it is important to consider what factors lead to the border conflict between Iran and the Taliban. The following factors appear to contribute to this:

The Influx of Immigrants to Iran

Iran is concerned about the influx of Afghan nationals into its territory. It is estimated that there are currently around seven million Afghan refugees residing in Iran, which has been exacerbated by the return of the Taliban to power. According to the given statistics, from mid1400 onwards, approximately 4,000 Afghan citizens have been illegally crossing the borders into Iran daily, showing multiple times increases compared to the past. The illegal movement of immigrants at the borders and the persistence of this process have caused Iranian border guards to take a more stringent approach.

Reports have been published numerous times regarding the inappropriate behavior of Iranian border guards towards immigrants, as well as the intentional or arbitrary killing of them. Such occurrences can become the foundation for conflict between the two sides when faced with the Taliban‘s reaction. For instance, when I was crossing the border from Islam Qala into Iran, the Taliban blocked the border for a day due to the Iranian border guards having acted inappropriately towards an Afghan immigrant.

Taliban’s Unfamiliarity with Border Protocols

Border guarding is a critical and hazardous task, necessitating certain protocols and methods. Taliban border guards have spent a considerable portion of their lives in the mountains. Their most trusted companion is their weapon and they are illiterate, not to mention ignorant of the protocols and methods of border guarding, which is a fundamental pillar of government. If an issue arises at the border, the Taliban border guards prefer to resolve it through armed conflict rather than dialogue. In other words, they prefer to use complex means to solve a straightforward problem. The Taliban believe that the more they intimidate their neighbors, the better they can protect Afghanistan.

Abolfazl Shakiba, an Iranian writer and filmmaker, expressed his view of the Taliban‘s unfamiliarity with border guarding techniques during his trip to Afghanistan, noting thatit was surprising that after crossing the zero border and entering Afghanistan, there were no agents for guidance and control. One could even enter without receiving the entrance stamp and pass without any control. We showed the passports to the person who was stamping them, but he neglected them. It was as if he was only an agent for stamping, seeming like a robot. Without looking at the passports and people‘s faces, he put his seal on the passports.” This point demonstrates that the lack of Taliban knowledge about the border could be one of the factors of the conflict.

Taliban Border Guards’ Willingness to Fight

The Taliban have a deepseated thirst for war, having been immersed in it since their inception. War is one of their basic needs, just as food and water are for other living creatures. When they took power, the world and the people of Afghanistan expected them to lay down their weapons and return to civil life, but this did not happen, instead reviving the grim memory of their first rule. Rather than considering dialogue with their opposing forces, the Taliban focus on suppressing and eliminating them, and in the most optimistic case, their surrender. For example, one of the Taliban commanders stated in the media:My troops miss the war. Many of my fighters are worried that they have lost the chance of martyrdom during the war. I console them by saying there is still a chance to be martyred.” The Taliban‘s belligerent attitude, coupled with their antiIranian sentiments, has led to inevitable border conflict between the two. This is further evidenced by the slogans, chants, and songs that are circulated among the Taliban supporters against Iran in cyberspace, as well as the killing of 11 Iranian diplomats during the Taliban‘s first rule over Afghanistan.

Public Sentiment Divides

It is clear that the Taliban have failed in their governance of Afghanistan, as poverty and oppression are widespread, women‘s and human rights are being violated on an unprecedented scale, dissenting voices are being silenced and imprisoned, and kangaroo courts are in operation. To cover up their failures, the Taliban have resorted to creating enemies and causing chaos.

Recently, there was a conflict between Afghanistan and Pakistan on the borders, which was thought to be a result of an antiPakistan sentiment among the Afghan people, used to gain internal legitimacy. Similarly, disputes with Iran have been initiated in an attempt to gain public support and suppress any internal dissent. Failed governments often use war with a fabricated enemy as a means of concealing their shortcomings.

Proxy War

Countries with strong military and economic capabilities may launch proxy wars. The power behind the war does not directly engage in battle, but instead delegates responsibility to its dependent force. In the border conflicts between Iran and the Taliban, there is a hypothesis that Iran‘s rivals in the region and in the world are using the Taliban to launch a proxy war against the country. Iranian officials have stated that, in the last years of their presence in Afghanistan, the Americans had come to the conclusion that its regional rivals, including Iran, had gained more from the twenty years of relative stability in the country than the United States. This has led Iran‘s rulers to believe that the United States has provided the Taliban with military weapons to destabilize the country and, at best, to ignite a religious war on Iran‘s eastern borders.

It can be concluded that Iran has shown more restraint than the Taliban in the border conflicts between them. Iran has not responded in kind to the Taliban‘s provocative actions, and has instead sought to maintain stability in the eastern borders. This is evidenced by Iran‘s increased efforts in this area following the United States withdrawal from Afghanistan, suggesting that Iran is not looking to create contention in the borders it wishes to secure.