The HRC and dominance rivalry: competition for survival, power, and self-interest

The purpose of this section is to illustrate how the struggle for power and self-interest—largely of non-riparian states—overshadows water diplomacy in the basin. The section focuses primarily on analyzing the geopolitical nature and roles of outsiders, and their foreign policies toward Afghanistan.

Geopolitical competition in Afghanistan has been dominated by the strategic rivalry and confrontation between superpowers, namely the British and Russian Empires and later the United States versus the USSR. Regional powers have also become enmeshed in the competition over “influence, power, hegemony and profits.”41 As a result, this anarchic setting has led all involved parties, including Iran and Afghanistan, to compete for power and self-interest in a way that protects their survival.42 This seemingly unbreakable cycle arguably casts a dark shadow over all economic and social developments in the basin and favors the interests and security of the outsiders, who have pursued different strategies for ruling Afghanistan.

Within the nature of the Great Game, the strategies of the outsiders have highly politicized and securitized water, in line with their own geopolitical interests,43 and therefore hindered water conflict transformation. Not surprisingly, for instance, almost all of the legal arrangements between Iran and Afghanistan over the Helmand River have been negotiated with the support of superpowers. Such was the case with the British-instituted Goldsmith and McMahon arbitrations of 1872 and 1905 respectively. These were followed by the US-proposed

Delta Commission of 1951, and, finally, the 1973 treaty. All of these initiatives, and, in particular, the earlier ones, have been described as “the force of dictat” being applied to a local issue as a “bulwark” against Czarist or Russian expansion.44 Indeed, during the Cold War the US government considered the conflict between Iran and Afghanistan over the Helmand River as a political opportunity to bring the countries under its influence in order to protect its broader geopolitical interests in the region, and protect its security against the threat of the USSR. This hegemonic strategy is illustrated by the following 1947 statement by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA):

The United States and Great Britain are keenly aware of this Soviet interest, which may threaten the strong traditional British influence in Afghanistan and adjacent areas. It is an important part of American policy in the Middle East that no state in the area shall have its independence and integrity endangered and that American influence be maintained and strengthened wherever possible. A dispute such as the one between Iran and Afghanistan over the Helmand River threatens this policy.45

Just as political rivalry between outside powers emerges from ideological dispositions, ranging from imperial capitalism to Marxism-Leninism, so too are water development projects influenced by competition between the power and self-interest of countries. As Arthur Schlesinger contended, “[d]ams were the American alternatives to Communist land reform.” The US policy, “wherever possible,” has therefore strategically proposed river authority schemes as solutions to the most stubborn international conflicts, such as in Palestine and Kashmir. An example can be seen in the case of the Helmand and Arghandab Valley Authority (HAVA) in Afghanistan, which was established in 1952. HAVA was regarded by the US government as a means to “create a secure political base [against the US’s rival, the USSR].”46 Thus, the process of signing (or perhaps being forced to sign) the peace agreement over shared waters, the 1973 Helmand River Water Treaty, should be seen through this lens of geopolitical imperialist rivalry among the superpowers of that moment. This is well demonstrated by Asadollah Alam in maintaining that Americans forced the Iranian regime at the time to compromise and provide incentives to Afghanistan over the Helmand waters in order to control growing Soviet influence within the latter country.47 Therefore, it is expected that not only the riparian states’ rights to water but also the sustainability of water management within the whole basin, would be sacrificed in favor of superpowers’ geopolitical interests.

This influence of outsiders is still exemplified in the 2017 “US Global Water Strategy,” which refers to water as at the core of the US foreign policy agenda in Afghanistan, with the aim of protecting “US national interests.”48 This kind of foreign policy agenda and intervention by outsiders over the longer term, creates what Alfred McCoy49 calls, a “black hole” of geopolitical instability. Similarly, the 2011 NATO report to the UN secretary-general concerning the construction of the Kamal Khan dam calls for “transnational water agreements.”50

This demonstrates how outside powers have highly politicized water development in Afghanistan, potentially at the risk of threatening long-term sustainable and equitable cooperation between the riparian states. This does not mean that national interests and the agreements or differences between Iran and Afghanistan over the Helmand River are without value, power, and influence, but the reality is that anarchy, and geopolitical rivalry, have severely overshadowed the priorities of the riparian states and led them to strategically focus on power, security, and self-interest for their survival, at least in the period of geopolitical vulnerability.

Thus, on the one hand, within the vulnerable political situation in Afghanistan, the government views development over water resources as a strategic resource, a symbol of nation-building, and a way of monopolizing power against its national rivals. On the other hand, within an anarchic geopolitical context, water-related projects are not solely for socioeconomic development but rather for geopolitical reasons that serve the security interests of all the actors involved. In turn, this situation has seriously impacted water diplomacy. Although there might not now be clear evidence to trace the interventions of outsiders in the water diplomacy of the HRB, the shadow of the outsiders’ past politics has its impact on the respective discourses, behavior, and the atmosphere of negotiations within the HRC.

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