The Scariest Little Corner Of The World Joël Van Houdt For The New York Times [Where Iran Pakistan And Afghnistans Border Meet In Balochistan]

Iranian agents” had placed or arranged for the placement of the land mine that killed the two Baluchi drivers and injured Gulbadeen.

On the southern outskirts of the city Zaranj, where the last derelict shanties meet an endless, vacant country – beige desert and beige sky, whipped together into a single coalescing haze by the accurately named Wind of 120 Days – there is a place called Ganj: a kind of way station for Afghan migrants trying to reach Iran. Every day except Friday, a little before 2 in the afternoon, hundreds of them gather. Squatting along a metal fence, Hazaras, Tajiks, Pashtuns, Uzbeks and Baluchis from all corners of the country watch the local drivers move through a fleet of dilapidated pickups – raising hoods, inspecting dipsticks. A few hope to continue on to Turkey, Greece and ultimately Western Europe. Most harbor humbler dreams: of living illegally in Iran, of becoming bricklayers, construction laborers, factory workers or farmhands. When one of the drivers announces he is ready to go, as many as 20 migrants pile into the back. The leaf springs flex; the bumper nearly kisses the ground. Arms and legs spill over the sides. Finally, apprehension gives way to expectation, and a few men laugh and wave goodbye.

Gulbadeen, injured in the land-mine attack on the truck, at the bus station in Zaranj.
Two days before I first visited Ganj, early this September, one such pickup, speeding south through the desert toward the lawless border region of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran, struck a freshly planted land mine that killed the two smugglers in its cab and sent airborne its human cargo like firewood or fruit. My interpreter and I happened to be walking by the provincial hospital, in downtown Zaranj, shortly after the victims were admitted. At the front gate, a young orderly viciously punched a man trying to enter the premises on his motorcycle. With his feet firmly planted on the ground, the man on the motorcycle revved his engine, spinning the back tire in place and churning up a thick cloud of dust even as the orderly continued to assail his head and face. The man on the motorcycle, it turned out, was a relative of one of the dead smugglers, and in his grief, he appeared almost to welcome the blows.

Zaranj is the capital of Nimruz – by many measures the most isolated province in Afghanistan, at the remotest southwest corner of the country – and the hospital’s resources were predictably limited. Most of the survivors had been advised to get themselves to Herat, some 300 miles north, where doctors would be better equipped to help them. For all the billions of dollars that have been invested over the past decade, parts of Afghanistan remain beyond the reach of Western influence. While neighboring Helmand Province has represented the epicenter of counterinsurgency efforts, Nimruz feels like a different country altogether. There are no coalition troops or Afghan soldiers or foreign NGO workers. Instead, the Afghans have been left to find their own way – and fight their own wars. We hailed a rickshaw and headed to a bus stop outside town. There we found a man in his early 20s slouched against the wall of a small store. His shirt and pants were darkly soaked with blood. A bandage was wrapped around his head. A kinked tube ran from his arm to an IV bag tied to a door handle with a loose piece of gauze. His name was Gulbadeen. He told us there had been 10 other men in the truck from his village in Faryab Province, each of whom was determined to try again. Gulbadeen himself sneaked into Iran three years earlier, working as a laborer, sending money home, until he was deported last winter. “I’m done,” he said. “I can’t do this another time.”

In Ganj, no one wanted to talk about the episode. Clearly the local drivers did not appreciate my bringing it up with their prospective customers. The longer we lingered, the tenser the atmosphere became. An old man with a missing finger pulled me aside and admonished: “Our life depends on this smuggling business. If this ends, we will have nothing. There’s no other work here. I advise you to leave this place.” Eyeing me appraisingly, he added: “Be careful. You would be worth a lot of money.”

One reason for the hostility, no doubt, was that the people-smuggling business in Nimruz was suffering. Until recently, Zaranj profited immensely from the tens of thousands of Afghans, displaced by war and poverty, who emigrate west each year. The border is only a 10-minute drive from downtown, where more than 150 hotels, owned by local smugglers, once catered exclusively to a steady flow of migrants crossing the open desert into Iran. In those days, you could walk up to a checkpoint, pay a bribe and get into a car, Tehran-bound. The highly efficient system was administered by the Baluchis: a small ethnic minority who remained united through a distinct language and culture long after their homeland was divided among three often-rivalrous nations. Indeed, the Baluchis from each of those nations had become adept at working together to ferry from one country to another, and sometimes to another, humans, goods, drugs, fuel, weapons and – especially since the recent collapse of the Iranian rial – currency.

A few years ago, Iran designated the province that borders Nimruz a “no go” area for foreign residents and shortly thereafter began erecting a 15-foot-high concrete wall that now runs more than half the length of its 147-mile border with Nimruz. The Iranian border police – manning guard towers, each within sight of the next – were also said to have changed. There came increasing reports of Afghans being shot and killed by the same authorities who once benignly waved them through. While most of these stories are unverified, they nevertheless reinforced a growing sense that the old road to a new life was now closed. Today migrants who come to Nimruz must travel another 10 hours south into Pakistan, then cross from there into Iran. The journey consists of three legs. Afghan-Baluchi smugglers take you part of the way; Pakistani-Baluchi smugglers take you a littler farther; Iranian-Baluchi smugglers finish the job. For the first stretch – a narrow dirt road through uninhabitable, lunar flatland – roughly 300 drivers share a rotating schedule, each working one day a month. These were the men preparing to depart from Ganj, bristling at my questions about the bomb.

Before I left, I followed a group of young Hazaras down an alley to another lot where still more trucks were being loaded with people. As I rounded the corner a man cried out: “Watch this guy! Get away from him! Watch out!” It was the second time in less than a week I was mistaken for a suicide attacker – a uniquely unpleasant sensation that I had not experienced anywhere else in Afghanistan. The misunderstanding arose from a combination of two factors, I think: the extreme paucity of foreigners who had ever been to the city and the extreme degree, even by Afghan standards, of paranoia and suspicion that pervaded it. Residents of Zaranj spoke obliquely and in low tones, always on the lookout for passers-by, forgoing words whenever meaningful grins or nods sufficed. At times, the aura of mistrust felt histrionic, and it was often tough to tell when the furtive whispers or emphatic pleas for anonymity were necessary and when they were affected. You had the sense everyone fancied himself an operator; you also knew that some of them probably were. The second person I met in Nimruz – a commander with the National Directorate of Security, Afghanistan’s intelligence service – told me a few hours after I arrived: “There is one person here whom you absolutely cannot trust. He is in the pocket of Iran. You must be very careful with this man and do whatever you can to avoid him.” The man the commander named was a senior official in the provincial government and the only other person I had met there so far.

Iran looms just as large over western Afghanistan as Pakistan does over the east – and nowhere is this more keenly felt than in Zaranj, where the land beyond the wall can represent anything from benevolent neighbor to malicious oppressor. But while Pakistan’s machinations in Afghanistan often feel obvious, Iran’s have proved far harder to discern. Everyone I spoke to in Nimruz, for example – provincial officials, smugglers, police, border guards – insisted that “Iranian agents” had placed or arranged for the placement of the land mine that killed the two Baluchi drivers and injured Gulbadeen. As for why, each source offered a different theory – usually in a hushed voice, after glancing to the left and right.

If nerves were especially raw when I visited Zaranj, it was because two weeks earlier an extraordinary spectacle of violence seemed to justify even the most paranoid anxieties. On Aug. 13, a few days before Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, the police were on heightened alert after receiving intelligence that an attack against government targets might be imminent. When a white Toyota Corolla station wagon approached the checkpoint on its way into the city, the officers on duty motioned for it to stop. A bearded man in the passenger seat produced a handgun and shot at them. The station wagon accelerated toward the city center, and the officers gave chase. After several rounds shattered the station wagon’s rear window, its driver lost control and smashed into a wall. When the driver and the passenger stumbled out and tried to run away, the officers opened fire, killing them both.

Inside the car, police discovered explosives, remote controls, timers, grenades and a suicide vest. The passenger was identified as an Iranian who moved to Zaranj some months earlier and opened a small stand that sold snacks and soft drinks. He went by the name Mullah Satar. That night the police cordoned off the neighborhood where Satar seemed to have been heading, and in the morning they conducted a thorough search of it. In one house, three young Iranian men were found in possession of more suicide vests and remote-controlled explosives. According to the police, the men confessed that Satar was their leader and that they had been planning to carry out a massive, coordinated assault later that day. There were seven additional attackers still at large somewhere in the city, they said, though they didn’t know where.

At this point, the security chief for Nimruz Province, Majeed Latifi – a meticulous and gentle-mannered man who reminded me more of a clerk than of a colonel – thought to text the remaining plotters from Satar’s cellphone. One of them promptly replied that they were hungry, could Satar bring them something to eat? When Latifi suggested they meet at a familiar crossroads, the attackers balked. They must have smelled a rat. Later, the three detainees would explain that no one knew what their targets were going to be – that Satar had not planned to reveal the specifics of the operation until the last possible moment, when it came time to walk out the door, toward their fates. Realizing that this revelation was now unlikely ever to arrive, the aspiring martyrs must have panicked. Certainly, what they did next suggests that they panicked. They strapped on suicide vests in a hurry, without bothering to conceal them underneath their clothes, then stalked into the city, wielding pistols and hand grenades.

Latifi was at headquarters when he heard the first explosions. Across town a pair of suicide bombers had managed to detonate themselves outside a government fuel station, destroying a police truck and injuring several officers. Latifi headed that way. While en route, the colonel noticed – on a narrow lane behind the governor’s compound – a tall, thin man who appeared lost. Suddenly, the man raised a pistol and fired toward Latifi’s truck. Latifi kept going, instructing one of his commanders, Col. Abdullah Shiranzai, to return to the governor’s compound and deal with the man.

When Shiranzai, with four of his men, reached the lane where the man was still wandering, they parked more than a block away and pointed their rifles at him. “He had a wild look in his eyes,” Shiranzai told me. “We understood from the way he was pacing, and from the expression on his face, that he was really feeling crazy.” After a brief exchange of fire, the attacker scaled a wall, then leapt onto the roof of a house. From there he shot with reckless imprecision at the officers. When he threw a hand grenade at them, it landed and rolled harmlessly down the street. He had neglected to pull the pin. Eventually, the attacker jumped from the roof into the backyard, where an officer shot him in the head. Later Shiranzai told me: “Something I’ve been surprised to learn is that these men, who are planning to blow themselves up, always become frightened when you open fire on them. As soon as the shooting starts, the suicider runs and hides. He doesn’t want to be shot. He is here to die, but he is scared of bullets. It’s strange.”

After the first explosions, the chief of the fire brigade, Mohammad Zahir, rushed toward the garage where he kept his trucks and water tankers. On the way, he stopped at his house, where his 25-year-old son – a police officer named Gulam Rooz – was enjoying a day off. Zahir told Rooz to go to the fuel station and see if he could help. At the station, Rooz found wounded officers lying on the ground, loaded them into his car and took off for the provincial hospital.

The hospital sits in the heart of Zaranj, opposite a long row of shops, pharmacies, restaurants and hotels. The street itself accommodates a hectic bazaar, crowded with stalls and stands hawking all manner of merchandise. Money-changers wave colorful wads of Pakistani rupees and Iranian rials; cooks skewer lamb and chicken over glowing coals; rickshaws come and go; beggars beg; children push wheelbarrows full of dried apricots and dates, sell packs of gum, chase other children through the throng. When Rooz reached the hospital, the melee outside its gates it was particularly frenzied. It was approximately 3 in the afternoon, and everyone in Zaranj, it seemed, was buying groceries for the coming Eid.

Rooz delivered the injured men to the emergency room, then walked back out to the street where a police truck was arriving with more victims. The bazaar was so crowded that one of the officers had to get out and fire his rifle several times into the air in an effort to clear a path. The swarm of bodies parted slightly.

Back at the garage, Mohammad Zahir was still preparing his men and trucks to respond to the first blasts when he heard another one. A few seconds later, Latifi called him on his cellphone and told him to get to the hospital.

A bomber had detonated himself in the middle of the bazaar. The blast alone would have ripped apart the dense mass of shoppers, sellers and kids, but what made it especially devastating was the closely set layer of ball bearings glued on the outside of the vest. The force of the explosion propelled the small steel pellets in every direction, and they pierced whatever thing or person stood in their trajectory. When Zahir arrived at the bazaar, the sky was dark with pulverized matter. Flames flashed in the dust. An electrical line had fallen; a transformer burned. Zahir saw that the ground was littered with bodies and debris. He was directing a stream of water from a hose toward a ruined storefront when he spotted his son, Gulam Rooz. “I had no time to tend to his body,” Zahir told me. “I had to ask someone else to take care of it while I finished putting out the fires. He was riddled with ball bearings. I still have his shirt. It’s full of holes.”

Soon police officers killed the last of the suicide attackers, not far from the hospital. (One of the seven men named by the three detainees presumably fled Zaranj when he learned that Satar had been killed; to date he has not been found.) Altogether 34 civilians and four police officers died. More than 200 people were wounded. It was by far the deadliest day in Nimruz Province since 2001, and one of the deadliest of the war. 

Every official I spoke to in Nimruz identified each of the attackers who were killed or captured as Iranian Baluchis. “They were all recruited at the same mosque in Zahedan,” Colonel Latifi told me. Zahedan is the capital of Sistan-Baluchestan, the Iranian province that borders Nimruz and Pakistan, and one of the poorest, least developed and most unstable parts of Iran. The mosque, according to Latifi, was similar to some madrassas in Pakistan that promote an extreme Islamist ideology and groom budding jihadists for deployment in Afghanistan. It was “sponsored,” Latifi said, by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.

With the exception of Mullah Satar, who was in his mid-30s, the attackers were all extremely young, ranging in age between 16 and 21. “They told us members of the Revolutionary Guards selected them for this mission,” Latifi said. From Zahedan, they were sent to Baramcha, a town in southern Helmand Province, near the Pakistani border, described by NATO as “a Taliban command-and-control area that consists of narcotics trafficking, weapons and ammunition storage, improvised-explosive-device factories and foreign fighter training.” Their schooling complete, they traveled to Zaranj disguised as women, wearing traditional blue burqas. It was there that they met up with Mullah Satar. “They were brainwashed,” Latifi said. “They were convinced that everyone in the Afghan government was an infidel and that jihad was an obligation.”

If the Revolutionary Guards were indeed behind the mayhem in Zaranj, Latifi’s assertion that all of the attackers were Iranian Baluchis is puzzling. The relationship between the Baluchis of Iran, who are mostly Sunni, and Iran’s Shiite regime has always been fraught. For decades, the Baluchis have endured repressive policies and state-sanctioned discrimination, and they make up the ranks of a violent insurgency, most notably under the banner of Jundallah, a terrorist organization once suspected of having ties to Al Qaeda that has launched numerous strikes against the Revolutionary Guards. That the Revolutionary Guards would recruit an all-Baluchi team to carry out an operation against the government of Afghanistan might highlight the complexities of a region where today’s enemies can become tomorrow’s allies, or vice versa. Alternately, it simply might not be the case. It’s entirely possible that the attackers were regular Taliban without any ties to Iran – that the scenario Latifi and others laid out for me was, essentially, anti-Iranian propaganda.

The most compelling explanation I have heard for the unlikely marriage of Baluchi terrorists and the Revolutionary Guards is also the most disturbing and most cynical: perhaps the Revolutionary Guards intended not only to orchestrate an attack but also, simultaneously, to vilify the attackers. As one prominent Baluchi elder from Nimruz, speaking on condition of anonymity, told me: “By using only Baluchi men, not only does it make it easier for the Iranians to deny that they were involved. It also taints the reputation of the Baluchi community in Iran.”

The day after the bombings, Latifi showed his three detainees photos of some of the dead women and children from the bazaar. One of the young men turned away, then collapsed in convulsive sobs. Another, who was maybe 16, stared at the pictures, stone-faced. Eventually, he looked up and asked Latifi to kill him.

During the 1990s, Iran unequivocally opposed the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. In 1998, the Taliban’s massacre of thousands of Shiites, as well as of nine Iranian diplomats in the northern Afghan city Mazar-i-Sharif, brought the two countries to the brink of war. In Nimruz, the Revolutionary Guards supported one of the only anti-Taliban resistance movements in western Afghanistan that was able to continue fighting the regime until 2001. The Nimruz Front, as it was known, was led by Abdul Karim Brahui, who, when I visited the province, was serving as its governor.

With his slouching posture and narrow eyes – which seem always on the verge of closing, even midsentence, for a long, deep sleep – Brahui is a quiet leader in the most literal sense. He does not talk so much as utter – so softly that you must often ask him to repeat himself. Brahui was born, raised and fought the Russians in Chahar Burjak, a district in the south of Nimruz: the same hard country smugglers and migrants must traverse to get to Pakistan. Chahar Burjak is naturally suited for military defense – but not in the usual way. Unlike other rebel strongholds, like the Panjshir Valley, whose long bottleneck canyon of an entrance confounded Soviet and Taliban forces alike, Chahar Burjak’s impenetrability arises from its absence of significant terrain. Its openness is its protection. “Out there, a car or a person walking can be seen from miles away,” Brahui told me. “The Russians could not attack us because whenever they approached, we could see them in the big desert from a distance.”

When the Taliban expanded from Kandahar, Brahui consolidated his Baluchi fighters, once again, in Chahar Burjak. Eventually, most of western Afghanistan fell to the Taliban. But southern Nimruz remained in Brahui’s hands. “We were a mobile group,” Brahui said. “We had our vehicles, and we kept everything in them – our water, our food, our weapons. We kept moving. Our base was our legs.” As the Taliban crushed one resistance movement after another, rebel commanders from nearby provinces fled to Chahar Burjak and joined with Brahui. Then, in 1999, Ismail Khan, the former mujahedeen leader, managed to escape, with the help of one of his guards, from Kandahar’s Sarposa Prison, where the Taliban had held him for more than two years. According to Brahui, Ismail Khan and the Talib guard headed west in an armored Land Cruiser for Nimruz. Ten days earlier, Brahui led an ambush against a group of Taliban fighters outside Zaranj; on his way back to Chahar Burjak, he buried a land mine in the road for any would-be pursuers. Ismail Khan, en route to see Brahui, suffered the misfortune of hitting the mine. The explosion destroyed the Land Rover, fracturing Ismail Khan’s leg. “One of my men came by motorbike and told me what had happened,” Brahui recounted with a hearty laugh. “It was my mine that had almost killed Ismail Khan!”

In the end, Brahui was able to get both Ismail Khan and his guard across the border, where they were treated for their injuries and offered safe haven. The Iranians continued to give Brahui weapons and access to Iranian hospitals until 2001, and in the wake of 9/11, Iran supported the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan. Since the Taliban’s collapse, Iran has pledged more than half a billion dollars toward the country’s reconstruction. No one has ever believed that Iran desires a Taliban return to power.

And yet, most experts agree that Iran aids the Taliban insurgency. Iranian-made weapons and explosives have been turning up in Afghanistan since at least 2007, and in July, The Wall Street Journal reported that the Taliban had opened an office in the Iranian city of Zahedan, the capital of Sistan-Baluchestan. More troubling, intercepted communications, according to The Journal, revealed that the Revolutionary Guards were considering sending surface-to-air missiles to insurgents inside Afghanistan. (In a written response to my questions, the Iranian Embassy in Kabul replied: “The Islamic Republic of Iran does not have any relationship with the Taliban. These are rumors spread by the enemies of Afghanistan to damage its relationship with Iran.”)

Iran’s “double game” in Afghanistan – as former Defense Secretary Robert Gates has called it – reflects its conflicting interests: a desire to see a stable, non-Sunni-fundamentalist government on its eastern flank combined with a deep enmity toward the United States. Early on, Iran had the potential to be a useful American ally in Afghanistan. But the ascendancy of Iran’s anti-Western conservative movement, coinciding with a pattern of severe diplomacy from Washington – beginning with George W. Bush’s “axis of evil” designation and continuing through the current sanctions over Iran’s nuclear program – has rendered America’s presence on its doorstep increasingly odious. In May, when Barack Obama and Hamid Karzai signed an agreement that allows for American troops to stay in Afghanistan beyond 2014, Iran’s foreign ministry warned that the pact “will intensify insecurity and instability in Afghanistan.” Then, last month, the head of the Revolutionary Guards’ aerospace division promised that Iran’s response to an Israeli strike against its nuclear facilities would include attacks on American bases in Afghanistan and the Middle East. “There will be no neutral country in the region,” he told a state-run television station. “To us, these bases are equal to U.S. soil.”

But in a boondocks like this part of Nimruz, where there are no American bases, it feels like a stretch to ascribe to geopolitics an attack like the one on Aug. 14. In fact, in Zaranj itself, most people will tell you that Iranian meddling in their part of Afghanistan arises from a local rather than global concern – one with the immediacy of life and death.

Early one morning, I was picked up outside my guesthouse in Zaranj by Haji Mahiyadeen, a local police commander who had agreed to take me to the Kamal Khan Dam, some 50 miles south of the city. When he showed up with three 4-by-4 trucks carrying more than a dozen heavily armed men, Mahiyadeen seemed to register my surprise and explained that the dam was a major target for “Iranian terrorists.” The land mine that recently killed the two smugglers bringing Gulbadeen and his fellow migrants from Ganj, for example, was on the same road we’d be traveling.

Mahiyadeen was not the first person to cite the Kamal Khan Dam as the chief source of animosity between Nimruz and Iran. “Iran does not want this project to be completed,” Colonel Latifi had told me, echoing a refrain I heard again and again in Zaranj. “Which is why it is trying to create instability here,” he added. “The kind of attacks like we had here are 100 percent connected to the dam.”

Built as early as the 11th century by an unknown but industrious and visionary ruler, with baked bricks and an ancient lime mortar, the Kamal Khan Dam supplied for hundreds of years a complex canal system that irrigated what was then fertile wheat-and-barley country. But in the late 1300s, when some typically recalcitrant Baluchis welcomed his arrival with less-than-open arms, the Turkic conqueror Tamerlane punished Nimruz by destroying Kamal Khan. It was not until the early 1970s that President Sardar Muhammad Daoud Khan set about rebuilding it. Then Daoud was ousted in a coup, and the ensuing decades of Soviet occupation and civil war made resuming the project impractical. Only last year did the Afghan government hire a Tajik contractor to pick up where Daoud left off. The enterprise is impressive – the final cost will be around $100 million – and I was told repeatedly that to appreciate its scale, I had to see the dam for myself.

After driving for more than an hour through tall sand dunes that the incessant winds shift from place to place, during which time the sole sign of life we encountered was a pale bird elegantly lifting off the horizon (inducing Mahiyadeen to halt the convoy, jump out and try to kill it with his AK-47), we entered a narrow gully with steep rock walls where Mahiyadeen stopped and looked around and said: “This is where I was ambushed last year. I was supposed to be bringing some of the Tajik contractors from Zaranj, but they canceled at the last second.” In the gully, Mahiyadeen went on, the Taliban opened up on him with small arms and a rocket-propelled grenade, setting his vehicle alight moments before he escaped through the passenger door. “They were all killed when they fled into the desert,” he said with a smile. “There’s nowhere for them to hide out there. We know every rock.”

Eventually we arrived at a long lane of freshly painted buildings. Climbing onto a roof, we looked southward upon miles and miles of open space receding to gray bluffs that rose, heat-distorted, just within the eye’s outermost reach. Below us, a low earthen dike, with a wide gap that let the Helmand River through, extended east and west, eventually curving to link up with the bluffs. Later I would learn that once the gap was sealed, it would take one rainy season, maybe two, to transform all that desert into lake.

That is not expected to happen for at least another four years. First the dike must be reinforced, a control gate must be built, three turbines and a power station must be installed and hundreds of miles of canals must be dug. When all of that is finished – if all of that is ever finished – an expected 13 billion gallons of water will irrigate more than 300 square miles of newly created farmland.

Officials in Zaranj claim this prospect is anathema to the Iranians because it will minimize Nimruz’s reliance on them. But there is another reason for the Iranians to be anxious – one that Afghans never mention. The dam will completely block the Helmand River, well upstream from where it disburses into the region’s largest freshwater lakes and wetlands, the Hamouns, which extend deep into Iran’s Sistan-Baluchestan. These inland deltas and marshes once were home to otters, fox, deer, flamingos, pelicans and leopards, and the Hamoun Lakes have been the lifeblood of the hundreds of thousands of Iranians who have depended on them for millenniums. Years of drought beginning in 1999, however, annihilated the Hamouns, desiccating the lakes, displacing communities and turning once-fecund sanctuaries into sterile salt flats.

Since 2005, the Hamouns have shown signs of a fragile recovery. But a reduction in the flow of water from Afghanistan could be disastrous. The Afghans say they will allow an average of 7,000 gallons of water per second through the dam, down the Helmand. According to an international environmental expert who has studied the issue and asked to remain anonymous, this volume is grossly insufficient for the Hamouns, amounting to less than a quarter of what is normally required to sustain the ecosystem, let alone the irrigation and drinking-water needs of the Iranians. The Kamal Khan Dam, if built as planned, will “quite likely spell the death of the Hamouns,” the expert told me.

It is somewhat curious that people in Nimruz, who are so eager to cut Iran’s water supply, unfailingly characterize themselves as victims. Currently, the Iranians draw water from three canals that branch off the stretch of the Helmand River shared by both countries. One of these empties into a system of reservoirs that the Afghans in Nimruz like to say contain enough drinking water to sustain all of Sistan-Baluchestan for a decade. Somehow, Iran’s foresight and success at storing so much water is considered terribly unfair, despite the fact that in Afghanistan yet another canal – the Lashkari – diverts every drop of the Helmand River (except during the early spring, when it floods) directly to Zaranj before it even reaches the border.

In 2001, when Abdul Karim Brahui became the governor of Nimruz in the midst of one of the region’s worst droughts in history, the Lashkari Canal and the Helmand River both ran dry. Brahui found it necessary to ask the Iranians for help. Iran, in turn, installed a pipe connecting its reservoirs to Zaranj and agreed to deliver three hours of freshwater every morning, gratis. Today, although the pipe still flows, most Afghans resent it. The volume is insufficient, they say, just enough to breed dependency. While the water from Iranian reservoirs is significantly cleaner than the murky Lashkari, it serves only about 10 percent of the Zaranj; the rest of the city receives its water from small tanker trucks that fill up on the dirt banks of the canal, sometimes downstream from bathing migrants. I found that you could gauge people’s general attitude toward Iran by how big they said the pipe was: an especially embittered official would swear its diameter measured no more than a couple of inches, whereas a frequenter of Iranian medical facilities, say, might call it a four-inch pipe.

One morning I walked to one of the five places in Zaranj where the water pours forcefully from thick black hoses attached to a row of outdoor faucets from 5 a.m. to 8 a.m. We arrived around 6:30, and the fracas was well under way. Mostly young children crowded around, jostling for position, filling the four yellow jugs, 20 liters each, allotted per family. Across the street, an old man in a turban with a voluminous white beard stood outside his shop and barked admonishments. His name was Jan Agha, and he was responsible for maintaining order at the hoses. “If he weren’t here, we’d eat each other,” a younger man, loading jugs into a rickshaw, told me.

There was a separate distaff hose, and after a while, I noticed that one of the women seemed to be hogging it. The others were clearly annoyed – but they stood meekly by, watching her fill jug after jug, not protesting. “That’s Shinkhalo,” the man with the rickshaw told me, as if no more need be said. Then he turned to Agha and pointed out that Shinkhalo was taking more than her fair share.

“Yesterday she bit a man,” Agha replied. “If you want to try to take that hose from her, go ahead.” He added: “Every day she says there’s a dead body at her house that needs washing. For more than a month she’s been saying that! How does she have any family left?”

As 8 o’clock approached the jostling intensified. One kid smacked another in the face, making him cry; a teenager snatched a hose from a younger boy, who screamed and yelled while the teenager laughed. Stroking his beard with serene equanimity, Agha seemed reconciled to waiting out the clock. But then a police truck appeared, executed a sharp two-point turn and backed up through the middle of the crowd. The bed of the truck was packed with dozens of yellow jugs; two officers aggressively jumped out, requisitioned the hoses and began filling them. No one objected except for Agha, who bellowed: “You have no shame! Get out of here!”

That the Nimruz police relied on Iranian charity for their drinking water seemed weird, paradoxical. But more confusing was Agha’s irritation. It wasn’t about their cutting in line or depriving other people of their daily quota. Agha didn’t like the police coming around because he worried they might attract a suicide bomber.

“Who would want to bomb this place?” I asked.

Agha looked at me as if I were an idiot.

“The Iranians,” he said.

Taped to the walls of several of the grocery shops in Zaranj is a poster with the words “Unforgivable Crimes of Iranians Against the People of Afghanistan” printed above pictures of men with their hands tied behind their backs hanging from nooses attached to raised construction cranes. Then, a little farther down, the words “Crimes of the Revolutionary Guards” appear beside a picture of someone’s uniformed leg and black combat boot stepping triumphantly on a pile of decapitated heads. When I asked the shopkeepers about these posters, most of them shrugged and offered some variation of “A man came here and put it up.”

The supposed crimes refer to the treatment of an estimated 900,000 Afghan refugees and as many as two million undocumented Afghan migrant workers living in Iran. In recent years, as the war has ushered more and more Afghans across the border, Iran has grown correspondingly less hospitable. In 2003, Iran adopted a series of laws intended to encourage Afghan nationals to repatriate. These included cracking down on their employers, advocating their return to Afghanistan on national television and generally making it more challenging, expensive and risky to stay. This year, Iran has deported almost 700 undocumented Afghan migrants every day – about a 30 percent increase from 2011. The escalation can no doubt be attributed in part to the inevitable xenophobia of an economically beleaguered nation faced with a decades-long inundation of illegal foreign laborers. But a more calculated motive might also be at work. Some people claim that Iran uses the treatment and the threat of deportation of its Afghan refugees and migrants as leverage – sometimes explicitly, sometimes implied – against Afghanistan and the United States.

“The Afghan government lives under constant threat that Iran will ramp up its expulsion of Afghans,” says Heather Barr, the Afghanistan researcher for Human Rights Watch and author of a forthcoming report on Afghan migrants in Iran. “The Afghan government is in no position to handle a massive influx of penniless displaced families. Iran knows this and routinely uses Afghan migrants as a political football.”

One of the best places in Nimruz to meet Afghans recently deported from Iran, or on their way to Iran, or recently deported from and on their way back to Iran, is the Baba Wali, a small hotel in downtown Zaranj, on the second story of a crumbling stone building that also houses a pharmacy specializing in expired drugs from Pakistan. With a few spartan rooms (guests eat, sleep and laze on the floor, awaiting the longed-for phone call from their smuggler, telling them it’s time), the Baba Wali is something of a holdover from those bygone days when Nimruz flourished with the industry of exodus.

“I built this hotel during the time of the Taliban,” Abdul Wasi, the plump, mustachioed proprietor, told me one evening while we sat on his balcony, eye level with a cacophony of sparrows whirling around the bright yellow clumps in a nearby date palm. “At that time, lots of people were going to Iran. There were no walls, nothing.” After the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, Wasi said, “many, many people came back to Afghanistan. At this hotel, we had four waiters, and we were still unable to serve all the returning guests.” But before long the flow reversed again. “After a few years of the Karzai government,” according to Wasi, “people started going back into Iran.” Both migrations were good for business. Even after the Iranians built the wall, for a while, the Baluchi smugglers would simply take their customers to spots where the Wind of 120 Days had blown the sand against it in sloping dunes that nearly reached its top. “But then the Iranians started shooting those people,” Wasi said. “Many people were killed.” The heightened security on the Iranian-Afghan border was not, it seems, replicated on the Iranian-Pakistani border, and so Afghans started driving from Ganj to a place in Pakistan called Mashkel, where border guards still accepted bribes and still allowed Afghan migrants to cross. “Right now, there are more than a thousand people in Mashkel,” Wasi told me. “The Baluchi smugglers are waiting for a signal from the Iranians. The Iranians will tell the Baluchi smugglers in Iran, who will tell the Baluchi smugglers in Pakistan. Then they will load them into trucks and cross.”

Some still try to bypass Mashkel and enter Iran directly from Nimruz. One afternoon, on the bank of the Lashkari Canal, while eating watermelon under a fruit stand’s thatch lean-to, through which the 100-degree sun seemed to pour like water through a sieve, my interpreter and I got to talking with three young men from Kapisa Province who had just been deported from Iran. “One hundred twenty-two of us crossed together,” said the oldest, Abdul Qader Ahmadi, 20. “We were told that all the border guards had already been paid and would let us through,” added Mohammad Abdul Qader, 16. “But as soon as we crossed we were arrested.” They had met their smuggler and the rest of the group at the Baba Wali, they said. “Our smuggler was Iranian Baluchi,” Ahmadi explained. “When we reached the Iranian border post, there was no wall, just a ditch. He walked ahead and bowed and they allowed him through. He told us to wait. An hour later, the Iranians came down and pushed us into the ditch and arrested us.”

According to the young men, the group was taken to a jail on the border, where they were beaten through the night. “There was a big Afghan from Wardak Province,” Ahmadi said with a sad laugh. “He was the tallest of us. The Iranians used him like a donkey. They made him get on his knees, and they rode him all around the jail.”

Later that evening, I met more members of Ahmadi’s group, huddled together on a main street in downtown Zaranj. They all confirmed Ahmadi’s account. Some claimed the Iranians, after beating them, urinated on them. One man lifted up his kameez and showed me fresh red welts crisscrossing his back where he said Iranian border guards had lashed him with a metal cable. Several people, including the young men from Kapisa, said the Iranians shot one person in their group. But no one saw it with his own eyes. This is the trouble with many of the more serious allegations against the Iranian border guards: they are basically rumors, impossible to corroborate. “I saw two men on the bridge yesterday covered in blood!” a man outside the mosque told me one afternoon, in a typical exchange. “They said the Iranians had killed their friend.” Overhearing our conversation, a bystander chimed in, “Every night the Iranians are killing 10 to 15 Afghans who are trying to cross.” It’s not just old unemployed men with too much time on their hands who tell these stories. Everyone I talked to at the Nimruz Provincial Council also insisted that the Iranians regularly kill Afghans trying to cross the border.

“We’ve even witnessed it with our own eyes,” the council secretary, Gul Ahmad Ahmadi, assured me, though when I pressed for details he prevaricated.

Eventually I checked the registration log at the Nimruz provincial hospital, where all fatally injured Afghans, from both sides of the border, are supposed to be taken. During the past three months, only seven gunshot victims had been admitted. It was impossible to determine whether they were shot by Iranians or shot by other Afghans in unrelated altercations. Four of the seven were from provinces other than Nimruz, which means they were probably migrants.

More surprising was that a few weeks ago, according to the log, Iranian authorities sent to the hospital the bodies of three Afghan men who had been hanged.

“What did they do?” I asked the nurse who’d brought me the log.

“Drugs,” he said.

Iran has some of the severest drug laws in the world, including a mandatory death sentence for possession of more than 30 grams of heroin, morphine or methamphetamines. In cases where executions are accomplished by use of a crane, the extended arm is raised slowly, first tautening the rope, then lifting the condemned man from the ground. Whereas the drop from a gallows usually snaps the neck, giving a quick death, the crane method asphyxiates you, drawing out the event.

Afghanistan is by far the world’s biggest producer of opiates, a considerable portion of which end up in Iran. While most of the drugs coming from Afghanistan continue on to Turkey – eventually making their way to European markets – plenty never leave the country. Despite its liberal employment of capital punishment for narcotics offenses, Iran has one of the highest rates of opiate use in the world.

According to an official with the United Nations Office on Drug and Crime, who asked to remain anonymous, “a lot” of the product enters via Nimruz. “There are caravans with armed guards,” he told me. After poppies are harvested in Helmand Province, they are taken to Baramcha and refined in laboratories into opium and heroin. (Heroin synthesis cannot take place in Nimruz itself because the process requires a large and regular supply of water.) From Baramcha, the drugs travel west through the desert, straight across Chahar Burjak and into Iran. There is no wall that far south – just a deep trench that the convoys traverse by laying down steel I-beams. Nimruz has the only border in Afghanistan with this level of trafficking. Everywhere else – the northern routes into Central Asia and the eastern routes into Pakistan – drugs are moved out of the country clandestinely, secreted in shipping containers or false compartments in the backs of big rigs.

When I asked why it is that drug smugglers are able to pass so blatantly between Iranian border checkpoints while human smugglers must circumvent them by going all the way to Pakistan, the U.N. official answered: “These are different people. They have large amounts of weapons.” The Iranians, that is, are outgunned.

Or maybe they’re on the take. Discerning the level of government complicity in the drug industry on both sides of the border is extremely difficult. It is hard to believe Brahui, the most powerful man in Nimruz, when he solemnly avers, “Since I took up the gun against the Russians, I have never been involved with drugs.” But it’s also hard to prove otherwise. This September, a couple of weeks after I returned to Kabul from Zaranj, Hamid Karzai dismissed several provincial governors in Afghanistan. One of them was Brahui. Although the decision came immediately after a multiweek corruption investigation, officials have declined to disclose their findings or to say if it had any bearing on Brahui’s removal.

Nevertheless, in Brahui’s part of the world – a place so destitute even water is precious – drugs have always blurred the lines among governments, criminal organizations, security forces and insurgents. “There are a lot of networks operating out there,” a senior U.S. Embassy official recently told me. “They all cooperate with one another.” The official added that during the past 18 to 24 months, the Taliban has co-opted sectors of the Afghan narcotics industry entirely. “We’re seeing more and more direct involvement of the Taliban in drug trafficking,” the official said. “It’s becoming inseparable. The Taliban and the drug traffickers are one and the same.” According to the official, drugs are accounting for a progressively larger proportion of the insurgency’s revenue. “If you cut off all the gulf-donor funding, every rupee of it, and leave the narcotics trade intact, they’ll be able to continue unabated,” the official told me.

Partly for this reason, the United States has spent more than $140 million setting up an elite Afghan counternarcotics force, the National Interdiction Unit, with access to a fleet of helicopters, capable of mounting raids on labs, caches and chemical stockpiles across the country. But the N.I.U. does not go into southern Nimruz.

One of the first people I met in Zaranj was a homeless deportee named Mansour who had set up camp on the sidewalk beneath an industrial-size air-conditioner protruding from the central mosque. Mansour spent his days reclining on a flattened cardboard box and studying the passing traffic with an amused grin. He was rawboned and sickly looking, and I suspected part of his amusement was chemically induced.

Mansour said he was on his way to Iran; he was just waiting for his smuggler to call. Who knows, maybe he was. But I had the feeling he’d been waiting a long time – months, or maybe even years, stuck in a kind of purgatory between Afghanistan and Iran. Despite his circumstances, Mansour was a true Afghan host, and when we introduced ourselves, he rummaged through the large plastic garbage bag that contained his things and handed each of us – me, my interpreter and the Dutch photographer Joël van Houdt – a piece of cloth on which to sit. While Mansour told his story – his parents had taken him to Iran when he was a young boy; he spent most of his life there until being deported; his family was still there – Joël leaned over and whispered to me: “Is this what I think it is?” The cloth Mansour had given Joël to sit on indeed appeared to be a body bag – the tough black sort with handles used by coalition forces. There was even a transparent plastic slot in which to place an identification card.

“Where did you get this?” I asked Mansour.

“I bought it from someone.” He reached over and grabbed a corner, rubbing it between his thumb and finger. “It’s very good quality fabric. Very strong. And waterproof.” He was clearly proud of the purchase and pleased with my interest in it.

“What do you use it for?”

“To sleep in,” Mansour said. “It’s the perfect size for a man to lie down in. During the winter, you can zip it up and stay dry.”

The day before we left Zaranj, I went back to the mosque to see if Mansour was still there. He was. As our rickshaw pulled to the sidewalk, I saw him doubled over, vomiting into some bushes. He noticed us as he straightened, wiping his beard with the back of his skinny hand. For a moment, he appeared deeply embarrassed. But then he smiled and invited us to sit with him under the air-conditioner, acting as if everything were shipshape. I asked whether his smuggler had called.

“Not yet,” Mansour said. “But soon, soon.”

Luke Mogelson is a contributing writer to the magazine. He last wrote about Emergency Hospital in Kabul.

Editor: Joel Lovell

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