Over the past four years, thousands of young Afghan Shiite men have been drawn into the war in Syria by Iran, part of a well-financed system of recruitment, training and incentives that funnels Afghan recruits to fight for a repressive Arab government, The Washington Post reports.
The Afghans are soldiers in someone else’s war, propelled by economic woes and religious loyalty to join a foreign fight. Some have lost friends and relatives in battle or sustained severe injuries themselves. As many as 840 have been killed, according to researchers. Survivors can recount hard-fought battles near Aleppo or Damascus, and some believe they are helping to protect sacred Shiite shrines in those areas.
Even more than religion, these Afghan recruits seem mainly driven by necessity, reenlisting again and again to take home another few hundred dollars in military pay — even as they risk injury or death in front-line battles where few Iranian troops are sent.
Between 5,000 and 12,000 Afghans have participated in such units since they were established within the Fatemiyoun Division of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, according to human rights and research groups. Most are refugees or workers living in Iran, but hundreds come from poor, ethnic Hazara and Shiite communities in this windswept city near the Iranian border, as well as other regions of Afghanistan.
“Nobody forced us to go fight, but it gives you a kind of pride,” said Hussain, 26, a muscular Hazara man in Herat with scars on his face and hands from old shrapnel wounds.
He has served in four deployments in Syria since 2014, earning upward of $600 a month, and returned again two months ago from the front. He said he originally decided to enlist while he was working as a carpenter in Iran and saw a video of Islamic State fighters chopping off victims’ heads.
Afghans constitute only a part of what has been called Iran’s Shiite foreign legion in Syria, which includes Lebanese, Iraqi and Pakistani fighters. Estimates on the numbers of each group vary widely, but a survey of funerals for Shiite foreign fighters killed in Syria, conducted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, shows the biggest share of fighters killed were from the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah. Afghan Shiites had the second-highest number of deaths.
According to SF Gate, in December 2015, the number of Sunni foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq was estimated between 27,000 and 31,000, though that number has waned as the extremist group has lost ground.
Human rights groups have described Tehran’s use of Afghans and other foreign fighters as a tactic to save Iranian lives and mute domestic criticism of its involvement in a messy and destructive foreign conflict. Some groups said that boys as young as 13 have been induced to fight and that recruits received brief training and often suffered heavy casualties. Afghans and other foreign fighters were reportedly decisive in the battle for Aleppo and others that have turned the war in Assad’s favor.
Tehran denies using foreign fighters to avoid casualties among its own youths; Iranian officials describe the Afghans as religious volunteers. Experts say Iran’s main stake in the war is to extend its influence across a broad stretch of the Middle East, from its border with Afghanistan to Lebanon.
For years, Afghanistan’s minority Shiites have endured discrimination and repression at the hands of its larger Sunni, mostly ethnic Pashtun groups. Often Shiites have looked to Iran for sanctuary and jobs. Now, Iran is deporting nonresident Afghan workers while recruiting them as fighters, leading to suspicion that Iran could use them to challenge Sunni dominance at home.
But the pace and intensity of Iranian recruiting have slowed considerably as the Syrian regime has consolidated power. At first, Hussain said, the authorities “would take anyone, young or old, Shiite or Sunni. We would register in the morning, and they would send us for training in the afternoon.” Now, he said, the program is more selective. Additional incentives to keep fighting, recruits say, include offers of work or residency permits that are no longer available to most Afghans. Moreover, aside from expressing horror and antagonism toward the Islamic State, the fighters interviewed in Herat did not express especially strong religious convictions or appear driven to keep fighting as an act of faith.
“At first, a lot of guys believed they were fighting for something, but by the end that was gone. It was all about need,” said Hussain, who now sells vegetables in Herat and swears he will never go back to Syria.
Nonetheless, he said, it was gratifying to return home feeling like a hero instead of a beggar and to bring wads of cash to struggling parents who had worried for months.
“In Iran, people curse us as refugees, but after Syria we get respect,” he said.