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The return of pro-Iranian militia fighters to Afghanistan fuels fears in Kabul, Washington

Pro-Iranian militia forces with Iranian advisors during Hawija offensive in 2017. (Dlshad Anwar/VOA released)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

When Syria’s civil war erupted, Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) recruited, trained, and deployed thousands of Shi’ite fighters to prop up the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

Among them was the Fatemiyoun Brigade, comprised mainly of Afghans from the country’s Shi’ite Hazara minority. From 2011, the IRGC recruited thousands of Afghan migrants and refugees within its own borders and covertly drafted hundreds of Shi’a inside Afghanistan.

The majority of Muslims in Afghanistan are Sunni, but around 15 percent of its population — mainly Hazara — are Shi’a with religious links to the Shi’ite majority in Iran.

With the Syrian war ebbing, several thousand Fatemiyoun fighters have returned to their homeland, prompting fears that Iran could mobilize the proxy group to target U.S. interests in neighboring Afghanistan, where some 13,000 American troops are stationed.

Tensions between Washington and Tehran have soared following the U.S. killing of Iran’s top military commander, Major General Qasem Soleimani, in a drone strike at the Baghdad airport on January 3. In retaliation, Tehran fired missiles at an Iraqi air base that houses U.S. forces.

“We should certainly be concerned about the risk of Iran using this asset in Afghanistan to go after U.S. troops or other American interests in the country,” said Michael Kugelman, South Asia associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.

“Let’s be clear: At least right now, there are more than 10,000 American soldiers across Iran’s eastern border. That’s a tempting target, and these [Shi’ite] fighters in Afghanistan give Tehran a potentially useful proxy to go after those troops,” he added.

‘Immediate Threat’

Rahmatullah Nabil, the two-time head of Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security (NDS), the country’s main intelligence agency, estimated that between 2,500 to 3,000 Fatemiyoun fighters have returned to Afghanistan.

“At this stage it seems they are not in a position to pose an immediate threat to Afghanistan’s national security,” said Nabil, who was intelligence chief from 2010-12 and 2013-15. “They are not organized but scattered in different parts of the country.”

But he said the former members of the Fatemiyoun Brigade could pose a threat if they “establish a central command.”

Nabil said it was unclear if Afghan intelligence — predominately focused on the war against the Taliban and the Islamic State (IS) — was monitoring the movements of the fighters.

Most of the ex-fighters have settled in their homes in central Afghanistan, which is predominately Hazara, and in Hazara settlements in the western part of the country, along the border with Iran.

Many of the former combatants have kept a low profile and have refused to talk on the record with journalists.

“This is a group that has not indicated a willingness to stage attacks in Afghanistan,” said Kugelman. “To this point, Tehran has leveraged it to fight in Syria and help pursue Iranian goals there. But given the increasingly volatile state of play in the Middle East and Iran’s certain efforts to seek reprisals against U.S. interests, the situation could well change.”

‘Cannon Fodder’

The total number of Fatemiyoun members who fought in Syria is unclear. Experts estimate the number was between 5,000 to 20,000.

Ali Alfoneh is an IRGC expert and a senior fellow at The Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. He said that according to his database, from January 2012 to September 2019 around 917 Afghan nationals were killed in Syria.

As the first line of attack, the poorly trained proxy force suffered from attrition rates as high as 20 percent, Alfoneh said, estimating that the Afghan presence in Syria was likely limited to 5,000 fighters.

Alfoneh says the IRGC considered the Afghan fighters “cannon fodder,” considering the seemingly minor investment made to train them and the exposure they faced on the battlefield.

Iranian authorities said the fighters traveled to Syria voluntarily to defend holy Shi’ite sites. Human rights groups said Afghan migrants and refugees in Iran were offered financial rewards and Iranian residency permits to join the fight in Syria.

The United Nations estimates the number of Afghan citizens in Iran at just under 1 million, but Tehran puts the figure closer to 3 million. Tehran has expelled many Afghans and periodically threatens those who remain with mass expulsions.

Readying For U.S. Withdrawal

Alefoneh said it was plausible that Iran was deploying Fatemiyoun members to Afghanistan as part of Tehran’s two-prong attempt to prepare for a U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan.

“On the one hand, Tehran has normalized relations with the Taliban, which in Tehran’s analysis will seize power in Kabul before long,” he said. “On the other hand, Tehran is preparing for a scenario in which the Taliban once again turns against Iran in the future.”

The Taliban controls or influences around half of Afghanistan. The militant group is locked in negotiations with the United States over the withdrawal of all foreign troops from the war-torn country. A withdrawal deal is expected to kickstart intra-Afghan talks over a political settlement that is likely to see the Taliban form part of a new government.

Iran and the Taliban were on the verge of war in 1998, when the group controlled most of Afghanistan. Eight Iranian diplomats and an employee of Iran’s state-run IRNA news agency were killed at the Iranian Consulate when Taliban fighters overran the Afghan city of Mazar-e Sharif. The Taliban denied any involvement in their deaths.

Outraged by the deaths, Tehran deployed tens of thousands of troops along the border with Afghanistan — but stopped short of invading the country.

Tehran backed the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance before the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. Iran provided help to U.S. forces that toppled the Taliban regime. But, in recent years, the Islamic republic and the Taliban have forged closer ties, with militant leaders even visiting Tehran.

Long History With Afghanistan

U.S. officials have accused Tehran of providing support to the Taliban, an allegation it denies. Tehran has confirmed it has contacts with the Taliban but insists that any communications are aimed at ensuring the safety of Iranian citizens in Afghanistan and encouraging the Taliban to join peace talks.

Marine General Frank McKenzie, the top U.S. commander for the Middle East, said there has been an increase in Iranian activity in Afghanistan that poses a risk to American troops.

McKenzie, who visited Afghanistan last week, said he was seeing a “worrisome trend” of Iranian malign interference.

“Iran has always sort of dabbled a little bit in Afghanistan, but they see perhaps an opportunity to get after us and the coalition here through their proxies,” McKenzie said. “So we are very concerned about that here as we go forward.”

Ismail Qaani, who in January succeeded Soleimani as head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, the overseas operations arm of the IRGC, has a long history with Afghanistan.

The 63-year-old general made a mysterious trip to Afghanistan in 2018. Qaani also visited Kabul in the same year.

In the 1980s, Qaani led the IRGC’s activities in Afghanistan.

In the 1990s, Qaani was involved in providing logistical, financial, and military support to the Northern Alliance, which was fighting the Taliban.

When the Syrian civil war erupted, Qaani is believed to have been personally involved in the organization of the Fatemiyoun Brigade. It included veterans of the Abuzar Brigade, an Afghan militia consisting of Shi’a who had fought on Iran’s side in the war against Iraq.