This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.
A shadowy private Russian mercenary force with close ties to the Kremlin is attempting to boost its ranks in Ukraine by recruiting U.S.-trained Afghan commandos and other security forces who fled to Iran following the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, a former Afghan general tells RFE/RL.
About 15 former Afghan commandos have already joined the Vagner paramilitary group and thousands more could be recruited with the help of Iran to fight in Ukraine, according to General Abdul Raouf Arghandiwal, a former Afghan Defense Ministry official and commander of Afghanistan’s elite 207 Zafar Army Corps.
“[Vagner’s] plan is to recruit 1,000 people in the first phase and 1,000 people in the second phase as a battalion, and to gradually continue this process,” Arghandiwal told RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi by telephone from the United States.
“There is no information about their fate,” Arghandiwal said of the commandos who have joined Vagner, and there has been no confirmation from Kyiv or elsewhere that Afghan soldiers have reached the battlefield in Ukraine.
Russia initially occupied wide swathes of Ukraine following its full-scale of invasion in February but has for months suffered significant troop and territorial losses due largely to a two-pronged Ukrainian counteroffensive.
The setbacks, which have left Russia trying to hold the line in parts of southern and eastern Ukraine that it still occupies and claims as its own, have forced the Kremlin to introduce a military draft and to increasingly rely on mercenaries from Vagner and Chechen troops to replenish its depleted forces.
Arghandiwal says he was personally informed of the recruitment drive by “hundreds” of his former troops. “The Russians, through the Vagner security company and in cooperation with the host country [Iran], where the majority of Afghanistan’s security and defense forces are [now] located, as well as some Afghans who previously moved to Iran and Russia, are trying to recruit commandos,” he said.
The Afghan general said that former members of the Afghan National Army, the Afghan National Police, and other former security forces are next in line for recruitment to be taken to Russia and then on to fight in Ukraine.
Tens of thousands of Afghan troops and security personnel were trained by the U.S. military during the nearly 20-year war in Afghanistan that ended with a chaotic withdrawal of foreign forces and the Taliban retaking power in Kabul in August 2021. Fearing retribution by the Taliban, many members of Afghanistan’s army, police, as well as military and intelligence officers loyal to the ousted government fled to Iran, Pakistan, and other countries.
The U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) reported in May that even before the fall of Kabul “around 3,000 Afghan security forces consisting of high-ranking officers to foot soldiers, along with their military equipment and vehicles, crossed the border into Iran,” although many returned to Afghanistan after the Taliban offered a general amnesty.
Shortly after the Taliban returned to power, Iran reportedly offered temporary visas to Afghans who could prove they served in the Afghan military.
While more than 80,000 at-risk Afghans who worked or fought alongside U.S. and other Western forces were airlifted out as the Taliban advanced on Kabul, tens of thousands were left behind in Afghanistan, where more than 100 extrajudicial killings of former military and government workers were recorded within the first months of Taliban rule, according to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
The situation led to concerns by U.S. military and political leaders that Washington was not doing enough to evacuate Afghans who fought against the Taliban, opening the possibility that an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 U.S.-trained troops would have no alternative but to join the Taliban or a regional adversary.
In August, a Republican-led U.S. congressional investigation critical of the U.S. withdrawal singled out the risk posed to the United States by former Afghan forces who fled to Iran, “due to the fact these Afghan personnel know the U.S. military and intelligence community’s tactics, techniques, and procedures.”
Outraged at the large number of Afghan troops who were not airlifted out of Afghanistan in the last days of the U.S.-led war, multiple groups led by U.S. veterans of the war were launched to help get their Afghan allies out of the country.
Mike Edwards, a former trainer of Afghan special forces who formed the volunteer organization Exodus Relief, told RFE/RL in March that “these guys are left with no other option but to either get killed or, if they are lucky, to get recruited to the other side.” If they choose the latter, Edwards said, it will mean having “some of the best we’ve ever trained working against us.”
Arghandiwal says the Iranian authorities were giving Afghan special forces who moved to Iran an ultimatum to either return to Afghanistan or fight for Russia in Ukraine.
RFE/RL was unable to independently verify Arghandiwal’s claims.
Foreign Policy reported last week that Afghan commandos were being recruited to fight in Ukraine, citing former fighters as saying they were being contacted on the messaging services WhatsApp and Signal. A military source told the magazine that up to 10,000 former Afghan commandos could be willing to accept the offer from Vagner.
AP reported this week that members of the Afghan special forces were being lured with the promise of $1,500 a month and safe haven for their family members. The news agency quoted one former Afghan commando currently in Iran as saying that about 400 fellow fighters were considering joining Vagner and he believed many would.
The former commando said many of his fellow soldiers felt abandoned by Washington, and that his offer included visas to Russia for him as well as for his children and wife, who are in Afghanistan.
The Vagner group has been involved in Russia’s war in Ukraine from the beginning, with reports early in the conflict suggesting the mercenary group was offering Syrians $3,000 a month to join the fight.
Ukrainian intelligence said as many as 40,000 Syrians were preparing to side with Russian forces in Ukraine, but only a few hundred Syrians are believed to have actually reached the battlefield and the recruitment effort was eventually widely dismissed as Russian disinformation.
The potential impact of Afghan commandos — considered to be highly skilled and trained combat fighters — if they fight in Ukraine is disputed. A former senior Afghan security official suggested to Foreign Policy that their entry into the Russia-Ukraine war “would be a game-changer” for the Kremlin’s war effort.
Sergei Danilov, deputy director of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Center for Middle East Studies, said in an interview with Current Time that he had no doubt Russia was trying to recruit Afghans. But he said Afghan forces were too scattered to be recruited in large numbers to form a united fighting force, and noted their failures in defending Afghanistan against the Taliban.
“They are trained, but they are absolutely not motivated,” Danilov said. “They don’t pose a threat. Some were able to go to Pakistan — or even to Iran — and are now in the region and beyond…. But this is not tens of thousands or even thousands.”