Tehran: Iran has secretly been recruiting Afghan Shia youth to battle the militant Islamic State (IS) group alongside Bashar al Assad’s forces in Syria, an investigative report on The Guardian claims, — a fight that Afghanistan plays no official part in.
The recruits are usually poor, devout or social outcasts who are looking for money, acceptance or a sense of purpose that they cannot find at home, the report says.
A police officer by day and self-declared “travel agent” when off-duty, Jawad said he acted for a year as middleman for Iran’s Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) when in 2014 it formed an Afghan Shia militia, the Fatemiyoun Division, to fight alongside Syrian government forces.
In return for fighting, Afghans are offered a residence permit in Iran and about $500 monthly salary. “Most go to Syria for the money,” said Jawad, wearing stonewashed jeans and replica Ray-Bans. “Others go to defend the shrine.”
The Sayyidah Zainab mosque in Damascus is a holy Shia site which has been a rallying point for members of the community who want to defend it from militants.
Iran, however, denies coercing or recruiting Afghans to fight in Syria, an embassy spokesman in Kabul said.
Iranian state media reports 20,000 Afghans are fighting in Syria, but does not acknowledge Iran’s direct involvement. These fighters are often the first line of offensive action in Syria.
According to Amir Toumaj, a researcher with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, the Fatemiyoun was recently upgraded from a brigade to a division, which normally numbers over 10,000.
Others think those numbers are exaggerated. Ali Alfoneh, an independent Iran analyst based in Washington, DC, put the number of Afghans fighting in Syria at a couple of thousand. At least 334 Afghan Shias have been killed in combat in Syria since September 2013, he added.
Independent Iran analyst Ali Alfoneh says that providing war training to Afghanistan’s Shia youth serves the interests of Tehran and the Revolutionary Guard, as these fighters can later go on to battle the Taliban or other groups on Afghan soil following the withdrawal of United States troops from their country.
Afghan MP Nazir Ahmadzai has accused Iran of fanning sectarian conflict by employing such tactics. “Iran’s policy is to bring a division between Muslims,” he claims.
Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security has made moves to clamp down on the recruitment of Afghan youth but is treading cautiously, believes security analyst Ali Muhammad Ali.
Because Afghanistan’s relations with Pakistan are “unusually acrimonious”, Ali said, Kabul cannot afford to antagonise Tehran as well.