Rare recent interviews with returned fighters and their families in Herat have shed new light on the desperation that drives such men to fight on Tehran’s behalf in Syria, where a variety of foreign, Iran-backed forces have shored up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
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. Although they can vividly recount specific battles, they have limited knowledge of the wider causes and complex international roles in the war.
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.
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.
It is impossible to know the exact number of Afghan recruits in Syria, because many slip back and forth between Iran and Afghanistan, do not tell their families where they are, and hide their military service for fear of being sent to prison in Afghanistan for fighting on behalf of another country. Yet for some, especially those from the long-persecuted Hazara minority, it seems to be a secret badge of honor.
“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.
The Islamic State, a brutal Sunni militia that views Shiites as apostates, is bolstered in Syria by its own array of Sunni foreign fighters, with most coming from Western Europe and the former Soviet republics. In December 2015, the number of Sunni foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq was estimated between 27,000 and 31,000, although that number has waned as the extremist group has lost ground.
Hussain, who did not want to be fully identified for fear of arrest by Afghan security agents, gave a detailed account of his deployments. He described training under Iranian instructors with Russian weapons and tanks, long nights of fighting in the desert against the Islamic State and other anti-Assad militias, emergency hospitalizations in Iran for various injuries, and struggles with Iran’s military bureaucracy to obtain further medical treatment.
“You get caught up in a situation; they give you money and food, they promise you more medical treatment, they give you documents to move freely inside Iran,” Hussain said. “They make you feel obligated.”
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.
Afghan officials have other reasons for opposing the covert collaboration of Afghan citizens in a messy Middle East war. It has further complicated Afghanistan’s close but tense relations with Iran, a more powerful neighbor and trading partner with a lengthy common border, and it has raised the specter of sectarian strife inside Afghanistan, which until now it has largely avoided.
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.
One fighter, named Razik, 21, from the community in Herat, once hoped to become a lawyer and was taking computer courses. But his mother, a widow named Siddiqa with two young daughters, said he had difficulty finding work and decided to enlist last spring. He never told his mother where he was, but he sent her $500 — enough to rent a run-down house and furnish it with a cheap carpet and sleeping cushions.
“The war changed him into a different person,” Siddiqa said, adding that Razik had come home briefly last month but soon headed back to Iran and the front. “He says he is the family breadwinner now, so he has to go fight. I have not heard from him since he left.”
Naeem, a fighter who survived four deployments in Syria, said he became caught up in the war in 2015 when he was visiting Iran, searching fruitlessly for work while his family in Herat pressed him to send money. Noticing posters in Tehran asking citizens to support the war effort, he decided to sign up. It was a desperate move that would eventually send him to an Iranian military hospital for weeks when a rocket smashed into his tank in the Syrian desert, knocking him unconscious.
“Afghans are dying for $30 a day. My cousin died in front of my eyes,” said Naeem, 27, who now sells fried pastries for pennies at a sidewalk stall in Herat. He also did not want to be fully identified for fear of official reprisal. “But there is no work for us anywhere. There is nothing to do but fight. I know I am gambling with my life, but it is a matter of necessity.”
A carefree, wisecracking man by nature, Naeem said he endured combat by keeping up his sense of humor. When his tank unit was ambushed by Islamic State militias and trapped for 12 days and nights, he said he joked with his frightened, claustrophobic tank-mates to keep their spirits up. After they were finally rescued by Syrian troops, he said, they all posed for selfies riding on top of their tank.
The main reason he kept reenlisting, Naeem explained, was to save enough money to marry his fiancee, which in Afghan culture requires spending thousands of dollars on dowry gifts and a huge wedding. But when he got home from his fourth deployment in May, his pockets bulging with $700 in combat pay, Naeem’s world collapsed. The girl’s family, he was told, had given up waiting and called off the engagement.
That night, he went out and gambled it all away.