Tens of thousands of Afghans recruited, paid and trained by Iran to fight in support of Tehran’s ally President Bashar Assad are returning to their homeland, as the 8-year war in Syria winds down, according to Kurdish outlet rudaw.net.
Most of them are from Afghanistan’s impoverished Shiite communities and were attracted by the promise of relatively high pay in Iranian-run militias.
Iran ran an extensive drive to bring Shiites from across the region and create a network of militias to help save Assad from the uprising against his rule — not only Afghans but also Pakistanis, Iraqis and Lebanese.
Now the question is what will Tehran do with those well-trained, well-armed forces.
Afghan veterans returning from Syria are threatened from multiple sides.
They face arrest by security agencies that view them as traitors.
And they face violence from the brutal Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan, which views Shiites as heretics and vows to kill them.
Last May, IS gunmen burst into Herat’s Jawadia Shiite mosque, opening fire and setting off their suicide belt explosives among worshippers, killing 38 people.
Just knowing people who fought in Syria can land someone in jail, said a local elder in a village near Herat.
He spoke on condition of anonymity for that reason.
Eight men from his village were killed fighting in Syria, but there are no graves for them here.
All were buried in Iran, he said.
Iran intensified its role in Syria when Assad appeared to be losing the fight against rebels in 2013 and 2014.
Tehran sent hundreds of Revolutionary Guard troops and began bringing in allied militias.
The most well-known and most powerful was Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
But the largest was the force made up of Afghans, known as the Fatimiyoun Brigade, which experts have estimated numbered up to 15,000 fighters at any one time.
Over the years, tens of thousands of Afghans likely trained and fought in it.
Most of them are from Afghanistan’s ethnic Hazara minority, who are among the country’s poorest.
The Afghan government and many experts believe Iran could mobilize these ex-fighters once more to assert its influence in Afghanistan, particularly as the United States accelerates its efforts to end its nearly 18-year military intervention.
Most of those who joined the Fatimiyoun Brigade were driven by hopelessness and poverty, not loyalty to Iran, said Reza Kasimi, a researcher with the independent Kabul-based research group, Afghanistan Analysts Network.
Afghan veteran Abdullah fought in one of the fiercest battles of the war — a campaign that began in the spring of 2016 against Islamic militant factions, including the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front, over the town of Khan Toman and nearby villages on Aleppo’s edge.
Among the militants were Syrians, Iraqis, Chechens, Turkmens, Uzbeks and other foreign jihadis; on the other side were Syrian government troops, Iranian soldiers, Lebanese Hezbollah fighters, Iraqi Shiites and Afghans, backed by Russian warplanes — all battling for a piece of Syrian land.
The fighting went on for months and it is estimated hundreds on both sides were killed or wounded.
Abdullah said he still has nightmares of the dead, their limbs missing.
He said the Afghans were sent as cannon fodder.
After nearly 18 years and more than 1 trillion US dollars spent by the United States, Afghans are only getting poorer.
According to a 2016-17 Afghanistan Living Conditions Survey, co-sponsored by the European Union, 55 percent of Afghans live below the poverty level, compared to 38 percent in 2011-12.