[Marxism] Afghan fighters in Syria bring home cash, scars
lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Jul 30 06:39:20 MDT 2018
(Cash, rather than sectarian loyalties, motivated this segment of the
The Washington Post, July 30, 2018
Afghan fighters in Syria bring home cash, scars
by Pamela Constable
HERAT, Afghanistan - Over the past four years, thousands of young Afghan
Shiite men have been drawn into the war in Syria by Iran, part of a
well-financed system of recruitment, training and incentives that
funnels Afghan recruits to fight for a repressive Arab government.
The Afghans are soldiers in someone else's war, propelled by economic
woes and religious loyalty to join a foreign fight. Some have lost
friends and relatives in battle or sustained severe injuries themselves.
As many as 840 have been killed, according to researchers. Survivors can
recount hard-fought battles near Aleppo or Damascus, and some believe
they are helping to protect sacred Shiite shrines in those areas.
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.
The Trump administration said in December that it believed 80 percent of
the manpower supporting the Syrian regime was made up of "Iranian
proxies," including foreign Shiite fighters. Israel has accused Iran of
sending as many as 80,000 fighters to Syria.
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
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
"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,"
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.
pamela.constable at washpost.com
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