[Marxism] Afghan fighters in Syria bring home cash, scars

Louis Proyect 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 
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.

pamela.constable at washpost.com

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