INU, 24 October 2017 -Former fighters and rights activists say that thousands of Afghan Shi'ites are recruited by Iran to defend Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime.
In a effort to escape poverty and unemployment, Afghan men and boys as young as 14 sign up to fight on the promise of money and legal residency in Shi'ite-dominated Iran, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).
HRW and ex-members who spoke on condition of anonymity said that the Afghans, including undocumented migrants living in Iran, have been joining the Teheran-backed Fatemiyoun division fighters in Syria Since 2013.
"For me it was just about money," said a 25 year old former fighter. A member of the Hazara ethnic group who now lives in Kabul, he went to Syria twice in 2016 to fight in a conflict that has been raging for more than six years. He said, "Whoever I saw was going for money and to have free entry to Iran. I never saw anyone fighting for religious reasons.”
The withdrawal of US-led NATO combat troops at the end of 2014 drained the Afghan economy and left many people out of work, sending migrants into Iran in search of a better life. Last year, HRW estimated that Iran hosts around three million Afghans.
HRW says that Iranian recruiters target Shi'ites to fight in the ranks of Fatemiyoun soldiers, who fight alongside Syrian government forces.
"I went there (Iran) because I was jobless and it was a way to get money for my family," said the 25 year old soldier. “My idea was to find a job in Iran. I had no plan to go to fight in Syria but after a month of being jobless I decided to go.” He added, “They were encouraging us saying 'you will be a freedom fighter and if you return to Iran alive you can stay with a 10-year residence permit'. But my main goal was to earn money."
He claimed that Afghan Shi'ites are given 1.5 million rial (S$59.40) to register at a recruitment centre for the Fatemiyoun. Once a recruit has signed up, they receive three million rial a month, which for many poor Afghans, seems like a fortune.
He was deployed to Aleppo in September, after receiving rudimentary weapons training from Iran's Revolutionary Guards. "In Aleppo we faced an ambush - out of 100 fighters we lost almost all of them. There were 15 of us left alive," he said. "The bodies were sent back to Iran and the families in Afghanistan held funeral ceremonies in mosques without a coffin or grave."
A senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank, Ali Alfoneh, estimates that more than 760 Afghans have been killed in Syria since September 2013.
A soldier who fought in Syria in 2014, when he was just 17 years old, said there were not only Afghans in Fatemiyoun, "There were also Pakistanis, Iraqis - all the Shiites," he said, "We were mixed up with the Arabs, we didn't understand their language."
The Iranians refuse to provide accurate figures, according to HRW, who says that it estimates there are nearly 15,000 Afghans fighting for Fatemiyoun.
Ramazan Bashardost, a Hazara member of parliament in Kabul, stated, "They are used by the Iranian government, which treats them like slaves," and added, “The sorrow, pain and hunger of the people is not a major concern of the Afghan government."
In October, Afghanistan's foreign ministry called on Iran to stop sending young Afghans to Syria, after the HRW report condemning the recruitment of minors was released.
However, preventing Afghans from volunteering will not be easy, as money and guaranteed residency in Iran will continue to lure recruits.