As a smaller neighbor with far less wealth and clout, Afghanistan is cautious when it comes to criticizing Iran. But Kabul was as direct as it could be when, last week, it condemned Iran for recruiting its citizens and sending them to fight in Syria.
Afghan members of parliament were even more explicit, threatening Iran with appeals to the United Nations (UN).
On January 7, Afghan presidential spokesperson Shah-Hossein Mortazavi told BBC Persian that “the emotions and deprivations of Afghan refugees shouldn’t be abused” and asked for measures to be taken for “abolishing groups that have been created.”
The “group” that has particularly concerned Kabul is the Fatemiyoun Division (FD), sometimes known by its Arabic name, Liwa Fatemiyoun. During recent Tehran-Kabul meetings, Kabul has stressed “its opposition to any proxy wars in Afghanistan or other countries,” according to Mortazavi.
It is not hard to see why Kabul objects to FD. Named after Fatima — the daughter of the Prophet Mohammad, wife of the first Shia Imam, Ali, and one of Shia Islam’s five holiest figures — the FD is a militia composed of thousands of Shia Afghan forces who are under the leadership of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and its foreign operations divisions, the Quds Force.
“The blood of the children of this land should not be shed for the aims of foreigners in other countries,” Mortazavi said.
Yet much Afghan blood has already been shed on the battlegrounds of Syria. Mortazavi’s comments seem to have been provoked by a recent boast by Zahir Mojahed, who acts as a de facto FD spokesperson. On January 6, he claimed that more than 2,000 members of the Afghan militia have been killed in Syria and more than 8,000 injured.
Mojahed, quoted as the officer responsible for FD’s cultural affairs, also caused controversy by complaining that the Iranian government doesn’t do enough to take care of FD veterans.
None of this is new. Despite the occasional denial, Iranian officials have repeatedly flaunted their leadership of thousands of Afghan forces in Syria. In 2016, the head of Iran’s veteran affairs department said that 200 FD fighters killed in Syria were under their official command.
Nor was this the first official protest by the Afghan government. In May 2014, Kabul called on Tehran to stop recruiting its nationals to fight in Syria, and even threatened to file a complaint with the UN Refugee Agency. In August 2016, the Iranian Supreme Leader’s religious envoy to Afghanistan, Qurban Gholampour, was arrested on the suspicion he was recruiting Afghan citizens for militias, before being released several weeks later.
However, the reemergence of the issue has raised a worrying question for Tehran. Is there discontent within the ranks of FD and are they pressing for more recognition? As the civil war in Syria winds up, Tehran is being compelled to reassess its relationship with tens of thousands of foreign forces it sent there to fight.
Afghan Fighters: Among the Elite but also “Cannon Fodder”
The role of Lebanon’s Hezbollah, a firm ally of Tehran, in sending thousands of volunteer forces to fight in Syria is well known. But less is known – especially in the English-language media – about the thousands of Afghans, mostly refugees, organized by Iran and sent to fight in the Levant.
Iran is host to an estimated 2.5 million Afghan refugees, many of whom are from the minority Shia Hazara community that was persecuted under the Taliban. These refugees have formed the core of FD. Previously, Afghan combat groups also largely comprised militias that fought on the Iranian side during the 1980-1988 war with Iraq.
“Fatemiyoun have contributed quite a bit to the Syrian war effort, and their maturation as a group can be seen in the push toward eastern Syria: places like Deir al-Zour and Palmyra,” says Phillip Smyth, a researcher at the University of Maryland, in a phone interview with IranWire. Smyth is among the few English-language researchers who have written about the FD.
“They’ve developed more elite forces, but it’s not incorrect to say a lot of their members are serving as cannon fodder. They are pulled out of prison and are often drug addicts who are told ‘if you become a shahid [martyr], we are going to pay your family and give you citizenship.’”
The FD are under the “complete control” of Tehran, Smyth adds.
“This is a wing under the direct command of the Quds Force, but beyond that they are partnered with Hezbollah and Asayeb Ahl-Haq,” he says, referring to the Lebanese and Iraqi Shia allies of Tehran. “There is also a lot of funding from Qom. There are true believers of Vilayat-e Faqih [the Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist, the foundational concept of the Islamic Republic’s ideology] among its leadership.”
Since 2013, hundreds of funerals of Afghan fighters have been held across Iran. The latest of these took place on January 5 in Tehran’s Martyrs’ Cemetery, when the bodies of Taqi Rostami and Rezabakhsh Yaqoobi were buried “next to the other martyrs of Fatemiyoun,” according to the IRGC-linked Tasnim news agency.
Top Tehran officials have met the families of the “martyred” Afghans. During his last two annual trips to the holy city of Mashhad (an epicenter of Afghan life in Iran), Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei visited the families of FD members killed in Syria. Khamenei’s official website published footage of these meetings in March 2017, referring to the men as “Afghan martyrs of the Fatemiyoun Division."
“When a movement is able to educate humans who, when necessary, sacrifice their life, it has become successful,” Khamenei told the Afghan families he met at Mashhad’s Imam Reza shrine. “These youth showed with their sacrifice that they belong to a movement that builds humans.”
Ghasem Soleimani, the renowned commander of the Quds Force, has also met the families of FD members killed in battle. The most prominent of these was the family of Alireza Tavasoli, known as Hajji Abu Hamed, who is believed to have been the principle founder of FD in Mashhad (http://www.seratnews.com/fa/news/314490.)
However, the recent comments by Mojahed raise questions about the demands of Afghan militias who have shed so much blood for the war ambitions of Tehran.
On his Instagram page, Mojahed introduces himself as a “missionary and documentary filmmaker.” Publication of his remarks by BBC Persian led him to issue a fierce rebuke condemning the “pathetic attempt” by the “lie-spreading agency BBC” to “cover up its support for the brutal crimes of Saudi family and their creation and support of ISIS and terrorism in the region.”
Fatemiyoun do not need “the pity of the wolves who have ill plans for the future of Shiism and the pure Islam of Prophet Mohammad,” he added.
But even when issuing the rebuke, Mojahed found a chance to criticize the officials of the Islamic Republic and lament that they are “behind in the soft war while, sadly, the authorities don’t believe in the soft war.” (In Islamist parlance in Iran, “soft war” means propaganda efforts.)
Mojahed’s repeated criticisms of the well-documented mistreatment of Afghan refugees may have contributed to recent improvements in Iran. These include Khamenei’s May 2015 order that gave every Afghan pupil in Iran the right to primary education, which previously had been denied.
According to Mojahed, when he tried to use his presence on live official television to speak of “shortcomings and injustices” faced by Afghans in Iran, the broadcast was cut off. Only after insistence by Nader Talebzadeh, the talk show host and a well-known pro-regime activist, was he allowed to speak of the “hardships” faced by Afghans.
On his Instagram page, Mojahed publicizes the activities of FD and its veterans, while also occasionally criticizing prejudicial actions of Iranian officials. To sum up: he attempts to broadcast Tehran’s goals to Afghans, while also channeling problems faced by Afghan fighters to Tehran.
While Mojahed and pro-IRGC outlets try to depict Fatemiyoun as a united and fiercely ideological formation, others view FD members as paid-off mercenaries and goons.
According to Smyth, “it’s not this or that. It’s not a binary.”
“Yes, they are recruiting people using money and coercion,” he says. “But there has also been an emphasis on the revolutionary ideology of Khomeinism. Khomeini said that the process of creating radicals is a very long road. And they believe in that, in building those links and remembering the principle of Sabr, or patience.”
He likens it to US army recruitment. “Do you think everyone who joins the US military is a hyper-patriot who wants to be Rambo? Who gets up every day to read the federalist papers?”
As can be expected, the pro-IRGC media has done much to show the genuine devotion of Afghan fighters to the ideals of the Islamic Republic. A report by Fars News on a medical center exclusively hosting wounded Fatemiyoun quotes Vahdat, a 23-year-old from Mazar Sharif, who says he left the Afghan army “to go to Syria to defend the [Shia] shrines and defend the Muslims,” before adding that he has been there for 10 tours.
When, in 2016, the BBC broadcast a documentary on Fatemiyoun and interviewed one of its veterans who had returned to live in Afghanistan, the pro-IRGC outlets in Tehran hit back with content that promoted the FD. The weekly Ramze Oboor [“Passcode”], known for its links to security agencies, published an interview with Seyed Mohammad Hassan Hosseini – known by his nom de guerre Seyed Hakim and introduced as head of Fatemiyoun’s Brigade No. 2 – who was killed in the fight for Palmyra before the story went to press.
Hakim told Ramze Oboor that the FD had emerged from a small religious grouping of Afghans in Mashhad named “the Lovers of Her Excellency Roghaya (Peace Be Upon Her),” which had held group prayers in people’s houses. The grouping was founded by Abu Hamed, who went on to become a prominent FD “martyr”, as mentioned previously.
As is often the case with pro-IRGC outlets, the interview revealed a great deal about the structure of the militia and the leading role of Iranian forces. Hakim confirmed that every fighter was paid $450, and that Iranian military advisers were called “Ansar” by the Afghans. This is a highly significant historical term once used to refer to the people of Medina who helped the companions of Prophet Mohammad when they fled to the city in 622.
“We don’t deny that Ansar helped us and supported us,” Hakim said. “Not only do we not deny it, we are very proud of it. They gave us close to 40 years of their experience. They are teaching us and helping us.”
Countering the claims that FD primarily comprised Afghan refugees coerced into joining, Hakim said many had come directly from Afghanistan, as well as US, Canada and Europe. Some, he claimed, had left high-paying professional jobs to fight in Syria.
The FD was especially elated and “made hopeful” when Khamenei met the “families of martyrs” in Mashhad, he added, as this recognition made life easier for the group.
The Fatemiyoun remains a force that Tehran could use to further its aims in other countries, including Afghanistan itself, according to Smyth. Additionally, if stationed near Iran’s eastern borders, it could be used “as a threat of sorts” to force concessions from Kabul.
The future status of the FD is just a small part of a greater challenge that Iran will be compelled to address in coming months and years: how to deal with its foreign militias as the civil wars in Iraq and Syria draw to a close.