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Concerns over Iran secret army spreading influence in Afghanistan

Afghans in Syria
Too poor to even buy pens and notebooks for school, Mehdi left his home in Afghanistan soon after his 17th birthday and headed to Iran, hoping to make his way to Europe and find work.

Instead, Mehdi ended up fighting in Syria's civil war, a conflict he had nothing to do with, 2,000 kilometres from home. He was one of tens of thousands of Afghans recruited, paid and trained by Iran to fight in support of Tehran's ally, the head of the Syrian regime, Bashar Assad.

There, he found himself thrown into one of the war's bloodiest front lines, surrounded by the bodies of his comrades, under fire from ISIS militants so close he could hear their shouts of "Allahu akbar" before each mortar blast.

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 with the 8-year war in Syria winding down, the question is what will Tehran do with those well-trained, well-armed forces.

Mehdi and other soldiers-for-hire from Afghanistan's impoverished Shiite communities are returning to their homeland, where they are met with suspicion. Afghan security officials believe Iran is still organizing them, this time as a secret army to spread Tehran's influence amid Afghanistan's unending conflicts.

"Here in Afghanistan we are afraid. They say we are all terrorists," said Mehdi, now 21 and back in his home city of Herat. He spoke on condition he not be fully identified for fear of retaliation. He wouldn't meet The Associated Press at home or in public — only in a car parked in a remote, mostly Shiite neighborhood. Even there, Mehdi kept his face obscured with a scarf, glancing suspiciously at every passing car.

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 ISIS affiliate in Afghanistan, which views Shiites as heretics and vows to kill them. Last May, ISIS gunmen burst into Herat's Jawadia Shiite mosque, opening fire and setting off their suicide belt explosives among worshippers, killing 38 people.

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.

Roughly 10,000 veterans of the brigade have returned to Afghanistan, says a senior official in Afghanistan's Interior Ministry who is familiar with government intelligence. The official was not authorized to brief reporters and so spoke on condition of anonymity.

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.

"Expect the Iranians to reconstitute their militias inside Afghanistan at some point," warned Bill Roggio, editor of the Long War Journal, a site devoted to coverage of the US war on terror. "Iran does not discard assets in which it invests time, treasure and expertise."

Most of those who joined the Fatimiyoun Brigade were driven by hopelessness and poverty, not loyalty to Iran.

When Mehdi went to Iran in 2015, he worked, mostly on construction sites, to earn enough money to make a run for Europe. But by the time he did, Europe's borders had closed.

"I was very disappointed. I had come to Iran to go to Europe, to study, to have a better life, but I was still there, with nothing," Mehdi said.

An Afghan friend suggested they enlist for Syria. As a fighter for Iran, they could earn the equivalent of $900 a month. At the time Mehdi was making barely $150 a month.

He and other Afghan recruits were flown the next day to Iran's southern Yazd province, where they underwent 27 days of training under the Revolutionary Guard. Mehdi's marksmanship impressed the trainers, and he was made a sniper. When it was over, Mehdi was flown to Damascus with around 1,600 other new recruits.

In Damascus, the recruits opened bank accounts where their salary would be deposited. They were taken to the shrine of Sayeda Zeinab, a site outside Damascus revered by Shiites, for final blessings before battle. The next day, they were taken by bus to the northern city of Aleppo and sent immediately to the front.

There, Mehdi was thrown into one of the fiercest battles of the war — a campaign that began in the spring of 2016 against militant factions, including the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, over the town of Khan Toman and nearby villages on Aleppo's edge.

It was a fight that showed the international nature of the war. Among the militants were Syrians, Iraqis, Chechens, Turkmens, Uzbeks and other foreign militants; on the other side were Syrian regimetroops, 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. Mehdi said in one battle, 800 Afghans were sent to the front line and only 200 returned alive and unwounded. "Often in the morning I saw seven, eight dead bodies." he said. "For the first couple of days I was very scared. The explosions were so loud."

Mehdi returned to Afghanistan a year ago, and his life has changed little from when he left. He remains poor and unable to find a job.

The brigade is still operating there, and some Afghan veterans stayed in Syria to find jobs.

"I don't know what my future brings," he said. "Maybe I become a thief or maybe I go back to Syria."Too poor to even buy pens and notebooks for school, Mehdi left his home in Afghanistan soon after his 17th birthday and headed to Iran, hoping to make his way to Europe and find work.

Instead, Mehdi ended up fighting in Syria's civil war, a conflict he had nothing to do with, 2,000 kilometres from home. He was one of tens of thousands of Afghans recruited, paid and trained by Iran to fight in support of Tehran's ally, the head of the Syrian regime, Bashar Assad.

There, he found himself thrown into one of the war's bloodiest front lines, surrounded by the bodies of his comrades, under fire from ISIS militants so close he could hear their shouts of "Allahu akbar" before each mortar blast.

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 with the 8-year war in Syria winding down, the question is what will Tehran do with those well-trained, well-armed forces.

Mehdi and other soldiers-for-hire from Afghanistan's impoverished Shiite communities are returning to their homeland, where they are met with suspicion. Afghan security officials believe Iran is still organizing them, this time as a secret army to spread Tehran's influence amid Afghanistan's unending conflicts.

"Here in Afghanistan we are afraid. They say we are all terrorists," said Mehdi, now 21 and back in his home city of Herat. He spoke on condition he not be fully identified for fear of retaliation. He wouldn't meet The Associated Press at home or in public — only in a car parked in a remote, mostly Shiite neighborhood. Even there, Mehdi kept his face obscured with a scarf, glancing suspiciously at every passing car.

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 ISIS affiliate in Afghanistan, which views Shiites as heretics and vows to kill them. Last May, ISIS gunmen burst into Herat's Jawadia Shiite mosque, opening fire and setting off their suicide belt explosives among worshippers, killing 38 people.

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.

Roughly 10,000 veterans of the brigade have returned to Afghanistan, says a senior official in Afghanistan's Interior Ministry who is familiar with government intelligence. The official was not authorized to brief reporters and so spoke on condition of anonymity.

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.

"Expect the Iranians to reconstitute their militias inside Afghanistan at some point," warned Bill Roggio, editor of the Long War Journal, a site devoted to coverage of the US war on terror. "Iran does not discard assets in which it invests time, treasure and expertise."

Most of those who joined the Fatimiyoun Brigade were driven by hopelessness and poverty, not loyalty to Iran.

When Mehdi went to Iran in 2015, he worked, mostly on construction sites, to earn enough money to make a run for Europe. But by the time he did, Europe's borders had closed.

"I was very disappointed. I had come to Iran to go to Europe, to study, to have a better life, but I was still there, with nothing," Mehdi said.

An Afghan friend suggested they enlist for Syria. As a fighter for Iran, they could earn the equivalent of $900 a month. At the time Mehdi was making barely $150 a month.

He and other Afghan recruits were flown the next day to Iran's southern Yazd province, where they underwent 27 days of training under the Revolutionary Guard. Mehdi's marksmanship impressed the trainers, and he was made a sniper. When it was over, Mehdi was flown to Damascus with around 1,600 other new recruits.

In Damascus, the recruits opened bank accounts where their salary would be deposited. They were taken to the shrine of Sayeda Zeinab, a site outside Damascus revered by Shiites, for final blessings before battle. The next day, they were taken by bus to the northern city of Aleppo and sent immediately to the front.

There, Mehdi was thrown into one of the fiercest battles of the war — a campaign that began in the spring of 2016 against militant factions, including the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, over the town of Khan Toman and nearby villages on Aleppo's edge.

It was a fight that showed the international nature of the war. Among the militants were Syrians, Iraqis, Chechens, Turkmens, Uzbeks and other foreign militants; on the other side were Syrian regimetroops, 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. Mehdi said in one battle, 800 Afghans were sent to the front line and only 200 returned alive and unwounded. "Often in the morning I saw seven, eight dead bodies." he said. "For the first couple of days I was very scared. The explosions were so loud."

Mehdi returned to Afghanistan a year ago, and his life has changed little from when he left. He remains poor and unable to find a job.

The brigade is still operating there, and some Afghan veterans stayed in Syria to find jobs.

"I don't know what my future brings," he said. "Maybe I become a thief or maybe I go back to Syria."
Last Modified: Monday، 01 April 2019 11:51 AM
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