Undocumented and economically disadvantaged Afghan Shiite refugee communities in Iran, many of them Hazara, are targeted by recruiters. Promises of money, Iranian residency, and religious blessings encourage the poverty stricken and marginalized Shiite to fight in Syria. Last year, recruitment moved across the Iranian border into Afghanistan.
Estimates show that some 15,000 Afghans have joined the Fatemiyoun to fight in Syria, in support of President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.
The withdrawal of NATO troops in 2014 left many unemployed and facing the potential of a third decade of economic and political instability. Instability hampers private investment, and agricultural growth and economic recovery are slow. The Afghan government remains dependent on donor grants.
Afghanistan’s poverty rate continues to grow. For example, more than half the population lives on less than a dollar a day. Afghan men are lured into recruitment by the promise of a stable income, as well as residency in Shiite-friendly Iran. Each “tour” with the Iranian militias promises a monthly paycheck of approximately $600, which is a great boon to these poor people.
And, although many Afghans join for economic reasons, alongside the financial incentives the IRGC uses Shiite religious motivation as part of recruitment. The recent Taliban insurgency caused an uptick of sectarian violence.
Additionally, the Islamic State in Afghanistan threatens the livelihood of many Shiite. Potential fighters are enticed with the spiritual benefits of also protecting religious Shiite shrines being obliterated by the Sunni Islamic State.
Afghanistan may see an influx of returned Fatemiyoun fighters. The health, rehabilitation, or vocational training services for these returnees may be an undue burden on the already financially troubled central government. The returned fighters are likely to find themselves in the same situation as they did before they left — no stable job. They could easily be led into signing up for another tour with the Fatemiyoun.
Many of the Fatemiyoun fighters move themselves and their family to Shiite friendly Iran, instead of returning home. Government officials are concerned with how to deal with a population with dual allegiances. Iran has the means to weaponize a group of people in Afghanistan, with a group on call who are able to destabilize the government.
Several sources indicate, however, that Afghan Shiite do not bear allegiance to Iran. One Hazara fighter said that Iranians see Hazara as “cannon fodder.” The Hazara were recently betrayed by Iran’s cooperation with the Taliban.
Perhaps the Hazara cooperate with the Iranian government for purely self-motivated, economic reasons.
Hazara received equal rights to other ethnic groups in the new Afghan constitution, in 2004. This minority has also gained greater access to education. If Kabul builds on this, it can combat Iran’s influence.
Historically, Tehran has had the most influence in northern and western Afghanistan and appears to focus its recruitment to the western regions. Iran has stepped into Afghanistan’s power vacuum after the American drawback. It is reported that the Iranian government recruited, as well as provided weapons, money, and training to Taliban fighters. Several attacks into Afghanistan have been launched since 2017.
Still, with the establishment of mosques and pro-Iranian schools, Iran wields considerable power in Afghanistan. With the ongoing sectarian conflict, Tehran has the ability to use its power in the future time. Kabul should allow the Afghan Shiites, especially the Hazara, access to employment programs, education, and other economic and political incentives, to dissuade recruitment.
Iran is bordered by unstable governments — Iraq and Afghanistan, and this gives it a unique opportunity to exert considerable regional influence. By recruiting fighters from its neighbors, it is realizing the “exportation of the Shiite revolution” across the Middle East and other regions, and a counterbalance to its Sunni rivals, Saudi Arabia and U.S.-backed Israel. The international community must fight back with sanctions, support for the Iranian opposition, and arresting and expelling terrorists from Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.