An article in Track Persia, a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, outlines the story of Abdol Amin, 19, who left his home in the Foladi Valley in Bamyan, one of Afghanistan’s poorest provinces, to find work in Iran two years ago. Millions of Afghans, some with refugee status, live in Iran.
Two-thirds of the population in Bamyan Province lives on less than $25 a month. The poverty and lack of opportunity forces thousands of young Afghans from Bamyan to travel illegally to Iran in search of work.
Many, like Mr. Amin, end up fighting other’s people’s wars.
Mr. Amin earned about $200 a month working as a bricklayer and used some of his savings last year to go to Iraq with a group of fellow refugees for a pilgrimage to Karbala.
After his pilgrimage, Mr. Amin couldn’t find work when returned to Iran. He lived with the constant fear of being deported. “Iran isn’t our country. It belongs to strangers,” Mr. Amin said. “Either you suffer and try to make some money or you die.” However, the Iranian authorities presented Mr. Amin with an interesting solution. He could gain legal status in Iran with a 10-year residency permit and a monthly salary of $800, if he would join the “fight to protect” the shrine of Sayyida Zainab in Syria.
Regarding Afghan fighters in Syria, Haitham Maleh, a Syrian opposition leader, addressed a letter to President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan on June 2016. He requested an end to the influx of Afghan fighters. Afghan clerics have spoken out against the Iranian strategy due to the high number of Afghan deaths in the Syrian war. Estimates put the number of Afghans killed in Syria around 600.
According to Track Persia, Iran has “poured billions of dollars into Syria, brought in Hezbollah fighters and began raising Shiite militias from Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other places with significant Shiite populations. Iran does want to protect the major Shiite shrines in Damascus, Aleppo and Raqqa, but the use of foreign Shia militias in the Syria war was simply another fork in the larger battle for control and influence in the Middle East run by Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps’ elite Quds Force.”
Khamenei Meeting Families Afghan martyrs March 2016
They add, “In the past few years, Iranians have expanded the recruitment to undocumented Afghans, like Mr. Amin, recently arrived from Afghanistan in search of economic opportunity. Apart from the refugees’ economic anxiety and precarious legal status, the Iranians exploit the Shia faith of Afghan refugees to recruit them to fight for the Assad regime in Syria.”
Iran framed the Syrian war to these refugees as a Shia struggle for the defense and protection of the faith and its holy sites. “The fighters have little or no knowledge of the political-security context into which they are marching,” said Ahmad Shuja, a former researcher with Human Rights Watch. “They do not speak Arabic, most of them have never been beyond Afghanistan or Iran, many are barely literate, most are devout Shiites.”
Iran’s Revolutionary Guard trained Mr. Amin and various Afghan recruits of the Fatemiyoun Division. Afghan recruits are used as the first-wave shock troops. “We would be the first in any operation,” Mr. Amin recalled. Postings on the Telegram app, by Afghan fighters in Syria recount the Afghans’ being sent to fight the most difficult battles and speak about heavy casualties among Afghan fighters and the eventual victory after multiple assaults.
“The bodies of slain Afghan fighters were paraded around the streets of Tehran and in Qom, in northern Iran, in elaborate ceremonies before their burials. Both Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and General Suleimani have visited the families of Afghan militiamen killed in Syria and expressed gratitude for the sacrifices their sons made for defending the holy shrines and Islam,” writes Track Persia.
Mr. Amin returned to Bamyan two months ago, after being wounded in Aleppo. He had a 10-year Iranian residency in hand and the promise of a home in Iran, or in postwar Syria, if he wishes to live there. A majority of Afghans who fought in Syria have stayed in Iran. But, Mr. Amin has returned to his life as a subsistence farmer. “I came back because I wanted to see what would work out better. If things are good here, I will stay. If they get worse, then I will go back to Iran, but now I don’t have to worry about deportation,” he said.