Fighting Other People’s Wars: Afghan Soldiers in Syria
The growing phenomenon of Afghan refugees joining Iran’s Revolutionary Guards to support the Syrian Assad regime has sparked increasing attention. In January, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that thousands of Afghan refugees in Iran – many of them minors – have been coerced into fighting in Syria, and several of them threatened with deportation if they refused.
The Iranian authorities told the refugees that if they defected, their families would be detained. According to HRW and Al Jazeera, Iranian officials have also recruited Afghan refugee detainees, offering to reduce or remove their prison sentences in return for army service. These Afghans are promised up to $1,000 in monthly salary and legal residence upon return to Iran. However, few of the fighters that HRW interviewed had received these benefits.
In contrast to these accounts, Iranian news sources and social media campaigns that highlight and herald Afghans’ contribution to Assad’s battle suggest a more complex process. From the different narratives, a recruitment story emerges that intersects labor exploitation and a search for survival with sentiments of transnational, sect-based solidarity. In this brief intervention, I initiate a conversation that calls for further research into the overlapping terrains of migrant labor, military intervention and ‘foreign fighters’, as demonstrated in the migratory routes of the Afghan refugee recruits in Syria.
Call to Arms
For decades, Afghans have sought refuge in Iran from warfare and military invasions. The majority of Afghan refugees in Iran are Hazara, a Shiite minority in Afghanistan who have been, and continue to be, persecuted and discriminated against by the Taliban in Afghanistan. With the escalation of drug trafficking between the two countries in recent years, and subsequent record-high heroin consumption among Iranian youth – a development Iran in large part blames Afghanistan’s opium production for – bilateral relations have become more strained.
Afghans fleeing across the border to Iran have been the first to pay the price, as Iran has heavily restricted its asylum processing system, charging Afghans high fees for visas and deporting an increasing number of Afghan refugees every year. As a repercussion of this policy, Afghans are heavily targeted by Iranian authorities for drug smuggling, and thousands of Afghan minors are imprisoned with drug charges. Of the three million Afghan refugees living in Iran, only 950,000 carry legal refugee status. The uncertainty of living without papers, access to legal employment and education, often for decades, makes Afghans in Iran easy targets for exploitation. But, as I suggest in the following, the coercive practices of the Iranian government masks more than it reveals.
Until the recent uptick in Iranian losses in Syria, the Iranian Foreign Ministry maintained that the army only deploys “advisors” to Syria anddenied enlisting Afghan soldiers in their intervention, referring to them instead as “volunteers” who carry no official affiliation with the army (cf. BBC, Washington Institute, The New Yorker). Meanwhile, Iranian commanders have commented more openly on the volunteer narrative, publicly branding Afghan recruitment as part of a transnational Shiite front, and commanders often attend the funerals of Afghan fighters in Iran (cf. video, The Guardian; BBC).
A commander from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards announced in a speech this winter that Iran had formed a regional force called the Fatemiyoun Brigade, a primarily Afghan unit, to fight in Syria. Another commander told Al Jazeera in January that as many as 20,000 Afghans have been recruited to fight with the Iranian Quds in Syria. The precarious nature of these estimates aside, they indicate that Afghan recruitment in Iran is a growing and increasingly common phenomenon. An Iranian reporter from The Guardian who visited Mashhad in November last year, a city in Iran which hosts a large Afghan population, depicted long lines of Afghans waiting outside the local military center to enroll in the Fatemiyoun Brigade. Whether legal, financial or ideological motivations drive them to enroll, their active involvement in the recruitment calls for attention.
The testimonies from Afghan fighters and Iranian military personnel demonstrate the extent to which the sectarian/ideological dimension is embedded within Iran’s recruitment strategy. According to the HRW report, the Iranian authorities separate Afghan men of Shiite descent out for recruitment. The Sayida Zainab shrine, an important Shiite pilgrimage site south of Damascus, plays a prominent role in both Iranian and Afghan narratives of their call to arms in Syria. Iran refers to those killed in Syria as “defenders of the holy shrine”, stressing the urgency of protecting Shia heritage and communities in the region.
In an Iranian state-produced documentary, an Afghan commander with the Iranian Quds explains how “the Shia of Afghanistan have felt responsible and rushed to Syria to defend our religion and the Shrine of Zainab.” A handful of the Afghan interviewees in the cited HRW report said they had volunteered to defend Shiite religious sites and communities in Syria. In footage shared online by the Free Syrian Army, captured Afghan soldiers list socioeconomic, legal and sectarian motivations for fighting with the Iranian army. A young Afghan fighter in the video describes his narrative of recruitment: “I was imprisoned on drug charges with a sentence of six years … they told us the shrine of Zainab will be destroyed… I came from Iran to join the war with the promise of a monthly salary of $600.” Suggesting some agency in his passage from Iran to Syria, the soldier’s narrative allows for a more complex understanding of the Afghans’ recruitment process.
Sectarian affiliation in this case does not supersede a social hierarchy based on national identity. Indeed, the body count of Afghan soldiers in Syria suggests a less glorious reality of the united Shiite struggle. According to a Spiegel report, some 700 Afghans have lost their lives in Daraa and Aleppo alone while fighting for Assad. Recently, senior fellow Ali Alfoneh from the Washington Institute attempted to decipher the number of Afghan and Iranian casualties in Syria using data from funeral services in Iran. He found that at least 255 Afghans and 342 Iranian nationals were killed in combat in Syria between 2012 and March 2016, with a considerable spike this year. Even as recent death tolls indicate that Iranian nationals are increasingly involved in combat too, Afghans still made up half of Iran’s official losses in recent months. As Alfoneh argues, “the Islamic Republic will limit its own exposure and losses by fighting to its last non-Iranian proxy, even when its own personnel would be more effective”.
The notion that the young Afghan recruits represent expendable “bare” life, placed at the front line of the battle, is present throughout personal accounts. An Afghan teenage recruit who had fled his military troops in Syria and arrived to Lesbos, Greece, told a BBC reporter that Afghan fighters in Syria were used as “first-wave shock troops” and were “effectively disposable”. A Syrian officer in charge of an Afghan brigade wasquoted in Spiegel as saying: “Do what you want with them. You can kill them, they’re just mercenaries. We can send you thousands of them.” According to the same report, the Syrian regime often engages in prisoner exchanges over Iranian and Hizbollah soldiers, but Afghans and other mercenaries of the Fatemiyoun Brigade are never part of the deal.
In the same article, an Afghan ex-fighter for the Fatemiyoun said, “When we spoke Persian to each other, they [the Syrian regime soldiers] yelled at us”. As this account suggests, the Afghans’ sense of solidarity does not necessarily translate to their Syrian regime clients on the ground. As anthropologist Darryl Li has written, national anxiety towards foreign fighters reflects a logic that renders the presence of ‘foreigners’ in ‘other people’s wars’ conspicuous, if not illegitimate. Foreign fighters lack the national license to kill, as sanctioned by international law. As a consequence, they are treated as ‘war machines’, reduced to a function by their lack of recognition in the national order.
The irony is that mercenaries are primarily deployed in interventionist warfare, where national claims to ownership have been erased by a transnational cacophony of arms.
Mercenaries do not only symbolize expendable life; their low-cost labor is also expedient for armies involved in large-scale missions abroad. A Syrian rebel commander who had been in combat against Afghan soldiers in Syria described his Afghan antagonists: “They are incredibly tenacious, run faster than we do and keep shooting even after they have been surrounded. But as soon as they lose radio contact with headquarters, they panic.” This discourse resembles that deployed by the French colonial authorities, who viewed their Senegalese mercenary troops as physically strong but mentally weak. The colonial troops were, similar to the Afghans in Syria, placed lowest in the military hierarchy, separated from the national soldiers and used as pawns on the battlefront.
And yet, similar to Iran, the French authorities were successful in presenting colonial military service as an entryway into France proper. The French colonial armies recruited Senegalese men to fight with the promise of a stable salary and, for the lucky few, residence in the colonial motherland. As historian Myron Echenberg has documented, French colonial military service implied a double disciplining act for the Senegalese. Not only was the body trained to follow military instructions; their mind was also trained to serve and honor the colonial project. In its joint promise of political membership and recognition, army conscription proved a highly successful method of ensuring loyalty among the colonial population.
For refugees trapped in a hostile global migrant labor economy amid closing frontiers, the situation has changed little since the colonial days. In Iran, Afghans are discriminated against not only because of their lack of a place in the national imaginary, but also because they have become symbols of cheap and exploitable labor. The exploitation of migrant labor in contemporary warfare is hardly an authentic Iranian phenomenon. The Bahraini and Libyan regimes used African and South-Asian migrant troops to quell the uprisings in 2011 (Li 2011), and Saudi Arabia and the UAE have contracted hundreds of Latin American and West African private armies to fight the Houthis in Yemen (NYT; Al Monitor). Li has documented how the US forces heavily rely on subcontracted migrants for service and support on the frontlines (cf. also Aikins 2016; Stillman 2013).
Posters commemorating Iranian soldiers as martyrs on Shariati Street in North Tehran. (Photo Credit: Alex Shams)
The benefits for states using subcontracted shadow troops and service personnel are clear; they are cheap in labor and do not figure into official estimates of military losses. Mercenaries also allow a state impunity, since national troops are not held accountable for the actions of private armies. Mercenaries thereby occupy a diffused legal zone where they are neither persecuted nor protected by the law. Yet, contrary to US’ subcontracted mercenaries, who are not officially registered or honored as part of the national armies on whose part they fight, the Afghan Fatemiyoun fighters do not operate simply as shadow troops. Funeral ceremonies and social media accounts for Afghan troops suggest that Afghans killed in Syria are openly celebrated as martyrs in Iran. Video footage shared on Facebook show Afghans from the Fatemiyoun Brigade commemorating fellow fighters killed in Syria and parading their coffins in cities in Iran, often in company with Iranian commanders.
In this way, the presence of Afghans as mercenary troops in Assad’s counterinsurgency complicates and challenges present understandings of the foreign fighter, often affiliated with the catch-all figure of the jihadi. The mercenary and the foreign jihadi are often placed in juxtaposition, which implies that the two are necessarily opposites – one is associated with socio-economic desperation, the other is understood as an ideologically and politically driven fighter.
Yet a growing body of literature on foreign fighters (cf. The Soufan Group 2014; Small Arms Survey 2015; The Atlantic 2015; The New Yorker2016) indicates that, just as the use of sectarian and ideological solidarity plays a role in Afghan recruitment, the North African and Arab millennials who in the post-mortem phase of the 2011 uprisings travelled in large numbers to join Sunni insurgencies in Syria and Iraq are often trapped in similar spirals of poverty, unemployment and lack of opportunity that Afghan refugees face in Iran. A young, unemployed Tunisian male seeking labor and a sense of purpose by joining ISIS or al-Nusra in Syria may have more in common with a young Afghan Shiite male refugee who joins Iran’s mission in Syria than their separate categories allow for.
Repertoires of Fighting
While migrant mercenaries may represent expendable life to their employers, they often share histories of colonial transaction and violence with the people they fight alongside, or against. For many Afghans, the Syrian conflict is all too familiar. According to researcher Ahmad Shuja, quoted by the Washington Institute, some 2,000 Afghan Shiites of mainly Hazara origin fled from Afghanistan to Syria before hostilities there broke out. Afghan migrant labor is also key to Iran’s heavy investment in Syria in more than one way. Wealthy Iranians are reportedly buying land and real estate in regime-held areas of Syria, and, according to Iranian analyst Fariborz Saremi, Iranian contractors bring in Afghan migrant laborers to build houses for them. Iranians are opening business and investing in government aid programs in Syria, preparing for a long-term if not permanent presence there, enabled by the flexible labor of Afghans and other migrants.
Afghans’ own history of material, religious and intellectual cross-border transaction demonstrates how migrant mercenaries are often positioned as simultaneously external to and deeply embedded within the battles they fight. As Engseng Ho has documented, the economic and religious ties formed by centuries of transaction across the Indian Ocean shaped links of solidarity between religious groups in Afghanistan, Yemen and East Africa that became instrumentalized in the encounter with 21st century Western imperialism. Imperial battles over Afghan territory produced its own set of transregional foreign fighters who fought on Taliban’s side against shifting regimes of invasion.
Afghans have in turn travelled across borders to pay their support in various regional struggles. During the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, an independent Afghan Shia force – the Abouzar Brigade – supported Iran’s fight against Saddam Hussein. These transnational lines of solidarity against different instances of colonial and imperial intervention complicate the easy reading of Afghans’ contribution to Iran’s regional ambitions as merely reactionary or subversive.
A woman mourning her husband at the Martyrs’ Cemetery of Imamzadeh Ali Akbar in Chizar, a neighborhood near Farmaniyeh in north Tehran. The posters commemorate “defenders of the shrine of Sayyida Zeinab” and the fallen are buried among martyrs from the Iran-Iraq War. (Photo Credit: Alex Shams)
The relationship between the Afghan mercenary, the Iranian army and the Syrian regime ‘client’ rehearses patterns of national aspiration and loyalty witnessed in previous constellations of colonial military servitude. At the same time, Afghans’ sense of sectarian belonging with their fellow fighters, not to mention their achieved status as martyrs in Iran, sets them apart from subcontracted mercenaries who operate in the shadows. By stressing this point, I do not wish to challenge Afghans’ accounts of exploitation. As conflict refugees denied legal and political recognition, and as migrant workers competing on a market that capitalizes on that exclusion, Afghans are doubly exploited. Yet their socio-economic dispossession does not lessen their potential belief in the cause of fighting.
The Syrian conflict, with its flux of internationalized armies, calls for research that reconsiders existing repertoires of soldiers and fighters. The myriad cross-border transactions of arms, bodies and ideas fuelling Syria’s war encourages research that looks closer at the role of the foreigner, not as an exceptional or new phenomenon, but as a staple in colonial, imperial and ongoing warfare.
Rather than asking, why is the foreigner fighting, this type of research could begin by asking: What defines the foreigner in warfare? In a war where every local army receives supplies and manpower from abroad, is the foreigner still a relevant category? Is every fighter not simultaneously foreign and familiar to the battle he is placed in?
Iranian diplomat arrested in Afghanistan for recruiting Shiite fighters for Syrian civil war. Special cemetaries in Afghanistan for dead