January 8, 2020
A Quds Force regiment made up of Afghan soldiers fighting for Iran has pledged to be at the “forefront of the harsh revenge” for the assassination of Ghasem Soleimani.
The unit, which has primarily fought in Syria against Islamic State (ISIS), recruits Afghan Shias, often with the promise of giving the soldiers and their families residency in Iran after their service. Following the death of Soleimani on January 3, the Fatemiyoun Brigade issued a statement published by Fars News Agency, which read: “The Liwa Fatemiyoun Brigade will be at the forefront of the harsh revenge for Ghasem Soleimani’s martyrdom against America and its state terrorism, and will not leave American terrorists in the region in peace.”
Soleimani, who was the commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ extraterritorial Quds Force, was killed near Baghdad airport when US forces targeted his convoy. Commanders of the Popular Mobilization Forces [Hashd al-Shaabai] group were also killed.
A large number of Afghan citizens have fought and died under the yellow flag of the Fatemiyoun Brigade for the Islamic Republic of Iran, tasked with protecting the regime of the Bashar al-Assad in Syria. The brigade serves under the Quds Force, and is a subsidiary of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps [IRGC]. The Guards promised to pay Afghan citizens high salaries and grant them official residence in Iran if they agreed to fight in Syria, and launched a persuasive propaganda campaign to recruit fighters. Many of those recruited had been living illegally in Iran.
As the civil war in Syria has subsided, many soldiers in the unit have returned to Afghanistan, so its promise to lead the “severe retaliation against America” has prompted fears that the brigade will launch a campaign against the US within Afghanistan.
Following the death of Soleimani and mounting speculation as to how the Islamic Republic will respond, the Afghan president has appealed to the US and Iran to avoid escalating tensions in the region and to resolve their differences through dialogue. The Afghan government has also reiterated that Afghan soil will not be used as the battleground by any foreign country.
Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has announced that he has been speaking to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani about President Trump’s decision to kill Soleimani, which he did without informing any allies in the region or elsewhere. “The Iranian regime’s performance is the source of instability in the region, and the United States will protect its people and interests,” he said on Twitter.
In contrast, the Afghan unity government’s chief executive Abdullah Abdullah expressed regret over the killing of Soleimani and offered his condolences to his family, his supporters, and the government of the Islamic Republic. “The Islamic Republic of Iran is our neighbor and ally. He stood by our people during the jihad and the resistance,” Abdullah’s statement read. “Afghanistan, as a victim of terrorism and violence, seeks detente in regional and international relations and hopes that the recent events will not negatively affect the situation and the cooperation of our friends and allies in Afghanistan.”
Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai denounced the killing of the Iranian military commander, describing the move as a “violation of international principles and norms.” Karzai said the killing of Soleimani would increase tensions and hostility in the region, undermining stability and peace. “Despite the US military presence in Afghanistan, the Islamic Republic of Iran has good relations with our country and has shown sincere cooperation in rebuilding our country,” Karzai said. He expressed confidence that good and fraternal relations between the brotherly countries of Afghanistan and Iran would continue to be “wise” and based on “cooperation.“
Qader Kamel, a political analyst from Afghanistan’s Herat province, told IranWire that Karzai’s views were influenced by the fact that he had maintained close relationship with the Islamic Republic and had allegedly “received packages of money packages during his time in office.” Karzai’s relations with Washington were strained from 2009 to 2014, and Karzai has been critical of the United States.
Afghans Fear a Proxy War
Soleimani’s assassination has also led to a backlash on social media from many Afghan citizens. One, Asad Buddha, wrote on Facebook: “Ghasem Soleimani was killed as he deserved, as an offshore terrorist. Off Iranian soil, he was planning military operations in co-operation with radical militant groups that, like the Taliban, has been ruining this country.”
Regarding the Islamic Republic’s recruitment of Afghan citizens, many of them refugees, to fight in the Syrian civil war under the banner of the Fatemiyoun Brigade, he wrote: “He enjoyed the bloodshed of innocent women and children and the killing of thousands of innocent immigrants. Eventually [Ghasem Soleimani] fell into the same well he had struck for others.”
Another Afghan citizen going by the name Mohammed told IranWire: “Soleimani was a terrorist; it was good that he was killed. It was because of him that hundreds of Afghans were killed in the Syrian war. I am glad that this terrorist was killed by the United States. Iran should be given a lesson to refrain from interfering in the affairs of regional countries, especially in Afghanistan.”
Another Afghan citizen, Babar Ituk, commented on the regret some of his compatriots had expressed about the death of Soleimani: “The Iranians’ jubilation and the grief of some Afghans amazes me, especially when a large number of Iranians are happy about the death of Soleimani and regard him as no less than Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi [an ISIS leader]. What did he do for the Afghan nation [to make] you grieve for his death? Wasn’t he the one who arrested our compatriots in Iran on various pretexts and used them as tools in the war?”
At the same time, the Iranian government’s relations with the Taliban has continued to improve, with a senior Taliban delegation led by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar recently traveling to Iran. The US has repeatedly accused Iran and Afghan officials of supporting the Taliban. Much of Iran’s activity there has been concentrated in the western provinces of Afghanistan, and many Afghan civil and political activists are concerned about Afghanistan’s future as a land for continued proxy wars between Iran and the United States.
Seyed Ashraf Sadat, a civil rights activist based in Herat, told IranWire that Iran could use its proxies and the Taliban and the Fatemiyoun Brigade to target US interests in Afghanistan: “If Iran wishes it can use the Taliban to attack US interests in Afghanistan. I hope that Afghanistan does not get into tensions between the US and the Taliban. If Iran wants to, it can challenge the presence of the United States with armed groups opposing the Afghan government.”
In recent days, a photograph of Ghasem Soleimani with former Afghan jihadist commander Ahmad Shah Massoud taken in 1995 has been shared on Facebook by Afghans.
Condemning the killing of Soleimani, Abdul Latif Pedram, an Afghan presidential candidate, stated: “Ghasem Soleimani has had a close relationship with Afghan national hero commander Massoud.”
Afghan journalist Zafar Shah Royi posed a different question: “Could Soleimani’s murder lead to new developments? The benefit of killing Soleimani is greater for Iranian citizens than it is for the United States.”
“Ghasem Soleimani was one of the key figures in the Iranian government and in the Middle East and was leading Iran’s proxy wars in the region,” political analyst Qader Kamel told IranWire. “Soleimani’s death will be a huge loss for the Islamic Republic of Iran. The killing of Ghasem Soleimani will give Iranian officials a new excuse to shout out revenge slogans and think about targeting US interests in the Middle East, Libya, and Afghanistan.”
“With Iran’s back bent under the US sanctions and popular protests, Tehran is not in a position to [become] involved in a direct confrontation with Washington,” he said.
“Soleimani was the active arm of the Iranian regime in regional conflicts,” says Elias Noandish, an Afghan journalist. “He led the Fatemiyoun Brigade in Syria and Iranian proxy forces in Iraq and was involved in clandestine operations in other Middle Eastern countries. Naturally, his death on Iraqi soil was unimaginable to the Iranian regime and to Ayatollah Khamenei himself. We have to wait for the aftershocks.”