By Daniel Dayan
February 6, 2021
Thousands of Afghan nationals have joined the Fatemiyoun Brigade over the years, compelled either by promises made by the Islamic Republic or by their religious beliefs.
This militant branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ Quds Force consists solely of Afghan citizens and immigrants to Iran. How many of these fighters fought in Iran’s name in Syria is not known. But last January, the Afghan MP Belqeis Roshan announced that at least 5,000 Afghans had lost their lives under the Fatemiyoun banner.
In an interview with Tolou TV, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has stressed that regardless of the death toll, all Afghans voluntarily join the force. In this report, a former member of the Fatemiyoun Brigades insists that this is not true – far from it.
Alireza is 27 years old. He has now fought on behalf of the Islamic Republic’s interests in Syria in four separate periods, always under the banner of the Fatemiyoun Brigade.
As a young man he lived in Barchi, which is one of the Hazara [Afghan Shia-dominated] neighborhoods of Kabul. But poverty and unemployment in the area pushed him to emigrate to Iran to work in support of his family.
Like many Afghans in Iran, Alireza was technically an illegal immigrant because he did not have a residence permit. He was arrested several times and on the last of these occasions, police officers came to the construction site where he worked and rounded up all the undocumented Afghans at once. They were taken to an immigration detention center where, Alireza says, they was told they had a simple choice: be deported back to Afghanistan or join the Fatemiyoun Brigade.
The Iranian police officers told Alireza and his compatriots that if they went to fight in Syria the Islamic Republic would reward them with legal residency documents. On balance, Alireza and several others decided, it would be best for them to go out and fight. The next day a car arrived to transfer them all to a military training camp.
According to many former members of the Fatemiyoun Brigade, the Islamic Republic usually records the details new recruits and their next of kin, so that they can inform their relatives in Afghanistan in the event of their death. But Alireza says this courtesy was never extended to him.
He and dozens of other Afghans were taught the rudiments of warfare at a barracks in Tehran over the course of just 21 days. Before then, he had never so much as picked up a weapon, let alone considered how to kill with it. The training was very short compared to what they would have received in Afghanistan; in fact, Alireza says, “It was akin to suicide. Many of us did not learn how to use the equipment in that brief period. But we had no choice.”
In the same three-week period religious missionaries also worked on the minds of the Afghan migrant recruits. “The propaganda was very effective. They did change our mentality. By the end of the training period, our beliefs were much stronger than before; we were told that we were going to defend the [Shia] shrines. But it was a lie; what we encountered in the war was completely different.”
Fighting Empty-Handed and Blind
Alireza and his compatriots first set foot on the battlefield shortly after the end of their training. But like many former members of the Fatemiyoun Brigade, he insists that they did not have enough weapons while the Iranian forces were bristling with weaponry from head to to.
“Out of every 30 Iranians,” he recalls, “29 were equipped with night-vision cameras. But there was one such camera for every 150 of us Afghans, and only one Kalashnikov, three rifles and two grenades. That’s why our losses were so great. We were the front line, and the Iranian forces were in the second line behind us, but much better equipped.”
The weapons handed out among members of the Fatemiyoun Brigade army were also of no use in long-range combat. “It’s not possible to shoot at the enemy from a distance with a Kalashnikov. We had to get as close as possible, within 50 meters from the enemy, and from there fight both ISIS and the Syrian opposition. Whoever stuck around there would be killed, and whoever could escape again would survive.
“We complained about the lack of weapons and they kept giving us unrealistic promises. One night, they abruptly took all of us onto the battlefield, but they didn’t give us any equipment at all. We didn’t even know where we were, and yet we were supposed to fight night and day.”
The intensity of the Syrian civil war subsided in 2019. Alireza, along with many surviving Fatemiyoun fighters, was finally allowed to return to Iran or Afghanistan. He worked for four months in a grocery store in Tehran before eventually going home to Afghanistan, bearing nothing more than battle scars and a wounded spirit.
Unwanted and Unemployable in Afghanistan
Many former members of the Fatemiyoun Brigade exist in a state of perpetual insecurity after their return to Afghanistan. They do not dare tell the truth about what happened to them, because in the eyes of the Afghan government it is a crime to fight as a proxy force in the service of the Islamic Republic. Simultaneously, they are harshly judged by their Sunni fellow citizens, who refer to them as “terrorists”.
These recruits have also discovered en masse that the incentives proffered to them by the Islamic Republic for joining up were lies. There was no permanent residency, there was no clemency, and there was no compensation. This disillusionment now forms part of the unique burden they bear as they go about their lives in an increasingly insecure Afghanistan.
Many Afghans as well as many Afghan officials have claimed that the Islamic Republic is now using more experienced members of the Fatemiyoun Brigade to combat pro-ISIS forces inside the country; that is to say, arming Afghans against their compatriots. Alireza says this is true, and Fatemiyoun fighters are presently variously stationed in the west, north and central parts of Afghanistan.
Not so long ago, Iran’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Javad Zarif, looked a Tolou TV reporter in the eye on camera and declared: “We are not sending anyone to Syria. Our brothers volunteered… They went there because of their own beliefs.”
To compound this lie, he went on to state that if the Afghan government wished, it could recruit the Fatemiyoun Brigade for domestic support “given their history of fighting terrorists and ISIS”. Zarif knows very well that this premise is paper-thin. Even if the Afghan government were inclined to consider the proposal, it would be impractical both legally and in terms of international relations; the US has designated the Fatemiyoun Brigade as a pro-terrorism group.
Now and for the foreseeable future, members of Fatemiyoun Brigade, who were used as line breakers on the battlefronts by Iran, are in limbo. Neither their government nor a large proportion of their compatriots want them back. They were tools in the service of the Islamic Republic – and never anything more.