Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers patrol the area near a checkpoint recaptured from the Taliban, in the Alishing district of Laghman province, Afghanistan July 8, 2021. (REUTERS)

By Track Persia

July 26, 2021

The planned US forces withdrawal from Afghanistan has coincided with the revelation that the Iranian regime has set up new proxies Shiite militia in the country. Jomhouri Islami newspaper, a state-sponsored newspaper funded by Iran’s Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, made this revelation on Monday. It called the new military group the ‘Hashd al-Shi’i’ (Shiite Mobilisation), an Arabic name given for Iran-backed Shiite militia groups in Iraq accused of committing wide-scale of sectarian killings and repeated attacks on multinational forces that support Iraqis to fight terrorist activities in the country.

The alleged newly formed Iran-backed  Shiite militia in Afghanistan was immediately denounced by Afghani officials calling this development a conspiracy that was intended to provoke the Afghani people and threaten security in this war-torn country. The head of the Afghan Ministry of Information and Culture Qasem Vafaizadah called those involved mercenary groups “who act as foreigners’ puppets.” While Shah Hossein Mortazavi, a senior adviser to Afghani President Ashraf Ghani said that Afghanistan would not suffer the same fate as Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon and that Iran’s “sedition” will fail.

The Iranian regime previously praised the Fatemiyoun fighters suggesting that they could help the fight against the extremist group Islamic State (IS) in Afghanistan. Nonetheless, the Afghani officials rejected such a proposal from Tehran because they thought any deployment of Iran’s proxies in Afghanistan such as Fatemiyoun Brigade would inflame a sectarian conflict in the country.

The Iranian regime is one of the few entities in the world that welcomed the premature departure of the US troops from Afghanistan. Iran’s formal policy on the US departure from Afghanistan has been reflected in a statement by the Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif who welcomed the new development describing it as a “positive move.”

However, the reality is that Tehran is waiting for the vacuum that is expected to be left by the US troops departure to expand its influence eastward as it has already done that westwards with the control of four significant countries in the Arab world, i.e. Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon.

With the fall of the Taliban in 2001 by the US invasion of Afghanistan, Tehran exploited this development by supporting the fighting groups opposing the US presence in the country. These groups were involved in carrying out attacks against  US interests and troops in the country. The Iranian regime, however, has supported all rivals groups including  Al-Qaeda, local Afghan groups and its own proxies to undermine US interests, without confronting American and NATO forces directly.

Tehran has a long track record of training proxy forces, from Iranians, Iraqis, Lebanese, Syrians, Yemenis to Afghans. following the success of the Islamic Revolution which was led by Iran’s late Supreme Leader and founder of the Islamic Republic Grand Ayatollah Ruhullah Khomeini, the theocratic regime started implementing its policy of transporting its Islamic Revolution to the world.

During its 1980-88 war against Iraq, the Iranian regime recruited thousands of Afghanis who were living as refugees in Iran. The recruits were trained by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards (IRGC)’s Quds Force. About 3000 of these recruits were reported to have been killed during this war.

The IRGC has again targeted Afghan migrants and refugees in Iran and sent them to Lebanon and Syria for military training. During the ongoing civil war in Syria, the IRGC has been busy training the Shiite Afghani fighters on fighting there to defend the regime of Syria’s dictator Bashar al-Asad.

The Fatemiyoun Brigade is best known for Iran-backed Afghan mercenaries fighting in Syria. Despite, Iranian officials try to distance themselves from the group, it is common knowledge that these mercenaries were recruited, trained, armed and funded by Tehran. The numbers of these fighters are not known exactly but are estimated to be between 5,000 and 30,000. In January 2018, a Fatemiyoun official said that 2,000 of this group had been killed in Syria and more than 8,000 wounded, indicating that the total strength of the group is much larger than Iran claims.

In the past few months, the IRGC has been sending Afghan nationals who arrived in Iran as refugees to undergo training at its Lebanese bases on behalf of the Iran-trained Afghani militia Fatemiyoun Brigade. Iran has more than 3 million Afghani refugees. This means there is a potential that Tehran can compensate for the thousands of Afghani fighters who were killed in Syria.

It seems, however, that the Iranian regime does not only intend to use the Afghani militias in its proxy conflicts in Syria and Afghanistan, but also it will use them in any future military conflict with Israel, especially since the latter has increased its attacks on Iranian interests and Iran’s proxies inside and outside Iran.

Iran’s meddling in Afghanistan’s affairs and its support to the fighting groups in the country does not only undermine the efforts of stabilising security in Afghanistan, but also it undermines efforts exerted in the post-Taliban period to form democratic governments in the country.

Additionally, the nefarious Iranian meddling in Afghanistan has become very clear with Tehran’s military deployments along Iran-Afghanistan border after the US troops have started to withdraw from the country. IRGC forces and heavy military equipment, as well as air force assets, are being redeployed to the border, increasing regular troops and border guards. It has become clear that The Iranian new military posture would enable Tehran to take offensive action inside Afghanistan once the American withdrawal is completed by 11 September.

The scenario of Iranian military incursion in Afghanistan after the US withdrawal could be most likely given Iran’s next President is Ibrahim Raisi whose presidency will be inauguration on 5 August. The notorious president-elect Raisi who is supported by Iran’s Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the majority radical parliament is likely to establish a more hardliner position after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. He could order Iranian military forces to enter Afghanistan and attack some groups which Tehran deems as a threat to its security.

The bottom line, the departure of U.S. and NATO forces will certainly empower Tehran and encourage it to fill the power vacuum left. This consequently, will give Tehran more chance to seek influence both on Afghan officials and other power brokers in the country, including the Taliban. However, it is still unclear how much influence Iran will gain in Afghanistan after all the US troops leave the country.

About Track Persia

Track PersiaTrack Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.