By Daniel Dayan
April 13, 2021
The process of peace talks in Afghanistan continues even as the situation of those Afghan citizens who were previously part of the Islamic Republic’s Fatemiyoun Brigade – the Afghan-born expeditionary force that Iran had deployed to the civil war in Syria, drawn from Afghan migrants inside Iran – remain unclear.
Critics have said the Islamic Republic continues to influence these Afghans and is trying to exploit them inside Afghanistan for its own interests.
Iranian authorities reject the accusation. But these fighters have returned to their homeland after the war in Syria subsided where they are now being threatened and detained by the Afghan government.
The Fatemiyoun Brigade is a paramilitary branch affiliated with the Quds Force of the Islamic Republic Revolutionary Guard Corps made up of Afghan citizens and particularly members of the Hazara ethnic minority. Statistics and names of Fatemiyoun casualties have never been revealed by the Islamic Republic. But according to some Afghan officials more than 5,000 Afghans were killed in the Syrian war for the Islamic Republic.
In this interview, Habibollah Ghouriani, an influential figure within the Hazara ethnic group, blamed the Islamic Republic for the “instrumentalized use” of Afghan citizens and defended their detention by the Afghan government.
One year ago, Belgheis Roshan, a member of the Afghan parliament, blamed the assassinated commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force Ghassem Soleimani for killing more than 5,000 Afghans who had fought for the Islamic Republic in the Syrian civil war under the banner of the Fatemiyoun Brigade.
The stories of the brigade’s survivors show they were deceived by unfulfilled promises of receiving a monthly salary after combat and a residence permit to live in Iran.
Some of the fighters had chosen to join the brigade on religious grounds. Many veterans have repeatedly said that the lack of adequate weapons and military training, as well as ideological brainwashing, had made them a kind of cannon fodder on the front lines in Syria.
The remnants of the Fatemiyoun Brigade returned home after the war in Syria subsided – where the Afghan government accused them of fighting for the interests of another country. Rumors of their possible arrest came true, and just a year ago, some Afghan officials confirmed in an interview with IranWire that members of the brigade would be detained on Afghan soil.
The Fatemiyoun veterans seemed consigned to a life of insecurity – which some Afghan analysts and officials had said is the product of the Islamic Republic’s decision to “use” Afghan citizens and immigrants as tools in its regional adventures.
Habibollah Ghouriani is an influential figure among the Hazara people in Herat. Many Hazara consider him to have the solutions to their problems and he has become popular – especially for the material help he has given his compatriots. He also maintains his own armed capacity and is not close to Afghan officials.
In an interview with IranWire, Ghouriani angrily said the decision by many Afghans, especially Hazara individuals, to join the Islamic Republic in Syria as an “irreparable mistake.”
“The Hazara People’s Forces [a local militia] are able to secure their areas and there is no need for Fatemiyoun Brigade fighters,” Ghouriani said. “While there is still a drop of blood in me, I will not allow the Fatemiyoun Brigade to operate in the Hazara areas. I will not allow the Fatemiyoun to tarnish the name of the Hazaras.”
Ghouriani’s remarks reflects the deteriorating situation of former members of the Fatemiyoun Brigade in Afghanistan. The former fighters are in danger of being detained by the government and they are widely rejected by public opinion.
Ghouriani also called on the Afghan National Security Agency to share with him whether there are former Afghan Fatemiyoun members in his own area – so that he could participate in their detention. “I am the only one who has come out against the Islamic Republic. Iran has always used our youth as a tool and sent them to Syria under the pretext of defending Shia values. Iran took advantage of the situation of Afghan refugees.”
But he believes the arrest of former Fatemiyoun members within Afghanistan will make them distrust the government and alienate them from country’s national interests. Ghouriani has suggested another solution: “If an Afghan youth had previously joined the Fatemiyoun Brigade, and the Afghan government detain him, they must make him a member of the Afghan army; I myself would call on national security to guarantee that the former members of the Fatemiyoun would no longer go to war for the Islamic Republic.”
There are many people like Ghouriani in Afghanistan – who are concerned about the ongoing military activities of former Fatemiyoun Brigade members who are back in Afghanistan. Part of the negative public opinion of Afghan society towards these fighters is why the Islamic Republic allegedly uses them on their own soil against their compatriots.
Ghouriani emphasized that “If the Fatemiyoun fighters are active in Afghanistan, they will be handed over to the government according to the law. And whatever the government decides for them is right.”
There are no definite statistics on how many Fatemiyoun fighters survived the war or are back in Afghanistan. Many have returned to their homeland; but under security threats and public pressure, they are going through difficult times. They live secretly for fear of revealing their backgrounds, and even fear of being attacked by the Taliban or ISIS. The nightmare of the Islamic Republic exploiting their desperation and religious beliefs continues.