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Are Iran-Supported Afghan Fighters Returning To Afghanistan?

The funeral for Afghan soldiers who were organized by Iran to fights in Syria and have been killed there, on May 05, 2015.
The funeral for Afghan soldiers who were organized by Iran to fights in Syria and have been killed there, on May 05, 2015.

The Ministry of Defense in Kabul has denied reports that the members of Iran-supported Liwa Fatemiyoun have returned to Afghanistan.

Liwa Fatemiyoun, also known as Fatemiyoun Division, is an Afghan Shi'ite militia formed, trained and funded by the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) beginning in 2014 to fight in Syria on the side of Bashar Assad's forces.

Reportedly, by late 2017, the unit numbered between 10,000–20,000 fighters. A cultural official of the division, Zohair Mojahed, told Iranian news outlets in January 2018 that the group has suffered 2,000 killed and 8,000 wounded in combat in Syria since its establishment.

The division is made up of mainly of Hazara Afghan refugees living in Iran.

Earlier, on April 1, Associated Press had cited a senior official of Afghan Ministry of Interior as saying, "Roughly 10,000 veterans of the brigade have returned to Afghanistan”.

The senior official in Afghanistan’s Interior Ministry who is introduced by AP as "familiar with government intelligence," said he was "not authorized to brief reporters" and spoke on condition of anonymity.

The Afghan government and many experts believe Iran could mobilize these ex-fighters once more to assert its influence in Afghanistan, particularly as the United States accelerates its efforts to end its nearly 18-year military intervention, AP said.

Nevertheless, hours later, in an interview with RFE/RL's Afghan Service, Radio Azadi (Liberty), the spokesman of Afghanistan' Ministry of Defense, Ghais Mangal, denied the report, while insisting, "We have no comment on the Fatemiyoun Brigade, but deny the presence of its members in Afghanistan. However, we are going to investigate the report, and we will soon share the result with you."

Nonetheless, according to AP, "Afghanistan security officials worry that Iranian-backed Afghan veterans of the war in Syria will one day become a secret army for Tehran in Afghanistan itself, particularly after a U.S. withdrawal."

In a report published on October 1, 2017, Human Rights Watch (HRW) accused Tehran of recruiting Afghan immigrant children living in Iran to fight in Syria.

"Afghan children as young as fourteen have fought in the Fatemiyoun division, an exclusively Afghan armed group supported by Iran that fights alongside government forces in the Syrian conflict. Under international law, recruiting children under the age of 15 to participate actively in hostilities is a war crime," HRW said.

Since 2013, HRW said, Iran has supported and trained thousands of Afghans, at least some of them undocumented immigrants, as part of the Fatemiyoun division, a group that an Iranian newspaper close to the government describes as Afghan volunteer forces. In May 2015, Defa Press, a news agency close to Iran’s armed forces, reported that the Fatemiyoun had been elevated from a brigade to a division. There are no official public statistics on its size, but according to an interview published in the IRGC-affiliated Tasnim News, it has about 14,000 fighters.

"Iran ran an extensive drive to bring Shiites from across the region and create a network of militias to help save Assad from the uprising against his rule — not only Afghans but also Pakistanis, Iraqis, and Lebanese. Now with the 8-year war in Syria winding down, the question is what will Tehran do with those well-trained, well-armed forces," AP reports.

Furthermore, according to AP, "Soldiers-for-hire from Afghanistan’s impoverished Shiite Muslim communities are returning to their homeland, where they are met with suspicion. Afghan security officials believe Iran is still organizing them, this time as a secret army to spread Tehran’s influence amid Afghanistan’s unending conflicts."

In the meantime, Radio Azadi has quoted "informed military sources" in Afghanistan as saying, "There is no doubt that Fatemiyoun Division has returned to the country, and some Afghan politicians are defending its members."

Sadly, says an informed military affairs expert, Mohammadagol Mujahid, "There are individuals in Afghanistan's ruling establishment who support the Fatemiyoun Division for their personal benefits."

Mujahid insists that the government in Afghanistan is legally bound to disarm all groups that are threatening the country's security and hand their members to the Justice Department.