London, 10 April - Many Iranian-backed fighters are returning home from the Syrian Civil War where they fought in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but they are not necessarily going to Iran.
Iran is famous for having sent thousands of undocumented Shiite Afghan refugees to fight in Syria alongside Iran-backed Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), since 2011. Why? Because it was cheaper than sending Iranians and would create less public outcry than having Iranians die in Syria.
Estimates for the Afghan Fatimiyoun Brigade were 10-12,000 fighters at the peak of the war, which made them the second-largest group of foreigners fighting for Assad in Syria.
Iran promised the refugees and their families, citizenship, a decent salary, and improved living standards, which sounded incredible to the around 3 million Afghans living in Iran without basic rights or a formal status.
One returning Afghan fighter, Hamid, 22, who commanded a unit within the Fatimiyoun Brigade, said that he had moved to Iran at 17 to find a job. After six months, Iranian authorities told him he had to fight in Syria or go back to Afghanistan.
Hamid, who returned to Afghanistan in 2016, said: "I chose to join the Fatimiyoun Brigade [in Syria] as I needed the money to pay off my debts… But it was all a lie. I was granted a five-year residency, which required monthly renewal. I was not paid at all, let alone the right to own a house or a car."
He continued: "After six months of fighting in Syria, I got shot and returned to Iran. I spent three months in Iran, but I was not treated. So I had to return to Afghanistan. My father sold a piece of his fertile land and sent me to India for treatment."
It’s not known exactly how many Afghan fighters have returned home from Syria, but it’s estimated to be in the thousands and Afghanistan fears they could be Iranian sleeper cells looking to destabilise the country.
After all, some refugees were indoctrinated by Iranian officials on a sectarian basis to fight the mostly Sunni rebels in Syria. One fighter, who wished to remain anonymous, said that they were told they’d better learn to fight so they’d be well prepared for “future wars in Afghanistan in order to establish a real Islamic state”.
Retired Afghan General Atiqullah Amarkhil said: “[These fighters] are definitely a threat to Afghanistan's security. They are a bunch of trained guerrillas who have fought as mercenaries [in Syria] and know nothing but fighting."
Hamid said: "I have heard that some of the [Fatimiyoun Brigade] fighters are told they would be equipped to fight in Afghanistan. The pretext could be fighting the Islamic State, but once inside Afghanistan these fighters would be tasked to fight the Afghan government."