Afghanistan: The next battlefield?
Washington - “We will maintain a presence in Afghanistan, even after the end of our current mission,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg announced. The Atlantic alliance, he said, will have a “light footprint,” with “a military component”.
But a “light footprint” may not be enough to secure the survival of the fragile Afghan state: On top of the constant pressure from the Taliban, NATO must also prepare itself for an influx of Shia Afghan fighters mobilised by the Tehran regime.
Anticipating the resurgence of the Taliban, the expeditionary al-Quds force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC-QF) is training Shia Afghans who most likely will be deployed to Afghanistan to create a buffer zone protecting Iran’s eastern border.
Funeral services in Iran for Shia Afghans killed in combat in Syria since September 2013 testifies to Tehran’s preparations.
The Islamic Republic media try hard to play down the scope of the Shia Afghan presence in Syria and deny any government involvement in their mobilisation.
Defa Press and Mashregh News, two of the IRGC’s many unofficial mouthpieces, for example, claim Afghan volunteers for Syria were organised in Kabul and their numbers “in the most optimistic assessment does not exceed 200”.
In the same vein, Moalem, (The Teacher) a propaganda movie glorifying the role of Shia Afghans in Syria, advances the argument that Afghans travel to Syria to defend Shia pilgrimage sites in the vicinity of Damascus.
Such claims are in stark contrast to data extracted from other Islamic Republic news sources, including Defa News. It admits that Shia Afghans initially operated alongside the Iraqi Abolfazl al-Abbas Brigade, which under joint IRGC-QF and Lebanese Hezbollah supervision, was mobilised in Najaf in October 2012 and deployed to Syria to defend Shia shrines.
However, as more Afghans joined the force, they were organised in the purely Afghan Fatemiyoun Brigade. Clearly, a limited Shia Afghan presence in Syria would not have led to the formation of a separate brigade.
A survey of funeral services in Iran for 91 Shia Afghans killed in Syria further undermines the estimate that their group totalled a maximum of 200 men, and the claim the Fatemiyoun Brigade was established in Kabul.
All individuals whose records were examined were buried in the presence of their families in cities in Iran, which suggests they were recruited among Afghan refugees in the Islamic Republic.
The presence of representatives of the Martyr Foundation [Bonyad-e Shahid], the local Friday prayer leader and representatives of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, at the funeral services, provide additional proof of the Tehran government’s recruitment of the Afghan Shias.
So does a photo of Ali-Reza Tavasoli, the late commander of the Fatemiyoun Brigade, standing next to Major-General Qassem Soleimani, the IRGC-QF commander, and the presence of his deputy, Brigadier-General Esmail Qaani, at the funeral services.
The Fatemiyoun Brigade must therefore be seen as a small part of the IRGC-QF’s operations against Tehran’s regional adversaries. Very little is known about the operations of the Fatemiyoun Brigade, apart from the fact that its members killed in combat were all operating in Syria, and not Iraq.
Judging by the dates of the funerals, the brigade suffered the highest casualties from May-October 2014, which coincides with the Syrian military’s takeover and withdrawal from Dokhaniyeh, east of Damascus, and late February to March 2015, during an unsuccessful Syrian Army offensive against the northern city of Aleppo.
Fatemiyoun losses were not limited to its rank-and-file members: Tavasoli, the brigade commander, and Reza Bakhshi, his deputy, were killed in February after which Reza Marzai took over the command of the Brigade.
Mehdi Saberi, a company commander, was killed in March and Mohammad Rezaei, a graduate from the theological seminary in Qom, was killed in September 2014.
Far from dissuading the Quds Force from deploying more Afghani Shia to Syria, Soleimani is likely to deploy more Afghans to what Iran now perceives as a combat training ground.
The IRGC-QF is likely to recruit many more poor Afghani Shia refugees for the civil war in Syria in return for permanent residence permits in Iran and a modest stipend. Others, of course, may join the struggle motivated by ideology and religious beliefs.
Regardless of their motives, their shared experience in Syria is likely to be utilised by Tehran in their native Afghanistan. The “light footprint” of NATO in that country will most likely invite the Taliban, as well as the regime in Tehran, to fill the power vacuum and once again transform Afghanistan into a proxy battlefield between Shia Iran and the Sunni powers.