A former Afghan platoon commander says he was doing manual labour on the Iranian island of Kish when he received a phone call. He says he listened carefully as a former comrade made a proposal: Join a new army and fight for a new cause.
That army was Russia’s, and the cause was the war against Ukraine.
The offer was for six months of training in Russia, $1,500 to $3,000 (U.S.) a month (three to six times what he’s been making in Iran) and Russian citizenship for him and his immediate family members.
“Yes, why not,” the former commander, Yadgar, says he replied to his friend.
“I am ready anywhere Russia would like to send me to fight.”
As Russian troops lose ground in Ukraine, there are signs that Moscow may be reaching for a new solution: Recruiting NATO-trained Afghanistan commandos and special forces.
Afghanistan’s 300,000-member security forces melted down after the Taliban conquered the country in August 2021, with only a few hundred elite forces, mostly senior commanders, getting evacuated by the U.S. and U.K.
The majority of the rest stayed in Afghanistan, where they now face threats of execution and capture under the Taliban regime. However, thousands escaped to neighbouring countries, including Iran and Pakistan.
Former army generals and midrank commanders have told that Star that 15 to 25 per cent of Afghan forces are currently believed to be in Iran, including nearly 5,000 elite troops — commandos and special forces — some of them labouring and some jobless, without legal status entitling them to stay.
Iran is a powerful player in the Middle East and has a long history of using non-Iranians in its proxy wars there, including in Syrian, Iraq and Yemen. Tehran is also a regional ally of Russia against the U.S. and its Western allies, and has acknowledging sending drones in Russia. According to former Afghan army sources in Iran, Tehran plays as a facilitator in recruiting Afghans.
It’s a recruitment process that has worried former Afghan military leadership, including former general Haibatullah Alizai, who served as the commander of special forces and was appointed as chief of army staff four days before his boss, the then-president of Afghanistan, fled Kabul.
Alizai was one of the people the Americans helped leave Afghanistan and now lives in the U.S. He says he has had several meetings with members of the U.S. Senate foreign affairs committee recently warning them about the recruitment, asking them to “find ways to stop it.”
According to him, the recruitment process begins with outreach from a network of former members of commandos. Once approved, these soldiers will be taken to a camp in Mashhad, a holy city in Iran, and then flown to Russia.
Alizai says he is in constant contact with former soldiers in Iran and knows several who went to Russia but cannot confirm if they have made it to the battlefield. He estimates about 1,000 of them have already been recruited, adding that the initial target, at least for now, is about 3,000 personnel.
Afghanistan special forces and commandos were regarded as some of the most experienced, high-skilled and strong units in the region, carrying out sophisticated raids and capturing battlefield from the Taliban.
“Russians have technology, but their military tactics are weak,” says Alizai. “If Russian aerial technology is mixed with the experience of Afghan special forces and commandos, and they will be given accurate co-ordination on the ground, there will certainly be changes in war (in Ukraine) in favour of Russia.”
The U.S. and other NATO countries including Canada trained, equipped and sustained Afghanistan security forces over 20 years of involvement there, spending nearly $90 billion.
Yadgar, who asked that last name not be made public for safety reasons, says he was trained by Americans and Britons. About 30,000 Afghan commandos and special forces received high-quality military training by U.S. Navy SEALs and British Special Air Service.
Those commandos, in recent years before the fall of Kabul, carried the bulk of the war burden against the Taliban and other insurgent groups.
“In night raids, and other complex operations, American forces were working closely with us,” he says. “I had several American advisers.”
Yadgar says he was a platoon commander in the western Farah province when his province fell to the Taliban. He says he fled to Iran to avoid execution.
After the recruitment from his former comrade, Yadgar says he ended up going to Tehran to meet the liaison, a former army general with Russian contacts in Iran, to discuss the offer in detail.
“We had rounds of bargaining,” he says of the offer for joining the Russian army. “We agreed to be paid $7,000 US per month while serving in the battlefield.”
Now, as he is waiting for his departure for Russia, Yadgar says he’s now been assigned to lead a group of 400 former Afghan commandos in Iran to help them submit their recruitment papers and co-ordinate for further steps.
“If needed, I would go to Afghanistan to help others to get to Iran for recruitment,” says Yadgar, who adds that he is frustrated by Afghan leaders and western allies’ betrayal.
“I know the end. It’s either death or new life in Russia.
“Russia gets the benefit of us. We have NATO military skills. We have all fighting skills that a NATO soldier has.”
Another former army soldier, who asked that his name not be used due to safety concerns, his peaceful life in Afghanistan ended eight months ago when the Taliban intelligence identified him at a restaurant where he was working as a servant. He fled to Iran to avoid a possible execution or torture. His home was searched three times after his departure, he says.
In Iran, he says, he was contacted by a former colleague a month ago to check if he would be interested in joining what he and other volunteers call the “Free Russian Army.”
“I have no choice,” this Afghan ex-soldier tells the Star, adding that including five friends have also registered for recruitment. “We have no visa in Iran or any legal residence permit so, there is a possibility of being deported every minute.”
“If we get deported, the Taliban will kill us all. We have no choice other than accepting this offer from Russians,” he says. “I don’t know what will happen to us but in war, you have a chance of survival if you have a gun.”
After weeks of waiting for further steps, his patience ended last week. He went to the Russian Embassy in Tehran to ask about the credibility of the recruitment. He said that a Russian diplomat gave him a phone number to contact.
According to the ex-soldier, dozens of Afghan immigrants, almost all of them former troops, were lined up in front of the Embassy asking for information.
For both him and for Yadgar, the transition to non-military jobs had been difficult. “I am used to making my living with guns,” the soldier said.
“I love to have a military uniform on me,” commander Yadgar said. “There should be a gun, personnel, commanding, fighting. No matter where it will be.”
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