Afghan refugees are being recruited to join an Iranian paramilitary

While hundreds of thousands of Afghans flee their homeland after the victory of the Taliban, the United States and the international community face an underestimated challenge: Some of these refugees could be recruited into state and paramilitary forces. As Western policy makers consider how to deal with Afghan evacuees, including former members of the Afghan security forces, they may consider how to prevent opponents like Iran from recruiting Afghan refugees for dangerous and destabilizing operations.

Recently, Iran has recruited thousands of Afghans to its Liwa Fatemiyoun, which it has used as “cannon fodder” in the war in Syria. But the recruitment of refugees to the paramilitary is not a new phenomenon, and its repetition may indicate that it is attractive to governments.

During the Cold War, the United States recruited Cuban refugees for the Bay of Pigs operation, and the British recruited heavily from exile communities during World War II. Research shows that states tend to recruit “legionaries” – foreign-born individuals – to their military forces when faced with recruitment challenges and external threats. An increasing supply of refugees can make recruitment even more attractive, especially if potential recruits have few other options. The UN estimates that up to half a million Afghans can flee into neighboring countries and join over 2.6 million existing Afghan refugees.

Recruitment to paramilitary forces – forces that are not formally part of the state military – comes with additional benefits and risks for states. Paramilitary will not face the same need for accountability as regular units, nor will they likely be provided with the same long-term benefits as regular military veterans. The availability of refugee-manned paramilitary groups could also make covert efforts more attractive, as the citizens of the sponsoring state do not bear the cost of an operation. While paramilitary groups may face recruitment challenges given the costs and risks, refugees may be easier targets.

One proposal – the British Army recruiting Afghan commandos in a capacity like the Gurkhaers – is an example of a positive approach. The United States also reportedly evacuated partners who were in line with the previous regime, and these individuals could also be recruited by the U.S. military. Well-trained, experienced Afghan military personnel who have long collaborated with coalition militaries can contribute a great deal, provided they are properly researched, receive the necessary benefits, and have a real choice in terms of their recruitment opportunities.

Recruitment of former Afghans outside the Western military should give policy makers a break. Turkey could recruit Afghan arrivals to proxies, mimicking its recruitment of displaced Syrians to forces deployed to fight in Syria, the Libyan civil war and the Nagorno-Karabakh war in 2020. One can also imagine a future hypothetical mission, which reflects the approach of Pig Bay, where Afghan evacuees are recruited to return to Afghanistan. Such a mission could draw on former members of special forces outside the Afghan main forces. For example, the New York Times reported that a unit of the National Defense Service, Afghanistan’s intelligence service, was reportedly present at Kabul airport and was evacuated. Returning such forces to Afghanistan might seem like an easy option in the future, but it could pose unexpected risks to both the returning forces and the stability of the region.

The biggest threat to national security undoubtedly comes from Iran’s recruitment of Afghans. Since at least 2012, Iran has been recruiting Afghan adults and children to Liwa Fatemiyoun, who supports Bashar al-Assad’s forces in Syria’s civil war. Of its estimated 50,000 Afghan fighters, about 5,000 were killed and another 4,000 wounded during the war. In 2017, Iran declared victory over Islamic State and stopped recruiting for Liwa Fatemiyoun, but it could change course and expand operations in Syria or outside.

Before Kabul fell to the Taliban, Iranian officials indicated that the group could be used in Afghanistan, especially in the fight against Islamic State Khorasan (ISIS-K). If relations between Iran and the Taliban deteriorate, Tehran could try to use Liwa Fatemiyoun as a force inside Afghanistan. A possible trigger for this action could be violence against Afghanistan’s Hazara population, a Shia Muslim minority. Iran has benefited from vulnerable Afghans by offering a path to permanent residence. This is a strong incentive as Iran and other countries have repatriated Afghan refugees in recent years.

Further investigation into the issue is particularly important as it is unclear what tools can be used to stop state-sponsored refugee recruitment. It is unlikely that further sanctions will convince Iranian stakeholders – Washington has already adopted broad sanctions against Tehran and designated the Iranian Revolutionary Guards as a foreign terrorist organization. Improved humanitarian efforts, inside and outside Afghanistan, could make recruitment incentives less attractive. There could also be information campaigns to warn refugees about the risks of recruitment.

While refugee recruitment may seem a less immediate concern than other humanitarian challenges, it can be an important and underestimated part of threats to displaced people. The ability to get refugees to flee conflicts in their home countries, only to be recruited by another state to fight in another war, could seem counterproductive. Greater awareness of these risks may become increasingly important as refugee flows from Afghanistan continue.

Erik E. Mueller is a defense analyst, and Andrew Radin is a political scientist at the nonprofit, RAND Corporation.

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