Since 2013, as many as 50,000 Afghans have fought in Syria as part of the Fatemiyoun, a pro-Assad force organized by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps. Based on field interviews with former fighters and their families, this Special Report examines the motivations of members of the Afghan Shia Hazara communities who joined the Fatemiyoun as well as the economic and political challenges of reintegrating them into Afghan society.

Summary

  • The Fatemiyoun, an Iranian-backed military force that has fought in Syria since 2013, is estimated to number in the tens of thousands and draws its membership primarily from Shia Afghan communities in Iran and Afghanistan.
  • Recruits are mostly in their twenties and thirties who are motivated mainly by economic deprivation and vulnerabilities due to their migrant status and, to a lesser degree, by religious sentiments and a sense of youthful military adventurism.
  • Nearly all Shia political and religious leaders oppose sending Afghan Shias to fight in Syria, though some leaders support the fight against the Islamic State. There is also strong opposition among the families of Fatemiyoun fighters, many of whom seek to dissuade their sons from going to Syria.
  • Religious and political elites expressed concern about the lack of economic opportunities in Afghanistan’s Hazara areas, increasing marginalization of Shias and Hazaras, and the lack of government attention to the security of Hazara and Shia areas. They cite these factors as possible contributors to future mobilization of armed Shia and Hazara local defense groups.
  • Thousands of former Fatemiyoun fighters are returning to Afghanistan, where they are struggling to reintegrate and feed their families, and are living in fear of a possible crackdown against them by Afghan security forces.

About the Report

Based on field interviews in Kabul, Mazar-e-Sharif, and Herat, this report examines the origins and motivations of members of the Afghan Shia Hazara communities who joined the Iranian-backed Fatemiyoun, a military force that has fought in the Syrian conflict since 2013, and their reintegration into Afghan society. The project was supported by USIP’s Asia Center

About the Author

Ahmad Shuja Jamal is a Fulbright scholar at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy, where he researches and writes about international security and human rights. He would like to thank Nawroz Raja, Morteza Pajhwok, and Ali for their invaluable contributions, as well as all those who shared their stories.

Related Publications

Breaking the Stalemate: Biden Can Use the U.S.-Taliban Deal to Bring Peace

Breaking the Stalemate: Biden Can Use the U.S.-Taliban Deal to Bring Peace

Thursday, February 25, 2021

By: Scott Worden

On the eve of the one-year anniversary of the U.S.-Taliban agreement, Afghanistan remains unfortunately far away from peace. The historic agreement paved the way for a full U.S. withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and the start of intra-Afghan talks on a political settlement of the conflict. As the May 1 withdrawal deadline nears, the Biden administration is undertaking a rapid Afghanistan policy review to determine its overall strategy toward the slow-moving intra-Afghan negotiations in Doha, Qatar. A key reason for the lack of movement in talks is that both sides are anxiously waiting to see what Biden decides. 

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Peace Processes

Afghan Peace Talks: Could a Third-Party Mediator Help?

Afghan Peace Talks: Could a Third-Party Mediator Help?

Thursday, February 18, 2021

By: Scott Smith

At present, the Afghan peace negotiations (APN) between the Afghan government and the Taliban do not involve any third-party presence beyond hosting and supporting roles. The parties to the conflict and members of the international community might consider the benefits of a neutral, third-party mediator to help resolve the impasses that have dogged and delayed the negotiations so far. While the presence of a mediator does not guarantee success, there are very few examples of a significant peace agreement that has been reached without some sort of third-party facilitation or mediation.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Peace Processes; Mediation, Negotiation & Dialogue

How to Prevent Fresh Hostilities as Afghan Peace Talks Progress

How to Prevent Fresh Hostilities as Afghan Peace Talks Progress

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

By: Meghan L. O’Sullivan; Vikram J. Singh; Johnny Walsh

Many peace processes experience at least short-term reversions to violence. Even a successful Afghan peace process will be at risk of the same, especially in the likely event that the United States and its allies continue to withdraw troops from Afghanistan. Ideally, such troop reductions would move in parallel with de-escalatory measures by the Taliban and other armed actors on the ground. A healthy dose of realism is in order, however. Though the Taliban and others in Afghanistan are unlikely to ever fully disarm or demobilize, persistent resources and attention from the United States and its allies can help prevent any regression to full-scale violence during the years of any peace agreement’s implementation.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Peace Processes

View All Publications