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

Scott Worden on Afghan Elections and the Peace Process

Scott Worden on Afghan Elections and the Peace Process

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

By: Scott Worden

A week and a half after Afghan presidential polls, the results remain unclear. But, we do know that turnout was historically low, largely due to dire security conditions. Meanwhile, with the peace process stalled, USIP’s Scott Worden says the upsurge in U.S. military operations against the Taliban is a “pressure tactic, not a victory strategy.”

Electoral Violence; Democracy & Governance; Peace Processes

Loya Jirgas and Political Crisis Management in Afghanistan: Drawing on the Bank of Tradition

Loya Jirgas and Political Crisis Management in Afghanistan: Drawing on the Bank of Tradition

Monday, September 30, 2019

Many times over the past century, Afghan political elites have utilized a loya jirga, or grand national assembly, when they have needed to demonstrate national consensus. Based on traditional village jirgas convened to resolve local disputes, loya jirgas have been used to debate and ratify constitutions, endorse the country's position and alliances in times of war, and discuss how and when to engage the Taliban in peace talks. In light of the growing political uncertainty in Afghanistan, this report examines the strengths and weaknesses of the loya jirga as an institution for resolving national crises.

Type: Special Report

Democracy & Governance

How to push Taliban for compromise? Ask the women doing it.

How to push Taliban for compromise? Ask the women doing it.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

By: Palwasha L. Kakar

The halt in the U.S.-Taliban dialogue, plus Afghanistan’s September election, has forced a hiatus in formal peace efforts in the Afghan war—and that creates an opening to strengthen them. A year of preliminary talks has not yet laid a solid foundation for the broad political settlement that can end the bloodshed. While talks so far have mainly excluded Afghan women, youth and civil society, the sudden pause in formal peacemaking offers a chance to forge a more inclusive, and thus reliable, process. Even better, a little-noted encounter in Qatar between women and Taliban leaders signals that a broader process is doable.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Gender; Peace Processes

What to Watch for in Afghanistan’s Presidential Election

What to Watch for in Afghanistan’s Presidential Election

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

By: Scott Worden; Colin Cookman

After several delays, Afghans will finally head to the polls on Saturday to elect their next president. The election comes amid an indefinite stall in the year-long U.S.-Taliban negotiations following the cancellation of a high-level summit earlier in the month. There has been a debate over the sequencing of elections and the peace process for months, but the vote will move ahead this weekend. As with all post-2001 Afghan elections, security risks and the potential for fraud and abuse loom over these polls. USIP’s Scott Worden and Colin Cookman look at how insecurity will impact the legitimacy of the vote and what measures have been taken to combat electoral mismanagement and fraud.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Electoral Violence; Democracy & Governance

View All Publications