Afghans worry about the return of Shia fighters from Syria’s civil war

Mar 14, 2019

ALIREZA QANBARI has still not told his parents the truth about what he did when he left Afghanistan for Iran. The 23-year-old is happy for his father to believe he worked as a labourer. In fact, he fought with an Afghan militia recruited by Iran to help prop up the government in Syria’s civil war. With the war now dying down, Afghan fighters are starting to come home. Just as the West agonises about the return of radicalised émigrés, many in Afghanistan worry about what the former fighters will do—and where their loyalties lie.

At its height, the Fatemiyoun, as the Afghan militia was known, had as many as 20,000 fighters, largely from the Hazara ethnic minority. Most Hazaras are Shia Muslims, as are the ruling elite in both Iran and Syria. Long downtrodden, Hazaras were especially persecuted by the Sunni Muslims of the Taliban. More recently the Afghan branch of Islamic State has launched terror attacks on Hazara targets.

Mr Qanbari, which is not his real name, was desperate to escape stifling poverty in the countryside near Herat, close to Afghanistan’s border with Iran. So, like many of his peers, he crossed the frontier to find work. A Hazara friend of his in Iran disappeared, only to resurface nine months later in a military hospital. His friend revealed he had been wounded in Syria with the Fatemiyoun, which paid...

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