By: Michael Scollon
Lost status and a desperate existence in Iran are driving thousands of former Afghan soldiers -- many of them elite commandos trained by the United States -- to consider fighting as mercenaries in Ukraine and other battlefields.
Many ex-Afghan security personnel accuse the United States of abandoning them after the Taliban regained power last year. They also say poverty and security concerns are factoring into their decisions to take a private Russian mercenary group up on its recruitment offers.
According to WhatsApp messages viewed by RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, some former Afghan commandos are already making the move to join the Vagner Group, also known as Wagner, a private paramilitary organization that plays a prominent role in the Kremlin's war against Ukraine.
Others currently living in Iran, where thousands of former Afghan soldiers sought refuge following the Taliban's seizure of their native Afghanistan in August 2021, say they are living a meager existence, resorting to manual labor or even rifling through garbage to sell to make ends meet.
It marks a major turnaround for the former members of the Afghan National Army (ANA) and its elite commando force, which were trained by the United States and Western allies and formed the backbone of the former Afghan government's efforts to defend the country and combat the Taliban and the Islamic State extremist group.
Afghan soldiers in Iran who have said they plan to take Vagner up on its recruitment offers say they were betrayed by the United States and the U.S.-backed Afghan government that they fought for. Many blame them for their current predicament.
The Taliban rapidly seized control of the country as the United States pulled out its forces from Afghanistan. Without U.S. assistance, Afghan forces quickly capitulated, and many Afghan leaders fled abroad as Taliban fighters descended on Kabul.
"After the fall of the country's traitorous presidential regime, [the United States] sold us out and surrendered the country to terrorists (the Taliban)," one former member of the Afghan special forces, who did not provide his name, said in an audio recording posted on a WhatsApp channel subscribed to by former members of the Afghan military.
"We had no place to live in Afghanistan anymore, because the Taliban terrorists chased us," he said in the audio, which was posted on December 3. "Several of our peers were captured and beheaded, and we were forced to leave Afghanistan."
RFE/RL was unable to independently verify the soldier's claims, but the extrajudicial killings of former Afghan military and government workers is well-documented, with 100 such slayings recorded in the first months of Taliban rule alone.
Also widespread and well-documented is the belief among former Afghan soldiers, translators, and government workers that they were abandoned by their U.S. allies and that the former Afghan government botched the war effort and stole funds that had been allocated to the army.
Those claims have been backed by a recent report by Business Insider documenting that former Afghan officials smuggled nearly $1 billion in gold and cash out of the country as their government neared collapse.
In November, the U.S. Special Inspector-General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) cited corruption as among the factors that hastened the fall of the Afghan government and paved the way for the Taliban to reestablish control of Afghanistan.
Tens of thousands of Afghan troops who fought alongside Western allied forces over nearly two decades in Afghanistan are believed to have been left behind when the United States withdrew the last of its forces on August 30, 2021.
While an estimated 80,000 at-risk Afghans were airlifted out, those who were not had to fend for themselves, leading to concerns that tens of thousands of U.S.-trained troops would have no alternative but to flee the country, or join the Taliban or a regional adversary.
Many of them went into hiding in Afghanistan at risk of being hunted down by the Taliban, or fled abroad. By some accounts, up to 30,000 former Afghan soldiers made their way to Iran.
The former soldier who discussed his situation on WhatsApp said he fled to Iran for his safety and had lived there for several months. After receiving word that the Vagner group was recruiting Afghans to fight in Ukraine, he said he signed up.
"Afghanistan, NATO, and the United States brought us in as young men and abandoned us," he said. "Russia started a program. They were recruiting certain units and taking them to the war in Ukraine. So, a number of our fellow soldiers signed up, and we are going to Russia soon."
Another former soldier, in an audio message posted on the same WhatsApp channel on December 3, said he and a group of colleagues had recently arrived in Iran with the intention of joining Vagner to fight for Russia in Ukraine after hearing about the mercenary group's recruitment offers.
He claimed that Iran was aware of the recruitment effort and was even aiding the process of transferring Afghan soldiers to Russia.
"We were in Afghanistan, and there were many rumors being spread that former military personnel had gone to Russia through Iran," the soldier said, speaking anonymously. "We registered here in Iran. They transferred a few people before us."
The soldier said that former Afghan soldiers were being offered permanent citizenship in Russia in exchange for fighting in Ukraine.
The former special forces officer said that his decision to sign on with Vagner was influenced by safety concerns in Afghanistan, where he said he and his fellow soldiers had lived in hiding and poverty for 14 months, and the chance for a better life for his family.
"We came alone, but a number of those who were transferred earlier are now with their families [in Russia]," he said. "We decided to go because of our situation and that of our children.
"We couldn't leave the house. Most of our friends were arrested and killed, and most of them, like me, fled to Iran or Tajikistan," he said.
The former Afghan officer estimated that, based on his conversations, some 2,500 Afghan soldiers had left Afghanistan with the intention of going to Russia, where he said he was offered $2,500 for six months of training and $3,000 once he goes to Ukraine to fight.
Those figures correspond roughly with other reports and testimonials about Vagner's recruitment drive, which also say that Afghan special forces troops and their families were being offered safe haven and $1,500 a month to move to Russia and subsequently fight in Ukraine.
General Farid Ahmadi, a former commander of the special operations corps of the deposed Republic of Afghanistan, told Radio Azadi that he believes security and financial concerns are driving many former Afghan soldiers to consider fighting with Vagner.
"Serious security and economic problems and extreme poverty and desperation have forced them to do this for a bite of bread, to survive, and to escape the pursuit and torture of the Taliban," Ahmadi said in a live interview via Skype this month.
Radio Azadi has documented the lives of some former Afghan soldiers living in Iran, where they say they are reeling from their lost status and dire financial situations.
Sayed Ahmad Nouri, 38, said he used to serve as a special forces commander in western Afghanistan but now has to collect garbage in Mashhad to provide for his large family.
Nouri laments that he used to direct hundreds of troops and "tanks would move under my command, and I had complete authority," while serving with the ANA. Now, he said, his family of 12 lives in a one-room apartment and "are sleeping on top of one another."
Abdul Ahad Safi, a former ranking official who headed a government department fighting organized crime in Afghanistan's Herat Province, now does manual labor at a Mashhad workshop to support his family of five.
He told Radio Azadi that he can "barely keep himself alive" because "my income does not cover our expenses.”
Aside from Russia's war against Ukraine, a small number of former Afghan soldiers have been recruited to fight in other conflicts, including for Iran in Yemen, and in Syria and even in Nagorno-Karabakh, according to Ahmadi.
There has been no evidence that Afghan forces have actually reached the battlefield in Ukraine, and the country's security service did not reply to queries sent by RFE/RL regarding the possibility that Afghans were fighting for Vagner in Ukraine.
In response to questions by RFE/RL, a U.S. State Department spokesman said in written comments that the department was aware of unconfirmed reports that the Vagner group is recruiting former Afghan soldiers living outside of Afghanistan.
"We understand some Afghans may be vulnerable to [Vagner's] monetary inducements, but would caution anyone from joining in the illegal invasion of Ukraine," the spokesman said, adding that the Vagner group "is used by the Russian government to support its dangerous and destabilizing foreign policy, while attempting to maintain deniability."
Regarding claims by Afghan soldiers that they were abandoned by the United States in Afghanistan, the spokesman acknowledged the difficulties Afghans face in leaving the country, but said, "We continue to monitor the economic situation of Afghanistan and provide assistance, where possible, to the people of Afghanistan as part of our enduring commitment." (KB/RFE)