KABUL, Afghanistan â€”Â The Fatemiyoun Brigade, a militia of Afghan refugees created by Iran to fight in Syria, held aÂ public symposiumÂ in the Iranian city of Mashhad in August 2020. According to online promotional material, the conference was held to highlight the groupâ€™s â€œultimate aimâ€ to â€œexpel US forces from the region.â€
To policymakers and analysts in neighboring Afghanistan, the statement hit far too close to home. The country, which shares a 936-kilometer (582-mile) border with Iran, has been the theaterÂ of Washingtonâ€™s longest-ever foreign incursion.
Then, on Dec. 21, Iranâ€™s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif appeared on Afghan television and put forth a disquieting offer to the Afghan government. â€œThe Afghan government, if willing, can regroup [the Fatemiyoun]. â€¦ For the fight against Daesh and for the fight against terrorism and for the protection of Afghanistan security,â€ Zarif told TOLOnews, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State (IS).
The offer came after Zarif said the Afghans were in Syria â€œvoluntarilyâ€ and that the force numbered no more than 5,000 fighters. Both claims have been heavily reputed by Afghan politicians, families of former fighters and rights groups.
Watching the interview, Abdul Sattar Hussaini, a member of parliamentÂ from the western province of Farah, which shares a porous border with Iran, felt both angered and vilified.
â€œWhy are you trying to return our own people back to us. Who are you to return Afghans to Afghanistan?â€ Hussaini saidÂ in response to Zarifâ€™s offer, which he notedÂ further proves Tehranâ€™s yearslong interference in Afghan matters.
In response to Zarifâ€™s comments, the Afghan Foreign Ministry said in a statement, â€œThe Constitution, national interests, and foreign policy of Afghanistan do not permit that Afghan citizens, expect from beingÂ under the national flag, enter regional wars and conflicts in different countries.â€
Hussaini and others speaking to Al-Monitor said Kabulâ€™s response was lacking when it came to denouncing the Iranian claims. He pointed to an official visit by Afghanistan’sÂ national security adviserÂ Hamdullah MohibÂ to Iran in the days following Zarifâ€™s statements as proof that the Afghan government did not go far enough.
Beyond his resentment at the audacity of the statement, Hussaini seesÂ the proposal as clear evidence of what he has been saying for years, based on both his 13 years working in border security in the western zone and his time in the parliamentÂ â€”Â that Iran is actively supporting armed groups, including the Taliban, in Afghanistan.
Hussaini said that Iranian spies have been arrested along the westernÂ zone of Afghanistan. â€œOne of them was caught after photographing each of our airports,â€ he said.
But he noted thatÂ Tehranâ€™s efforts in Afghanistan go beyond simple espionage. He said that at least 30%-40%Â of the Talibanâ€™s armaments come from the neighboring Islamic Republic. Hussainiâ€™s statement falls in line with years of reports from residents and officials in the provinces of Herat, Farah, Ghazni, Helmand and Kandahar that Tehran is aiding and abetting the Taliban.
Hussaini said he has clear evidence that â€œthe orders for the Taliban to fight in Farah came straight from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.â€
He added that Iranian fighters have stood side by side with Taliban forces across Afghanistanâ€™s western and southern zones, noting, â€œThey dress like us, talk like us and try very hard to blend in.â€
Hussaini said these Iranians operate in a very systematized manner and possess pictures, maps and GPS details of Afghanistan.
Abdul Qayyum Rahimi, who served as governor of Herat, home to Afghanistanâ€™s largest border with Iran, in 2019-20, agrees with Hussainiâ€™s assertions. He told Al-Monitor that though Zarif claimed Iranians â€œjust like officials of other countries met the Taliban delegation either in Doha or in their respective capitals,â€ as part of the US-initiated peace talks, Tehranâ€™s connections to the Taliban started well before 2018.
He added, â€œTheir interactions did not start yesterday; it was long before the peace talks.â€
Hussaini said thatÂ Tehranâ€™s interference in Afghan affairs date back to the Soviet occupation of the 1980s.Â â€œThis was long before the United States entered Afghanistan and will continue long after,â€ he added.
Despite Zarifâ€™s disavowal of such statements, both Hussaini and Rahimi said there is clear evidence that Taliban officials are residing in various parts of Iran and that their fighters have been treated in Iranian health facilities.
Rahimi, Hussaini and other sources Al-Monitor spoke to all said the Afghan people donâ€™t look highly upon foreign-trained militias, including the Fatemiyoun.
Rahimi said if the Fatemiyoun were ever to shift from fighting so-called ISÂ forces in Syria to Afghanistan, it could only create more tensions in the country.Â â€œItâ€™s a huge risk. It could lead to sectarian, tribal and ethnic disputes in our own country,â€ he noted.
But the complications surrounding the Fatemiyoun in Afghanistan have already led to difficulties within the country. Last February, a new article in the Afghan penal code set out to prosecute â€œaÂ person who participates in wars or internal armed conflicts of other countriesâ€ with a prison sentence of up to seven years. One 23-year-old from Sar-e Pol province has already been detained for at least a year under the law.
Ultimately, Zarifâ€™s comments, along with the reports of Iranâ€™s role in assembling the Fatemiyoun and their alleged assistance to the Taliban point to a clear fact, according to Hussaini. “Afghanistan has no worse enemy on this Earth than Iran,â€ he concluded.