America Abandons Afghan Allies
The United States and allied NATO partners directly trained Afghan National Army (ANA) and Police (ANP) forces in sustained training missions for roughly 20 years, putting all ANA and ANP at direct risk of lethal retaliation from the Taliban when the US withdrew. Because the US left without developing a robust safety plan for these at-risk Afghans who had previously and publicly engaged in direct combat with the Taliban shoulder-to-shoulder with US and NATO forces, many of the ANA personnel were forced to abandon their families and go underground, constantly changing locations to avoid Taliban detention and all that that entails. At least 10,000 of the ANA were commandos at the time of the collapse triggered by the manner and method of the US withdrawal.
Tens of thousands of ANA have remained at risk from 15 August 2021 until now, and are likely to continue to be hunted and persecuted. Some are being forced to join the Taliban’s military, which is led by the terrorist Haqqani network (backed by elements within Pakistan’s security establishment). Forcible conscriptions began as early as May 2021, sometimes involving a 100 USD recruitment bonus and other times simply at gunpoint. For those ANA allies with ongoing visa cases hoping to go to the US or be resettled in a safer country outside of Afghanistan, joining the Haqqani army could potentially jeopardize their cases due to the involvement in terrorism. The result was a new wave of Afghans fleeing to Iran, Turkey, Tajikistan, and Pakistan. Others joined peer-competitor groups to the Taliban, such as IS-K, the branch of ISIS active in Afghanistan.
The Russian Invasion
When Russia invaded Ukraine, discussions about former ANA personnel going to participate in the fight began simultaneously – a natural question with over 6,000 Afghan evacuees recently resettled in Ukraine. Talk began first of Afghans first trying to become foreign fighters for Ukraine, which was possible for some of the ANA who had fled to Iran where they could apply to join the foreign legion at the Ukrainian embassy. Most, however, would not be eligible or were unwilling to face the legal risks posed by their participation. Foreign fighters do not necessarily have the legal protections afforded to lawful combatants. There is a high risk of detention, torture, and other human rights violations, without legal avenues for redress. When it became clear that it was largely not feasible for Afghans to engage in combat on behalf of Ukraine, Russia had a ripe opportunity to recruit Afghans eager to escape life under the Taliban’s regime.
Russian Recruitment Begins
By the autumn of 2021, a voice note circulated on social media from an Afghan General encouraging former ANA personnel to join the Russian invaders in order to escape the Taliban.
After recruiting 400 African-origin fighters to assassinate Zelensky, the Wagner Group, or PMC Wagner, a contract Russian paramilitary organization that functions as a mercenary unit loyal to Putin, began recruiting Afghans. Many Afghans have basic Russian language skills because they studied or participated in training in Russia years ago, which made Afghans an attractive population to target, in addition to their insights into US tactics and capabilities that might be shared with Ukrainian forces. The recruitment of foreigners spares Russia the strain of having to conscript unskilled Russians to deploy to the front lines.
To entice ANA commandos to join up, Russia is offering a base pay of 1,500 dollars/month and up to 2,500 for senior officer recruits – far above the monthly income ANA officers received even prior to the collapse of the Afghan government, which capped out at 280 USD/month for high-ranking officers. Further, the Russian government made promises of residence or even citizenship for ANA commandos and their families, a tempting solution to the problems they face under Taliban persecution, and an acceptable alternative to garbage-picking in Iran. By November 2021, at least 15 ANA commandos were confirmed to have joined the Wagner Group.
A Deadly Gamble With Grave Consequences
Afghan recruits – operating on behalf of Russia or Ukraine – can face undesired consequences for their participation in the conflict. Because mercenaries and foreign legions are not necessarily covered under international humanitarian law (the law of war) as lawful combatants, they are not guaranteed the protections afforded to captured combatants under the Geneva Conventions. Their participation can be prosecuted by local courts as violent crimes or terrorism, and there would be little anyone would be able to do to intercede in those potential proceedings- and no one to monitor to ensure those trials adhere to rule of law norms. Worse still, Afghans risking limbs and life would not necessarily be entitled to medical care or death compensation by the respective governments should they be injured or killed during hostilities. Families who were promised residence and citizenship can easily be expelled once the useful member of the family is dispensed with by Russian forces- there is no legal mechanism to force Russia to keep its promises to ad hoc recruited mercenary forces.
Author: Lark Escobar is a graduate student in the Fletcher School of International Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University (a joint program with Harvard University). She deployed to Afghanistan in 2010 and 2011 where she worked on training programs for the Afghan National Army (including the Afghan Air Force) and Afghan National Police. She has been involved in the Afghan Evac effort since mid-August 2021. Lark provides curated content for the Afghan Report on a regular basis.