Russian mercenaries, including the infamous Wagner Group, have been at the center of some of the most brutal fighting in Ukraine, including in the city of Bakhmut and the town of Soledar. The U.S. government continues to assess that as many as 50,000 Wagner Group mercenaries have been deployed to Ukraine, as many as 40,000 of them recruited from Russian prisons. A recent editorial published Tuesday in The New York Times once again raised the possibility that Wagner Group is also recruiting from another source: former members of the Afghan National Army’s special operations forces.
Thomas Kasza, who served for 13 years in Army infantry and special operations units and deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan, wrote that “a steady salary and the promise of shelter from the Taliban is often too good of a deal to pass up — even if the cost is returning to combat.”
While the majority of the Afghan army was plagued by corruption and incompetence in its leadership, the special operations forces operated alongside their counterparts from the U.S. and other NATO countries.
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“We operated more or less independently, in disruption missions,” Kasza told Task & Purpose. “As an elite light infantry unit.”
Last fall, reports began to emerge that former Afghan special operations members were being recruited to travel to Russia.
“I am telling you [the recruiters] are Wagner Group. They are gathering people from all over. The only entity that recruits foreign troops [for Russia] are Wagner Group, not their army. It’s not an assumption; it’s a known fact,” on former Afghan army officer told Foreign Policy in October 2022. “They’d be better used by Western allies to fight alongside Ukrainians. They don’t want to fight for the Russians; the Russians are the enemy. But what else are they going to do?”
Another former Afghan general told the Associated Press that he remained in contact with other former soldiers who had received recruiting offers.
“They don’t want to go fight — but they have no choice,” Abdul Raof Arghandiwal told the Associated Press last fall. “They ask me, ‘Give me a solution. What should we do? If we go back to Afghanistan, the Taliban will kill us.’”
In January, Haibatullah Alizai, the last commander of the Afghan army, told The War Zone that as many as 40,000 former soldiers — among them 5,000 former commandos — had fled to Iran. There, according to Alizai, they were receiving offers through Russia and Iran of up to $1,500 a month and security for their families.
“These troops know all the Western tactics,” Alizai told The War Zone in January. “They know the technical stuff used on the ground and they know how to fight because they are very experienced in the last 20 years. The Special Forces were one of the forces that were fighting every day in every part of Afghanistan in every direction and every situation and every weather.”
“These are guys who were trained by Green Berets,” said Kasza. “They were in legitimate special operations units.”
At the time of the fall of Kabul, the Afghan Special Security Force was composed of 25,000 personnel, including roughly 10,000 commandos. Overall, between 20,000 and 30,000 Afghans were trained in special operations units.
“There are two big issues driving recruitment,” Alizai told Task & Purpose on Friday. “The first is security. Inside Afghanistan these people are hunted and there is no plan for evacuating them and their families to the U.S. or anywhere else. The second is a financial problem. There are no job opportunities, no way for them to support their families.”
Alizai said that he and other exiled Afghan military officers remain in contact with those still in Afghanistan or Iran.
“We know who they [Russia and Iran] are reaching out to,” said Alizai. “The recruiting has slowed down a bit since last fall, but it is difficult to stop it when I can’t really offer these people anything.”
Alizai said that the first group of recruits numbered 1,000 people and that recruiting for two more groups of equivalent size was ongoing. These include commandos, intelligence and signals intelligence officers, as well as members of the Afghan Special Security Forces and the National Directorate of Security (the former Afghan government’s intelligence service).
“These are all people highly trained by the U.S., some of them have fought for as long as 15 years,” said Alizai. “They know how to integrate ground and air forces, they understand small-unit tactics, they are trained to defuse mines and bombs.”
Alizai also noted that Afghan soldiers in Iran had been recruited as early as November 2021 to fight with Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Confirmed reports of Afghan soldiers in Russia have been few and far between. A former Afghan commando told Foreign Policy in October 2022 that once the recruits enter Russia their phones are turned off. That same month, Maj. Gen. Kyrylo Budanov, the head of Ukraine’s Defense Intelligence directorate, told The War Zone that his country had confirmed that Russian mercenary forces included personnel from Afghanistan and Syria, but that they numbered 100-200 people and didn’t “have any strategic impact or meaning.”
On Friday, a Department of Defense spokesperson again told Task & Purpose, “the DoD has nothing to offer at this time.”
However, Alizai said that a larger number of Afghan forces, all of them trained by the U.S., could vastly improve the capabilities of the Wagner Group.
“In my opinion this will harm foreign policy in the next few years,” said Alizai. “If Ukrainians meet Afghans on the battlefield, what will be their first impressions? This is a very serious issue that needs to be considered.”
In the almost 18 months since the fall of Kabul, evacuating former Afghan military personnel from the country has often been left to volunteer and nonprofit groups, leaving thousands still in hiding or exiled to neighboring countries.
“I would say it’s entirely predictable and entirely preventable,” said Kasza.
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