KABUL -- Iran is sending Afghan refugees to fight in the Syrian war in return for money and a promise of an Iranian residency permit, say some refugees who have returned to Afghanistan from Iran.
Mohammad Ali, 25, returned home to Afghanistan last year after fighting in Syria.
"Two years ago, I went to Iran because of unemployment," he told Salaam Times. "I was introduced to an Iranian man whose help I sought in finding work. He introduced me to the [Islamic] Revolutionary Guard [Corps] (IRGC) so that I could fight in the Syrian war. I could earn a living and live in Iran legally."
An IRGC commander -- whose name Ali could not recall -- encouraged him to go to war in return for a monthly income equal to 54,000 AFN ($787), as well as a promise of permanent residency and housing from the Iranian government.
Ali said he accepted the offer since at the time he saw no better options.
After hearing about the deaths of four of his Afghan companions in Damascus, however, Ali said he no longer wanted to receive Iranian residency or keep fighting in Syria. Instead, he returned to Afghanistan.
"They deploy Afghan nationals on the front line, even though they lack combat training," he said, adding, "This is the reason why many Afghans have been killed in Syria."
Notably, Ali Jafari, an Afghan commander of the Fatemiyoun Brigade, an Iran-backed Afghan militia, was reported killed in Syria in July.
Brothers lost in Syria
Another Afghan citizen, who requested anonymity, told Salaam Times that after two years of unsuccessful job searching in Kabul, his brother went to Iran in search of employment.
Once his brother was in Iran, the government sent him to fight in the Syrian war, said the Afghan.
His brother, 38, has four children and he went to fight in Syria "out of ultimate desperation", he said, adding that his brother has sent his family some money.
"Neither my brother, nor his wife, nor we wanted him to go fight in Syria," he said. "Now we are constantly worried about the possibility of him getting killed in war, leaving his children fatherless."
Kabul resident Mohammad Reza, 20, said it has been three years since he last heard from his 35-year-old brother, who used to work in Iran.
"Last time I spoke with him was three years ago, at which time he said that he was going to fight in Syria for a short time," Reza told Salaam Times. "He also said that he was planning to take the entire family with him to Iran once he returned from war. Since then, however, no one has heard of him."
Reza said his family is sick with worry and sorrow over the absence of his brother, fearing the worst -- that he was killed in the Syrian war or captured by insurgents.
'Mercilessly taking advantage'
Figures vary on the number of Afghans living in Iran.
According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 951,142 registered Afghan citizens were living in Iran as of February 2016. Although some Afghan refugees have fled violence and insecurity at home in recent years, most were born and raised in Iran since the Saur Revolution in April 1978.
The Iranian Ministry of Interior in 2015 said the number of Afghans living in Iran could be as high as 2.5 million, comprised of refugees counted by the UNHCR, Iranian visa holders and those who entered the country illegally.
The Fatemiyoun Brigade has about 20,000 fighters, according to Iranian media, and has suffered the largest losses among the various IRGC-backed militias fighting in Syria, according to other media reports.
However, there are no official or precise statistics on the number of Afghan citizens fighting in Syria or the number of Afghan casualties.
The Afghan nationals who make up the Fatemiyoun Brigade are sent to the front line, where, according to military observers, they rapidly become cannon fodder because they lack training.
"Iran is mercilessly taking advantage of refugees who go to work in that country, sending them over to fight in the war," Gen. (ret.) Atiqullah Amarkhil, a former Afghan army commander living in Kabul, told Salaam Times.
'Abyss of death'
Iran is attempting to create sectarian strife in the region, said Ghulam Rasul, a law student at Kabul University.
"From time to time, the Iranian government threatens our government by issuing a warning to deport Afghan refugees from Iran," he told Salaam Times. "At other times, it takes advantage of our people's desperation and sends them to the abyss of death."
In the long term, Iran sending Afghans to fight in Syria will create strife and animosity among followers of various sects in Afghanistan and will cause Afghans to become enemies of the Syrian people, he said.
Another negative impact of Iran's meddling in the region is that these Afghans -- if they are not killed in war -- will return home knowing nothing but war and fighting, Amarkhil said, adding that their future prospects will be slim as the Afghan army will not take untrained fighters.
"People are accepted in the army only after passing multiple screenings," said Gen. Dawlat Waziri, a spokesman for the Afghan Defence Ministry, without commenting about Iran sending Afghan refugees to fight in the Syrian war.