Much of the Russian recruiting effort is focused on Iran's capital Tehran and Mashhad, a city near the Afghanistan border where many had fled after the Taliban took over the country, veteran Afghan generals say.
Afghan special forces soldiers who fought alongside American troops and then fled to Iran after the chaotic US withdrawal last year are now being recruited by the Russian military to fight in Ukraine, three former Afghan generals have told The Associated Press.
They said the Russians want to attract thousands of the former elite Afghan commandos into a "foreign legion" with offers of steady, $1,500-a-month payments and promises of safe havens for themselves and their families so they can avoid deportation home to what many assume would be death at the hands of the Taliban.
"They don't want to go fight — but they have no choice," said one of the generals, Abdul Raof Arghandiwal, adding that the dozen or so commandos in Iran with whom he has texted fear deportation most. "They ask me, 'Give me a solution. What should we do? If we go back to Afghanistan, the Taliban will kill us.'"
Arghandiwal said the recruiting is led by the Russian mercenary force Wagner Group. Another general, Hibatullah Alizai, the last Afghan army chief before the Taliban took over, said the effort is also being helped by a former Afghan special forces commander who lived in Russia and speaks the language.
'Coming home to roost'
The Russian recruitment follows months of warnings from US soldiers who fought with Afghan special forces that the Taliban was intent on killing them and that they might join with US enemies to stay alive or out of anger with their former ally.
A GOP congressional report in August specifically warned of the danger that the Afghan commandos — trained by US Navy SEALs and Army Green Berets — could end up giving up information about US tactics to the Daesh terror group, Iran or Russia — or fight for them.
"We didn't get these individuals out as we promised, and now it's coming home to roost," said Michael Mulroy, a retired CIA officer who served in Afghanistan, adding that the Afghan commandos are highly skilled, fierce fighters. "I don't want to see them on any battlefield, frankly, but certainly not fighting the Ukrainians."
The recruitment comes as Russian forces reel from Ukrainian military advances and Russian President Vladimir Putin pursues a sputtering mobilisation effort, which has prompted nearly 200,000 Russian men to flee the country to escape service.
Russia's Defense Ministry did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesman for Yevgeny Prigozhin, who recently acknowledged being the founder of the Wagner Group, dismissed the idea of an ongoing effort to recruit former Afghan soldiers as "crazy nonsense."
The US Defense Department also didn’t reply to a request for comment, but a senior official suggested the recruiting is not surprising given that Wagner has been trying to sign up soldiers in several other countries.
Hundreds considering offers?
It's unclear how many Afghan special forces members who fled to Iran have been courted by the Russians, but one told the AP he is communicating through the WhatsApp chat service with about 400 other commandos who are considering offers.
He said many like him fear deportation and are angry at the US for abandoning them.
"We thought they might create a special programme for us, but no one even thought about us," said the former commando, who requested anonymity because he fears for himself and his family. "They just left us all in the hands of the Taliban."
The commando said his offer included Russian visas for himself as well as his three children and wife who are still in Afghanistan. Others have been offered extensions of their visas in Iran. He said he is waiting to see what others in the WhatsApp groups decide but thinks many will take the deal.
Former Afghan army chief Alizai said much of the Russian recruiting effort is focused on Tehran and Mashhad, a city near the Afghan border where many have fled. None of the generals who spoke to the AP, including a third, Abdul Jabar Wafa, said their contacts in Iran know how many have taken up the offer.
"You get military training in Russia for two months, and then you go to the battle lines," read one text message a former Afghan soldier in Iran sent to Arghandiwal. "A number of personnel have gone, but they have lost contact with their families and friends altogether. The exact statistics are unclear."
An estimated 20,000 to 30,000 Afghan special forces fought with the Americans during the two-decade war, and only a few hundred senior officers were airlifted out when the US military withdrew from Afghanistan. Since many of the Afghan commandos did not work directly for the US military, they were not eligible for special US visas.
"They were the ones who fought to the really last minute. And they never, never, never talked to the Taliban. They never negotiated," Alizai said. "Leaving them behind is the biggest mistake."