Pakistan and Iran; A Limbo for the Previous Defense and Security Forces of Afghanistan

By: Attila Gari

For the past five decades, a review of government structures shows that the military is subordinate to the civil establishment. The strict hierarchical structure within the military also ensures that subordinates follow orders from those above them in the chain of command. This strict hierarchical setting is the reason behind the large number of cases in military court related to disobedience. Although some clauses of military bylaws allow subordinates to disobey illegal commands from their superiors, it is difficult to understand in a strict setting what constitutes legal and illegal commands, and the legal consequences of disobedience were so severe that it discouraged people in the military from taking the risk of disobeying.

The security forces of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan were unable to maintain themselves or protect against their enemies once the civil government, which was their commander, lost the motivation to fight.

The military was not informed about any political deals or agreements regarding peace and war, so they were unable to adjust their strategic and operational goals accordingly. Decisions about peace and war were made in secret meetings of the parliament and national security council, without any representatives from the military present. People with no military experience were making decisions about the fate of security forces, and the security forces had to follow them without question.

The collapse of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan is a complex and extensive topic that requires further examination at a later date. This report only focuses on the personal experiences of the author and those of former members of the security forces who are now in Iran and Pakistan. This report will provide a brief overview of why former members of the security forces sought refuge in two neighbouring countries, the difficulties they are facing, and how to assist in overcoming those difficulties.

Why They Had to Leave Afghanistan?

At first, I was mocked and told how obvious the answer was when I asked this question: their enemy had come to power. However, I wanted to get more specific answers, as some people had not left Afghanistan willingly. What I found was that members of the security forces had three distinct responses to the collapse of the government. The first group were those who were evacuated by the international community or fled to neighboring countries shortly after the collapse. The second group were those who were forced to leave Afghanistan after facing immense problems and threats from the Taliban. This group had naively believed in the mercy of the Taliban and their general amnesty. The third group were those who were still stuck in the country, moving from one hiding place to another to avoid being killed. The fourth group were those who had joined the Taliban through reliable channels, which were often their previous contacts. The Taliban had announced a general amnesty shortly after taking power, although it was unclear whether they were forgiving people or people were forgiving them, but they had taken matters into their own hands.

A number of members of former security and defense forces have been arrested and killed following the collapse of the government, according to reliable sources. Unconfirmed sources inside Afghanistan report that Taliban’s lower ranking commanders have pursued, arrested, tortured and killed close to a thousand men. This is despite the top leaders’ announcement of a general amnesty for members of the former security forces. Hasht-e-Subh recently reported that 19 dead bodies of members of the former security forces have been found in the northern provinces in the past two months. Those who wore police uniforms are particularly vulnerable in this chaos, as they not only fought terrorism, but also dealt directly with drug mafias and criminal cartels, who now operate freely under the Taliban. Mohammad Rafi (pseudonym) who worked for the General Directorate of Counter Criminal Offences of the Ministry of Interior Affairs (MOI) reported that members of a well-known kidnapping group who were in detention under the previous government were released by the Taliban, and he received several phone calls from them asking for his location and whereabouts. He added that in the chaos, Taliban-disguised criminal gangs are searching for and eliminating their targets, which are often members of the former police. Furthermore, drug cartels have joined the Taliban, giving them more ammunition and authority to take revenge and eliminate their targets.

The former head of the Counter-Criminal Offences Department of the Ministry of Interior Affairs, Bismillah Taban, has confirmed that police officers are in great danger due to their role in tackling organized criminal groups, drug cartels, and even those who have committed civil offences such as domestic violence. He added that the MOI had detained a large number of criminals, most of whom had committed crimes such as smuggling, murder, robbery, and kidnapping, but are now back on the streets. Mr. Taban gave an example of a criminal gang that had been in their custody, who had extorted money and sex from well-known public figures using sophisticated methods. He added that the leader of this gang was on the list of prisoners that was handed over to the U.S. during the Doha negotiations, and was subsequently released by the government.

Their Current Situation in Pakistan

After the government collapsed, a large number of people, including members of security forces, illegally crossed the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Most of them settled in cities such as Quetta, Peshawar, Lahore, and Islamabad. On November 22, 2022, the Pakistani government announced the eviction and deportation of illegal refugees from Pakistan, giving the police free rein to arrest, torture, and extort Afghan refugees, particularly members of the previous security forces, who are the most vulnerable group. Rohullah (pseudonym), a member of the police, told us that he and his family had fled Afghanistan to avoid being arrested and had come to Pakistan hoping to receive a humanitarian visa to a safer country. He said he had first gone to Quetta, but soon left the city due to rumours that several other members of the previous security forces had been detained by the Pakistani police. In his current city, he has no relatives and no job, and he can barely meet his needs. Nobody even lends him money. With tears in his eyes, he criticized the civil government and said their betrayal had created this hellish condition for them. He added that he had gone to the UNHCR several times but had not even been able to register himself as a refugee. Furthermore, he had applied for a humanitarian visa at dozens of other embassies and had been rejected, including Brazil, for which an answer is still pending.

Rohullah went on to explain that he was a police officer from the Hazara ethnic group, making him a sworn enemy of the Taliban. He had detailed his situation in emails to each embassy. He also criticized the international community for providing the Taliban with a weekly allowance to pursue them further. He also criticized western countries, saying that they had fought alongside international security forces for twenty years against terrorism and had made many sacrifices, but now they had forgotten their comrades.

Former members of the defense and security forces of Afghanistan in Pakistan live in constant fear of being arrested by the police, assassinated by organized criminal groups or the Taliban themselves. They are in dire financial situation and have lost all hope of living a dignified life. Ikramullah, a former soldier, said that the life he lives has been a complete hell. He fought against the Taliban for twenty years in southern Afghanistan and expected death every minute while on duty, but he now expects it to be even worse – death with torture. All members of the previous security and defense forces are aware of the Taliban’s ability to operate inside Pakistan, as evidenced by the arrest of Elaha Delawarzai, a student who shared details of a senior member of the Haqqani network’s violent sexual behaviour on social media. They are afraid to use social media as it could reveal their locations.

Their Current Situation in Iran

Nangyalai (pseudonym), a lower ranking officer who had been stationed in Logar province, said that his financial situation prevented him from leaving Afghanistan immediately, so he left for Iran after six months through Nemroz province, where he now works as a daily laborer. He also said that his house in Kabul had been raided by the Taliban multiple times, and his brother had been taken away, tortured, and temporarily freed on the condition that he help find Nangyalai and hand over the police car and guns that he had previously possessed. Now, Nangyalai is faced with a dilemma of whether to go back to the Taliban so that they won’t kill his brother, even though he no longer has the car or the gun. His legal residence permit of one year has also expired, and he is afraid of going to Iranian authorities for an extension because they would hand him over to the Taliban.

Mohammad Sadiq, a police officer who worked in Southern Ghazni province, said that despite many attempts, he was unable to enter the airport to be evacuated. As he was in a crowded area, he was easily identified by the Taliban due to his ethnic group and was beaten badly. He was lucky that he did not have his police ID card with him at that moment. His family later did not allow him to go back to the airport and asked him to cross the border illegally to Iran. He now works as a daily laborer with one of his relatives. During the interview, he said he is unskilled in this job and is thus underpaid, and showed his hand with smallpox and was in a pitiful condition. Mohammad Sadiq also expressed concern regarding the possibility of previous members of security forces being misused by the Iranian government. He said that the Iranian government has his biometric and other information and knows exactly where he lives. He said he cannot go back to his enemy in Afghanistan, but his condition in Iran is even worse. He said he could not register himself as a legal refugee with the UNHCR and now decides to illegally go to Turkey, but even that, he said, needs a lot of money.

I asked him if he was aware of the program that sends former members of the security forces to fight for Russia in the Russia-Ukraine conflict. He said yes, many people have volunteered for this program. I then asked if he had any plans to join this conflict. He replied no, not at the moment, but if his situation becomes worse he will be compelled to join.

Safiullah, originally from Takhar province, was a member of the army. He was lucky that one of his relatives, who is a member of Hizb Jammiyat Islami and has close ties to Iran, was able to extend his residence permit for another year, although he was uncertain about his future. He said one night, Iranian police forces raided the residence of refugees and took all of them to the deportation center, despite having and showing their residence permits. They released him at the last moment, but deported the other members of the Afghan security forces after beating and insulting them. When asked if he knew what happened to those who were deported, he said he was in contact with one from Bamiyan province who told him that after the Iranians handed him over to the Taliban, they accused him of joining Mawlawi Mahdi (a Shia Hazara commander of the Taliban who later parted ways with the Taliban and was fighting against them) in Balkhab and tortured him. Safiullah said his friend was later released with the intervention of his relatives residing in Herat province, but he lost contact with him shortly after his release.

Another member of the former defense and security forces said that in the city where he lives, dozens of Afghan refugees are deported every day. If they argue with the authorities and explain that they were members of the former security forces and cannot return due to the high security risk, they will face even worse physical and verbal violence. There is a chance that they will be deported immediately and the Taliban will be informed of their identity.

Last year, rumours circulated that the Iranian government would grant long-term residence permits to members of former security forces. Many of them went to receive this benefit with their ID cards, giving away their identity and data, including biometric data. Jawid (pseudonym), a low-ranking police officer who worked in Herat province, confirmed that he even submitted a copy of his police ID card, but the Iranians still refused to grant him a long-term residence permit. When I asked him if he knew of any official announcement regarding this, he said no, and told me that it was only a rumor that he trusted.

The members of the former Afghan security and defense forces had a difficult and unbearable life due to their fear of detention, deportation, and fines if their residence permits expired, as well as the pressure to join the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the exhausting daily labour, and the blackmail from Iranian intelligence.

Baai Morad, a former member of the Afghan intelligence in Faryab province, said that his friends had asked him to go to the Russian embassy in Tehran and get a student visa, which would be a cover for him to join the conflict. He stated that he was unwilling to take this risk, but was unsure of what the future held. He said that if the situation stayed the same or got worse, he would have to take the offer for the sake of his family.

Challenges They Can Create

Based on the long-standing approach of Iran and Pakistan to view Afghanistan as a battleground for proxy wars, and the recent interviews, the following challenges can be identified:

  • Deporting members of the security and defense forces to build goodwill with the Taliban is especially true of Iran, which has attempted to and successfully sent a large number of them back to Afghanistan to demonstrate their goodwill towards the Taliban.
  • Using them in proxy wars: Pakistan and Iran have a long history of using proxies in the region to advance their own interests. This region has been a hotspot for proxy wars between different actors throughout history, making it an easy target for recruitment and exploitation in these wars.
  • They may launch a new Jihad: It is clear that the people of Afghanistan are religious, and not only moderately religious, but uneducated and extreme. Therefore, it is possible that another superpower could launch another Jihad this time under the banner of liberating the country from terrorists. Again, former security forces are easy targets and can be manipulated.
  • Joining organized criminal gangs: Some of them may be forced to join criminal gangs due to financial difficulties, as they already possess the necessary skills such as shooting and other military training.
  • Joining regional Jihadist networks: Afghanistan’s people share cultural, sectarian, and ethnic similarities with some of the jihadist networks in the region, it is possible that they could join these networks in order to fight against Iran and Pakistan if those countries make life difficult for them. For instance, they could join Sunni dissidents in Sistan and Baluchistan of Iran or Baloch Jihadist of Pakistan.
  • Taliban conducting assassination missions inside Pakistan and Iran: The Taliban have the ability to carry out assassination missions in both of these countries.
  • Target killing by organized criminal networks: Criminal organizations have the ability to commit targeted killings, financial extortion, and kidnappings within Pakistan and Iran.
  • Individuals may face other specific or unique threats depending on the sensitivity of their job or their seniority level.

Suggestions To Help Them

Members of former defense and security forces, who have received training from NATO, have fought on the front lines against organized criminal networks, terrorist groups such as ISIS, the Taliban, and drug cartels. As a result, they have extensive experience in combat and are well-trained, but are in desperate need of financial and security support. If a country with malicious intent offers them these two things, they will accept due to their vulnerable situation. To prevent this, other countries should try to evacuate them, neighboring countries should treat them in accordance with international laws and provide them with a special condition to stay legally, deportation should be stopped, they should not be misused or forced to give away sensitive information, and countries should avoid sending them to proxy wars.