Ex-Afghan Commandos Fighting For Russia In Ukraine: Last Afghan Army Boss (Updated)

Left behind after last year’s chaotic and deadly U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, former Afghan special operations forces (SOF) – trained by the U.S. and allied SOF – are now fighting in Ukraine on behalf of Russia, the last commander of Afghan troops told The War Zone Wednesday.

They are among tens of thousands of former Afghan troops – including about 5,000 former SOF – who fled to Iran last year, many of whom are being recruited with offers of income and security for them and their families, said Haibatullah Alizai, who became the last commander of Afghan’s army in the days before the Taliban took over last August. You can read our interview with him about that here.

Afghan Defense Minister, Gen. Bismillah Khan Mohammadi, promotes Haibatullah Alizai to lieutenant general on Aug. 11, 2021. (Haibatullah Alizai photo)

An Afghan SOF commander before taking over the entire Army, Alizai said former Afghan troops in Iran preparing to fight on behalf of Russia told him that some are already in Ukraine. He said he did not know how many.

“A group of them has already deployed” to Ukraine, said Alizai.

Having former Afghan troops fight for Russia in Ukraine, especially SOF,  is a big win for Moscow, said Alizai. 

“These troops know all the Western tactics,” said Alizai. “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.”

Alizai’s comments about Russian and Iranian recruitment efforts confirm reporting in a story by Foreign Policy yesterday that former Afghan troops are being recruited to fight in Ukraine.

A retired Green Beret lieutenant colonel who worked closely with Afghan forces and recently published a book about the Pineapple Express group’s efforts to help rescue Afghan SOF last year, confirmed to The War Zone on Wednesday that former Afghan troops are being recruited to fight in Ukraine. He could not confirm that they are already there.

Mann said his former Afghan SOF sources told him that Iranians and Russians “are recruiting the special forces and commandos in Iran to send to [the] Ukraine war on behalf of Russia.”

“Russia with its collapsing war effort in Ukraine is pulling out all the stops on mobilizing other options,” said Mann, author of Operation Pineapple Express: The Incredible Story of a Group of Americans Who Undertook One Last Mission and Honored a Promise In Afghanistan.

“This vulnerable and desperate segment of the Afghan special operations population seems to be their next target. By providing the displaced commando families with housing, medical care, and food, they are attempting to coerce this highly trained and vulnerable population to do their bidding abroad.”

Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, the Pentagon’s top spokesman, told The War Zone that “I’ve seen the press reports, but don’t have anything to provide.”

Alizai said he first learned about the recruiting efforts about two weeks ago. 

“We got some information that the Iranians are recruiting the former Special Forces commandos, the police special units, and the [National Directorate of Security] special units who already were in Iran,” said Alizai. “They escaped from the Taliban because they were being hunted in Afghanistan and put in prison. So they had to flee to Iran.”

All told, about 40,000 former Afghan troops fled to Iran, Alizai said.

Afghan special force commando unit officers and soldiers attend a graduation ceremony at the military academy in Kabul, Afghanistan, on May 31, 2021. (Photo by Haroon Sabawoon/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The recruitment efforts by Iran began last November, with former Afghan troops who fled there being told that they would have to fight in Yemen, Alizai said, where the Iran-backed Houthis have been fighting a brutal war with a Saudi Arabian-led coalition.

“I was getting calls from some of our soldiers and officers in Iran that when they were going to extend their visas, the immigration office would say, ‘hey, we will extend your visa on one condition. If you go to Yemen for our fight, and fight against the Western interests there and fight alongside Houthi fighters there,’” Alizai said.

In recent weeks, Alizai said he received more calls from former Afghan troops in Iran, seeking advice about recruitment efforts on behalf of Russia and its fight in Ukraine.

“I have been telling them that no, you guys have to wait. You don’t have to go,” said Alizai.

Those troops are being recruited by the Russian embassy in Iran, working with the Wagner Group mercenary organization and Iranian intelligence, said Alizai.

Those former troops are being offered about $1,500 per month plus security for their families, said Alizai.

They also told him about receiving offers to take “their families to other countries or Russia, just to keep them safe,” he said.

The effort extends beyond former Afghan troops in Iran. Alizai said troops still left behind in Afghanistan are also being recruited.

“I think it’s quite a good offer for the soldiers that have no money and are struggling to find food for themselves. $1,500 is a big deal for them,” he said.

Upon agreeing to fight in Ukraine, the former Afghan troops are taken to a facility in the Iranian city of Mashhad, said Alizai, where the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps maintains a training facility.

Getting details about what kind of training takes place, or an exact number of former Afghan troops there is difficult, said Alizai, because once they arrive at the training facility, their phones are shut off.

Alizai said former Afghan troops in Iran told him that Russia’s first goal is to recruit an initial cadre of about 3,000 former Afghan SOF troops to fight in Ukraine, a figure that will likely later increase to as high as 5,000.

Concerns about former Afghan troops being courted by adversaries were raised in a scathing Republican report published in August about the Biden administration’s Afghanistan withdrawal, which left tens of thousands of former allies stranded, 13 U.S. troops killed in a suicide attack at the Hamid Karzai International Airport and 10 civilians, mostly children killed in a drone attack.

“Given their unique knowledge of U.S. intelligence operations, these Afghan personnel could potentially present a risk to U.S. security should they be coerced or coopted into working with an adversary, including international terrorist groups such as ISIS-K or state actors like China, Russia, and Iran,” according to the House of Representatives “Republican Interim Report” on the withdrawal authored by Rep Michael McCaul (R-TX).

In the report, Rep. Michael Waltz (R-FL), the first Green Beret elected to Congress, concurred with that assessment.

“These commandos are trained, highly trained, on how we do signals intelligence, how we do human intelligence, how we operate,” he said, according to the report.

This is just the latest example of Russia working with Iran to fight Ukraine, a working relationship that includes the provision of drones and missiles from Tehran to Moscow, something we wrote about here. It remains to be seen just how many former Afghan troops Russia can press into its all-out war in Ukraine or how much of a difference those troops will make.

But Mann, the retired Green Beret, said that possibility is just one more reason for the U.S. to do a better job of rescuing those who fought for America and its allies in Afghanistan.

“The United States government should actively move to evacuate this vulnerable at-risk population away from this kind of nefarious mobilization,” he told The War Zone. “What a national embarrassment if even one Afghan commando shows up on the battlefield in Ukraine representing Russia as well as an even deeper blow to the U.S. veteran community who trained and fought alongside them.” 

Contact the author: howard@thewarzone.com

Update 1:40 PM EST Oct. 29:

Ukrainian Maj. Gen. Kyrylo Budanov, head of his nation’s Defense Intelligence directorate, on Friday confirmed that former Afghan troops are fighting in Ukraine on behalf of Russia.

“We had confirmed information that there are mercenaries fighting for Russia from Afghanistan, from Syria and a few other countries but it doesn’t have any strategic impact or meaning,” he told The War Zone when asked to corroborate Alizai’s claim.

You can read more about Budanov’s thoughts on that and many other topics here.

Howard Altman Avatar

Howard Altman

Senior Staff Writer

Howard is a Senior Staff Writer for The War Zone, and a former Senior Managing Editor for Military Times. Prior to this, he covered military affairs for the Tampa Bay Times as a Senior Writer. Howard's work has appeared in various publications including Yahoo News, RealClearDefense, and Air Force Times.