Western-trained Afghan special forces said to be fighting for Putin’s Wagner Group

Afghan special forces at war
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Elite Afghan commandoes trained by the West may already be fighting alongside Russian Wagner Group mercenaries against Ukraine, reports claim. Both the mercenary organization and the Afghan commandos have been linked with war crimes and atrocities in the past.

This is an example of the unintended consequences of Western imperial tinkering. British and American military expertise are being repurposed and brought to bear against the West – and not for the first time.

There should be a full, frank and public accounting of Western-trained troops, who in Afghanistan acted as brutal death squads, now working on behalf of official ‘enemies’.

Indeed, in the wake of the Afghan withdrawal in 2021, Tory MPs even suggested Afghan special forces be formed into a new British Army regiment like the Gurkhas. One even told parliament that their loyalty was proven, but now they appear to be fighting for Russia.

Zero Units

In 2020 I returned to Afghanistan after nearly 14 years to make a documentary. I had previously served there as a British soldier in 2006.

Within two years of my trip, the American-led occupation collapsed and the Taliban were back in power. Since then then we have learned that US allies in government may have accepted bribes to not resist the Taliban. But back in 2020 my focus was the Zero Units: shadowy, CIA-controlled death squads said to have killed numerous innocent civilians. The Zero Units were one key component of Afghan special forces, led by US operators and largely unaccountable.

When the occupation collapsed in 2021, the Zero Units’ locations became even harder to keep tabs on. What is clear is that some ended up being evacuated to the West. One of the few outlets to cover the story was the Intercept, which reported that Zero Unit veterans would be given a fresh start in the US – despite war crimes allegations. Their new lives in America were even detailed in interviews.

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Others, we are told, were quietly airlifted out to the UK to work with British special forces, by whom they had been trained.

New regiments?

After the occupation collapsed, three Tory MPs backed a call to integrate Afghan special forces who had reached the UK into the British military. They were all ex-army officers, and at least two of them served in Afghanistan.

Tom Tugendhat MP, an Afghanistan veteran and current Tory security minister, told reporters:

We trained and fought alongside many Afghans who are now in the UK.

They’ve proved their loyalty a thousand times.

If they want to serve, we should welcome them, I would love to see a regiment of Afghan scouts.

Meanwhile, Tobias Elwood – who has served in defence and foreign affairs roles in government – said:

Given that we’ve helped train these forces, it’s certainly something that needs to be a consideration.

One avenue is they are kept as a unit, as the Gurkhas have operated.

The other avenue is they are blended into our own system.

And Johnny Mercer, an Afghanistan veteran and serving veterans minister, told reporters at the time it would be an “absolute waste not to make use of them”.

Interestingly, Tugendhat and Ellwood are perhaps best known for their hawkishness on Russia and China. Meanwhile, proposals to place Afghan veterans into British regiments have gone quiet.

Wagner Group

The Wagner Group is a private military company closely aligned with Vladimir Putin’s regime. It is been rightly criticised for its operations in Africa, including in Libya and Mali. However, as the Canary has pointed out before, such criticisms are not especially convincing from UK ministers. Indeed, the UK has a thriving mercenary trade itself.

It is not entirely clear how former Afghan commandos came to be working with the Wagner Group. However, Middle East Monitor reported on Friday 24th February:

When the US left Afghanistan in 2021, some 20,000-30,000 commandos were out of work and being hunted by the Taliban. According to several reports, these Afghan commandos fled to Iran, where they were recruited by a Russian mercenary outfit called the Wagner Group, who promised them good salaries and help to relocate their families.

This claim was based on reportage by Radio Free Europe from December 2022 which went into greater depth:

Lost status and a desperate existence in Iran are driving thousands of former Afghan troops – many of them elite commandos trained by the United States – to consider fighting as mercenaries in Ukraine and other battlefields.

During the fall of Afghanistan, many Afghans, including military personnel, fled to neighbouring Iran. This aligns with the Radio Free Europe claim that:

Afghan soldiers in Iran who have said they plan to take Wagner up on its recruitment offers say they were betrayed by the United States and the U.S.-backed Afghan government that they fought for. Many blame them for their current predicament.

Betrayal and blowback

Not everyone who wanted to get out of Afghanistan in 2021 could. The scenes of chaos at Kabul airport in late summer 2021 will stick in the mind of anyone who spent time in the country. So they should, despite attempts by the British establishment press at rewriting the legacy of both the 20-year war and the subsequent defeat.

It may be understandable, then, that those whom the West trained to fight for it and then left destitute and homeless in neighbouring countries might look to Russia as a route out of their predicament.

With the betrayal, comes the blowback. Western-backed and –trained Ukrainian soldiers may now face Western-trained Afghans on the frontlines of a war in Europe.

What must follow is a proper account of how this came to be. Without serious reflection and accountability, we will repeat ourselves again.

Featured image via Wikimedia Commons/Rhett Hillard, cropped to 770 x 403.

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