Why is Iran recruiting Pakistani and Afghan Shiite militants?
Iran is recruiting and training thousands of Shiite Muslims from Afghanistan and Pakistan to fight for President Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria. These recruits have been driven by sectarian strife back home and represent an important tool for Iran to extend its regional influence. It has raised concerns that the militancy problems in Afghanistan and Pakistan could worsen on their return.
An estimated 6,000 Afghans are fighting for Assad in Syria. An important motivation for them is the increased attacks against their community by the ISIS's Afghan affiliate Islamic State in the Khorasan Province (ISIS-K). Frequent ISIS-K attacks have left Shiites terrified even to visit places of worship. The Afghan Shiites' involvement in Syria could be payback against ISIS reign of terror.
The number of Pakistani Shiites fighting under the banner of the Zainabayoun Brigade is in the hundreds. Pakistani Shiites too have been targeted by ISIS-K and other Sunni terror groups, which have sent suicide bombers to target Shiite shrines, killing dozens of devotees. Parachinar, the capital of the Pakistan's Khurram tribal region which borders Afghanistan, is a fertile recruitment ground for Iran.
Some Afghans and Pakistanis are going to Syria to protect sites considered holy to Shiites which have come under attack by ISIS and other Sunni extremist groups. Others are lured by Iran's promises to provide them a house or permanent residence in the country. Another major motivation is Iran's promise to give salaries up to $600 per month to fighters.
Senior RAND Corp policy analysis Nadir Ali said Iran would have a sizeable army at its disposal, thanks to the Afghan and Pakistani recruits. It can employ these to extend its influence in the region. Tehran could use them against Afghanistan, should relations with the Sunni-majority leadership deteriorate. Pakistan worries that the returning Shiite forces could worsen its existing sectarian violence, especially in Balochistan.