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US fears that Afghan ex-military personnel could disclose sensitive information to Iran

An estimated 3,000 members of the Afghan security forces - including officers who received US military training - have moved to Iran to escape the Taliban
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AFP PHOTO/Office of the Ministry of Defence of Afghanistan  -   An estimated 3,000 members of the Afghan security forces, including a number of US-trained officers and special agents, have fled to Iran

The withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan and the fall of Kabul to the Taliban has been one of the most significant events of recent years. The images of Hamid Karzai airport full of citizens desperate to leave the country and flee the terror of the new Taliban government went around the world and became one of the symbols of the US exit from the Asian country. Similarly, the Black Hawk helicopters flying over the US Embassy to evacuate staff and the burning of thousands of confidential documents of the diplomatic delegation were evidence of this chaotic withdrawal, which is seen as a major failure of Washington's foreign policy. 

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AP/SHEKIB RAHMANI - Hundreds of people gather near a U.S. Air Force C-17 transport plane on the perimeter of the international airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on August 16, 2021

One year on, Afghanistan remains mired in instability and insecurity. The country faces a serious humanitarian and economic crisis while certain sectors of the population, such as women and the Shia Hazara minority, see their rights being eroded by leaps and bounds. In addition, citizens who worked with foreign troops or members of the former government who have not yet been evacuated face a major threat. In this regard, according to a UN report published in January 2022, more than 100 people linked to the former regime were killed in extrajudicial executions.

For this reason, and in order to protect their lives, thousands of Afghans linked to Ashraf Ghani's government or the former armed forces have chosen to leave the country. Those who have not been able to obtain visas in Western countries - in the case of the United States, bureaucratic red tape hampers the process - have decided to cross the western border into Iran.

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AFP/HOSHANG HASHIMI - A Taliban fighter stands guard at the Islam Qala border between Iran and Afghanistan

Many of the Afghans who have fled to the Ayatollahs' country were part of the elite commandos who received US training. For this reason, as Foreign Policy reports, officials in Washington now fear that the Afghan exiles are providing "sensitive" information and military training to the regime in Tehran, the main US enemy in the region.

Senior US officials are wary of the role that the Iranian authorities could play in the arrival of Afghans with relevant information about US intelligence and the US military. Four have confirmed to the magazine that it is "possible" that special agents who fled Afghanistan could disclose their knowledge of sensitive military information, as well as special forces tactics and intelligence gathering, either voluntarily or under duress

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REUTERS/OMAR SOBHANI - A U.S. Marine stands with Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers during training in Helmand province, Afghanistan, July 5, 2017

Although the US managed to evacuate nearly 130,000 people during the final days of the withdrawal, many of the Washington-trained military personnel did not manage to escape the country and have therefore opted for neighbouring Iran. According to the US magazine and based on a report by Michael McCaul, Republican leader of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, an estimated 3,000 members of the Afghan security forces, including a number of US-trained officers and special agents, have already arrived in Iran, the only alternative for many of them

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AFP/ WAKIL KOHSAR - Senior US officials say it is "possible" that special agents who fled Afghanistan could reveal their knowledge of sensitive military information

The report also notes that "no Afghan ex-military personnel have yet been granted special priority status despite the security risks highlighted by the Biden administration's own State Department". In this regard, Mick Mulroy, former deputy assistant secretary of defence and CIA paramilitary officer, tells Foreign Policy that Afghan commandos and other special units "have no choice" and that "the only place they can go to escape the Taliban is Iran". Tehran is aware of this. For this reason, the Iranian government has issued Afghan commandos with seven-month residency visas as long as they can prove that they were part of the Afghan army.

En esta foto de archivo tomada el 5 de mayo de 2021, soldados del Ejército Nacional Afgano (ANA) marchan durante una ceremonia en una base militar en el distrito de Guzara de Herat AFP/ HOSHANG HASHIMI
AFP/ HOSHANG HASHIMI - Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers march during a ceremony at a military base in the Guzara district of Herat on May 5, 2021

But Iran is not the only US adversary that could take advantage of this situation to gain valuable information. The Republican report also notes that Russia and China could "recruit or coerce" former members of the Afghan security forces to gather information about the US. McCaul says this poses a "great national security risk" because these ex-military personnel "are familiar with US military and intelligence tactics, techniques, and procedures".

Americas Coordinator: José Antonio Sierra