After the collapse of the Afghan government, thousands of Afghan military personnel—including a number of elite U.S.-trained Afghan commandos—were forced to flee to Iran, potentially delivering closely guarded secrets on U.S. special operators into the hands of a top rival in the Middle East.
The plight of commandos forced to flee to Iran is one of many revelations made in a congressional investigation by a top Republican lawmaker into the final days of the war in Afghanistan and chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Kabul as the Taliban took control of the country almost one year ago.
The report by Rep. Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, portrayed a U.S. State Department that was ill-prepared for the rapid collapse of the Afghan government in August 2021 and ill-suited to help manage a massive airlift evacuation in the ensuing chaos. “Today, we’re still reeling from the damage that was done last August, including emboldening and empowering our foreign adversaries,” McCaul said in an interview.
During the final days of the withdrawal, the United States conducted a massive airlift evacuating nearly 130,000 people—the largest such operation in U.S. history. Yet tens of thousands of Afghans who aided the two-decadelong American war effort were left in Afghanistan along with Afghan special forces who fought alongside U.S. forces and a small number of American citizens and permanent residents. The Biden administration insists it is working to get out as many people as possible, with no expiration date on U.S. efforts. The visa process for Afghans seeking to escape Taliban rule, known as the special immigrant visa (SIV) system, is mired in red tape and bureaucratic backlogs, though administration officials insist they are working to streamline the process.
An estimated 3,000 Afghan security forces, including a number of high-ranking officers and U.S.-trained Afghan special operators, were effectively forced to flee to Iran, according to McCaul’s new 120-plus-page report, which will be released on Tuesday. But the report concluded that in ongoing U.S. efforts to safely evacuate Afghans who assisted the U.S. government, “no special prioritization status has yet been granted to any former Afghan military personnel despite the security risks highlighted by the Biden administration’s own State Department.”
Four current and former U.S. officials corroborated the details of McCaul’s report on Afghan special operators. They concurred with the report’s conclusions, which warned it is possible that the Afghan special operators who fled to Iran could potentially pass their institutional knowledge of sensitive American military information—including special forces tactics and sensitive intelligence collection—on to the Iranian government, either voluntarily or through coercion.
“I think most of the Afghans that were in the commandos and other special units were really close to the Americans,” said Mick Mulroy, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense and CIA paramilitary officer. “But if you had no option and the only place you could go to escape the Taliban was Iran, and they’re the ones that are going to pay your bills and be able to take care of your family, they’ll be hard pressed not to take that opportunity because they really have no options.”
Mir Haider Afzaly, former chairperson of the defense commission in Afghanistan’s parliament, said Iran has given Afghan commandos who have fled to the country seven-month visa permits to stay in exchange for proving to Iranian authorities they used to serve in the Afghan military. Afzaly said he predicts Iran will renew these permits indefinitely.
The current and former officials who spoke to Foreign Policy said they haven’t tracked a concerted effort by Iran to organize or gain intelligence from former Afghan special operators but cautioned that it would be hard to know if Tehran did based on publicly available information.
When asked about Afghan commandos forced to flee to Iran and if there were any plans underway in the United States to bring Afghan commandos to safety, a State Department spokesperson wrote: “The Afghan National Security Forces did not last as long as anyone expected. This was a painful moment for Afghans and the hundreds of thousands of Americans who served in Afghanistan to support the Afghan people.”
The spokesperson added: “One year later, we are in a stronger strategic position because of the President’s decision” to withdraw from Afghanistan. “For the first time in nearly 20 years, our forces are not in harm’s way in Afghanistan, and we are fully focused on the challenges and opportunities that define the 21st century.” The Pentagon did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The Taliban have stepped up a campaign of targeting and killing former members of the Afghan military in recent months as they battle pockets of resistance against their rule in parts of the country’s eastern and southern provinces. Former Afghan commandos are particularly vulnerable to the Taliban’s hunt-and-kill operations, current and former U.S. officials said, which is what drove some to flee to Iran.
It appears that many of the former special operators who made it to Iran have been put to work in heavy labor or as shopkeepers. In a TikTok video posted in May and shared widely among former Afghan officials, one former Afghan commando said he had found a job at a construction site in Iran.
“The Iranians are very happy because after the fall of the Afghan government, they have gotten a powerful and muscled labor force, which mostly consists of former Afghan commandos and soldiers,” the former commando said in the video. “Iranians even make fun of us by saying, ‘I wish the Afghan government collapsed sooner, so we would have these hardworking laborers earlier.’”
The CIA separately evacuated thousands of Afghans independently, including counterterrorism operators trained by the U.S. intelligence community, from a secure compound called Eagle Base in the last days of the U.S. withdrawal from the country, but former officials familiar with the matter said there are a substantially larger number of current and former Afghan military commandos who required evacuation.
Iran, which shares a nearly 600-mile-long border with Afghanistan, has a history of recruiting and using Afghan proxies in combat. Tehran once backed the Northern Alliance against the Taliban during the Afghan civil war in the 1990s. And Iran’s elite Quds Force trained and recruited the so-called Fatemiyoun Division, an Afghan Shiite militia, to fight against Sunni groups in Syria beginning in 2013 during the Syrian civil war. The Fatemiyoun Division at one point had an estimated strength of up to 20,000 fighters, according to researchers.
The congressional investigation concluded that the Afghan military forces and commandos who fled to Iran were forced to do so after effectively being abandoned by the United States, and it said the Biden administration has yet to make a decision on whether to launch a new campaign to try and evacuate any Afghan commandos left behind.
“As the Taliban’s advance on Kabul progressed, there was no organized effort to prioritize the evacuation of critical Afghan military personnel who possessed unique knowledge of the U.S. military’s tactics, techniques, and procedures and could thereby pose a security risk to America if they could be forced to divulge their knowledge to a U.S. adversary,” the report stated.
According to the report, a senior State Department official said on Feb. 16 that “the issue of evacuating Afghan commandos ‘will be discussed in the interagency’ and ‘it all still remains to be discussed and determined.” But as of July, the White House had still not made a decision, the report said.
The Biden administration, meanwhile, continues to insist that U.S. President Joe Biden inherited a broken Afghanistan policy from former U.S. President Donald Trump, including the 2020 Doha agreement with the Taliban that allowed the militant group to gain military strength while the United States prepared its withdrawal.
“When we took office, the Taliban was in its strongest military position since 2001 and we had the smallest number of U.S. troops on the ground,” the State Department spokesperson said. “Ending the longest war in American history was never going to be easy. Two previous presidents wanted to end it and were not able to. But President Biden was committed to avoid handing a forever war to his successor.”