New reports of US-trained Afghan special forces joining the fight in Ukraine, but on the Russian side, are emerging. The Wagner Group, a Russian private military contractor firm that has played a vital role in the battle for the town of Bakhmut in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, is recruiting Afghan fighters that US special forces spent decades training.
Russia and Ukraine have fought bitterly to control Bakhmut, with many soldiers killed on both sides, despite repeated Ukrainian claims the now largely depopulated town has any strategic value.
However, as the Financial Times reported, after eight months of combat, Russian forces are close to capturing the city, approaching from three directions, leaving Ukraine’s main supply line under severe pressure and forcing Kiev to face “an agonizing choice over the cost of holding its ground.”
With relentless shelling and WWI-style trench warfare, Russian forces have captured several towns and villages around Bakhmut in recent weeks, most notably the salt mining town of Soledar, 15km to the north.
Reports emerged early in the war, in April 2022, that former Afghan commandos were fighting for pay on the Ukrainian side.
But reports of Afghan special forces fighting instead on the Russian side began to emerge in the fall of last year. An AP report from 31 October described how Afghan special forces soldiers who fought alongside US troops during the two-decade occupation of Afghanistan fled to Iran after the chaotic US withdrawal in August 2021.
Russia reportedly then recruited these special forces members to fight in Ukraine.
Three former Afghan generals told the AP that the Russians wished to attract thousands of the former elite Afghan commandos to create a “foreign legion,” offering $1,500-a-month salaries and promises of safe havens for themselves and their families in Iran.
“They don’t want to go fight — but they have no choice,” said General Abdul Raof Arghandiwal, due to fears of being forced by the Iranian government to return to Afghanistan. “They ask me, ‘Give me a solution. What should we do? If we go back to Afghanistan, the Taliban will kill us.’”
The US military left Afghanistan in a chaotic fashion in August 2021 following the complete disintegration of the US-trained Afghan army in the face of the Taliban.
While exposing the Afghan special forces to the threat of reprisals from the new Taliban government, the US withdrawal simultaneously opened the door to more robust US military support for Ukraine in the war against Russia.
In a December 2022 State Department for year-end press conference, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken explained that “if we were still in Afghanistan, it would have, I think, made much more complicated the support that we’ve been able to give and that others have been able to give Ukraine” against Russia.
Though fighting between the Ukrainian army and Moscow-backed separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces in the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine had been steady since 2014, the war escalated in February 2022 when Russia launched what it called a special military operation and invaded Ukraine.
Some analysts have argued the White House sought to deliberately provoke the Russian invasion, which, if true, may shed light on Washington’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan five months prior.