Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Regional Relations

Raftan, Raftan: How young Afghans from Herat end up in the Syrian war

S Reza Kazemi 20 min

Much has been reported about how Afghan men, mostly young Shias, are being incentivised or coerced by Iran into fighting on the side of the Assad regime in Syria. There has been little study, however, of how exactly they end up in Syria. Said Reza Kazemi (*) has been tracking a 22 year-old Shia Afghan called Musa and discovered a story of going to fight in Syria that is far more complex. Musa’s case highlights how young men, failing to be integrated into their local communities, are becoming more connected to the outside world. It also shows how such dislocated youths can believe that by fighting in Syria they can become men.

A view over Herat city from a hill in the Bagh-e Mellat (Nation's Garden) resort – Herat is Musa's hometown, where he saw no future for himself. (Photo Source: Said Reza Kazemi)A view over Herat city from a hill in the Bagh-e Mellat (Nation's Garden) resort – Herat is Musa's hometown, where he saw no future for himself. (Photo Source: Said Reza Kazemi)

This dispatch follows previous fieldwork and AAN publications by Said Reza Kazemi on the problematic behaviour of young people in Herat. The names of people and places in this dispatch have been changed or withheld at the request of interviewees.

It was a pleasant spring afternoon in a shahrak, or informal settlement, on the tree-clad outskirts of Herat city on 3 April 2016 when 21-year-old Jawid received a message from his close friend Musa on his Chinese-made smartphone while chatting to this author. After the ritual of greetings and catching up, Musa and Jawideengaged in what turned out to be a serious conversation:

Musa [online from Tehran, Iran]: Forgive me [halal konen] but I’m no longer going to be around.

Jawid [online from Herat, Afghanistan]: What do you mean? Where will you be?

M: Don’t tell anyone: I’ll be in Syria.

J: Why?

M: Just going there.

J: I don’t know what to say. As you wish… But I beg you: don’t go.

M: Isn’t it good if I become a shahid [a martyr]?

J: You could have continued your schooling and taken your kankur [university entrance test] here. At least you could have tried to get into university here. You could have gone there [to Syria] if you hadn’t succeed with kankur. Or you could have eventually found some work here. So many people go on living here. Of course, it’s good to become a shahid. Not everyone can become a shahid. Of course, I can’t tell you what to do and I can’t stop you going either.

M: That [continuing school] was certainly possible, Jawid. My problem comes from another place, and I can’t talk about it.

J: What problem?

M: The problem lies in my heart.

J: Because of your dad?

M: No.

J: What problem do you have with your heart?

M: Leave it. Bye for now.

J: Well, you must do whatever feels right for you.

M: You know, Jawid, we all die. It has nothing to do with going to Syria. We die wherever we are, once our ’ajal [final hour] comes.

J: Are you serious about your decision?

M: Yes.

J: Are your mum and dad aware of it?

M: No.

J: Nobody’s aware of it! Why don’t you talk to your mum and dad about it? Tell them, or it’ll be very sad for them.

M: I’m going tomorrow. To Yazd [the centre of Iran’s Yazd province, around 270 km southeast of Isfahan], for training. One month of training in Iran and two months of fighting in Syria. Just pray that all will be fine for me at the end.

This conversation between the two young Afghans both reveals and conceals a number of issues. To understand it, it needs to be placed in its context. It highlights, for example, the growing awareness of the outside world among segments of Afghanistan’s younger population, their increased connectivity to worlds both virtual and real and their increasing mobility, both locally and abroad. Following Musa intermittently over the last three years (see previous research here), the author has been amazed at how fascinated Musa has always been with the connectivity provided to him by information and communication technologies, primarily via mobile phone and the Internet.

The socioeconomic circumstances of both Musa’s family and the 8,000 or so inhabitants of his shahrak (a Dari diminutive of shahr, city) are generally low. Most of the residents – where Musa has spent most of his life and which is inhabited mostly by Shia Hazaras and Sayyeds – are daily-wage labourers employed in piecemeal construction work. Musa’s father is a local shopkeeper. Youths like Musa have, nevertheless, managed to purchase Chinese-made smartphones and stay connected via the Internet (see previous AAN research on the growth of new media in Afghanistan here). Many of these young people put pressure on their parents to buy them smartphones.

Like many of his peers, Musa spends much of his time on his phone, either messaging his friends in Afghanistan and abroad, or checking Facebook and other social networking websites. He watches video clips, listens to music and generally surfs the net. It is this connectivity that has made young people like Musa aware of regional and global developments, such as the war in Syria and, more importantly, how to take part in it. However, their use of information and communication technologies continues to be largely uncritical, partly because of the generally low standards of education and upbringing in society (home, school and the broader community). However, even in countries with much higher standards of education and upbringing, young people have been radicalised through the media and joined the Syrian conflict. (1)  Therefore, there is more to youth radicalisation than the use of information and communication technologies. In Musa’s case, he was not radicalised, but his use of such technologies made him increasingly aware about developments outside Afghanistan, including how other young men were fighting in Syria.

The failure of local Afghan communities to integrate their youths

Musa’s connectivity to the outside world eventually led to his desire to travel abroad. His sense of dislocation did not happen overnight, however; it took a while for Musa to gradually become alienated from his local community in the shahrak, particularly from his school and his family.

It began with a life-changing incident at school. The shahrak where Musa has lived most of his life has one public school, and two private schools which compete with each other to attract fee-paying students. Musa used to attend one of these private schools, but was expelled. He came to blows with one of his teachers, following a reprimand for failing to do his homework, which had suffered increasingly due to time spent with his friends late into the night, and on his smartphone.

Despite his father’s pleas, the school stood by their decision and Musa lost a year of studies. In the following academic year, 2014-15, Musa attended a public school outside the shahrak in downtown Herat. He dropped out, however, while in his last year.

Musa’s father, who has four children (two girls aged 24 and 20 and two boys aged 22 and 5), then tried to get Musa involved in life in their local community, but these efforts were also in vain. He tried to engage Musa in the small grocery shop he had been running in the locality for over a decade. Musa was, however, not interested in helping his father there or in a subsequent shop his father wanted to set up for him to run. Musa’s father, relatives and some of his school friends, including Jawid, then tried to draw Musa into one of the few local educational centres that have been providing, among other things, English language and computer literacy courses. Musa attended an English language course for a short while, but soon dropped out. His father’s last move was to draw Musa into local life through marriage, but this effort backfired.

He had gone to a neighbour’s home, asking their daughter – a girl Musa had come to appreciate – for his son. As the author later found out through female relatives, the girl had previously turned Musa down. One reason was that the girl, who studies medicine at Herat University, rejected Musa because he did not have higher education. Furthermore, marriage is an expensive and complicated process of traditions and rituals, making it difficult for parents to settle their restless sons. In fact, many young Afghan men whose parents are not financially secure see migration abroad (such as Iran, Europe or Australia) as a way to find the money for getting settled in life. (2) In Musa’s case, his father had saved and put aside the necessary money, but his son had already been turned down by the girl he loved – one of the reasons for him wanting to pursue a different life path. Musa’s father eventually learned all this from his wife.

The failure of Afghan communities to integrate their young people needs to be placed in a larger historical and cultural context. Figures of authority in a community – parents, educational leaders, religious figures, etc – face a new generation of young men (and women) who often do not share their historical, social or cultural experiences. Most parents in the shahrak have lived most of their lives in Afghanistan’s central highlands region, as well as in intermittent migration in neighbouring countries, such as Iran and Pakistan, with far less connectivity or mobility than their children today have or can appreciate. Youths such as Musa wish to have ‘modern sociability’. This lies in stark contrast to traditional ways of life in Afghanistan in which people, particularly their parents and older generations, prefer to be content with whatever they have in life and living where their ancestors have lived or where they are currently settled, that is on the outskirts of Herat city. Additionally, young people like Musa have lived most of their lives in Herat – an ancient, politically and economically important urban centre with historical and rapidly broadening ties both inside and outside of Afghanistan, particularly with neighbouring Iran and Turkmenistan,  far from their ancestral central highlands, a region that many of them, including Musa, have never even been to. (3)

Handling these generational clashes is difficult for local figures of authority and parents such as Musa’s. In his father’s words:

I tried everything I could to keep him here. I didn’t make him work, besides his studies, as many parents in the shahrak do. I encouraged him to attend an English language course, in addition to his school. But he used to say, even if he studied, he wouldn’t be able to find a job that suited his education because of corruption and nepotism in the country. I told him I would open a shop for him, bring him a wife and help him build a family and a house of his own on a plot of land that I own in the shahrak. But he used to say he didn’t see a future for himself and his family in Afghanistan even if he got married. He was of a different mind. I could never understand him or know what he was constantly doing with his mobile phone. I neither know English nor am I knowledgeable about the internet and things like that. Musa wanted to go, and he did go. The night he was smuggled out of Herat for Tehran about ten months ago, we had our last conversation, but I ultimately failed to convince him, to give him hope of a future in order to make him stay here. He went without my or his mother’s consent.

Getting out of Afghanistan: failed attempt to get to Germany via Iran

In chats with the author before he left, it was clear Musa had not initially intended to go to Syria. He ended up in the war there or, as he told his friend Jawid, he happened to “just be going there.” Musa was connected, through Facebook and other social networking websites, with friends from the shahrak who had managed to get as far away as Austria and Germany, particularly from 2013 onwards. He was also regularly in touch with one of his paternal uncles who had previously got himself and his family smuggled to Augsburg in southern Germany in 2010. The atmosphere of ‘raftan, raftan’ (going, going), as ordinary people say on the streets of Herat, had clearly impacted youths such as Musa, who aspire to achieve a modern lifestyle (see also AAN research on ongoing but recently reduced ‘exodus’ from Afghanistan here, here  and here).

Initially, Musa had to get himself smuggled to Iran via Pakistan and then on to Turkey. From Turkey, he planned, like most other asylum-seekers, to try the Aegean Sea route to Greece and then all the way to Augsburg to his uncle.

It was in the middle of the night in July 2015 when Musa left the shahrak with one of his other paternal uncles and his paternal aunt’s husband for Iran via Pakistan. His companions were going to Iran to find construction work there. Following his return from Iran after about six months, during which he had missed his wife and children, Musa’s other paternal uncle told the author about the hardship and numerous risks they went through along the smugglers’ route to Iran. Remarkably, he said, they were lucky not to have been captured and killed by what he described as “Sunni Daesh [ISIS] supporters” along the Pakistani route via Taftan in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province. “The Daeshis suspect that Shia Afghans who go to Iran go on to fight for Assad in Syria. They send their own men to fight for the opposition in Syria; so, they kill any Shia Afghans they catch along the Pakistani route to Iran,” he said (for mobilisation of Sunnis in Pakistan to fight for the opposition in Syria, see here). AAN’s earlier research on Afghan fighters in Syria has also shown how the Syrian conflict has turned into an “odd meeting place” for Afghans fighting on the side of the Assad regime and those fighting for the opposition (see here). Even if Musa only saw Daesh in video clips on his Facebook account on his smartphone before he left, he felt how his journey to Iran could involve threats from Daesh mobilisers and supporters.

Musa and his two companions arrived safely in Tehran after almost a week. They had agreed to pay the smuggler after their arrival (around 30,000 Afghanis each, equivalent to 460 US dollars) through working and earning money in Iran. Many smugglers travel to Iran after obtaining visas from Iran’s consulate in Herat and then take their money from the people they have smuggled to that country, as one Herati in the smuggling business confided to the author in mid-2015. Musa found work as an apprentice in a carpentry shop on the outskirts of Tehran. He wanted to leave Iran for Europe as soon as he could, but could not for lack of money. (4) Musa’s work at the carpentry shop only just enabled him to get by in Tehran. His father would call him and Musa complained to him and his mother about his difficult living conditions in the carpentry shop, which also included household chores such as preparing and cooking food, washing and cleaning – things his mother and sisters had done for him at home and that he had taken for granted until then.

Musa put pressure on his parents to help him get out of Iran as soon as possible, particularly because European states were tightening their laws and considering closing their borders to asylum-seekers, especially those from Afghanistan (see a previous AAN dispatch here). He was keeping abreast of developments regarding asylum-seekers in Europe through his friends as well as by following the media. In particular, he asked his father to provide him with the money by selling his plot of land in the shahrak. However, because his father had not given Musa the permission to leave, he insisted that Musa had to work himself to raise the money if he wanted to go to Europe. (5) His Augsburg-based paternal uncle also refused to support Musa’s trip financially, for the same reason – because his brother (Musa’s father) had not given his blessing to Musa’s departure. The result was that Musa was stuck in Tehran.

Ending up in the Syrian war

Musa ended up in the war in Syria when he felt all other doors – to Europe, Iran and Afghanistan – were closed to him. He could not go to Europe as he was unable to make enough money to do so. Even if he had had the money, by early 2016, a move to Europe would most likely have been futile, as European states had closed their borders to asylum-seekers, especially those from Afghanistan. At best, he would have ended up in Turkey.

Secondly, he had lost face and felt he could no longer return to Afghanistan. That would have demonstrated his leaving had been a mistake and, worse, that he had failed himself. Recent research on Afghan migration has brought up the role of stigma in causing people who have failed in their migration efforts and been deported to try to migrate again. (6) Thirdly, Musa found life in Iran unbearable, as he briefly wrote in another message to his friend Jawid in mid-March 2016:

J: So, you enjoy living in a modern and developed city like Tehran?

M: It’s not like mum and dad’s home. I work hard in the carpentry shop. I feel I’m getting respiratory problems because of the wood dust in the shop. What’s more, my hair has started falling out and I’m beginning to go bald.

There have been increasing numbers of think-thank and media reports about Iran incentivising or coercing thousands of Afghan men to fight for the Assad regime in Syria. (7) Although the role of the Iranian state certainly contributes to young Afghans joining the conflict in Syria (see AAN research herehere and this media report here), it does not tell the whole story about how Afghan youths such as Musa end up there. When young people feel that other doors have been closed to them, they can see participation in the Syrian conflict as their last chance to demonstrate their masculinity or build some form of identity or social status for themselves as fighters. Even if they die, they will be shahids (martyrs). In this way at least they will be celebrated and remembered (see their glorification as fighters and, after their deaths, as martyrs on one of the Facebook pages of the Fatemiyun Brigade here). Musa alluded to this in his conversation with his friend Jawid. Youths such as Musa who end up in Syria should not be seen as passive, powerless or ‘mercenary’, to be dispatched, manipulated and exploited by the Iranian and Assad regimes. Rather they are active agents shaping the circumstances of their lives and their destinies. In-depth, informal conversations with Musa’s family and friends made it clear it was almost entirely Musa’s own decision to go to fight in Syria. He wanted to shape his own life and go his own way.

This does not mean that these young men are immune to incentives offered by Iran to fight for the Assad regime. They receive monthly salaries ranging between 2.5 and 3.5 million Toman (around 50,000-70,000 Afghanis, or 769 – 1,076 US dollars) and residence permits for themselves and their families. The Iranian parliament is also discussing granting Iranian citizenship to the families of Afghans who are dispatched by the Iranian government and ‘martyred’ fighting in Syria (see here). Religion also has an impact on young people such as Musa. According to the author’s conversation with a well-placed member of Sadeqia, the major Shia mosque and religious centre in Herat, Grand Ayatollah Sayyed Ali al-Sistani, whom the majority of Shias in Herat and the wider western region of Afghanistan follow, has declared going to Syria to defend Shia shrines as wajeb-e kefa’i (mandatory within one’s capacity). In fact, Afghans fighting for the Assad regime in Syria are described by Iran as well as by themselves as “the defenders of the shrine and the domain of the guardianship of the Islamic jurist” (modafe’an-e haram wa harim-e welayat). The ‘shrine’ refers to that of Sayyeda Zainab’s shrine, the Prophet Muhammad’s granddaughter, which is located in southern Damascus; the ‘jurist’ is Iran’s highest authority, namely supreme leader Grand Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khamenei; here, it is implied, his authority extends outside Iran’s borders. All in all, joining the war in Syria is a highly complicated decision-making process, in which young men themselves play a significant role, in addition to various structural factors.

Musa’s story also shows the extent of the involvement of Afghans in the Syrian war. Several of Musa’s friends have taken part in (some have died there) or are seriously considering going to fight there. Importantly, his friends have, to a large extent, influenced his decision to go. Two, Rauf and Mohsen (featured in the author’s previous research here), who have also got themselves smuggled to Iran, are contemplating going, but so have far been dissuaded by their families, particularly by their mothers and sisters.

The author has identified three of Musa’s friends and twelve of his near and distant kin and acquaintances who have fought or died in Syria:

– Haidar, Musa’s friend, killed in action in Syria: a large funeral was organised to commemorate his death in Iran. He was buried in the martyrs’ area of a graveyard in Iran thanks to the Iranian residence permit his father Asghar was able to obtain for himself and his family. They subsequently moved from the shahrak, where they are now celebrated, to Iran. This has greatly contributed to the socioeconomic enhancement of his family.

– Asghar, Haidar’s father, was dispatched several times to fight in Syria though he was prevented by his wife from going back to fight in Syria on his last attempt, as the family has already lost its son. He has developed symptoms that could be characterised as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He is currently living with his family in Iran.

– Gholam, Musa’s friend, is currently fighting in Syria and influenced Musa in his decision to go. He has started making a contribution to the economic wellbeing of his family.

– Zaman, Musa’s friend, was killed in action in Syria. A large funeral was organised for him in Iran and he was buried in the martyrs’ area of a graveyard in Iran. His family moved from the shahrak to Iran as they were granted residency permits by the Iranian government. They are now celebrated by his family as well as by the wider community in the shahrak and in Iran.

– Two maternal uncles, reportedly prominent members and commanders in the Fatemiyun Brigade that is composed of Afghan Shias (for more on the Fatemiyun, see here). One of the uncles had deserted the Afghan National Army a few years ago and went back to Iran. They were already members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. They have previous experience of fighting for Iran in the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988).

– Three more relatives on Musa’s mother’s side (who are married to sisters of Musa’s mother) are currently fighting in Syria.

– Two brothers of Musa’s eldest sister’s husband, who are religiously oriented, are following the fatwa of Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani and are fighting to defend Shia shrines in Syria. They are said, by their Herat-based brother, to believe in either killing or dying fighting the Daeshis. Musa’s eldest sister’s husband is also considering joining the Syrian war.

– The brother of another distant relative of Musa’s, who is also religiously oriented, believes in fighting to defend Shia shrines in Syria.

– Another distant relative of Musa’s is currently fighting in Syria and has reportedly saved the life of a major Iranian commander. He was reportedly honoured by Iran’s political and religious leadership, including Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei (see here  on Khamenei’s meeting with families of Afghans killed in Syria). He is a member of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and had previously fought on Iran’s side in the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988).

– Another distant relative of Musa’s, killed in action in Syria, was as old as Musa and also a poor student at school. He had a big funeral and was buried in the martyrs’ area of a graveyard in Iran. His family is now celebrated and this has made an important contribution to the socioeconomic enhancement of his family.

– A close relative who previously fought in Syria is currently in Herat and is planning to go back.

Syria stories

The participation of a growing number of young men in the Syrian conflict has given rise to difficult questions and controversies in the shahrak, and probably elsewhere in Afghanistan, about fundamental concepts such as jihad (holy war), namus (honour), watan (homeland) and shahid/shahadat (martyr/martyrdom). Tensions can be particularly high when families, friends and acquaintances get together and recount what can be called ‘Syria stories’ – stories they have heard either from people they know who are presently fighting in Syria or from those who have returned home from Iran or Syria.

The father of Musa’s friend, Rauf, who is seriously thinking of joining the battlefield in Syria, told the author on 5 May 2016:

Rauf didn’t inform us when he left the shahrak to be smuggled to Iran. We didn’t know where he was for several days until we received his call from Tehran. Then his mother and I became calmer, especially because he went to stay with his brother who is in Iran with his family. After a while, Rauf said he was going to fight in Syria for jihad to defend our religion and our namus. Even if he dies, he says he’ll die as a shahid. I strongly disagreed and shouted at him down the mobile phone. I told him jihad takes place in a person’s watan. I told him you become a shahid fighting for your namus in your own watan. Afghanistan is itself at war. I oppose whatever the Iranians and some of our own Afghan clerics are telling young people such as my son. His mother said she wouldn’t ‘forgive her milk’ if he goes to fight in Syria. She said she would do biabi [shame, disgrace] to the family by leaving the house, running through the streets and alleys of the shahrak, barefooted and without a veil, if her son has goes to fight in Syria (8). So far, we’ve managed to keep him out of there.

Many of the stories from and about Syria are filled with terrifying descriptions of the war in that country. There are tales about young Afghan fighters who have been captured and decapitated by Daesh. Narrating what his brother told him about his experiences in Syria, one of Musa’s relatives, during a family get-together, said that, in one instance, his brother and comrades were besieged, a hellish fight took place and those who could not escape the area faced a horrible end: Daesh members reportedly used their shoe laces to behead them. His brother had, however, managed to flee the area. Several weeks ago, the beheaded body of one of the young local Afghans who had gone to Syria was returned for burial in Mashhad, the centre of Iran’s Razavi Khorasan province which neighbouring Herat. Several relatives of young Afghan fighters say many bodies (most of them decapitated) are never returned; rather they are left to rot in no man’s land in Syria.

There are also stories of how repentant some young Afghan fighters have become after seeing the Syrian war for themselves. In some cases, they have intentionally injured or disabled themselves so they no longer have to take part in armed hostilities and are dispatched back to Iran. They then leave Iran for elsewhere (back to Afghanistan or on to Europe). Additionally, there are numerous stories about how young Afghan fighters killed in the Syrian war are celebrated at funerals attended by crowds of Afghans and Iranians in various cities across Iran. Undoubtedly, part of this is political propaganda by the Iranian government to sustain fighter mobilisation to boost the manpower of the Assad regime. They are then buried in martyrs’ areas in graveyards throughout the country (see, for example, here about the burial in Mashhad and Yazd of nine Afghans who had been killed in Khan Tuman, a strategic village in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo).

There are also many positive tales about these young men. Although they were, in many ways, failures in their own society (or saw themselves as such) and seriously confused about what they were doing in life, they have come to be seen as the defenders of Shia shrines and heroes of the religion within a short time span. They are celebrated as fighters and as martyrs after their deaths. Many have become the main breadwinners and providers for their families. Some have managed to obtain Iranian residence permits for their families. More generally, they gain experience of life and are able to command some level of social respect among their families and communities. This is exactly the point missing in previous think-tank research and media coverage of young Afghan men participating in the Syrian conflict. To these, one should also add many tales of camaraderie among these young Afghan fighters as well as between them and their Iranian and Syrian comrades. Finally, there are also stories of at least a few Afghan fighters who have fallen in love with Syrian women or the women with them and who stay on, possibly to form families if they continue to survive and if the Syrian war is brought to some conclusion – pointing to the down-to-earth fact that normal life can go on even in the midst of a catastrophic war.

Musa in Syria, his family in the shahrak and what his case tells us

The night he left Yazd for Syria on 4 May 2016, Musa finally called to let his parents know that he was going to fight in Syria. In anger over his parents not helping him financially to leave Iran for Germany, he had cut off all contact with his family and friends, both via phone and the Internet, with the exception of close friends such as Jawid. That night he talked to all his family members, namely his parents, two sisters, his eldest sister’s husband and his younger brother. He asked his parents for halaliyat (forgiving him for whatever wrong he might have committed in the past), in case he never returned from the Syrian battlefield. Finally, his parents saw no other way but to give in. His mother said that, after he called, she was not able to sleep for nights and his father had been increasingly pensive. During his last conversation with his family, Musa reportedly told them that his maternal uncles, who are prominent members and commanders of the Fatemiyun Brigade, would intervene so that he would not be dispatched to the frontline, but instead to place him in a non-combat role such as providing first aid and other medical services in a hospital in Damascus. Whether or not his maternal uncles were able to do this is unknown, for there has been no more news from or about Musa since 4 May.

Musa’s story tells us how Afghan communities and government authorities have to deal with a new generation of Afghan youth who are increasingly connected to the outside world and, increasingly, have the possibility of travelling abroad. In Musa’s case, his own community failed to integrate him into local life – although not for lack of trying – and no one was able to prevent him following his own path. In particular, Musa’s father and mother certainly did all they could and acted as responsible and caring parents but they faced a changing situation that was extremely difficult to manage.

Communities should listen to their young people’s needs more and invest in their interests. Even small things can bring about changes. One of Musa and his friends’ interests was playing football. Developing this and other extra-curricular activities (that need not be expensive) can make a difference by making youths such as Musa more interested in their communities. Even organising small, local tournaments can have a big impact (see the author’s previous dispatch on grassroots football leagues and great hopes in Afghanistan here). An adult from the shahrak said he was spending more time playing and encouraging youngsters to play football, because they enjoyed it and because it tired them out so they would not have the energy to spend a lot of time on their mobile phones or the Internet.

Musa and other young people in his situation are desperately looking for ways to make their mark in life and build their own identity and social status. They want hope and a future. Unless they find this in their own neighbourhood and in their society, the temptation to go to places like Syria will remain, even under the worst circumstances imaginable, in order that they might prove themselves.

* Said Reza Kazemi is a PhD student (2013-2016) at Heidelberg University in Germany where he is writing a dissertation on an ethnographic story about the past and present of an Afghan transnational family. He has previously worked as a researcher for the Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN).


(1) Jytte Klausen, “Tweeting the jihad: social media networks of western foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 38 (1), 2015: 1-22.

(2) To many young Afghans, migration is a rite of passage to adulthood, marriage and settling in life. See Alessandro Monsutti, “Migration as rite of passage: young Afghans building masculinity and adulthood in Iran,” Iranian Studies 40 (2), 2007: 167-185.

(3) Ute Franke, “Ancient Herat revisited: new data from recent archaeological fieldwork,” in Rocco Rante (ed) Greater Khorasan: history, geography, archaeology and material culture, Berlin/Munich/Boston: Hubert & Co., Göttingen, 2015, 63-88; C.P.W. Gammell, The pearl of Khorasan: a history of Herat, London: Hurst, 2016; Jolyon Leslie, “Political and economic dynamics of Herat,” Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace (USIP), 2015.

(4) According to a local money changer in Khorasan Market in downtown Herat in late 2015, one needs around USD 10,000 to make it to a European country like Germany. This was generally the amount he was transferring to individuals who had left Herat for Europe through being smuggled.

(5) Research on migration has shown that migrants who have obtained permission to leave their families and homeland are more successful than those who do not. See, for example, Loretta Baldassar, “Transnational families and aged care: the mobility of care and the migrancy of ageing,” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 33 (2), 2007: 275-97.

(6) Lisa Schuster and Nassim Majidi, “Deportation stigma and re-migration,” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 41 (4), 2015: 635-52.

(7) Ari Heistein and James West, “Syria’s other foreign fighters: Iran’s Afghan and Pakistani mercenaries,” 20 November 2015, The National Interest; Ali Alfoneh, “Shiite combat casualties show the depth of Iran’s involvement in Syria,” 3 August 2015, The Washington Institute; Human Rights Watch, “Iran Sending Thousands of Afghans to Fight in Syria,” 29 January 2016; Saeed Kamali Dehghan, “Afghan refugees in Iran being sent to fight and die for Assad in Syria,” 5 November 2015, The Guardian; Hashmatallah Moslih, “Iran ‘foreign legion’ leans on Afghan Shia in Syria war,” Aljazeera. See also Seth G. Jones, “Syria’s growing jihad,” Survival: Global Politics and Strategy 55 (4), 2013: 53-72; and W. Andrew Terrill, “Iran’s strategy for saving Assad,” The Middle East Journal 69 (2), 2015: 222-36.

(8) This is a typical pattern of behaviour distressed women display and/or are expected to display in Afghanistan’s sociocultural context. See Benedicte Grima, The performance of emotion among Paxtun women, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992.



Afghan youth communication technology Iran migration Syrian war