Special Operations: Russia Recruits Exiled Afghan Operators


January 30, 2023: Russia is recruiting former American-trained Afghan special operations troops to fight in Ukraine. That’s the simple version, the reality is more complex because it’s the Russian Wagner Group which is recruiting. Currently Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin is in trouble with his patron, Vladimir Putin, for feuding with Russian army commanders in Ukraine over credit for some recent victories. Prigozhin isn’t going to get fired but Putin sided with the army generals and had to publicly criticize Prigozhin to make sure everyone got the message about the limits of the Wagner Group forces in Ukraine.

Wagner Group is a profitable international operation that reports directly to Putin. The Wagner Group was sent to Ukraine because the Russian army needed help, not competition. Prigozhin organized the largest Wagner Group force ever for the Ukraine operation and did it with money supplied by Putin. For the Ukraine operation Prigozhin assembled 10,000 of his usual military veterans and about 30,000 cheaper and less skilled convicts recruited from Russian jails. Putin took care of enabling that and the use of pardons for the convicts who joined. Some of the convicts had some military experience, most did not. They received six-month contracts of which some was devoted to brief but intense training, unlike most Russian troops which get no training at all. The convicts were not told that they were being used in high-risk operations under the supervision of veteran Wagner personnel. The few convict mercenaries who survived their contract received their pardons, and this was publicized to encourage the others. Word got around in prisons that signing on with Wagner was risky but that the pardons were real, as was the high-risk nature of working for Wagner. Most of those who did join later deserted rather than be killed in combat.

During the last few months, the Wagner Group force was one of the few Russian units in Ukraine capable of defeating Ukrainian forces. The Ukrainians took fewer casualties but had to give ground against the Wagner force. The only other effective Russian forces in Ukraine were a few airborne units. Those were composed of well trained and led Russian troops that the army could not afford to lose in the kind of attacks the Wagner Group was making. Prigozhin made the mistake of criticizing the airborne troops, and army forces in general, for being less useful than the Wagner Force. Putin was putting a lot of time and money into training and equipping more Russian troops to join the airborne units in a few months for a major offensive. Prigozhin did not pay sufficient attention to this and his boss Putin was not pleased. The Ukraine Wagner Force will continue as part of a larger Russian army plan.

Meanwhile, Putin wants Prigozhin to pay more attention to foreign Wagner Operations, which make money and spread Russian influence overseas. Putin sees the Ukraine Wagner Force being broken up and the more capable Ukraine veterans going to foreign operations. Those not needed or lacking skills for overseas work will be dismissed. Putin may be too optimistic about the survival of Russian forces in Ukraine. The Ukrainians are also forming a larger and better equipped (with NATO tanks and other armored vehicles). Whatever happens, as long as Putin is in power Wager Group will remain active worldwide.

This is why Wagner Group is recruiting former American-trained Afghan special operations troops. Over twenty thousand of these men got out of Afghanistan when the Taliban took control of the government in mid-2021. These Afghan operators felt betrayed by the Americans and many found refuge in Iran, especially if they were Shia Moslems. Iran had long used Afghan mercenaries in Syria and, while Iran could no longer afford that, it did give the Afghan Shia operators much appreciated sanctuary in Iran.

At the same time this was happening in late 2021, Iranian media reported that Iran was establishing explicitly Iran-backed Shia militias in western Afghanistan. Iran wanted to protect the Shia minority (about 20 percent of Afghans) from the expanding reach of the Taliban. In the late 1990s the Taliban went after Afghan Shia in a big way and the victims have not forgotten. The new militias were composed of combat-experienced Afghan Shia who served as Iranian mercenaries and survived combat in Syria. Oddly enough the name of these militias, Hashd Al Shi’I, does not use one of the local languages (Pushtun or Dari), but a language the Syrian veterans learned a little of in Syria. Hashd Al Shi’I is Arabic for “Shia Mobilization”.

Over 50,000 Afghan Shia served in Syria and, as they returned to Afghanistan, often took the initiative in protecting fellow Shia from increasing violence by Islamic terror groups, including the Taliban. The former mercs asked Iran for help but, until mid-2021, all Iran was willing to do was back anti-Pakistan Taliban factions that, in return for weapons and other aid from Iran, promised to leave Afghan Shia alone. Moving on to explicitly Iran-backed Shia militias was not considered a big surprise.

In 2019 Iran sent most of the Afghan mercenaries in Syria home because American sanctions cut off much of the money spent on the war in Syria. Iran began building a new mercenary force by hiring Syrians. The best of the Iranian foreign Shia were the Afghans but there was a limited supply of Afghan Shia willing to serve as Iranian mercs in faraway Syria. To entice the Afghans to volunteer they had been paid more than any other foreign Shia in Syria, and some were replaced by Syrians who are much cheaper because of the bad shape the Syrian economy is in and the dire poverty many Syrians live with. Another problem was that a growing number of Afghan Shia mercs would not renew their contracts and returned to Afghanistan or Iran, where mercenary service also earned an Iran residency permit.

The current situation involves making it easy for American-trained Afghan operators to get to Ukraine and join the Wagner Force. There’s not much work for former Afghan commandos in Iran, where continued economic sanctions have crippled the economy and driven up the unemployment rate. Iran is making some money selling Russia missiles and other weapons. Making it easy for the Afghan commandos to get to Ukraine is a bonus.

Most of these Afghan operators would prefer to work for Wagner Group anywhere but Ukraine. They experienced real combat against the Taliban before its American-backed regime collapsed, and would rather not be up against NATO (American) backed Ukrainian forces. These men are the type Wagner likes to recruit. Working for Wagner pays well and is usually low risk for skilled operatives. Operations in Ukraine are not low-risk but the pay is good and some of the Afghans are signing up hoping to survive service in Ukraine and move on to less risky Wagner Operations elsewhere.

Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin was not the first Russian to found a unit like Wagner. The first was Major Vladimir "Popski'' Peniakoff who worked for the British, not Russia and created a special forces unit in 1942 called the No. 1 Demolition Squad. He did this for the British Army in Egypt and was tasked with going behind German lines and attacking their fuel supplies. Peniakoff got the nickname Popski because British telegraph operators had problems spelling or pronouncing Peniakoff correctly. This came after the 42-year-old Peniakoff joined the British army and was assigned to rear area duty in Libya with the Libyan Arab Forces because he spoke Arabic. Bored with his dull assignment, he formed the LAFC (Libyan Arab Forces Commando), which was a small raiding group of British and Libyan troops who successfully operated behind German lines. This was noted by British special forces command in Egypt who asked him to join the LRDG (Long Range Desert Group), which was the first British special operations unit, and carry on his raiding activities as the 23-man No. 1 Demolition Squad to destroy German fuel supply storage sites before the crucial Battle of El Alamein. Without that fuel the Germans were crippled when they lost at Alamein and lost a lot of their mobility as they sought to retreat.

Peniakoff continued his command operations and unofficially expanded his Demolition Squad to the point where it became officially known as Popski’s Private Army. The British looked the other way as he added British soldiers and civilians as well as captured vehicles to his unit, and continued to be the scourge of German support units, often attacking at night and constantly sending intelligence reports back to the British 8th Army headquarters. Peniakoff’s small raiding force was the first to make contact with American forces in Tunisia during early 1943. At one-point Peniakoff's force captured 600 Italian troops. Peniakoff then expanded his force to 35 men and could then deploy two raiding parties at the same time.

Popski’s Private Army was sent to Taranto in southern Italy to scout the location of German forces and found a gap in the German lines that American troops exploited and caused the Germans to retreat. At this point Popski’s Private Army was organized into three 18-man raiding parties, each equipped with six jeeps armed with .30 caliber and .5o caliber machine-gun. These raiding parties had enormous firepower for such small units, and performed admirably against the Germans, who feared the British special operations units, especially Popski’s Private Army. It never had more than 80 men assigned to it, although that number was often exceeded by adopting useful Russian, Italian and German prisoners of war as well as some local partisans. By the end of the war Popski’s Private Army had acquired some DUKWs (amphibious trucks) and gotten some of their jeeps into Venice as the first mobile allied force to enter the city. Popski’s Private Army continued operating for four months after Germany surrendered to carry out various tasks, such as being the British liaison officers in Venice. Popski’s Private Army was disbanded and Peniakoff retired, as a lieutenant colonel in 1946 and became a British citizen and was decorated for his wartime exploits. He then took jobs as a writer and broadcaster, which made him even more popular. He died in 1951, at age 54, of a brain tumor.

Peniakoff was born in 1897 as the son of a Russian couple who emigrated to Belgium and then Britain in 1914 when the Germans invaded Belgium, His father established several successful businesses in Belgium and Britain and the 18-year-old went to France, joined the French Army and served until 1918. He spoke English, Russian, Italian, German, French and Arabic, which he learned after the war when he moved to Egypt and worked as an engineer for a sugar manufacturer. There Peniakoff learned all about the local culture including finding his way around the western desert area of Egypt where he operated during World War 2. He also met and married his first wife in Egypt, but divorced her and married again in 1948. Peniakoff died in England and was buried there. Those who served with him in the desert continued to tell his story and this led to several books. It is unclear what kind of legacy the Wagner Group and its leader Yevgeny Prigozhin will have. Peniakoff is a hard act to follow.


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