Trained by the United States and equipped with state-of-the-art gear, Afghanistan’s special forces are its frontline weapon against the Taliban – but reduced American military support has pushed them to the brink.
With the US troop presence in Afghanistan effectively over, an accelerated Taliban offensive has gobbled up vast tracts of rural territory and laid siege to cities held by government forces.
The speed and scope of the campaign have placed enormous strain on the elite units, who have been constantly shuttled to hot spots where regular forces have buckled under the Taliban assault.
The head of the Special Operations Command, Major General Haibatullah Alizai, says sharply diminished US air support has hindered operations.
“It’s more challenging these days,” Alizai told AFP. While we are fighting in most areas, on some frontlines, it is getting difficult. But we have no choice – it’s our country.”
The brutal killing of an elite group of special forces in June, after reinforcements failed to materialize, was a stark illustration of how squads can swiftly find themselves isolated and overrun.
‘Never lost a battle’
Sporting night-vision goggles, US-made rifles and other modern combat equipment, Afghanistan’s special forces stunned the Taliban when they first emerged in 2008.
Their American trainers hailed them as a force to be reckoned with that could, eventually, help the Afghan government eradicate the Taliban and speed a US exit.
“The special operations in Afghanistan have been uniquely created in our own image,” Todd Helmus, a RAND Corporation analyst who spent time with soldiers on the ground in 2013, told AFP.
“They’re very good. They’re very well trained. They know how to shoot, move and communicate.”
In a country where training for local soldiers has often been rudimentary, drills for special forces were intense: 14 weeks of marksmanship, squad tactics, air assault and live-fire exercises.
Private contractors played a role. A now-expired online job ad by US defense giant Raytheon sought candidates to “organize, man, equip, and train” the Ktah Khas (KKA) – one of the most elite special forces divisions, made up of army, police and intelligence agency units.
Within a decade their numbers had ballooned – precise figures are classified, but two security sources told AFP there were around 56,000 special forces across the army, police and intelligence services.
“These brave soldiers have never lost a battle, and they never will,” then-commander of US forces in the country General John Nicholson said in 2017 – the same year the elite unit grabbed headlines for its role in the killing of Abdul Hasib, the head of the Islamic State group in Afghanistan.
But while Major General Alizai told AFP they are now trained by other Afghans, analysts argue the special forces were always overly dependent on foreign assistance – from intelligence gathering to logistics – leaving them fundamentally vulnerable to a US and NATO pullout.
“We’re seeing the failure of that policy, now there’s a natural recognition that obviously we need to train these units to fight on their own, so they don’t need us anymore,” RAND’s Helmus said.
With the US withdrawal nearly complete, the elite units have become a last line of defense against sweeping Taliban advances.
“The only thing that’s degrading the Taliban’s progress right now are the special forces and the air force,” Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told AFP.
“And they are being overused, they are just being parachuted from one crisis area to another– suppressing the fire without putting out the fire.”
Recent rapid deployments have defended Qala-i-Naw, the first provincial capital attacked by the Taliban since foreign forces began their pullout in May, as well as southern Kandahar and western Herat, to prevent the fall of provincial capitals there.
In these hot spots, special forces have often found themselves over-stretched and without local reinforcement.
In June, a unit of around two dozen special forces – sent to reinforce a flagging local defense – was overwhelmed by the Taliban in the northern province of Faryab.
Footage posted online appeared to show them being executed after surrendering.
Among those killed was Major Sohrab Azimi, a rising star in the Afghan army whose death prompted an outpouring of public anger over perceived military incompetence.
His father, retired General Zahir Azimi, took to social media to accuse officials of failing to provide enough support to his son’s unit.
“In this case, the special operations forces were just abandoned by the regular army,” Brookings’ Felbab-Brown said. “They just let the commandos be shredded.”
There are fears that such brutal outcomes could become common as the Afghan army cedes more ground to the Taliban and special forces are deployed to fight increasingly desperate battles.
But Major General Alizai insists his troops can hold the line.
“Every day we are losing great people, great men, very good officers, NCOs and soldiers,” he said.
“It’s not going to affect anybody’s morale,” he added. “We are ready to accept more sacrifices.”