Taliban’s new commando force tests Afghan army’s strength

  • Afghan police soldiers practice in Lashkargah, capital of southern Helmand province, on July 24. AP

  • FILE - In this Thursday, Aug. 4, 2016 file photo, an Afghan soldier, left, and a U.S. soldier guard during a visit of Kabul's officials, in the governor's compound in Kandahar, Afghanistan. A new elite Taliban force is proving its strength in the strategic southern province of Helmand, pointing to the insurgents' ability to refine their battlefield techniques to match Afghanistan's increasingly professional national army. (AP Photos/Massoud Hossaini) Massoud Hossaini

  • FILE - In this Wednesday, March 9, 2016 file photo, Afghan security forces stand near dead bodies of Taliban insurgents after a complex attack in Helmand province, south west Afghanistan. A new elite Taliban force is proving its strength in the strategic southern province of Helmand, pointing to the insurgents' ability to refine their battlefield techniques to match Afghanistan's increasingly professional national army. (AP Photo/STR) Uncredited

  • FILE - In this Monday, Aug. 1, 2016 file photo, an Afghan Security policeman inspects the site of a suicide truck bombing, in Kabul, Afghanistan. A new elite Taliban force is proving its strength in the strategic southern province of Helmand, pointing to the insurgents' ability to refine their battlefield techniques to match Afghanistan's increasingly professional national army. (AP Photos/Rahmat Gul) Rahmat Gul

  • FILE - In this Monday, Aug. 1, 2016 file photo, Afghans look at a crater caused by a truck bombing, in Kabul, Afghanistan. A new elite Taliban force is proving its strength in the strategic southern province of Helmand, pointing to the insurgents' ability to refine their battlefield techniques to match Afghanistan's increasingly professional national army. (AP Photos/Rahmat Gul) Rahmat Gul

Published: 8/6/2016 9:41:41 PM

An elite new Taliban force is proving its strength in the strategic southern province of Helmand, pointing to the insurgents’ ability to refine their battlefield techniques to match Afghanistan’s increasingly professional national army.

The Taliban regard Helmand as their heartland. They share Pashtun ethnicity with its residents and the province’s vast opium output has helped fund the war against the government in Kabul, now in its fifteenth year.

In recent weeks, the Taliban have taken huge swaths of the province and now they appear to be closing in on the capital, Lashkar Gah.

Afghan officials in Helmand say the army is facing an insurgent fighting force that is better-organized and more skilled than ever. They say the Taliban have been sending men into the fight who appear to be members of a commando-like unit, believed to consist of several hundred elite fighters.

A senior Taliban commander confirmed the existence of the new, highly-trained force.

Speaking on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to the news media, the commander said the force numbered “around 300 fighters now, after starting out with 200.” The new commando unit is called Sara Khitta, which means Red Group or Danger Group in Pashto.

“This kind of force is giving us very good results, and we have been discussing whether or not we should deploy this sort of unit more widely,” he said.

The Taliban would give no further details, and military officials refused to discuss the subject. But civilian officials in Helmand said the force is led by a commander known as Haji Nasar, former operational head of the Taliban operating in Kandahar and Zabul provinces.

The unit was first deployed in the district of Sangin, in north-eastern Helmand, earlier this year and its success has inspired plans to expand the force to 400 fighters, according to the deputy head of Helmand’s provincial council, Abdul Majeed Akhonzada. “They are very dangerous and very successful,” he said.

It appears to be the latest development in Taliban tactics. Over the past six months, the insurgents have shown that they are able to modify their approach to suit different terrain. This allows them to expand their territory while launching fewer direct attacks on police checkpoints and buildings, minimizing the number of casualties among the insurgents.

The Taliban commander said that casualties among the commando unit had been minimal, but he gave no numbers.

In a development of great concern to the Afghans and Americans, Helmand official Akhonzada said the new unit is using night vision technology, which has enhanced its attack capabilities. The equipment was likely seized from police and army units, he said. “That’s why they attack at night, and that’s why they can see our men but our men can’t see them,” he added.

Now that the Taliban have introduced a commando-style unit to the battlefield, the Afghan military may again meet its match during this year’s fierce summer fighting season.

The director of Helmand provincial council, Kareem Atal, said hundreds of Afghan security forces have been killed across the province in recent weeks. He said that since late July at least 586 policemen and soldiers have been killed or wounded, as have at least 250 civilians.

“The Taliban are now controlling 80 percent of Helmand,” Atal said. “Our officials are corrupt and incapable of controlling this province. Our armed forces are not united and they don’t fight in a coordinated and united way.”

Taliban fighters had reached the outskirts of the provincial capital on Thursday, he said. “This new force fights in a very technical manner and that’s the reason that today they are at the border of Lashkar Gah.”

“We keep asking the government to do something about the current situation – if the government can’t help, then why are we fighting the Taliban?” Atal added. “At least if we stand with the Taliban, the fighting will stop and we will have peace.”




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