The presence of Taliban special forces in the insurgent group’s push to seize Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital of their opium-rich birthplace: Helmand Province, comes as Afghan forces, buoyed by U.S. airstrikes, have struggled to keep the city from falling.
Large swathes of the province have been under Taliban control for some time, as Afghan forces have tried to consolidate and reorganize in a bid to at least hold some of the more built-up areas of the shell-raked region.
The thought of the Taliban having “special forces” akin to the elite units fielded by the United States is far fetched, yet according to an AP report, the Taliban have fielded roughly 300 highly trained fighters that have proven successful on the battlefield. Known as Sara Khitta, which means Red Group or Danger Group in Pashto, the unit was first deployed to the embattled Sangin province last year, according to the AP, and has also seen combat in other provinces fighting both the Afghan National Army and the Islamic State’s offshoot in the country’s east.
Sayed Murad, an Afghan special forces commander, told Reuters that the group possesses “advanced weaponry, including night vision scopes, 82mm rockets, heavy machine guns and U.S.-made assault rifles.”
A spokesman for the U.S.-led mission in Afghanistan, Brig. Gen. Charles Cleveland, told Reuters that Afghan troops might have seen Taliban forces with night vision devices but U.S. and NATO forces “not seen any evidence” of the insurgent group possessing such a capability.
U.S. and NATO equipment has found its way to Taliban hands on numerous occasions over the course of the conflict. Units drop gear in gunfights and abandoned vehicles and positions are sometimes littered with extraneous radios and weapons that are quickly picked up. The Taliban, like many other insurgent groups, have long been known to use captured equipment against their enemies, both on the battlefield and for propaganda purposes.
Murad’s description of the Sara Khitta would fit well with the most basic of infantry units in any western country’s military. However, the fact that the Taliban–a group often seen as a rag tag bunch of insurgents armed with aging Kalashnikovs–might possess such a capability is a potential wake up call to anyone who has doubted the Taliban’s ability to adapt to change battlefield conditions in the almost 15 year-old conflict.
Special Forces and Special Operations Forces are loose terms thrown around that often invoke the idea of elite commando units such as SEAL Team Six. The former (Special Forces) relates to a very specific U.S. Army unit while the latter (Special Operations Forces) is an all encompassing phrase for irregular warfare units. For instance, Afghan Commandos are Special Operations Forces in name but operate and are used differently than, say, their U.S. equivalents. In the case of the Taliban’s Red Groups, it is unlikely that those units are performing complex traditional special operations missions such as raids and deep reconnaissance. Instead, they are being used as heavily armed shock troops that could be used to strike rapidly against perceived weak spots in the Afghan military’s defensive lines.