The militants have taken control of key highways and conducted operations aimed at suffocating Afghan cities. The blast has forced the Afghan government to deploy its best-trained units on the front lines, indicating that security forces are struggling to protect key parts of the country from ongoing Taliban violence.
Afghan special forces fighting the battle have received the highest level of training in the United States and make up just under one-fifth of the country̵
“We really have really brave soldiers and tough soldiers [well] trained by US Special Forces, “said General Haibatullah Alizai, commander of the Afghan Special Operations Corps. He said the limited American support his forces were receiving was “very useful”.
“The only thing we’re missing so far,” he said, “is technology and more air support.”
The protracted battles against the brave Taliban come as the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks – and the 20th anniversary of the start of the war – this year. Coalition forces ousted the Taliban in October 2001 to shelter al Qaeda militants involved in the 9/11 attacks.
General Scott Miller, commander of US forces in Afghanistan, has vowed to continue defending Afghan government forces against Taliban attacks, despite cutting US troops to 2,500 – less than a fifth of their numbers a year ago. As staff numbers dropped, US bases across the country were closed, forcing the Pentagon to relocate ammunition and equipment. It is not clear how many were sent from Afghanistan.
The US Central Command requested comments from the US military command in Afghanistan, which did not respond to questions.
Here in southern Afghanistan, Alizai is waging some of the most difficult battles against the Taliban. During a recent visit to Kandahar province, he identified a number of about half a dozen hangars that were once filled with US military planes. Now they are sitting empty.
“We don’t want another American soldier to die here on earth,” Alizai said. “The United States has spent billions of dollars [in Afghanistan]. They just have to give us the technology we need and leave the war to us. “
Alizai’s forces are slowly advancing. He said the current battle, while “difficult”, was sustainable, but that “it is impossible to win without new technology and without an increase in US air strikes.”
Alizai said units under his command needed armed unmanned surveillance aircraft, more fighter jets and advanced light weapons, among other equipment. Over the past year, U.S. air strikes have dropped to about 5 percent of what they were in 2019, and the Afghan air force is unable to fill the gap, according to Alizai, who is familiar with U.S. strike data already are not published publicly.
One key piece of equipment that Alizai said would help ensure the effectiveness of Afghan forces is armed unmanned aerial vehicles, a tool that is key to US-backed gains against the Taliban. Alizai said Afghan forces needed more time to strike a target after it was identified by an unarmed drone, as an armed plane had to be sent.
“Most of the time we lose goals,” Alizai said. This makes all our operations slower.
A senior Afghan defense official said the government had not made a formal request for armed unmanned aerial vehicles from the United States, but “it is always good for us to have more modern technology and support.” The official spoke on condition of anonymity, as he was not authorized to discuss the matter with the media.
The longer the operations, the greater the workload of Alizai’s forces. Many of the men in his unit said they had been on almost constant rotations from one front line to another for the past six months.
The Afghan military did not disclose the number of casualties, saying the information was classified. Alizai said his forces had suffered casualties, but at levels lower than other branches of the Afghan security forces. He refused to release figures.
An Afghan officer who oversees the transportation of the dead and wounded from Kandahar said 100 to 200 Afghan soldiers were wounded each week in the past month. He spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss military casualties, but declined to discuss deaths. Local media reported that dozens of Afghan soldiers had been killed and wounded in the south of the country in the past two months.
The battle against the Taliban has been raging for months on the outskirts of Kandahar. Afghanistan’s second largest city, Kandahar, has strategic and symbolic value. His province was once home to the country’s busiest NATO base, shares a long, porous border with Pakistan and is where the Taliban movement first officially mobilized.
At an outpost in the Arghandab neighborhood, Afghan special forces juggled radios and smartphones to communicate with the Afghan control room in Kandahar, U.S. advisers from Kandahar airport and Afghan units on the front line several hundred yards away.
A year ago, there would have been about half a dozen U.S. advisers in an outpost like this, said Lt. Col. Ayatula Parwani, who coordinates Afghan and U.S. air support, which could be heard buzzing.
“If the Americans were here, there would be about 10 planes flying overhead and the Taliban would disappear in one day,” he said. Instead, there was an armed American drone and an American fighter jet over the operation in a nearby valley that day. After a month of grueling progress, Parvani said his unit had managed to clear only eight kilometers, about five miles.
Afghan special forces fighting in Argandab were called after the Afghan army and police largely resigned as a result of a Taliban attack on an agricultural area late last year. Similar patterns are unfolding across the country as Afghan forces fight both to protect government-held territory from Taliban attacks and to undo the latest Taliban achievements.
Special forces were stationed in Helmand province after the Taliban pushed its capital in November. Lashkar Gach remains largely besieged, and the fighters control key routes in and out.
Elite units are also in the north of the country, where the Taliban nearly broke through the capital of Kunduz province in September, and in western Afghanistan, where Taliban fighters surround the city of Farah.
The latest US government report on Afghanistan found that the number of missions conducted by Afghan special forces in the last quarter was almost twice as many as at the same time last year.
During a recent flight between Kandahar and Shorabak camp in Helmand, one of the province’s last state-owned islands, an Afghan pilot pointed to Taliban checkpoints on the highway several thousand feet below.
“They are there every day,” said First Lieutenant Abdullah Pashton. Pashton operates supply flights across the country and estimates that since the Taliban’s progress over the past year, almost all Afghan military bases outside Kabul need air supplies because the roads are too dangerous. The Taliban checkpoint he saw from the air in Helmand was nine miles from the edge of the Afghan base.
“There’s another base just 15 nautical miles north of here,” Pashton said after landing in Shorabak, formerly known as Camp Bastion. “Even this base, Grishk, can’t be reached by road.” All supplies there are also by air. “
Because so few of the country’s roads are safe to travel, Afghanistan’s elite pilots are under particular pressure to evacuate victims, relocate staff and supplies, and conduct operations against high-value prices.
Captain Masoud Karimi of Afghanistan’s Special Mission Wing, the country’s special forces unit, said his team had performed two or three times as many missions as usual in recent months. He had recently planned a supply operation that evening, which had been repeatedly requested for a week, but continued to be delayed for higher priorities.
And this relentless pace is reflected. Karimi and his colleague, Major Zabiula Surosh, lost four of their elite pilots when two Afghan helicopters, one of which was evacuating casualties from the battlefield, collided in Helmand late last year.
Surosh unfurled a poster in their memory at one of the tables in his office. “They did not see each other. . . . They just ran into each other, “he said. An investigation found that the incident was not due to a technical failure or the age of the plane the men were flying, Surosh said.
“They were too tired,” he said. “They had many missions.”
Aziz Tasal contributed to this report.