In Afghanistan, the Taliban’s anti-Daesh squad gains a reputation for ruthlessness

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A Pashtun boy warily eyes an Afghan government soldier in Zabul province, southern Afghanistan. The region is at the heart of a bitter fight for supremacy between Taliban and Daesh rivals. (AN Photo/Chris Sands)
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Red Unit fighters made their name crushing dissent within the Taliban.
Updated 28 June 2018
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In Afghanistan, the Taliban’s anti-Daesh squad gains a reputation for ruthlessness

  • The elusive commando ‘Red Unit’ strikes fear even among its fanatical rivals
  • The insurgent's commandos also target Afghan forces and Nato troops

KABUL: Hunkered down in mountain trenches overlooking a vast area of desert and mud-walled houses in southern Afghanistan, the Daesh fighters opened fire on the approaching Taliban, wounding four and sending the others scrambling for cover.

It was the start of a battle neither group could afford to lose. Whoever triumphed would take a significant step toward controlling the future of one of the world’s most intractable insurgencies.

Daesh wanted to turn Afghanistan into the latest outpost in its self-declared caliphate, while the Taliban feared being overrun by the fanatics who made their name sweeping all before them in Iraq and Syria.

What happened next — in the fall of 2015 — has gone down in radical circles as the moment a new Taliban rapid-response force gained a decisive advantage in the extremists’ bitter civil war.

Now notorious among civilians and fellow militants, the force has gone on to play a key role in the Taliban’s increasingly violent and effective campaign to retake control of Afghanistan. It is the spearhead of what the Afghan government refers to as the “Red Unit” or “Danger Unit” — an elite group of thousands of insurgent commandos equipped with US-made assault rifles, night vision apparatus, heavy machine guns and 82mm rockets.

In contrast to their rival’s growing strength, Daesh has resorted to staging spectacular attacks on soft targets in Kabul, seemingly conceding that it cannot hold swathes of territory against its better organized foe.

“Before the war we were walking around jointly, not bothering each other,” recalled Qazi Halim, a nom de guerre for one of the Taliban’s quick-reaction force commandos. Now “this is the only unit which has defeated Daesh and of which Daesh is afraid,” he said.

Halim, a Pashtun in his late 20s or early 30s, was speaking to Arab News shortly before he was killed in a US airstrike on Tuesday.

A three-day cease-fire between the Taliban and the Afghan government during Eid this month led to joyous scenes across Afghanistan, as insurgents mingled freely with soldiers and government officials. The Taliban said that the brief truce proved the fundamentalist movement was united and that “all combatants strictly follow” orders. This has not always been the case, however.

For months before the 2015 confrontation in Zabul province, a fierce struggle for the right to lead Afghanistan’s insurgency had been unfolding within the Taliban.

The movement was openly divided for the first time in its history as rank-and-file members reeled from the news that its spiritual founder, Mullah Mohammed Omar, had died from natural causes in 2013, only for his closest confidants to cover up his death for more than two years. Daesh hoped to exploit the divisions and become the main insurgent faction in the region.

In response to this unprecedented challenge to its dominance, the Taliban stepped up plans to activate a special forces commando unit tasked with crushing any dissent within the movement’s ranks and wiping out its rivals, Halim told Arab News.

In the summer of 2015, pictures began circulating on social media showing the Red Unit already in training, with recruits dressed in combat fatigues and black balaclavas doing push-ups, firing heavy machine guns and crawling through obstacle courses. But it was not until the Taliban began to fracture after Omar’s confirmed death that the commandos sprang into action.

Arab News has learnt that the Red Unit is divided into several battalion-sized teams of 300 to 350 men, picked according to how they perform at the Taliban’s training camps. Each team is given responsibility for a province. In emergencies, the teams work together to cover a zone consisting of several provinces. As well as fighting rival insurgents, they also fight Afghan government forces and US troops.

One of the first teams was sent to the province of Farah, on the Iranian border in western Afghanistan, where a Taliban splinter group under a dissident commander, Mullah Mohammed Rasool, had formed.

The Red Unit’s commandos swept into the area with devastating effect, killing several of Rasool’s men and forcing him to flee to Pakistan. Mullah Mansour Dadullah, an experienced fighter from a notorious insurgent family, stepped into his place.

Under Dadullah’s leadership, the Taliban splinter group declared its allegiance to Daesh and moved into Zabul, an impoverished region of wadis, deserts and mountains dominated by ethnic Pashtuns. It settled in the district of Khak-e Afghan in the north of the province.

Out of the Afghan government’s reach and initially welcomed by local villagers, the Daesh fighters began to expand their area of operations. They soon targeted Highway One, the main road linking Kabul and the south of Afghanistan.

After a number of pinprick ambushes in which they kidnapped civilians traveling along the highway, they abducted dozens of Hazaras, an ethnic minority of predominantly Shiite Muslims. Those taken hostage included women and children.

The abductions provoked outrage among Afghans in Kabul, who criticized the government for being unable to protect its own people. The Taliban sensed an opportunity. Eager to win more public support for its insurgency and desperate to prevent Daesh from making further inroads into its territory, the movement came up with a plan to hit back.

First the Taliban sent a delegation of muftis — Islamic legal experts — and clerics to Khak-e Afghan. The delegation and a group of Daesh scholars spent a week trying to persuade each other that only their group should be allowed to operate in the country.

When the Taliban muftis ordered their rivals to surrender, the talks broke down. Rather than wait for tensions to cool, the Taliban then sent hundreds of Red Unit commandos to the area in November 2015. They were drawn from the teams for the provinces of Zabul, Ghazni and Maidan Wardak.

Halim, from Maidan Wardak, was among them. The first name of his nom de guerre — Qazi — is an honorific denoting someone trained in Islamic law. In Arabic and Pashto, it means “judge.” The second part of the nom de guerre — Halim — has been changed to protect his identity because he did not have the Taliban’s permission to talk to Arab News.

Arriving in Khak-e Afghan, he found the Daesh fighters were a mixture of Afghans from across the country and militants from Uzbekistan, who had their families with them. Villagers reported seeing them traveling around the area on motorbikes decorated with Dadullah’s name and the slogan “Long live Daesh.”

The Red Unit tried for a final time to convince the Daesh militants to surrender, sending a squad toward their mountain headquarters with an offer of clemency. It was then that the Daesh fighters opened fire, injuring four of the Talibs and triggering the battle that would change the course of the insurgents’ civil war.

A relative of Dadullah’s who tried to evacuate the Daesh leader after the fighting began confirmed to Arab News that the Taliban’s commandos were in Khak-e Afghan at the time. Speaking on condition of anonymity, he said: “They did the fighting and they cleared the area.” He added that their only aim seemed to be “to kill Mansour Dadullah.”

After the advance squad was hit, the Red Unit commandos regrouped and resumed their attack at night, this time breaking through the Daesh lines. They began heading deeper into the mountains, killing dozens of fighters as they progressed.

Over the next few days they searched local houses and found a number of the kidnapped Hazaras tied up and blindfolded. Others lay dead, “slaughtered just hours before,” said Halim.

When he and his fellow commandos captured nine of the Uzbeks alive, they assembled a makeshift Islamic court to put them on trial. After ordering them to confess in front of the hostages to being members of Daesh, they hanged all nine.

The Red Unit commandos eventually tracked down Dadullah by monitoring the military radio traffic of the surviving Daesh fighters. They arrested the leader, took him to an isolated valley and shot him.

By the end of the operation, four members of the Red Unit were dead, but word of the commandos’ strength had spread across Afghanistan, striking fear into Daesh and causing alarm within the Afghan government.

The Taliban leadership was so impressed by its troops’ showing in Zabul that it turned them into a quick-reaction force under the leadership of its most famous commander, a Pashtun named Pir Agha.

Although much of his background remains a mystery, Agha is believed to be in his 40s and from Sangisar in the Panjwayi district of Kandahar. Afghans who have met him describe him as an uncomplicated, but persuasive, public speaker.

One businessman came face to face with Agha about a year before the Red Unit was formed, in a ramshackle bazaar in Helmand province, near Pakistan.

The businessman, who asked to remain anonymous, told Arab News that Agha gave a speech in the border town of Baramcha to a number of local traders who had assembled in a mosque there. In the speech, he denounced Daesh and asked them to donate money to the Taliban.

Agha has since stepped down from his role as head of the quick-reaction force to become the Taliban’s shadow governor for Paktika province. However, his commandos continue to call their force the “Unit of Pir Agha” in homage to his leadership.

They are currently led by Mawlawi Abdullah, a Talib from Maidan Wardak who was the main field commander in the Zabul battle.

Now the pride of the Red Unit, the quick-reaction force has proved to be an elusive and formidable enemy for both Daesh and the Afghan government. Last fall it was deployed to Achin district in Nangarhar province, eastern Afghanistan. Halim claimed a number of the Daesh fighters he encountered there were in their teens.

Then, on April 2 this year, Afghan helicopter gunships attacked a religious ceremony in the northern province of Kunduz, killing at least 36 people, including 30 children, according to a UN investigation.

The government claimed its intended target was the Red Unit. Before his death this week, Halim was unconcerned about being a wanted man. With the cease-fire over and the Taliban again on the offensive, he walked the streets of Kabul in a prayer cap and shalwar kameez — waiting for a mission that would prove to be his last.


Some see signs of hope on North Korea as Trump heads to UN

Updated 22 September 2018
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Some see signs of hope on North Korea as Trump heads to UN

  • In the year since Trump’s searing, debut UN speech fueled fears of nuclear conflict with North Korea
  • The two leaders have turned from threats to flattery

WASHINGTON:North Korea’s Kim Jong Un is “little rocket man” no more. President Donald Trump isn’t a “mentally deranged US dotard.”
In the year since Trump’s searing, debut UN speech fueled fears of nuclear conflict with North Korea, the two leaders have turned from threats to flattery.
And there’s fresh hope that the US president’s abrupt shift from coercion to negotiation can yield results in getting Kim to halt, if not abandon, his nuclear weapons program.
Trump will address world leaders at the United Nations on Tuesday on the back of an upbeat summit between South and North Korea, where Kim promised to dismantle a major rocket launch site and the North’s main nuclear complex at Nyongbyon if it gets some incentive from Washington.
North Korea remains a long, long way from relinquishing its nuclear arsenal, and the US has been adding to, not easing, sanctions. Yet the past 12 months have seen a remarkable change in atmosphere between the adversaries that has surprised even the former US envoy on North Korea.
“If someone had told me last year that North Korea will stop nuclear tests, will stop missile tests and that they will release the remaining American prisoners and that they would be even considering dismantling Nyongbyon, I would have taken that in a heartbeat,” said Joseph Yun, who resigned in March and has since left the US foreign service.
Since Trump and Kim held the first summit between US and North Korean leaders in Singapore in June, Trump has missed no chance to praise “Chairman Kim,” and Kim has expressed “trust and confidence” in the American president he once branded “senile.”
But progress has been slow toward the vague goal they agreed upon — denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, which has eluded US presidents for the past quarter-century. The US wants to achieve that by January 2021, when Trump completes his first term in office.
Although Kim won’t be going to New York next week, meetings there could prove critical in deciding whether a second Trump-Kim summit will take place any time soon.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has invited his North Korean counterpart Ri Yong Ho for a meeting in New York, and Trump will be consulting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, fresh from his third summit with Kim this year. It was at that meeting in Pyongyang that the North Korean leader made his tantalizing offers to close key facilities of his weapons programs that have revived prospects for US-North Korea talks.
Yun, who spoke to reporters Friday at the United States Institute for Peace in Washington, said the US goal of achieving denuclearization in just two years is unrealistic, but the offer to close Nyongbyon, where the North has plutonium, uranium and nuclear reprocessing facilities, is significant and offers a way forward.
That’s a far cry from last September. After Trump’s thunderous speech, Yun’s first thought was on the need to avoid a war. The president vowed to “totally destroy North Korea” if the US was forced to defend itself or its allies against the North’s nukes. “Rocket man is on a suicide mission for himself and his regime,” the president said.
His blunt talk triggered an extraordinary, almost surreal, exchange of insults. Kim issued a harshly worded statement from Pyongyang, dubbing the thin-skinned Trump a “mentally deranged US dotard.” A day later, the North’s top diplomat warned it could test explode a hydrogen bomb over the Pacific Ocean.
Tensions have eased hugely since then, and cracks have emerged in the international consensus on pressuring North Korea economically to get it to disarm.
The US accuses Russia of allowing illicit oil sales to North Korea. Trump has also criticized China, which has fraternal ties with the North and is embroiled in a trade war with the US, for conducting more trade with its old ally. Sanctions could even become a sore point with South Korea. Moon is eager to restart economic cooperation with North Korea to cement improved relations on the divided peninsula.
All that will increase pressure on Washington to compromise with Pyongyang — providing the incentives Kim seeks, even if the weapons capabilities he’s amassed violate international law. He’s likely eying a declaration on formally ending the Korean War as a marker of reduced US “hostility” and sanctions relief.
That could prove politically unpalatable in Washington just as it looks for Kim to follow through on the denuclearization pledge he made in Singapore.
Frank Aum, a former senior Pentagon adviser on North Korea, warned tensions could spike again if the US does not see progress by year’s end, when the US would typically need to start planning large-scale military drills with South Korea that North Korea views as war preparations. Trump decided to cancel drills this summer as a concession to Kim.
“Things can flip pretty quickly,” Aum said. “We’ve seen it going from bad to good and it could fairly quickly go back to the bad again.”