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.