Afghanistan's elite special forces pushed to the brink
Trained by the United States and equipped with state-of-the-art gear, Afghanistan's special forces are its frontline weapon against the Taliban, but reduced American military support has stretched them to breaking point.
The speed and scope of the campaign have placed enormous strain on the elite units, who have been constantly shuttled to hot spots where regular forces have buckled under the Taliban assault.
The head of Special Operations Command, Major General Haibatullah Alizai, says sharply diminished US air support has hindered operations.
"It's more challenging these days. While we are fighting in most areas, on some frontlines, it is getting difficult. But we have no choice -- it's our country," Alizai told AFP.
The brutal killing of an elite group of special forces in June, after reinforcements failed to materialise, was a stark illustration of how squads can swiftly find themselves isolated and overrun.
- 'Never lost a battle' -
Their American trainers hailed them as a force to be reckoned with that could, eventually, help the Afghan government eradicate the Taliban and speed a US exit.
"The special operations in Afghanistan have been uniquely created in our own image," Todd Helmus, a RAND Corporation analyst who spent time with soldiers on the ground in 2013, told AFP.
"They're very good. They're very well trained. They know how to shoot, move, and communicate."
In a country where training for local soldiers has often been rudimentary, drills for special forces were intense: 14 weeks of marksmanship, squad tactics, air assault, and live-fire exercises.
Private contractors played a role. A now-expired online job ad by US defence giant Raytheon sought candidates to "organise, man, equip, and train" the Ktah Khas (KKA) -- one of the most elite special forces divisions made up of army, police, and intelligence agency units.
Within a decade their numbers had ballooned -- precise figures are classified, but two security sources told AFP there were around 56,000 special forces across the army, police, and intelligence services.
"These brave soldiers have never lost a battle. And they never will," then-commander of US forces in the country General John Nicholson said in 2017, the same year the elite unit grabbed headlines for its role in the killing of Abdul Hasib, the head of the Islamic State group in Afghanistan.
But while Major General Alizai told AFP they are now trained by other Afghans, analysts argue the special forces were always overly dependent on foreign assistance -- from intelligence gathering to logistics -- leaving them fundamentally vulnerable to a US and NATO pullout.
"We're seeing the failure of that policy, now there's a natural recognition that obviously we need to train these units to fight on their own, so they don't need us anymore," RAND's Helmus said.
- 'Abandoned' -
With the US withdrawal nearly complete, the elite units have become a last line of defence against sweeping Taliban advances.
"And they are being overused, they are just being parachuted from one crisis area to another -- suppressing the fire without putting out the fire."
Recent rapid deployments have defended Qala-i-Naw, the first provincial capital attacked by the Taliban since foreign forces began their pullout in May, as well as southern Kandahar and western Herat, to prevent the fall of provincial capitals there.
In these hot spots, special forces have often found themselves over-stretched and without local reinforcement.
Footage posted online appeared to show them being executed after surrendering.
Among those killed was Major Sohrab Azimi, a rising star in the Afghan army whose death prompted an outpouring of public anger over perceived military incompetence.
His father, retired General Zahir Azimi, took to social media to accuse officials of failing to provide enough support to his son's unit.
"In this case, the special operations forces were just abandoned by the regular army," Brookings' Felbab-Brown said. "They just let the commandos be shredded."
But Major General Alizai insists his troops can hold the line.
"Every day we are losing great people, great men, very good officers, NCOs and soldiers," he said.
"It's not going to affect anybody's morale... we are ready to accept more sacrifices."
How do the Afghan forces and Taliban compare?
But analysts and officials said their military victory is far from guaranteed, pointing to the ability and resources of the Afghan defence forces, who remain in control of major cities.
Here is how the two forces compare:
- Personnel -
The total strength of the Afghan national security forces -- including the army, special forces, the air force, police, and intelligence -- was more than 307,000 at the end of April, the US Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) said in a report last week.
The combat forces available on any given day are likely around 180,000, according to an estimate by Jonathan Schroden of military think tank CNA.
The precise strength of the Taliban, on the other hand, is not accurately known. UN Security Council monitors last year said the group had between 55,000 and 85,000 fighters.
- Funding -
Foreign assistance is critical for Afghanistan, one of the poorest nations in the world.
Its military has required $5-6 billion a year, according to the US Congressional Research Service. Washington has usually provided around 75 percent of it, and has pledged continued support.
Taliban finances are unclear. Their revenues are estimated between $300 million to $1.5 billion a year, according to UN monitors.
They generate funds from the country's huge narcotics industry, through extortion of businesses, other criminal activities, and by imposing taxes in the areas under their control, the monitors said.
"Based on information available... it is clear that the Taliban are not struggling with respect to recruitment, funding, weapons or ammunition," they added.
Pakistan, Iran and Russia have been accused by Washington and Kabul of supplying the Taliban with resources and advisory support, but all three deny the allegations.
- Weapons and equipment -
The United States spent tens of billions of dollars to raise and equip the Afghan military after it toppled the previous Taliban regime in 2001.
Afghan forces possess a technological advantage over the Taliban, using a wide variety of Western-made weapons, including modern assault rifles, night-vision goggles, armoured vehicles, artillery and small surveillance drones.
They also have something the Taliban cannot match: an air force. The Afghan military has an available fleet of 167 aircraft, including attack helicopters, SIGAR reported.
The Taliban on the other hand have mainly used the small arms and light weapons that flooded Afghanistan over decades of conflict -- such as Soviet-designed AK-47 assault rifles -- while also procuring them from regional black markets, analysts say.
In addition to sniper rifles and machine guns, the insurgents have also deployed rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and other small rockets, while also trying to use some anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons with mixed success, Taliban expert Antonio Giustozzi wrote in a 2019 book on the group.
Suicide bombers and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) have been among the deadliest weapons the Taliban have used against Afghan and foreign forces.
The Taliban have also captured and used Western-made weapons and equipment supplied to the Afghan military, including night-vision devices, assault rifles and vehicles.
- Cohesion and morale -
Afghan forces have had their confidence tested for years, suffering high casualties, corruption, desertions, and now the departure of foreign troops and the end of US air support.
Poor planning and leadership have also been blamed for low morale.
The Taliban, on the other hand, have displayed greater cohesion despite reports of internal rifts in recent years, analysts say, pointing to religious zeal as well as the promise of material gains as contributing factors.