The Drone Unit that Helped the Taliban Win the War

The work of a drone unit, reported in detail here for the first time, shows how the Taliban were able to win the war against the U.S.-backed forces in Afghanistan

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The Drone Unit that Helped the Taliban Win the War
Two civilian contractors prepare a US Army 14′ Shadow surveillance drone before it’s launched at Forward Operating Base Shank May 8, 2013 in Logar Province, Afghanistan / Robert Nickelsberg / Getty Images

As the U.S. began its final drawdown of troops from Afghanistan in the spring, the Taliban’s drone unit moved into position for its most important mission yet. A team of 12 engineers-turned-assassins, it was tasked with firing what would turn out to be one of the decisive shots in the closing stages of the war.

The target was a regional-level official in the north of the country named Piram Qul. Like so many of Afghanistan’s now deposed ruling elite, Piram Qul was a beguiling mixture of the charismatic and corrupt, a veteran of the mujahedeen’s struggle against the Soviets in the 1980s who had come to regard his youthful principles as an impediment to power. He was an ethnic Uzbek warlord who was part of many anti-Taliban Afghan factions, including Ahmed Shah Massoud’s Jamiati-i-Islami. In the years since the U.S.-led invasion, he had served as a member of Parliament and presided over local militias accused of a range of human rights abuses, including kidnapping and murder. What mattered to the Taliban, though, was the stranglehold he had on Takhar, a province on Afghanistan’s border with Tajikistan — an area traditionally hard for them to influence. Piram Qul was one of the last dominoes that needed to fall if the insurgents were to sweep across the north and trigger a decisive advance on Kabul. Their plan to assassinate him was motivated by necessity, not vengeance.

On the morning of May 2, Piram Qul was meeting villagers in the district of Rustaq in Takhar, accompanied by his usual retinue of bodyguards. Far above, a Taliban drone filmed him using a camera connected to the internet via a satellite signal. The hit squad’s leader was stationed at an undisclosed location nearby, where he controlled the drone and monitored the camera’s video feed using a laptop computer. He knew the drone was unlikely to be spotted. Its body and wings were painted custom blue to blend into the sky, so were the mortar rounds attached to its homemade weapons rack. The drone had cost the Taliban tens of thousands of dollars to buy, and it was quieter than cheaper and easily available commercial models. Nevertheless, the lead assassin needed to hold his nerve and remember everything he had practiced. This was not the first attack his team had carried out, nor would it be the last. But for tactical and psychological reasons it was essential he got it right. Kill Piram Qul, and the Taliban would be a step closer to sweeping through the north in a matter of weeks. Miss, and Piram Qul might encourage local security forces to regroup, stalling the Taliban’s advance and leaving the drone team embarrassed and exposed.

Around 11 a.m., the unit leader uttered a prayer and keyed the launch code into his computer. Seconds later the mission was over. Piram Qul was dead before he even realized he was under attack. The war could now be won.

Soon afterward, before any of Afghanistan’s cities had fallen to the Taliban, a member of the drone unit spoke to me on condition of anonymity about the assassination. The first of two members who agreed to be interviewed for this article also hinted at the extraordinary events that were about to unfold across the country. “We are one of the main forces that has demoralized the enemy and is causing them to flee,” he said.

While images of the Taliban alongside vast stockpiles of abandoned U.S. and Afghan military equipment have featured heavily in Western media coverage of recent weeks, they do not tell the story of America’s defeat. Classic insurgent tactics and unconventional weapons won this war. The work of the drone unit, reported in detail here for the first time, shows how the Taliban were able to neutralize the technological and military superiority of the U.S. In the past few days, the drone unit has again been busy, carrying out reconnaissance in the province of Panjshir that allowed Taliban ground forces to rout remnants of the Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance hiding there.

The two drone unit members interviewed for this article spoke to me in several meetings that took place in secret in Kabul. All the interviews were held before and during the nationwide offensive that led to the Taliban entering the capital on Aug. 15 and declaring victory. Both members asked for their identities to be concealed due to the nature of the work. At one meeting, the two members were among a number of insurgents who attended a dinner in the neighborhood of Khoshal Khan, where they were joined by their squad leader, or emir, for a traditional Afghan meal of rosh — a dish of boiled and dried lamb, mixed with herbs and spices, and served with potatoes. The leader opted not to be interviewed, and his colleagues declined to reveal his name.

That drones should end up becoming one of the insurgents’ most potent weapons is a fitting twist to a war that confounded U.S. expectations from the start.

That drones should end up becoming one of the insurgents’ most potent weapons is a fitting twist to a war that confounded U.S. expectations from the start. Though drones have been used for surveillance purposes far longer, armed drones did not become operational until the late 1990s. In the last two decades the technology has become synonymous with the so-called global war on terror. The CIA used drones prior to 9/11 to track the movements of Osama bin Laden under the old Taliban regime. Then, during the 2001 invasion and its aftermath, it carried out its first drone strikes inside Afghanistan. Later, it began to use drones across the border in Pakistan, targeting insurgent hideouts in areas otherwise beyond the reach of U.S. forces. At least 51 CIA drone strikes occurred in Pakistan under the Bush administration, according to the U.K.-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism. This number increased significantly once Barack Obama entered the White House. From early 2009 to early 2017, the bureau estimates that more than 370 drone strikes occurred in the border areas of Pakistan. The strikes decapitated the leadership of the Pakistani Taliban and killed many militants, though they also killed hundreds of civilians.

Many states watching these developments saw the potential of drones and started developing their own. But soon enough, drone technology had also started finding its way into the hands of insurgents and militias across the Middle East. In 2006 Hezbollah used armed drones against Israel, albeit with limited efficacy. Other nonstate groups tried their luck as unrest spread across the region in the wake of the Arab Spring, with Yemeni Houthi fighters using drones to attack oil refineries in Saudi Arabia in 2019. But it was the use of drones by the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria that captured the Taliban’s imagination. Footage of the attacks was featured in the Islamic State’s slick propaganda and found its way to Afghanistan, where it was eventually seen by the future emir of the Taliban’s drone unit.

The architect of Piram Qul’s assassination was at something of a personal and professional crossroads when he began to study the Islamic State films in detail around two years ago. He had made his reputation within the Taliban as an instructor at a training camp for suicide bombers, only to find that the nature of the war was now changing. U.S. military operations were winding down, and the Taliban leadership knew that continuing to launch suicide attacks against Afghan forces risked angering the population. A more precise method of killing was needed, particularly in the north of the country where the insurgents had less support. To the man who would become the unit’s emir, drones seemed like the perfect answer. After talking through the idea with senior intelligence operatives, he started to assemble his team.

The emir is tall, with an athletic build, long hair and flecks of gray in his beard. While he spent some of his youth studying in madrassas, he reportedly excelled as a student in Kabul University’s faculty of engineering during the U.S. occupation. He carries an Italian 9mm pistol and a knife with a handle made from goat horn — a piece of artisanship distinctive to the Afghan province of Parwan. But he is also rarely seen without his laptop and two smartphones — a Huawei and a Samsung Galaxy S20. The squad leader’s team of 11 men is made in his image. Like him, several of them are from Wardak, southwest of Kabul. They are well educated, and a number of them worked for Western NGOs before joining the drone team.

“We don’t work for money, we work for our theology and ideology,” said the second unit member.

Its job was to harass and assassinate Afghan government officials in the north.

When the drone team was established sometime around 2019, its remit was clear. While other sections of the Taliban were free to use basic civilian drones for surveillance, and the Haqqani network was allowed to carry out the occasional uncoordinated drone attack in the south and east of the country using equipment it acquired independently, the hit squad was the only drone unit with official operational approval from the Taliban’s leadership. Its job was to harass and assassinate Afghan government officials in the north. In doing so, it was to report solely to senior members of the Taliban’s intelligence apparatus. No one else in the insurgency was to be given detailed information about the unit’s operations, including shadow governors and high-level military commanders. The unit would be headquartered in the northern province of Kunduz.

Although other sections within the Taliban were able to rely on Pakistan or Iran to assist with weapons supplies when necessary, the drone unit members made no mention in my interviews of receiving help from either state. Instead, they claim to have turned to a private Afghan front company that imported agricultural chemicals and farming equipment from China. The unit asked the company to find a drone that was quiet and light but strong enough to withstand adverse weather conditions and fly at relatively high altitudes. When the company identified the right drone, it cost the Taliban approximately $60,000. They purchased it in China and smuggled the parts into Afghanistan via Pakistan.

Next, the unit’s engineers set to work modifying the drone. The chemical tanks and hoses for carrying and spraying fertilizer and pesticides were removed and replaced with a makeshift plastic missile rack capable of holding four mortar rounds that could be fired via a computer-activated spring mechanism. The Talibs changed the fuses on their usual mortars for more powerful versions containing RDX, a type of explosive popularized by U.S., British and German forces during World War II. While the drone came colored black, unit members repainted it blue to camouflage it against the sky. They also painted the RDX mortars blue. The drone was set up to be controlled in flight using a combination of laptop computers and smartphones that were connected to the internet via a portable satellite terminal.

After several trial-run attacks on checkpoints of the Afghan security forces, the Taliban’s first major operation with the new drone came in the northern city of Kunduz on Nov. 1, 2020. At least four bodyguards of the provincial governor were killed in the strike, which occurred while the guards were playing volleyball in the governor’s compound. The second drone unit member interviewed for this article said another potential operation in Kunduz, this time against U.S. troops, was called off after U.S. service members spotted the drone and relayed a complaint to the Taliban’s political office in Qatar, noting that it would violate the terms of the nationwide withdrawal agreement the Trump administration struck with the Taliban in February 2020. Taliban leaders ordered a halt to the operation — a rare example of them interfering in the drone team’s work. That same month, the head of Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security told Parliament in Kabul that he wanted to stop the import of commercially available camera drones. It was too late.

Unit members continued to scout for potential targets even as images of crude insurgent drones used by other Taliban fighters began to spread across social media. The pictures belied the professionalism of their work. They traveled across the country in a silver Toyota Corolla Fielder station wagon driven by a trusted colleague hired from outside the team or used motorbikes to move quickly and easily through villages and backroads. The unit also bought and weaponized a second drone. Meanwhile, two more official Taliban drone units modeled on their efforts were established for the south and east of the country.

As the Taliban edged closer to victory, the northern team stepped up its operations. When Piram Qul’s name was added to the unit’s hit list, it was only a matter of time before he was killed. His assassination on May 2 this year went exactly as planned. Local media reported that the drone strike had been triggered by a call to Piram Qul’s mobile phone, ensuring its aim was precise. Not everyone in the drone unit was happy with the result, however. In the days that followed, the team learned that Ashraf Ghani, the Afghan president, had been due to visit Takhar in early May, only for his trip to be canceled over security concerns in the wake of Piram Qul’s death. Some members rued the fact they had missed a chance to assassinate the president.

“The drone’s targeting system is very exact,” said the second unit member. “If your hat has four stars on it and the operator targets a specific one of those stars, he can hit it.”

The unit did not dwell on its missed opportunity. With Piram Qul dead, members turned their attention to an even more powerful political figure in northern Afghanistan, Atta Muhammad Noor, better known as Ustad Atta. Another ethnic Tajik veteran of the mujahedeen’s fight against the Soviets, Ustad Atta had spent much of the U.S. occupation as governor of Balkh province and the de facto ruler of the city of Mazar-e-Sharif. To his supporters, he was an ardent opponent of the Taliban whose sharp suits and opulent lifestyle were evidence of his progressive politics. But the man Afghans call Ustad Atta was notorious locally for inflaming ethnic tensions and cracking down on anyone who challenged his authority. He had used his power to amass an enormous personal fortune, cultivating lucrative patronage networks linked to Afghanistan’s cross-border trade with central Asia. Although he was no longer governor, his continuing influence meant the Taliban could not hope to control the north if he remained a key figure on the political scene.

On July 1, Ustad Atta was hosting a meeting with other warlords and politicians at his house in Mazar-e-Sharif when a Taliban drone fired one of its mortars into the yard outside. Ustad Atta escaped unhurt, but a number of people were injured and several vehicles damaged. In an interview soon afterward, the drone squad members predicted that Ustad Atta would no longer try to resist the advance of the Taliban’s ground forces, with one of them mocking him as an aspiring Bollywood movie star who was only interested in fame and fortune. Atta was clearly spooked. Six weeks later, on Aug. 14, the Taliban took control of Mazar-e-Sharif. On Aug. 15, Kabul fell. Ustad Atta and Ghani were nowhere to be seen.

The British journalist and author Chris Sands contributed to this story from London.

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