The Taliban movement became critically divided as news spread in 2015 that its leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, had died from natural causes in 2013. The death had been covered up by his confidants for more than two years until it was revealed by Afghan intelligence. Among those trying to exploit the situation were strategists of the Islamic State group. They hoped to exploit emerging rifts among the Taliban to expand the Islamic State’s reach in the region.
The Islamic State’s branch in Afghanistan, Pakistan and adjacent areas, named by the group as Khorasan, had emerged out of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), whose members had arrived in Nangarhar province from Pakistan’s northwestern tribal regions after fleeing a 2010 Pakistan military operation against them. The Afghan Taliban had tried and failed to bring them under their own command. Some of the TTP fighters, such as the Lashkar-e-Islam leader Mangal Bagh, were instead courted by the National Directorate of Security (NDS), the Afghan intelligence service, which hoped to use them against Pakistan as retaliation for the Pakistani government’s support for the Afghan Taliban. TTP fighters often clashed with the Afghan Taliban.
The situation for the TTP had changed in November 2013 with the death of its leader Hakimullah Mehsud in a U.S. drone strike. The already fissiparous TTP had fragmented further, and when Mullah Fazlullah replaced Hakimullah as the leader of the TTP, many refused to submit to his command. Meanwhile, TTP numbers in Afghanistan were swelled by the arrival of more militants from Pakistan’s northwestern tribal regions following new Pakistani military operations in 2014 and 2015.
On Jan. 26, 2015, the Islamic State’s now-dead spokesperson Abu Muhammad al-Adnani released an audio statement accepting pledges of allegiance from defecting Taliban fighters and announced the expansion of the “caliphate” with the creation of a “Khorasan Province” (widely abbreviated as ISKP). Hafiz Saeed Khan, the former TTP leader from Pakistan’s Orakzai region, was appointed as its local governor and Mullah Khadem as his deputy. The new Islamic State franchise was also joined by local and foreign fighters.
In early 2015, tensions in Achin, a district in the south of Nangarhar province, escalated after the Afghan Taliban mobilized to prevent a spate of kidnappings by Islamic State militants in the neighboring district of Bati Kot. This resulted in violent clashes between the two groups, and some of the Taliban in Achin switched sides in the wake of the conflict. Achin eventually fell to the Islamic State later that year.
In response to this unprecedented challenge to its insurgent dominance, the Afghan Taliban stepped up plans to form a special forces unit tasked with maintaining unity of command. This “Red Unit” would stand apart because of its advanced military training and discipline, a field commander of the Red Unit told Newlines. It quickly emerged as a vital piece in the Taliban’s fight to deal with threats from the Islamic State offshoot in Afghanistan. In the summer of 2015, photos circulated on social media of the Red Unit undergoing rigorous military training, dressed in combat gear similar to Western special forces. As the Taliban began to fracture after the news of Mullah Omar’s death, the unit proved even more critical in that secondary conflict the Taliban engaged in.
The Red Unit, or Sara Kheta in Pashto, is divided into several battalion-sized teams of 300 to 350 men, handpicked by field commanders based on their discipline, commitment and performance. Each team is given responsibilities in a given province. In emergencies, the teams work together to cover a zone consisting of several provinces. Besides the Islamic State, they fight Afghan government forces and U.S. troops.
One of the first teams was sent to the western province of Farah, on the Iranian border, where a Taliban splinter group had formed under the dissident commander Mullah Muhammad Rasool. The Red Unit’s commandos had a devastating effect on Rasool’s group, killing several of his men and forcing him to flee to Pakistan. Rasool was replaced by Mullah Mansoor Dadullah, an experienced fighter from a family of insurgents, who declared his allegiance to the Islamic State and moved to Zabul province in the south, where he settled in the district of Khak-e-Afghan, an impoverished region of valleys, deserts and mountains.
By then, the Islamic State had expanded their area of operations, targeting Highway 1, the main road linking Kabul and the south of Afghanistan. They launched several ambushes, kidnapping civilians traveling along the highway. They abducted dozens of Hazaras, an ethnic minority of predominantly Shiite Muslims. Hostages 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 their insurgency and desperate to prevent the Islamic State from making further inroads into their territory, they decided to escalate the fight against the group.
The Taliban first sent a delegation of muftis — Islamic legal experts — and clerics to Khak-e-Afghan. The delegation spent a week trying to persuade the Islamic State’s Salafist clerics to submit to the Taliban’s command, to little avail. Eventually the Taliban clerics gave their rivals an ultimatum to surrender or be attacked. When the talks led nowhere, the Taliban dispatched hundreds of Red Unit commandos to the area in November 2015. The teams were drawn from units in Zabul, Ghazni and Wardak. Sheikh Ali (whose name has been changed to protect his identity since he did not have the Taliban’s permission to talk to Newlines) from Wardak province was one of them.
According to Sheikh Ali and based on his experience fighting the group in Khak-e-Afghan, the Islamic State’s 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 “Dawlat-Al-Islam Baqiya” (the Islamic State Remains).
The Red Unit tried one more time to persuade the Islamic State’s militants to surrender by sending a squad toward the group’s mountain headquarters with an offer of clemency. But the fighters responded by launching an attack, injuring four Red Unit fighters.
That was the battle that would change the course of the insurgent civil war. The assault began at night, and the Red Unit advanced into the mountains, killing many of the Islamic State’s trenchmen and capturing their heavy-weapons post on a mountain ridge.
Over the next few days, the Red Unit combed the area, searched local houses and found several of the kidnapped Hazara, who had been tied up and blindfolded. The Taliban hanged the Uzbek fighters for kidnapping and massacring the Hazara. “The fatwa to hang and kill the Daesh fighters was issued by Sheikh Hakim Haqqani,” said Sheikh Ali, using the Arabic name for the Islamic State.
The Red Unit commandos eventually tracked down Dadullah by monitoring the radio traffic of the surviving Islamic State fighters. Dadullah was arrested, taken to an isolated valley, shot and thrown into a floodplain.
Four members of the Red Unit were killed in the operation. Meanwhile, word spread of a major success against the Islamic State, and reports of the Red Unit’s effectiveness even caused alarm within the Afghan government, sources said.
The Taliban turned the unit into a rapid response force under the leadership of its most famous commander, Pir Agha, from Kandahar. Although much of his background remains a mystery, Agha is believed to be in his late 40s, from Sangisar in the Panjwayi district of Kandahar. Those who have met him describe him as an effective commander, orator and strategist.
Agha had since stepped down from his role to become the Taliban’s shadow governor for Paktika province. However, his commandos continue to call their forces “the unit of Pir Agha.”
“Pir Agha used bulldozers to build a strategic road in the mountains that helped the mujahedeen in many ways,” said Qari Mohid, a resident of Paktika.
The Red Unit from Wardak province was led for a while by Mawlawi Abdullah, one of the main field commanders in the Zabul battle. This Unit was deployed to Achin district in Nangarhar province, eastern Afghanistan. “Daeshes were arguing with us by radio, saying Sheikh Osama and Ustad Yasir are our leaders — not yours, they belong to us,” Sheikh Ali said, referring to Osama bin Laden and a notable Taliban ideologue and a veteran of the anti-Soviet jihad who had been instrumental in recruiting for the TTP before his suspected death a decade ago.
The Red Unit is one of the Taliban’s elite forces, taking on different roles within the country. The most visible group in recent weeks has been an elite military force known as Badri 313, a highly disciplined battalion-size force designed to be the nexus of a new Islamist-oriented Afghan army to replace the U.S.-backed army that melted away before the Kabul fall. The force is named after the Battle of Badr, when Prophet Muhammad supposedly vanquished his enemies with only 313 soldiers. “Badri 313 is the new army of Afghanistan,” said Sheikh Ali.
The Taliban trained a Red Unit for each populous province, but the Red Unit in Wardak province has remained the most utilized. It has been deployed more than others in the battle against the Islamic State. After clearing the Nangarhar province of the Islamic State, they were deployed to Kunar province, where they also succeeded in driving out the Islamic State militants. “We lost many men in Kunar, more than any other Red Unit,” said Sheikh Ali.
With the defeat of the Western-supported Afghan government and the departure of NATO forces, the only tangible threat the Taliban are likely to face is from the Islamic State. So far the Taliban have been ruthless and effective in this fight. The Islamic State has lost the territory it once held and its numbers have dwindled. It is smaller, weaker and with less popular support than it was in 2015. Back then, the group operated in more areas in different parts of Afghanistan, and had more resources and weapons. Its support base is shrinking, except in the east of the country, where the group can still recruit from within the Salafist population there. This does not mean they are going away. They still carry out assassinations and bombing and suicide attacks.
As the Taliban adopt the rhetoric and aesthetics of Western counterterrorism, they might come to learn from the mistakes that turned a friendly population against Western forces in much of rural Afghanistan. The aggressive posture of counterterrorism combined with the kind of summary justice the Taliban mete out can often lend itself to abuse. Like NATO, the Taliban will likely discover that superior fighting ability alone is not enough to eliminate threats as long as greater effort isn’t put into winning legitimacy and guaranteeing accountability.