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With less US support, Afghanistan elite forces struggle to roll back Taliban advances

Afghan special forces guard an outpost in the Arghandab district of Kandahar province on Feb. 22, 2021. Before the U.S.-Taliban deal last year, about half a dozen U.S. partners would be at bases like this one, Afghan officials say.

SUSANNAH GEORGE/THE WASHINGTON POST

By SUSANNAH GEORGE | The Washington Post | Published: March 7, 2021

KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan — Reduced U.S. military support in battles against the Taliban is frustrating efforts by Afghanistan's elite forces to roll back the militants' advances here, with decreased airstrikes and a shortage of advanced technology slowing their ground operations.

Taliban militants have mounted a violent, months-long campaign to expand influence across the country as the United States has withdrawn troops, closed bases and halted offensive operations against the militants in keeping with a peace deal it signed a year ago.

The militants have taken control of key highways and conducted operations aimed at choking off Afghan towns and cities. The surge has forced the Afghan government to deploy its most highly trained units to the front lines, a move demonstrating that rank-and-file security forces have struggled to protect key parts of the country from the Taliban's continued violence.

The Afghan special forces leading the fight have received the highest level of U.S. training and make up just under a fifth of the country's security forces. But with peace talks between the two Afghan sides stalled and violence expected to increase this spring, fatigue from near-constant rotations and reports of high casualty rates suggest the fight is unsustainable.

"We have really brave soldiers and tough soldiers, really (well) trained by U.S. Special Forces," said Gen. Haibatullah Alizai, the commander of Afghanistan's Special Operations Corps. He said the limited U.S. support his forces are receiving is "very helpful."

"The only thing we are missing for now," he said, "is the technology and more air support."

The prolonged battles against an emboldened Taliban come as the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks — and the 20th anniversary of the start of the war — approach this year. Coalition forces ousted the Taliban from power in October 2001 for sheltering the al-Qaida militants involved in the 9/11 attacks.

Gen. Scott Miller, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, has pledged to continue to defend Afghan government forces against Taliban attacks despite drawing down U.S. troops to 2,500 — less than a fifth of their number a year ago. As the number of personnel dropped, U.S. bases across the country were shuttered, forcing the Pentagon to move munitions and equipment. It's unclear how much was shipped out of Afghanistan.

The U.S. Central Command referred requests for comment to the U.S. military command in Afghanistan, which did not respond to questions.

Here in southern Afghanistan, Alizai oversees some of the most difficult battles against the Taliban. On a recent visit to Kandahar province, he pointed to a row of about half a dozen hangars that were once full of U.S. warplanes. Now, they sit empty.

"We don't want another American soldier to die on the ground here," Alizai said. "The United States has spent billions of dollars (in Afghanistan). They should just give us the technology we need and leave the war to us."

Alizai's forces are making slow progress. He said that the current fight, while "difficult," is sustainable, but that "it's impossible to win without the new technology and without increasing the U.S. airstrikes."

Alizai said the units under his command need armed surveillance drones, more warplanes and advanced light arms, among other equipment. Over the past year, U.S. airstrikes dropped to around 5% of what they were in 2019, and the Afghan air force is unable to fill the gap, according to Alizai, who is briefed on U.S. strike data that is no longer publicly released.

One key piece of equipment that Alizai said would help the Afghan forces' effectiveness is armed surveillance drones, a tool that was pivotal to U.S.-backed gains against the Taliban. Alizai said it takes Afghan forces longer to strike a target after it has been identified by an unarmed drone because an armed aircraft then has to be dispatched.

"Most of the time we lose targets," Alizai said. "It makes all of our operations slower."

A senior Afghan defense official said the government had not made an official request for armed drones from the United States, but "it is always good for us to have more advanced technology and support." The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue with the media.

The longer operations are drawn out, the greater the strain on Alizai's forces. Many of the men in his unit said they have been on near-constant rotations from one front line to another over the past six months.

The Afghan military does not release casualty numbers, saying the information is classified. Alizai said his forces have suffered casualties but at rates lower than other branches of the Afghan security forces. He refused to release figures.

One Afghan officer who oversees the transport of the dead and wounded from Kandahar said 100 to 200 Afghan troops had been wounded each week over the past month. He spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss military casualties, but he refused to discuss deaths. Local media has reported dozens of Afghan troops killed and wounded in the country's south over the past two months.

The battle against the Taliban has seesawed for months on the outskirts of Kandahar city. The second-largest city in Afghanistan, Kandahar holds strategic and symbolic value. Its province was once home to the busiest NATO base in the country, shares a long, porous border with Pakistan and was where the Taliban movement first formally mobilized.

At an outpost in Arghandab district, Afghan special forces officers juggle radios and smartphones to maintain communication with the Afghan control room back in Kandahar city, U.S. advisers at Kandahar Airfield and Afghan units on the front line a few hundred yards away.

A year ago, there would have been about half a dozen American advisers at an outpost like this one, said Lt. Col. Ayatullah Parwani, who coordinates the Afghan and U.S. air support that could be heard buzzing overheard.

"If the Americans were here, there would be, like, 10 aircraft flying overhead and the Taliban would be gone in a day," he said. Instead, that day there was one armed U.S. drone and one U.S. warplane above the operation in the nearby valley. After a month of grueling progress, Parwani said his unit had managed to clear just eight kilometers, about five miles.

The Afghan special forces fighting in Arghandab were called in after Afghan army and police largely abandoned their posts in the face of a Taliban assault on the agricultural district late last year. Similar patterns played out across the country as Afghan forces struggled to both protect government-held territory from Taliban attacks and roll back recent Taliban advances.

Special forces were deployed to Helmand province after the Taliban made a push on its capital in November. Lashkar Gah remains largely besieged, with the militants in control of the key roadways in and out.

Elite units are also in the country's north, where the Taliban almost breached the Kunduz provincial capital in September, and in western Afghanistan, where Taliban fighters are encircling Farah city.

The latest U.S. government watchdog report on Afghanistan found that the number of missions conducted by Afghan special forces last quarter was nearly double the number conducted during the same period the previous year.

On a recent flight between Kandahar and Camp Shorabak in Helmand — one of the last islands of government-held territory in the province — an Afghan air force pilot pointed out Taliban checkpoints along the highway several thousand feet below.

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"They are there every day," 1st Lt. Abdullah Pashton said. Pashton runs resupply flights nationwide and estimates that after the Taliban's advances this year, nearly all Afghan military bases outside Kabul require resupply by air because the roads are too dangerous. The Taliban checkpoint he saw from the air in Helmand was 9 miles from the edge of the Afghan base.

"There is another base only 15 nautical kilometers north of here," Pashton said after landing at Shorabak, previously known as Camp Bastion. "Even that base, Grishk, we can't reach by road. All resupply there is also by air."

With so few of the country's roads safe for travel, Afghanistan's elite pilots are under particular strain to evacuate casualties, move personnel and supplies, and carry out operations against high-value targets.

Capt. Masoud Karimi of Afghanistan's Special Mission Wing, the special forces unit within the country's air force, said his team has been carrying out two or three times as many missions as usual in recent months. On a recent evening, he was planning for a resupply operation that had been repeatedly requested for a week but kept getting delayed for higher priorities.

And that relentless tempo is taking a toll. Karimi and a colleague, Maj. Zabiullah Surosh, lost four fellow elite pilots when two Afghan helicopters, one evacuating casualties from the battlefield, collided in Helmand late last year.

Surosh unrolled a poster commemorating them on one of the tables in his office. "They didn't see each other. ... They just ran into each other," he said. An investigation found that the accident wasn't due to a technical failure or the age of the aircraft the men were flying, Surosh said.

"They were too tired," he said. "They had a lot of missions."

The Washington Post's Aziz Tassal contributed to this report.

Gen. Haibatullah Alizai, the commander of Afghanistan's Special Operations Corps, prays at the Arghandab outpost. In the valley below, his men were pushing back the Taliban, but with less U.S. air support progress was slow.
SUSANNAH GEORGE/THE WASHINGTON POST

After months of expanding Taliban influence, this road linking Helmand and Kandahar is no longer safe for Afghan resupply missions. Nearly all bases in the country's south require personnel and munitions to be moved in and out by air.
SUSANNAH GEORGE/THE WASHINGTON POST