The Taliban's Elite "Red Unit"
Covert operations have become a hallmark of warfare. Special Forces are certainly nothing new. Everyone is familiar with the "Green Berets," the US Army's Special Forces, but elite units would include Army Rangers, Delta Force, and the Navy Seals. For thousands of years, armies have maintained highly trained elite troops to perform only the most dangerous and specialized missions.
The earliest elite warriors on record were an Egyptian tribe from Nubia. They were a clan of nomadic desert warriors incorporated into the Pharaoh's legions in the 16th century BCE. Next came the Immortals in the Persian army. Cyrus the Great formed the group in the 6th century BCE, and while they were ferocious, the Greeks almost cleaned their clock in 480 BCE in the Battle of Thermopylae. You can see the highlights in the movie 300. A century later, the Romans formed an elite unit called the Extraordina'i, which the word "extraordinary" comes from. Most people think the Praetorian Guard was elite (and it was), but it became bogged down with politics and corruption. One Roman elite unit was the Batavian cohort. They had a tradition of crossing rivers on their horses where there were no bridges. In other words, the soldiers and the horses would swim across the river in battle gear, ready to spring ambushes and havoc on unsuspecting enemies.
One elite unit during the Crusades was the Assassins, also known as Ismailis-Nizari. Their purpose was to fulfill or purify Islam. They aroused the public by killing their victims, usually a prominent government or religious official, with a dagger in a venerated site or a royal court, generally on holy days when many witnesses would be present. The Assassins were the first to prepare their assailant for martyrdom, the voluntary acceptance of death.
One more recent example of an elite unit comes from the Ottoman empire. In the 12th century, a Muslim caliph started a "blood tax" on Christian territories ruled by the Ottomans. Turkish officials would take male children aged between 6 and 10 years old and send them to central Turkey to be raised in the Muslim ways and Turkish customs. Their lives were dedicated to constant drilling and exercise. They were brought up to kill and maintain the power of the empire. The Janissaries lasted five centuries and were a potent military force until the early 1800's when they revolted against the sultan and were executed.
This quick review of elite units brings us to the topic at hand; the Taliban's elite team is called the "Red Unit." It was first mentioned in 2015 when the Taliban acknowledged its existence as one of the units fighting the Islamic State. While it's hard to keep up with the players, the Taliban is allied with al-Qaeda but is fighting the IS (see my post "Civil War Among the Jihadis, Dec 2).
The unit has fought its way to greater prominence. There are now photos on the Internet that show members in new uniforms and armed with tactical assault weapons used by soldiers and law enforcement teams worldwide. The weapons and gear are only part of the makeover. The significant change is the increased amount of training that their fighters get. It was only a matter of time, but with the number of incursions against regular Afghan soldiers, the Taliban was bound to start accumulating top-rated weapons and sufficient ammo to conduct thorough training.
With their weaponry and training, this elite unit has changed tactics that seem to work well against Afghan police officers who are not armed as well. The Red Unit operates like shock troops with quick in and out mobility and heavy firepower. They have used surprise attacks against vulnerable Afghan security checkpoints and outposts with surprising success. They have well-trained snipers who support their regular jihadis in the field.
While the Red Unit seems to be better than the rank-and-file Taliban fighter and the Afghan police force, they still are no match for Afghan commandos or US Army Special Forces or Seal teams. While regular Taliban foot soldiers number about 60,000, this new elite unit has about 1000 members. Thus, their impact is limited, but it seems to be growing.
The real problem for the US and coalition partners is the money flowing to the Taliban. Resources and assets from Russia, Iran, Pakistan, and several Gulf nations keep the insurrection going, allowing local fighters to procure arms and munitions. Stop the flow of money, and the insurrection will go away. A recent article in the CTC Sentinel suggests that if the US pulls our troops out of Afghanistan, the Taliban will win the conflict.