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The Taliban's elite special forces units were crucial to the group's takeover of Afghanistan, experts have told The National, and they are now seen patrolling the streets of towns and cities around the country as the group tightens its grip on power.
Images shared widely on social media during the fall of Kabul showed soldiers belonging to the Badri 313 and Red Units — the main elite forces of the Taliban — providing security for press conferences and patrolling the streets and newly-vacated US military facilities.
Some carried American-made weapons such as the M4 carbine — a highly-prized status weapon among Taliban fighters — complete with advanced optical sights. Some even wore night vision goggles.
With their modern body armour and matching camouflage fatigues, the soldiers look more like Western special forces than the rank and file Taliban fighters carrying battered Kalashnikovs and wearing mismatched combat gear.
“The Taliban released slick propaganda footage during the takeover of Afghanistan centred on the Badri 313 and so it is likely that this group is to be favoured within the Taliban leadership and chain of command,” said Ed Arnold, a research fellow at the Royal United Service Institute (RUSI) think tank in London.
“They are well trained, well equipped and have decades of experience in fighting and developing advanced tactics,” Mr Arnold, who specialises in Afghanistan, told The National.
While the only officially recognised units within the Taliban's forces are the Badri 313 and the Red Unit, experts believe there could be other groups of elite fighters among the militants seeking formal recognition.
“Unofficially, there are likely to be more groups who will want to achieve special unit status, using advanced tactics training and experience, alongside captured US equipment that is usually the preserve of special forces units,” Mr Arnold said.
The Badri 313 unit is named after the battle of Badr 1,400 years ago, in which the Prophet Mohammed was victorious.
The unit has reportedly received training from the Haqqani network, Afghanistan's most ruthless and feared militant group, which has carried out multiple suicide attacks on civilians.
The size of the Taliban's special units is unclear, but experts believe they could have thousands of soldiers.
The Red Unit was created as an elite component of the Taliban military, said Michael S. Smith II, a terrorism analyst and an expert on the operations of extremist militant groups.
“Initially, it appeared the Taliban’s most senior leaders intended for it to be focused squarely on countering ISIS’s efforts to compete with the Taliban for a more dominant role in the insurgency,” Mr Smith told The National.
Like Badri 313, the Red Unit is an important propaganda tool of the Taliban, which has to assert its legitimacy over rival groups like ISIS-K.
The Taliban has used the Red Units on social media to directly confront ISIS members, especially on Twitter and Telegram accounts managed by the Taliban’s spokesman, Mr Smith said.
But the group also played a significant role in enabling the Taliban to sweep to power.
With the Red Units, which numbered approximately 300 soldiers by 2016, the Taliban was able to integrate its information operations with special forces operations to degrade the morale of the Afghan security forces, which led to a relatively easy takeover of many provincial capitals, he said.
With most of Afghanistan now under Taliban control, it is not clear what role the special forces units will play in the future as the militant group transforms into a governing power.
Mr Arnold said that aside from a couple of organised units there is no overall structure or chain of command for the Taliban's special forces.
“It is likely that Taliban special forces will take over an enhanced intelligence collection function now the warfighting phase has ended,” Mr Arnold said.
He added, however, that the US and Nato equipment that was captured during the takeover, especially advanced night vision equipment, will be key to the development of the special forces or other commando units.
Mr Smith said while some factions of the units will continue their role in anti-ISIS operations, the Red Unit will also likely “be a vital symbol of the Taliban regime’s use of terrorism as a key tool to discourage dissent across the wider civilian populace”.