US forces in Afghanistan have carried out the largest operation against the Taliban in at least a year, killing dozens of commanders and members of the group’s elite "Red Unit" special forces.
The Red Unit is a first of its kind group of highly trained and well-armed insurgents that emerged in late 2016 across the southern provinces in Afghanistan.
“US Forces-Afghanistan conducted a series of precision strikes over a 10-day period, … killing more than 70 senior Taliban leaders,” a statement from Resolute Support said.
“These strikes represent one of the largest blows to Taliban leadership in the last year. The cumulative effects of which will be felt nationwide for quite some time,” said US Army Geneneral John Nicholson, who leads American forces in the country.
"The Red Unit is the Taliban's version of a special operations soldier," Lt Col Martin O'Donnell, spokesman for US forces in Afghanistan, told The National. "They are typically better trained and equipped than their conventional Taliban counterparts."
Past reports have indicated that the Red Unit fighters are armed with high-end equipment, such as night-vision goggles, that have increased their capacities to target security checkpoint and Afghan security forces. Some are better armed and equipped than their opponents in the US-backed Afghan security forces.
Reportedly among the key figures killed in the operations between May 17 and 26 were several Taliban shadow governors, highly skilled bomb makers as well as ‘Red Unit’ fighters in Helmand.
“On May 26, an MQ-1C Gray Eagle [drone] killed a senior improvised explosive device facilitator, who has been coordinating improvised explosive device operations for the last 13 years,” the Resolute Support statement reported.
However, the most significant operation was a strike on a key Taliban command centre in Musa Qala during a meeting of the group’s commanders on May 24. Four High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) rockets hit the command post, killing dozens.
“Among the more than 50 casualties were the deputy shadow governor of Helmand, multiple Taliban district governors, intelligence commanders and key provincial-level leadership from Kandahar, Kunduz, Herat, Farah, Uruzgan and Helmand provinces,” the statement reported.
However, the report was denied by the Taliban. The group’s spokesperson Qari Muhammad Yousuf Ahmadi said, “The enemy [US forces] targeted two civilian compounds, martyring two villagers and leaving six more wounded as well as dismantling both compounds [sic],” he announced on a social media channel associated with the Taliban. “There were neither Mujahideen [Taliban] in the said compounds nor any meeting was taking place there. This is enemy’s chief tactic of boosting morale of its moral sagging troops [sic],” he wrote.
Despite the recent successes, Gen. Nicholson is still hopeful for a peaceful negotiation to the conflict. “As we continue the season of fighting and talking, we will continue to increase pressure on the Taliban and remain vigilant to opportunities for negotiated peace,” he said during a media briefing in Kabul this week.
Last week, he told The National that the US, as well as local and international partners, were in talks with Taliban leaders. "The Taliban are talking on many levels, unofficially, behind the scenes, to leaders in and out of government, and to many nations in the region," he told The National in a statement. He reiterated the point at the media briefing this week.
Meanwhile, the air strikes against insurgent targets helped Afghan security forces maintain an edge, while also preserving a semblance of security for civilians, the Resolute Support official said. “I call this talking and fighting. And, as the US Secretary of Defense has said, violence and progress can coexist, and that's what we're seeing.”
However, Afghan forces mistakenly killed nine people - mostly civilians - during a raid on a house in eastern Nangarhar province that had been used as an ISIS command base, officials said. Eight other civilians were wounded in the raid late Monday night.
O'Donnell rejected questions that the policy might hamper dialogue with the Taliban, pointing to US President Donald Trump’s South Asia Strategy, where “strategically applied force aims to create the conditions for a political process to achieve lasting peace”, he said.
In March this year, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani also proposed a plan for peace negotiation with the Taliban, urging them to join the upcoming parliamentary elections in the country. However, the Taliban responded by boycotting the elections and increasing attack across the country and in the capital city of Kabul, resulting in several civilian casualties.