Non-State Actors

Sara Khitta: Taliban Special Forces

January 6, 2021

Michael Ellmer

 

This Grey Dynamics article gives an overview of the Taliban’s Sara Khitta unit – a self-proclaimed “special forces unit” that has demonstrated unique tactics and more advanced weaponry on the Afghanistan battlefield than their rank-in-file counterparts.

 

 

Key Judgements


KJ-1.
It is likely Sara Khitta will be used as the Taliban’s premier future fighting force against the Afghan national security forces.


KJ-2.
Sara Khitta is not a traditional “special forces” unit, and it is highly unlikely they will ever tactically progress into conducting actual special operations.

 

 

MOLLE and Velcro


Special forces. What comes to mind when you think of that terms? Navy SEAL’s? Green Berets? Delta Force? British SAS? Russian Spetznaz? Never-ending MOLLE straps and Velcro patches? Heavily trained bearded men with the bodies of Greek gods, and whom possess the most coveted tactical skillsets on the modern battlefield? Those thoughts would be fairly accurate (albeit a bit caricaturized). Special forces communities in the Western world are known for brutal selection processes, advanced training pipelines, and are tasked with the most sensitive unconventional warfare missions in global theaters.

 

Internationally speaking, Special forces units reside on a spectrum in terms of ability and training. The ones mentioned in the beginning of this article are the most recognized in terms of fame and reputation on the world stage, but non-western countries often possess their own strains of units who are trained to conduct more “advanced” operations than your run-of-the-mill infantry force. Now, with that aside, here is an interesting idea to ponder. Revisit the question “What comes to mind when you think of special forces? What if I were to say, “the Taliban”? The Taliban? Yes, the Taliban.

 

 

A bit of context: Taliban Ingenuity


Throughout the almost 20-year duration of the War in Afghanistan, the Taliban have faced the challenges of fighting a collective of professional fighting forces who possess modern hardware and well-coordinated supporting agencies. Similarly, to their Afghan Mujahedeen ancestors, the Taliban have managed to hold their ground and resist NATO forces just as the former resisted the 1980’s Soviet occupation, despite being vastly outnumbered and wielding rather primitive weaponry and gear (in comparison).

 

Taliban tactics are constantly refined and adaptive to their western counterparts. According to Theo Farrell at the Texas National Security Review, “The Taliban have proven to be highly adaptive adversaries. During the war with the Soviets, the Afghan mujahedeen developed a pretty standard repertoire of guerrilla tactics. In particular, these involved planting mines in roads, ambushing convoys, and conducting raids against military bases. Experience gained in this conflict shaped Taliban thinking about how they should fight.”

 

For instance, take this example of the Taliban’s sheer ingenuity. In the 2010’s, as an effort to combat an increase in IED attacks, US Marines began to require metal detectors on every dismounted combat patrol in the Helmand Province. A designated point man who would sweep and clear the terrain as the patrol movement was conducted. The Taliban picked up on this change, and according to the Small Arms Survey, “Afghan insurgents have developed ways of reducing the metal content in their IEDs. For example, some now use carbon rods taken from inside batteries as their electrical contacts. These conduct electricity but do not have a metal signature. IED emplacer’s also bury the batteries to make them harder to detect.”

 

Creativity and adaptability have led the Taliban to have survived a battle of attrition in the modern Afghanistan War. Although the war has been heading towards a transition of power back to the Afghan security forces, the Taliban have come out of hiding and placed themselves in conflict with the NATO backed national military and police. This brings us to the Sara Khitta.

 

 

 

Sara Khitta


In the native Pashtun tongue, Sara Khitta translates to “red group” – the name of the Taliban’s self-proclaimed Special Forces unit. According to the New York Times, the first accounts of the unit’s operations dates loosely back to 2016 in the Helmand Province. At the time, the Taliban were on a successful campaign to retake the region that was once their central area of operations. The tactics of the Sara Khitta were attributed to the success of the Taliban’s efforts.

 

Going back even further, reports have made the claim that in 2015, media was released of “Taliban special forces training camps” in remote regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The authenticity of the media was unable to be confirmed, but at the very least it was an example of Taliban propaganda.

 

When compared to traditional Special Forces units, Sara Khitta merely kneels beneath their towering shadows. There is no question that they lack any ability to conduct foreign internal defense operations, long range reconnaissance, or airborne operations, as SOF capable units do. Various sources who have covered Sara Khitta describe them more as a “commando force” or “shock troops” than tier quality operators.

 

In the present time, the propaganda aspect of Sara Khitta is still relevant. According to Bill Roggio at the Long War Journal, the Taliban have been active on social media platforms, and have continued to release media footage of what appears to be Sara Khitta (although not exclusively stated, it is reasonable to infer). Recent footage taken from the Twitter feed of Zabiullah Mujahid, one of the Taliban’s official spokesmen, shows staged photos of uniformed groups of fighters wearing red bandannas and shirts with the Sara Khitta logo on them.

 

Sara Khitta is currently mostly active in media, and reports of their recent operational activity are bare to say the least. The group remains a target for national security forces, however, and the Afghan air force reportedly killed a high-ranking unit leader in a tactical airstrike within the Helmand Province battlespace.

 

 

 

Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures

  • Hardware: Sara Khitta has been reported using weapons and equipment that are a step up from the Taliban’s usual soviet made suite. According to a Reuters, that includes “night vision scopes, 82mm rockets, heavy machine guns and U.S.-made assault rifles”. This also extends to troop transport and up-armored vehicles that are likely taken from US armed Afghan security forces.

 

  • Tactics: Sara Khitta does conduct traditional direct-action operations but have also dipped their toes into some unconventional ones. This includes using stolen vehicles as “trojan horses” into secure positions, cutting off enemy avenues of approach, and conducting well timed and spread-out attacks on security force outposts resulting in diminished ability for a proper response.

 

 

 

Final Judgement


So, why does this matter? In essence, the Afghanistan War is starting to reach its hopeful end, as far as NATO involvement goes. What current trends have shown, is a rejuvenated and motivated Taliban who have waited for the right time to resurge and reclaim governance. According to this Grey Dynamics piece, as of 2019, the Taliban have continued to be active in their traditional “Summer Offensive”, and have their own domestic goals in terms of interrupting elections and diminishing public trust in government.

 

The shift in tactics and development of Sara Khitta is one example of the Taliban’s adaptive and creative side in terms of how they approach warfighting. The lack of a competent national security force is a set condition for the Taliban to take advantage of and using Sara Khitta as the premier force in their kinetic operations is a likely possibility. Although is it highly unlikely Sara Khitta will ever be a reputable special operations capable unit, they have demonstrated a more advanced skillset on the battlefield that may pose a future threat to Afghan forces. 

 

 

 

 

Image: Taliban Propaganda Video / Twitter (link)

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