Late Tuesday night, four helicopters carrying 50 Afghan special forces commandos touched down just outside a Taliban compound on Afghanistan’s western edge. Intelligence collected by U.S. and Afghan forces indicated the buildings were being used as a prison, holding dozens of Afghan security forces.
The Afghan commandos were launching an attempt to rescue more than 60 hostages held by the Taliban.
“We took positions on the hilltops and sealed off the area,” said Maj. Sayed Rahimullah, the Afghan special forces commando who led the raid. As his men moved down into the compound, he said, they caught the Taliban guards by surprise.
“We didn’t give them enough time to use heavy weaponry. They were firing light weapons as they were fleeing the scene,” he said in an interview Wednesday. As Taliban fighters fled, American aircraft circling above the scene targeted the men with at least four airstrikes, he said.
U.S. and Afghan officials hailed the operation as a major success for Afghanistan’s special forces, who have struggled to regularly conduct operations without close American support.
In all, 62 prisoners were freed from the compound in Bala Murghab, a district of Badghis province heavily contested by Taliban forces. Five Taliban fighters were taken into custody and at least eight were killed, Rahimullah said.
A U.S. defense official confirmed the number of hostages freed and Taliban taken into custody. But the official, who was authorized to disclose details of the operation on the condition of anonymity, said there were no U.S. strikes in the area at that time and that no Taliban fighters were reported killed in the raid.
The operation comes amid an uptick in violence across Afghanistan as peace talks stall. U.S. negotiators are demanding a reduction in violence from the Taliban before formal talks can resume, but in the meantime, violence across the country has increased in recent months as both sides seek to gain leverage.
Also overnight Tuesday, a Taliban attack in Kunduz killed six Afghan security forces, according to a senior Afghan official speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release death tolls to the media. A local lawmaker from Kunduz, Muhammaddin Hamdard, said 13 Afghan troops were killed.
After the operation in Badghis, acting Afghan defense minister Asadullah Khalid pledged his troops would “increase their efforts to maintain the people’s security,” according to a defense ministry statement.
The commander of the Afghan special forces, Lt. Gen. Farid Ahmadi, said in an interview that the operation showed that his troops are acting with greater independence and “sent a strong message to (the) enemy that anywhere, anytime, we can hit you in the heart of your stronghold.”
American support during the raid was limited to intelligence sharing and air support, the U.S. defense official said, describing the operation as complex and “dicey,” because of the presence of such a large number of hostages.
Bill Roggio, an Afghan military analyst and senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said the raid displayed improvement on the operational level for Afghanistan’s special forces.
“I would say three to four years ago you wouldn’t have seen Afghan special forces conducting missions like that,” he said.
But he said the success of the operation doesn’t address the larger issue of the force’s ability to retake and hold territory. “When it comes to holding districts, generally we’ve seen they’re not too good at that,” he said.
The Pentagon’s December report to Congress on security in Afghanistan said “terrorist and insurgent groups continued to present a formidable challenge to Afghan, U.S. and Coalition forces.”
And while the Afghan special forces are “the most capable force” in Afghanistan’s military, “sustained levels of violence” and security force casualties have resulted in military attrition rates that outpace recruitment and retention, the report said.