Afghanistan’s main intelligence agency has initiated a secretive unit in southern Helmand Province with the aim of taking advantage of divisions within the Taliban movement.
According to government officials, the goal is to weaken the increasing threat posed by the insurgency by using the Taliban’s own tactics. The militants have boasted of placing agents among security forces to carry out so-called insider attacks.
The initiative comes at a time when fledgling Afghan forces are struggling to stop the Taliban from taking over large swathes of Helmand and other areas across the country.
Abdul Jabbar Qahraman, President Ashraf Ghani's special envoy for security affairs in the southern province, gave confirmation of the existence of the unit, whose members wear no uniform, but he declined to elaborate.
"The idea for the creation of the new contingent, which dresses like local Helmandis, was mine," said the official, a former commander who fought for the Soviet-backed government in southern Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Helmand police chief Abdul Rahman Sarjang said the 300-strong unit, created and equipped by the National Directorate of Security (NDS), had conducted several operations and has so far proved a success.
The NDS headquarters in Kabul did not respond to several requests for comment, although an official -- who declined to be identified -- at the agency in Helmand confirmed the unit's existence and the broad outlines of how it operates.
The Taliban themselves have confirmed the unit’s existence but dismissed claims that it was successful in exploiting internal divisions, calling such suggestions “propaganda.”
"It is true that this contingent exists and operates mysteriously in some parts of Helmand," said Qari Yousuf Ahmadi, the Taliban's main spokesman in southern Afghanistan. "We have very strong intelligence and find those who want to infiltrate our ranks.”
The NDS unit further complicates the situation in Helmand, a traditional stronghold of the Taliban and the center of the opium trade. In addition the insurgency, Helmand is a web of tribal and factional conflicts.
Deceit and double-cross have become commonplace in Helmand, and government forces are often the victim. In January, four rogue policemen killed nine comrades and stole their weapons before deserting to join the insurgents.
Afghan and NATO officials have frequently spoken of the difficulties faced by the Afghan National Army -- a largely Dari-speaking force relying heavily on recruits from northern Afghanistan -- in operating in Pashto-speaking Helmand.
One provincial official said the unit operates in Musa Qala and Nawzad, two central districts that government forces abandoned in February, as well as Marjah and Nad Ali, where the government maintains only tenuous control.
"Now the Taliban do not believe each other. They believe their colleagues may be infiltrated by the Afghan intelligence agency," he said.
Despite a relative lull in recent weeks allegedly due to the annual opium harvest, Helmand has witnessed months of heavy fighting. Government forces have been forced to abandon several districts and regroup around the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah.
But the unit's reported successes have come at a price, according to local officials.
"It is a very good achievement by the Afghan government and has created splits within the Taliban," said Attaullah Afghan, a member of Helmand’s provincial council. But, he said, officials have received dozens of complaints from residents in districts like Nawzad and Khanishin.
"The Taliban are abusing ordinary people and even arresting some of them as spies for the Afghan government," he said.
According to local sources, a battle between rival Taliban fighters in the Nad Ali and Marjah districts that killed as many as 30 fighters on May 8 was set off by the special NDS unit.
They said members of the unit attacked a checkpoint manned by insurgents loyal to Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, creating the impression that they were on the side of Mansour's main rival, Mullah Mohammad Rasul.
The Taliban denied the fighting was between rival factions but did cite "bandits newly armed by Jabbar Qahraman."
"There is currently no fighting in the area, and the entire region has been cleansed of these newly formed bandits," Ahmadi said in a statement.
With reporting by Mohammad Stanekzai for Reuters