Night Vision Goggle-Wearing Taliban Are Terrible News for Afghan and US Forces

The insurgents' capabilities are improving and may pose a real threat to the coalition's ability to "own the night."

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New reports suggest that the Taliban are increasingly using Russian-made night vision equipment, underscoring the group’s increasing sophistication relative to Afghan government security forces. This could even threaten historical advantages that American and other coalition elements have enjoyed at night, especially as they renew closer cooperation with Afghanistan’s troops in the field, part of still largely undefined strategy to finally break the insurgents after more than 16 years of war.

On Nov. 13, 2017, Afghan officials told The New York Times that night-vision equipped Taliban, aided by an insider, had murdered at least eight policemen as they slept at their station near the city of Farah, capital of the province of the same name in Western Afghanistan. It is one of the latest in a string of bold and deadly attacks by the insurgents on government outposts in traditionally secure areas that began in October 2017.

“Night-vision equipment is used in ambushes by the insurgents and it is very effective,” Afghan Major General Dawlat Waziri, a spokesman for the country’s defense ministry told The Times. “You can see your enemy but they cannot see you coming.”

Understanding this advantage, the U.S. military has long seen the value of light-enhancing night vision and infrared equipment and developing improved gear has been a priority since World War II. It wasn't until the first Gulf War that the technology had caught up with the desire to make night vision systems a piece a common kit for even the most lowly infantryman. At present, American combat units have these systems at all levels in order to continue “owning the night.”

The slick video below shows a U.S. Marines and U.S. Army special operations forces training together to conduct operations in low-light conditions at the Marine Corps base at Twentynine Palms, California and gives a good sense of American troops’ nighttime capabilities.

Despite more than a decade American support, the same cannot be said of Afghan troops and paramilitary police. These units routinely lack sufficient night vision systems and what equipment they do have is often in disrepair.

This became particularly apparent after President Barack Obama initiated plans for a significant draw down of forces in Afghanistan in 2011 following an initial surge of personnel. U.S. troops had positioned their outposts and bases and designed their defenses with extensive night vision capabilities in mind.

When Afghan forces who lacked those capabilities took over, they almost immediately found themselves unable to properly maintain those sites against persistent Taliban attacks. In 2012, The Washington Post described how bad things had gotten at one combat outpost in the Jalrez Valley.

“Troops patrolling the area near the base return before dusk because the Afghan army has no provision for night-vision goggles, which the troops borrowed from the Americans when the base was shared,” the newspaper explained. “The patrols – adapted from U.S. counterinsurgency theory – are not as common as they once were, and Afghan soldiers say they are of little consequence.”

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Afghan Uniformed Police during an operation in 2013.

The Jalrez district of Afghanistan’s eastern Wardak province was still the site of routine and deadly insurgent attacks three years later. In 2015, the Los Angeles Times noted that the area “includes 12 of the most perilous miles of roadway in the country.”

The night vision issue, or finding some other means for Afghan forces to reliably operate at night when insurgent activity is often most pronounced, is just one of the many hurdles the United States and its allies have to overcome in their latest attempt to help the country’s authorities break the Taliban insurgency. At present, Afghan special operations units, including its special forces, commandos, and the shadowy and elite Ktah Khas battalion, do have ready access to night vision equipment. Unfortunately, this probably also explains why this small proportion of the country’s overall military has reportedly ended up being responsible for nearly 70 percent of all offensive operations across the country.

The problem is bound to become even more glaring as the United States moves to dramatically increase the number of advisory personnel accompanying Afghan units on actual combat operations in order to be better positioned to call in air strikes and precision artillery fire. In the past, American troops, especially special operations forces, have employed infrared strobes to mark their positions for friendly aircraft and other supporting forces.

In June 2014, a U.S. Air Force B-1 bomber accidentally killed a number of U.S. Army special forces soldiers when it mistook them for Taliban troops. In its investigation, the U.S. military determined that one of the major factors in what remains the deadliest friendly fire incident involving Americans in Afghanistan was the inability of the bomber's targeting system to detect those blinking lights.

Now, the Taliban may be able to spot those beacons and use them to zero in on U.S. and coalition personnel and their Afghan partners. On top of that, Joint operations with Afghan units who have limited situational awareness after dark can only put their American advisers in a riskier position in general, no matter what support is on call. By 2018, there could be almost 16,000 U.S. personnel in country in total.

For years, U.S. personnel in Afghanistan, including special operations forces, have been relying heavily on contractors for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions. Private firms are presently supplying small Scan Eagle and similarly sized drones, small manned surveillance platforms such as the Beechcraft King Air-based Night Eagle, and tethered aerostats with electro-optical and infrared sensor packages, among other assets to provide persistent surveillance in the country, especially at night. Underscoring the issues with monitoring the Taliban after the sun goes down, unlike more complex systems using the same airframe, Night Eagle has an infrared-capable full-motion video camera as its only sensor.

There is also the suggestion that there is such a concern about Taliban infiltration of Afghanistan’s institutions – in many cases lead to deadly insider attacks – that the United States and its coalition partners are often reluctant to share this information with their Afghan counterparts. One draft U.S. Air Force contract document, dated November 2016, regarding drone surveillance, said that “the contractor shall also provide imagery with all meta-data removed that can be releasable to Afghanistan.” The NATO-led coalition did not respond to a request for clarification about the nature of routine intelligence sharing with Afghan government elements.

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At present, the Afghan military lacks any significant number of its own such persistent surveillance systems. The Afghan Special Mission Wing does have a number of Pilatus PC-12s with turreted infrared cameras, similar to the U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command’s U-28A, but the regular Afghan Air Force’s A-29 Super Tucanos appear to fly many missions without their own sensor turrets.

In 2018, the United States hopes to help deliver three AC-208 Combat Caravans, a modified Cessna C-208, with a turreted infrared camera, as well as the ability to fire 70mm laser-guided Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System II (APKWS II) rockets. The U.S. military has already facilitated the delivery of similar aircraft to Iraq and Lebanon.

“That’s going to be their reconnaissance bird. They don’t have any reconnaissance right now,” U.S. Air Force Brigadier General Phillip Stewart, the American officer commander in charge of NATO’s air training mission Afghanistan, told Defense News. “That’s going to be a gamechanger for them.”

It’s not clear how soon the Afghan Air Force would be able to put that capability into action, though. As we at The War Zone have written about in detail before, the service has a long standing shortage of qualified aircrews across the board and has historically had difficulty maintaining more complex systems without significant help from private contractors. It’s unclear how easy it would be to increase the distribution of night vision goggles and similar systems to regular Army troops, as well, given routine reports of units selling their equipment on the black market to make up for lost or stolen paychecks or just to make some additional money in country where the individuals commonly make less than $500 a year.

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One of Iraq's AC-208 Combat Caravans with the sensor turret visible below the fuselage. Afghanistan's aircraft will be in a similar configuration.

At the same time, it is clear that the militants and their allies are only getting more sophisticated in their capabilities, which only makes the night-time threats more pronounced and immediate. In addition to the night vision goggles, the group itself claims that it has acquired and is using infrared aiming lasers on their rifles and machine guns, just like American forces, as part of expanding night time operations.

“Usually we are using laser weapons and night visions on night attacks,” Qari Yusuf Ahmadi, a Taliban spokesperson who the The Times’ reporters spoke to via cellphone, said, referring to the laser aiming devices. “We definitely used night visions and laser weapons for that attack [near Farah] as well.”

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A US Army special forces soldier holds a weapon fitted with an infrared aiming laser in Afghanistan. 

In August 2017, the group released a slick, 70-minute long propaganda video highlighting its “special forces,” who clearly were aping the style and look – at least according to popular media – of elite American special operations forces. Though these forces are almost undoubtedly less capable their U.S. military counterparts, the presentation did suggest there is increasing level of training and competency among at least some portions of the organization’s forces.

American weapons and equipment, which fighters often take as spoils of war after attack Afghan or coalition units, featured prominently in the video, too. In October 2017, the Taliban nearly wiped out an entire Afghan Army base in a complex attack that featured two captured Humvees the fighters had rigged up as massive suicide bombs, also known as vehicle-based improvised explosive devices or VBIEDs – a separate tactic that has also proven to be especially deadly in the fighting against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

The Taliban special forces, also known as Sara Khitta, or “Red Group” in the Pashto language, are among those elements that have begun employing night visions systems, as well. Afghan government special operations forces reported seeing the fighters with the gear as early as August 2016, but the attack in Farah appears to be the first clear confirmation that the group is actively using the equipment. The exact source of the goggles is less clear.

Naser Mehri, a spokesman for governor of Farah province, told The Times that the goggles appeared to be Russian in origin. Major General Waziri said that there was no indication that they had come via the Russian government and posited that the Taliban had likely purchased them on the black market in neighboring Pakistan.

Despite a host of reports earlier in 2017 indicating that the Kremlin might have started actively supporting the Taliban, there has so far not been any conclusive evidence to support this accusation. Russian weapons and other military equipment are not particularly difficult for militants and terrorists to obtain in the region for a variety of illicit sources.

“I want to see more evidence about how deep the support is,” U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis told legislators during a hearing in October 2017. “I need more definition on what is coming out of Russia. I can’t figure it out. It doesn’t make sense. But we’re looking at it very carefully.”

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Explosive ordnance disposal technicians from one of Afghanistan's commando units sweep for improvised explosive devices during a nighttime operation.

Determining the origins of the equipment is likely to be part of a larger regional effort to try and identify and neutralize trans-national sources of support for the Taliban. In announcing his new administration's overarching strategy for improving security in Afghanistan and South Asia, U.S. President Donald Trump highlighted the long-standing issue of the terrorists being able to operate with apparent impunity in Pakistan.

"No, I haven't seen any change yet in their behavior," U.S. Army General John Nicholson, who commands all American and coalition troops in Afghanistan, told reporters earlier in November 2017 after a meeting of senior defense officials from NATO member states in Brussels, Belgium. "The United States has been very clear about the direction we want to go and we hope to see some change in the coming weeks and months."

The United States has been hoping to pressure the Pakistani government to do more on this issue, but it not clear if they are either willing or able to do more to challenge militant groups in their semi-autonomous northwestern tribal regions. Clearing up whether there is an actual link between Russia and the Taliban would also give U.S. officials different leverage to try and upend any active coordination between the group and the Kremlin.

In the meantime, though, the Taliban are increasingly using night vision equipment and despite more than 16 years of American support, it’s just as clear that Afghan units often lack any similar capability. The United States and its allies will have to figure out a solution that they can implement now or run a growing risk of losing ownership of the night to the insurgents.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com