Deadly Taliban Attack On Governor's Volleyball-Playing Bodyguards Points To Armed Drone Use

The use of this low-cost and potentially high-reward tactic is growing around the world and its appearance in Afghanistan is hardly surprising.

Rafiq Maqbool / AP

The Taliban reportedly used a small drone to kill four of Kunduz province head Asadullah Omarkhel's bodyguards while they played volleyball in the governor's compound yesterday. If true, this would be one of the first known instances of a successful drone attack by the Afghan militant group, as well as its most deadly such attack to date. 

The New York Times was among the first to report the attack, which took place at the guesthouse within the governor's residence in Kunduz province's capital of the same name on Nov. 1, 2020. Kunduz, both the city and province, have seen continued fighting between the Taliban and government security forces despite ongoing negotiations between U.S. and Taliban officials on a potential peace deal. The militant group briefly took control of the city in 2015, but its forces were eventually ejected with the help of heavy American air and other support, a counter-offensive that included the infamous accidental destruction of a Doctors Without Borders-operated hospital by a U.S. Air Force AC-130U Spooky gunship.

“When the Kunduz governor bodyguards were playing volleyball in the governor’s guesthouse, the explosion took place among them," Ghulam Rabbani Rabbani, who sits on Kunduz’s provincial council, told The Times. "It is not clear that it was an explosion or a missile or drone attack."

The Taliban used "a new method of attack," Fazal Karim Aimaq, who represents Kunduz in the country's National Assembly in Kabul, wrote on Facebook, according to The Times, but did not elaborate. The Taliban itself has not yet offered any details of how it carried out the attack, but The Times reported that there have been previous, unreported instances of the militant group using small drones to drop improvised explosive payloads or to act as improvised missiles themselves. 

It's unclear if any of those other attacks have resulted in deaths or injuries. In May, one person did die in a very similar strike on a party at the governor's compound in Kunduz, which a spokesperson for Asadullah Omarkhel blamed on a missile, but may well have also been carried out by a small armed drone.

The Taliban's use of small quad-copter-like drones to conduct reconnaissance on Afghan forces and members of the NATO-led coalition in the country, as well as film attacks for propaganda purposes, is hardly new. In 2018, Tom Lockhart, then the Director of the Strategic Development Planning and Experimentation Office (SDPE) at the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), described how prevalent the militant group's use of these small unmanned platforms during a trip to the country the year before.

"Coming back from Afghanistan last year in October [2017], I was at a base where we had a lot of unmanned systems sitting over and watching everything we do," Lockhart said. "For the future, our airmen would like to not be monitored 24/7."

The employment of quad and hex-copter-style drones to carry out attacks using small improvised munitions is also well established and has only become a growing threat since ISIS began very publicly employing the tactic in Iraq and Syria since at least 2017. The very low barrier to entry when it comes to the cost and difficulty of acquiring the necessary technology to carry out these kinds of attacks mean that other non-state groups, including drug cartels in Mexico, have also begun carrying them out. In 2018, a group opposed to dictatorial Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro notably attempted to assassinate him in this manner in a very high-profile attack.

That the Taliban may be more actively carrying out attacks using low-end drones certainly reflects a worrisome development with regards to the group, which has already been employing other more modern technologies, especially night vision and thermal optics, in its operations in recent years. At the same time, it is hardly surprising given the obvious benefits drones could offer, especially when it comes to targeting VIPs

If the attacks this past weekend and in May were carried out by drones, it shows that the Taliban now has the ability to execute more precise attacks inside what have been traditionally more secure areas in Afghanistan, such as inside fortress-like government compounds. In the past, the Taliban has more commonly relied on insiders to gain access and then launch suicide attacks inside these kinds of facilities to try to kill key government figures. It has also long had the ability to launch indirect, but also more imprecise attacks using rockets and mortars against these kinds of targets.

While the immediate message from the Taliban to Kunduz governor Omarkhel seems clear, how the militant group's continued use of this tactic in that province or anywhere in the country might ultimately impact the course of the conflict is less so. Talks between the U.S. government and the Taliban, as well as between the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan, appear to have stalled despite the Trump Administration signing a framework agreement with Taliban representatives for how to proceed in February. 

At the same time, despite continued Taliban attacks and other activities intended to undermine the authority of the central government in Kabul, there is a continued push by President Donald Trump's Administration to draw down U.S. forces in Afghanistan. 

Beyond the Taliban, there is the matter of the ISIS franchise in the country, which also presents a serious threat to peace and stability and that appears to have just carried out an attack on Kabul University today, killing 19 people and wounded 22 more. The Taliban have denied responsibility.

The U.S. military has also acknowledged conducting airstrikes on what is formally known as ISIS-Khorasan Province (ISIS-K) in such a way as to benefit the Taliban, who are also fighting this terrorist group. Last month, The Washington Post published a detailed piece on the U.S. forces, including elements of the secretive Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), that are running what has come to be euphemistically referred to as the "Taliban Air Force."

Of course, small drones carrying out attacks in Afghanistan also simply underscore how this threat continues to proliferate and become more ever-present among both non-state and state actors. Striking the governor's residence in Kunduz only further highlights how this technology could enable very real attacks on VIPs and other sensitive targets anywhere in the world. All of this, as well as the need for the development of countermeasures, is something that The War Zone has explored and underscored on multiple occasions.

Just last week, the U.S. State Department issued what appeared to be the first-ever alert of a possible impending low-end drone or missile attack in the Saudi Arabian capital Riyadh. Thankfully, that attack does not appear to have occurred, but Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in neighboring Yemen did launch so-called "suicide drones" against targets in southern Saudi Arabia on the same day, something that has become a regular occurrence.

All told, Taliban drone attacks look set to present an increasingly serious challenge for Afghan security forces and their international partners, but it's not at all surprising that the militant group is employing this relatively-low cost and potentially high-reward tactic.

Contact the author: joe@thedrive.com