As soon as the United States announced a final withdrawal date from Afghanistan, I knew the elite Afghan special operations warriors, who had inflicted the most damage on the Taliban, would be targeted first. I also knew these warriors, whom I had served alongside in combat, would not go down without a fight.
In order for them to stay and fight, they need their families to get out of Afghanistan. They need to know that their families won’t be kidnapped and used as leverage to force their surrender. This tactic — threatening the families of soldiers — may well be one of the reasons the Taliban advanced so quickly across Afghanistan. But someone needs to get their families out.
This is why Ark Salus, an American nongovernmental organization, launched Operation On Wings of Eagles.
Ark Salus was formed by both civilians and former members of US special operations units that helped train the Special Mission Wing, Afghanistan’s most elite helicopter unit, which was tasked with the Afghan military’s most dangerous missions. Over the past 15 years, these Afghan aviators and US operators formed strong bonds in both training and combat. They bled together and lost friends together. Although much of Ark Salus’ team left Afghanistan years ago, the warriors stayed in contact, the US flyers and operators helping support their Afghan counterparts as best they could.
Like the SMW, several other Afghan special operations units need to have their families moved to higher ground. The Ktah Khas, or KKA, was the partner force for American direct action units like the 75th Ranger Regiment. I personally observed their commitment and bravery over years of deploying alongside them. There is also the General Command of Special Police Units, or GCSPU, which comprises Commando Force 333 and Territorial Force 444 (which were both trained by and partnered with United Kingdom SAS/SBS forces and Australian commandos), Crisis Response Unit 222 (trained by Norwegian FSK), and the Narcotics Interdiction Unit, which the DEA trained.
The difference between these Afghan SOF units and the conventional Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) that many Americans see surrendering without a fight is significant. The ANSF was usually partnered with conventional US forces that, while having good intentions, were not trained to a reasonable level of proficiency in foreign internal defense operations. This resulted in the ANSF having high levels of corruption and incompetence.
Afghan SOF units, on the other hand, have been partnered with NATO special operations units for 20 years, fighting alongside them in combat and building the lasting relationships needed to establish trust. This relationship between the SOF personnel of Ark Salus and Afghan SOF is the motivation behind Operation On Wings of Eagles.
Given the rapidly deteriorating situation on the Afghan battlefield, Ark Salus sees this as the time to hold up our end of the deal, both morally and strategically.
The moral obligations are obvious. But the most important part of the Afghan SOF’s mission is strategic in nature. The men of the KKA and GCSPU are the only forces willing to fight the Taliban for Afghanistan instead of for their own self-interests. They are also the best trained, best equipped, and most reliable force in the country.
This is not to say they can defeat the Taliban alone. The men of these special units are not capable of defending the entire nation, or even Kabul. But their commanders are respected and feared by regular Afghan forces as well as the Taliban.
One of these commanders is Gen. Ziarmal. Ziarmal is a revered member of the SMW and the unofficial leader of the KKA and GCSPU. Unlike in the American military, the Afghan ground forces are seen as holding a supporting role to the aviation forces, and the SMW are seen as the main effort. Ziarmal started in the commandos as a ground force operator before rising through the ranks and into SMW. This tribal intermarriage has given him cultural bonafides unrivaled in Afghanistan. When he talks, everyone listens, regardless of rank or position.
Ziarmal and his loyal inner circle of commanders have the power to seize key terrain with their own forces and the ability to inspire the larger, conventional forces to fight just by their presence. This is why these units need to have freedom of movement in this fight. This is why they need to ensure the safe evacuation of their families.
The Taliban know how important these elite units are and have shown no mercy anytime they’ve faced them in battle. For example, at the recent battle of Dawlat Abad in the Faryab province of Afghanistan, following days of fierce resistance to hold the city, commandos were forced to surrender to Taliban forces after running out of ammunition. After dropping their arms and raising their hands, 22 commandos were executed by Taliban fighters.
While war crimes against surrendering Afghan forces have been reported, no other units have been specifically targeted like the commandos and the SMW have been. The Taliban even announced their intentions with mass text messages to citizens of Kabul before the city fell.
These men are the last bastion of hope in fighting for any future for Afghanistan. And as we see others fighting to escape, they are asking to stay.
Removing their families from the rapidly devolving situation in Kabul will not be easy. Over the last 24 hours, some 1,000 of their family members have retreated to the small GCSPU compound on the military side of the Kabul Airport. They are on their own, responsible for finding the resources and clearances necessary to facilitate their escape. And until they do, the men of these units are forced to split efforts between local defenses and offensive operations against the Taliban.
With the help of private donors and diplomatic support, Ark Salus seeks to immediately evacuate all family members of the KKA and GCSPU to temporary safe harbors and to establish the housing and logistical support necessary for sustainment before moving them to longer-term locations as they apply for refugee status. This course of action is the only one viable at this point, as all other means have been floundering in bureaucracy.
The Taliban advance is not one that Ark Salus anticipated. It is just now developing the means to accept donations as it floods every inbox in Washington with its message: If we want them to fight, we must give them the ability to do so.