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What are NATO Special Forces doing in Kunduz?

According to media reports, NATO Special Forces are in Kunduz to assist Afghan troops as they fight to reclaim the city from Taliban insurgents. NATO spokesman Colonel Brian Tribus confirmed 'Coalition special forces advisers, while advising and assisting elements of the Afghan Security Forces, encountered an insurgent threat in the vicinity of Kunduz Airport at approximately 1am, 30 September'.  (See the link to the source above)

Other reports suggest that the Special Forces are comprised of US, British and German troops, without specifying the number, and citing a Western military source speaking on condition of anonymity. While most NATO troops left by the end of 2014, a residual force of around 13,000 remains in Afghanistan for training and counter-terrorism operations.

The fact that the Taliban has taken control of a major Afghan city for the first time since the US-led invasion in 2001 has been the main focus of the news coverage to date. And clearly it represents a huge set-back to the country's NATO-trained security forces. A Taliban force thought to be significantly smaller than the 5-7,000 Afghanistan National Army (ANA) troops in Kunduz province captured the city. Apparently, the militants had slowly infiltrated Kunduz during the recent Eid festival and then launched a Trojan horse-style attack.

The Taliban’s incursion into Kunduz, barely nine months after the NATO combat mission was supposed to have ended, raises troubling questions over the capacity of Afghan forces to provide security on their own. It also renews questions about Washington’s plan to withdraw most of the remaining US forces next year. But another question that has not so far featured in the news coverage concerns the role of Special Forces in the conflict. What are Special Forces doing in Afghanistan and who is providing oversight of their activities?

In many respects it is not surprising to learn that NATO Special Forces have been deployed to Kunduz. Special forces in national and multinational militaries (mainly NATO) have become the ‘go-to’ choice of many governments for a host of global security tasks, especially counterterrorism operations and overseas training missions. While the United States is the major player, with a bewildering array of Special Forces, there are at least 63 other states with dedicated units – including Afghanistan itself. Indeed, a New York Times article carries a picture of Afghan Special Forces arriving in Kunduz on Tuesday.

Special forces can be quickly sent overseas and are typically small, so they are less costly than more cumbersome conventional forces. While their missions make some secrecy inevitable, this fact also gives governments carte blanche in deciding what they want to reveal, if anything, about their actions. Although Special Forces are under military and, ultimately, government command, there is often no formal independent oversight, as there might be with similar covert organizations such as national spy agencies.

Details of this particular mission are thin on the ground. In another report a Pentagon spokesperson, confirmed that ‘limited coalition forces’ were on the ground in the Kunduz area involved in ‘training, advising and assisting the Afghan security forces in accordance with our resolute support mission’. Similarly, the New York Times article cites a Kunduz police spokesman as saying that some US Special Forces soldiers had arrived at the airport Tuesday evening — ‘although whether they were there to call in airstrikes or to otherwise join Afghan commandos in an attack on the city was not clear’.

This is not an unusual situation. Most of what Special Forces do is shrouded in secrecy. In most countries, neither the public nor parliament has any real idea of where these forces are working and what the implications are for national and international security. And as with most public policy, the less transparency the more susceptible their use is to abuse. Some countries do provide limited oversight - in the United States, for example, lawmakers are given security clearance and briefed on some operations, providing both input and oversight of Special Forces’ missions. However, public policy in this area would benefit from greater knowledge and oversight of the type of missions that Special Forces appear to be undertaking in Kunduz.



Dr Ian Davis is the Executive Editor of the SIPRI Yearbook.