- Members of the Afghan army’s special-operations forces are among the many Afghans who fled the Taliban takeover.
- Those forces are highly trained and well regarded, and the UK is considering incorporating some into the British military.
- The British army has a history of taking in foreign fighters, some of whom have earned their own fearsome reputations.
In the final days of the hectic withdrawal from Kabul, US and Coalition forces evacuated tens of thousands of their citizens and Afghans who had worked with them.
Among those evacuated were Afghan special operators who fiercely fought the Taliban and faced brutal deaths if captured. The UK, which has taken in several hundred Afghans, is considering setting up a special-operations unit of former Afghan commandos in the British Army.
It wouldn’t be the first time the British military has done that. There is already a specialized unit of foreign fighters serving in the British Army.
The Gurkhas hail from four warrior tribes from the steep mountains of Nepal. When the British first came into contact with them during the colonization of India, they found them to be fierce adversaries.
The British were so impressed by their fighting spirit and abilities that they created Gurkha units in their own military.
For over 200 years now, the Gurkhas have been an integral part of the British Army, serving in all major conflicts, including the two world wars, Korea, the Falklands, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
In the two world wars alone, 200,000 Gurkhas fought for the British, 43,000 of whom died. A total of 13 Gurkhas have received the Victoria Cross — the British equivalent to the US’s Medal of Honor.
“My experience with Gurkhas has been overwhelmingly positive,” a former Special Boat Service operator told Insider.
The former SBS operator recalled a mission in Afghanistan during which he and others bunked at a Gurkha forward operating base for a few days as they pursued a high-value Taliban target.
“This was a very bad dude and we had been chasing him for a while,” the former SBS operator said. “The area was pretty dangerous. Every time the Gurkhas stepped out of the FOB, they got in a firefight or found” an improvised explosive device, the former commando added.
While the SBS operator’s unit was out on an operation in pursuit of their target, the Taliban attacked the FOB in force, “but the Gurkhas stood their ground valiantly and repelled the Taliban. In the morning, we come back, and there was mayhem. The FOB had got a good beating,” the former commando said.
While looking over the battlefield in and around the FOB, the SBS operator saw a young Gurkha covering the surrounding fields with a machine gun.
“I can still remember him. He was covered in dust and had a blackened face from all the gunpowder. He looks up at me with a cheeky smile, white teeth shining. After eight-plus hours of combat, he was still cheerful!” the SBS operator told Insider. “I think that moment right there summarizes the Gurkhas. Cheerful but tough. I wouldn’t want to be their enemy.”
There are 3,500 Gurkhas serving with the British today. About 200 spots in their ranks open every year, for which about 28,000 applicants apply. But Gurkhas don’t serve just in the British Army.
The Singaporean military has a Gurkha unit that garnered international attention in 2018, when it was tasked with providing security for the summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Gurkhas have developed a fearsome reputation for bravery and warriorship — the Khukuri knife they carry feeds the reputation.
An Afghan ‘Gurkha’ unit?
Afghan special-operations forces are highly regarded in a country with a long history of fearsome fighters.
Afghans drove the Soviets out of the country after 10 years of fighting in the 1980s, and the Taliban has fought against the US and Coalition forces for 20 years, albeit with varying levels of intensity.
Like their predecessors who fought the Soviets, Afghan commandos relied on considerable foreign assistance, but they gained extensive combat experience. Those who managed to survive the very high casualty rates and escape Afghanistan are battle-proven.
But matching the Gurkhas will be “a tall order,” the former SBS commando said.
With Gurkhas, the former commando added, “you have a citizen-warrior culture that has passed down from father to son for generations. Nepalese boys and teens line up by the hundreds for an opportunity to join the Gurkhas, and those who don’t make the cut are kind of disgraced in their society. It’s a tough world, for sure, but it’s a mirror of their realities, history, and culture.”
The US special-operations community’s view of Afghan commandos is mixed. American special operators have served with great and dedicated Afghan commandos as well as with unmotivated and unimaginative ones.
Setting up an Afghan unit within the British Army may be feasible in the short-term. Afghans have fought a fierce enemy for years, and many already know how the British military operates. The British armed forces are already quite ethnically diverse, reflecting the UK’s colonial history, which the British special-operations community has used that to its advantage.
However, such a unit might be difficult to sustain in the long-term, as recruits may run out. Directly recruiting from Afghanistan would be fraught with security risks. Potential future recruits from Afghanistan would have less training and may be less reliable, making such a unit that much less realistic.
While an Afghan unit may not be feasible, the British special-operations community could still take the opportunity to add individual Afghan commandos to its ranks.
Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate.