British Army plans Gurkha-style unit with Afghan Special Forces

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  • Members of the Afghan army’s special operations forces are among the many Afghans who fled the Taliban takeover.
  • These forces are highly trained and well regarded, and the UK is considering integrating some of them into the British Army.
  • The British military has a habit of welcoming foreign fighters, some of whom have acquired their own fearsome reputations.

In the final days of the turbulent 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 agents who fiercely fought the Taliban and faced brutal deaths if captured. The United Kingdom, 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 Army has done so. There is already a specialized unit of foreign fighters serving in the British Army.

The Gurkhas

British soldiers Gurkhas in the Brecon Beacons National Park

Members of the Gurkha Patrol Team receive their orders ahead of their Cambrian patrol in Britain’s Brecon Beacons National Park on October 11, 2021.

Léon Neal / Getty Images


The Gurkhas come from four warrior tribes from the rugged mountains of Nepal. When the British first came into contact with them during the colonization of India, they found them fierce opponents.

The British were so impressed with their fighting spirit and abilities that they created Gurkha units in their own army.

For over 200 years now, the Gurkhas have been an integral part of the British military, serving in all major conflicts including the two world wars, Korea, Falklands, Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the two world wars alone, 200,000 Gurkhas fought for the British, of which 43,000 died. A total of 13 Gurkhas were awarded the Victoria Cross, the British equivalent of the United States Medal of Honor.

“My experience with Gurkhas has been overwhelmingly positive,” a former Special Boat Service operator told Insider.

Machine gun exercise of Gurkha soldiers in Latvia

Soldiers from the Second Battalion Royal Gurkha Rifles fire back with machine guns during a field training exercise at Camp Adazi, Latvia, June 18, 2015.

US Army / Capt. Ryan jernegan


The former SBS operator recalled a mission in Afghanistan in which he and others settled into a forward operating base in Gurkha for a few days as they pursued a high-value Taliban target.

“He was a really bad guy and we had been chasing him for a while,” said the former SBS operator. “The area was quite dangerous. Every time the Gurkhas came out of the FOB, they engaged in a shootout or found” an improvised explosive device, the former commando added.

While the SBS operator’s unit was in operation in pursuit of their target, the Taliban attacked the FOB in force, “but the Gurkhas valiantly resisted and pushed back the Taliban. In the morning, we came back, and it was chaos. The FOB had received a good beating, “said the former commando.

Looking at the battlefield in and around the FOB, the SBS operator saw a young Gurkha covering the surrounding fields with a machine gun.

Gurkha soldiers with knives

Gurkha soldiers with Khukuri knives during their Gurkha Training Company handover parade at Catterick Infantry Training Center, England on December 2, 2021.

Ian Forsyth / Getty Images


“I still remember him. He was covered in dust and had his face blackened from all the gunpowder. He looks at me with a cheeky smile, white teeth shine. After more than eight hours of fighting, he was always in a good mood !” the SBS operator told Insider. “I think that moment sums up the Gurkhas. Cheerful but tough. I wouldn’t want to be their enemy.”

There are 3,500 Gurkhas serving with the British today. Around 200 places in their ranks open up each year, for which around 28,000 candidates apply. But the Gurkhas don’t just serve in the British Army.

The Singaporean military has a Gurkha unit that gained 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.

The Gurkhas have developed a formidable reputation for bravery and warrior – the Khukuri knife they carry fuels the reputation.

An Afghan “Gurkha” unit?

Afghan special forces arrive for a battle with the Taliban in the town of Kunduz, northern Afghanistan, September 29, 2015. REUTERS / Stringer

Afghan special forces arrive in Kunduz, northern Afghanistan, September 29, 2015.

Thomson reuters


Afghan Special Operations Forces are highly regarded in a country with a long history of formidable combatants.

The Afghans drove the Soviets out of the country after 10 years of fighting in the 1980s, and the Taliban fought the United States and coalition forces for 20 years, albeit with varying levels of intensity.

Like their predecessors who fought the Soviets, the Afghan commandos relied on considerable foreign aid, but they gained extensive combat experience. Those who managed to survive the very high casualty rates and escape Afghanistan have proven their worth in combat.

But matching the Gurkhas will be “a tall order,” the former SBS commando said.

With the Gurkhas, added the former commando, “you have a culture of warrior-citizen which has been passed down from father to son for generations. Nepalese boys and teenagers line up by the hundreds for the opportunity to join the Gurkhas, and those who don’t make the cut are somehow out of favor in their society. It’s a difficult world, that’s for sure, but it’s a mirror of their realities, their history and their culture. “

Afghan National Army Special Operations Commandos with Mortar

An instructor inspects a 60mm mortar during an Afghan National Army Special Operations Command mortar course at Camp Commando in Kabul, April 3, 2018.

NATO / Robert Ditchey


The view of the US special operations community on Afghan commandos is mixed. US Special Operators served with formidable and dedicated Afghan commandos as well as unmotivated and unimaginative commandos.

The establishment of an Afghan unit within the British army may be possible in the short term. The Afghans have fought a fierce enemy for years, and many already know how the British Army works. The British armed forces are already quite ethnically diverse, reflecting the colonial history of the United Kingdom, which the British special operations community used to its advantage.

However, such a unit can be difficult to maintain in the long run, as recruits can run out. Recruiting directly from Afghanistan would be fraught with security risks. Potential future recruits from Afghanistan would have less training and might be less reliable, making such a unit all the less realistic.

While an Afghan unit may not be feasible, the UK special operations community could still seize the opportunity to add individual Afghan commandos to its ranks.

Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a veteran of the Hellenic Army (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ) and a graduate of Johns Hopkins University.

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