An important note at the beginning of this piece: The images that are discussed and referred to below are official Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (Taliban) propaganda images. Hence, assumptions about actual Taliban equipment and capabilities shouldn't be made from these images. The reality on the ground is likely to be very different to the impression generated from what the Taliban have released here, with some elements being somewhat accurate.

Firstly, some background. In April 2018, the Taliban started their spring offensive (An annual event), dismissing peace offers from the President of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani. This offensive was given the name "Al Khandaq". Their forces have had a renewed inputus amongst the maelstrom of the current Afghanistan conflict, in which Afghan Forces and their Western counterparts (In particular American Forces) have been put under renewed pressure. This stems from the new-found confidence of the militants- who have gained control over large pieces of territory and made concerning inroads in cities such as Ghazni and Farah. In this enviroment presenting an external image of professionalism and parity with their foes is valuable for the Taliban, especially as they fight multiple enemies on multiple fronts, including the Islamic State, the Afghan Government, and Western Forces.

Much has been written about the Taliban "Special Forces"- also known as Red Unit, Blood Unit or variations of the term. These forces were first announced in 2016. Since then they have played an important role in fighting against both ISIS-KP and the Afghan Government's forces- Provincial officials in Helmand describing the outfit as "very dangerous and very successful". These forces do not carry out traditional western special operations missions but are closer to being used as shock troops or as a quickly deploying/attacking force, closer to IS-style Inghimasi.

The images below are presented as those of these Special Forces. Again, it's important to note that the great bulk of Taliban forces will be equiped in a manner distinctly different to this.

The images show at variety of distinct squads of combatants, dressing distinctly, over a period of time stretching between Early 2017 to Mid 2018, with most from Spring 2018. Each image appears to take great pains to acheive the imagery of a professional military, like those of the West that the Taliban fight. The Taliban continue to claim to be the legitimate government of Afghanistan ("Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan") and this effort, amongst many others, serves to enhance this impression, especially amongst local or worldwide civilian audiences, who are less likely to notice some of the detail of small arms & equipment.

The first set of images we can analyse comes from a Taliban photo and video release named "Real Men 2". This was released in November 2017 and is very similar to subsequent propaganda.

In this photo we see a Taliban militant taking aim with a Tokarev TT-33, a very common russian handgun from the Soviet era that was produced in multiple countries over a long period of time. It's possible that this is an original russian piece, or may be a a Peshawar produced example. Notice the good trigger discipline, something that is quite rare amongst militants in Afghanistan. We can also see the use of elbow pads, a phenomenon that's seemingly common in propaganda releases such as this.

Here's another image of the Tokarev in use, this time as part of co-ordinated target practice. The use of inexpensive chinese "tactical" gear here is obvious, including elbow pads. This clear effort to show the use of sidearms is comparatively unique, with frontline Taliban units rarely showing or appearing to carry sidearms, rather just a single Assault rifle. Great pains have also obviously been taken to present a co-ordinated appearance with camoflage balaclavas and overcoats, which appear to a bastardised version of british army DPM, with it's origin most likely Pakistan or China. This is repeated through many more pictures also, which I'll go into more detail over.

Another detail caught my eye- a lone M249 Squad Automatic Rifle.

This machine gun is most likely an M249 that's gone through the US Army PIP Program- very similar to this one seen being used by the USMC, and has added picatinny rails, though no optic is seen being used. This weapon is essentially the only comparatively modern platform that can be seen in use in this video/photo release, and is obviously the result of capture from Afghan or US forces. It can be seen below that almost all other rifle-calibre platforms seen in use are old AK variants, as well as the ubiquitus PKM.

In this case, the observed inventory shown by the "Red Units" is certainly not on par with Western or even Afghan SOF, and rather mundane compared to the co-ordinated uniforms, which include chinese chest rigs, helmets, and sunglasses. It's very possible that this gear is not worn in actual combat by the men pictured.

These Kalashnikovs seen above are mostly fixed stock variants, the bulk appearing to be either Chinese Type 56 pattern rifles, or AKM pattern rifles. There is also a scattering of AKMS pattern rifles, and a romanian AK, which can be identified by the distinctive wooden foregrip.

The rifle second from the left on the first image above is indeed still an AK, but has been accessorised with a M4-style buttstock (Magpul CTR Collapsible Stock copy), railed handguard, and railed top cover, along with a scope, which appears to be an inexpensive and readily available chinese example. Top cover scope mounts (In particular ones of questionable quality) are notorious for not holding zero- requiring frequent readjustment. This makes any sights attached ineffective, so it's unlikely these "upgrades" have improved the weapon beyond propaganda value.

It can be clearly seen that at least two rifles have "paki tape" visual customisation, which is typical of Afghan AK users.  This non adhesive PVC wrap is commonly used to embellish weapons throughout the middle east, and comes in a variety of colours. At least one weapon has a custom local-made sling to go along.

Another point to note is a single Magpul-style windowed 7.62x39mm AK magazine, with the rest being stock Eastern Bloc waffle magazines. There is no spare magazines immediately visible, although it is likely there is several in the users' chest rigs and perhaps pockets.

This early 1960's AKM has a classic used appearance, but still appears in reasonable condition. 
A militant with a PKM GPMG. It appears clean and maintained, but no different to typical Taliban weapons.
A group of AK-armed taliban with an admirable display of "chicken winging"

Overall, these images barely show any difference between the "Red Units" and the more traditional image of Taliban, save the uniforms. No arms that are out of the ordinary or more modern than standard Taliban Soviet bloc weapons are shown, apart from the M249, which is hardly a rare weapons system in Aghanistan. It is somewhat surprising to me that there is no M4 or AKS-74U variant being shown off, as each are a substantially more of a status symbol than 7.62x39mm AKs, and are available in Afghanistan widely.

Whilst the uniforms appear more impressive to the casual observer, camo patterns are inconsistent and appear to have been chosen based on looks, which is a reasonable decision given the primary purpose of this propaganda. What's also lacking items such as body armour, optics, medical equipment, and other essential parts of the modern soldiers' gear. However, this may not matter given the target audience, which is likely to be given the impression of greater professionalism.

Another series of images is shown below. This is from Laghman Province, Afghanistan, and appear to be closer to the actual operational appearance of these units, whilst still being somewhat staged.

Multiple young civilians can be seen in close proximity
Note consistent chest carrier and camo pattern, along with two MGs
With captured HMVVW, which is ex-ANA- note the M249 mounted, which is an ANA Configuration. Note Spike Bayonet on Type 56 AK on the left.

These images don't show sidearms, helmets, or body armour in use, which is essentially much closer to the usual Taliban method of operating, but do show off a captured vehicle, co-ordinated uniformes and what appears to be well-maintained rifles. Units such as these are known to have caused extensive casualties.

In 2018, "Red Unit" propaganda has been taken to a new height whilst broadly resembling that of 2017. It is wise to note again that these next images are not typical operational units, who are known to use american weapons and have night vision capabilities, but rather for almost pure propaganda purposes. I've selected a number of interesting shots from those released to discuss.

While the Ghillie-style suit looks somewhat viable, this stockless worn out AK certainly doesn't look up to task to me!
Militants firing. Again, despite the co-ordinated uniforms, helmets, etc, no really useful gear is seen

These images do not show any weapons systems or gear that is not already mainstream among the Taliban, indeed, with the AKM variants being of lesser quality than some of the small arms known to be in Taliban inventory. These images are clearly taken at night, so if night vision devices are available to use to this unit, it is unclear why they aren't being shown. The ability of Western forces to "own the night" has been a major boon in fighting the Taliban, but that is now being actively contested by Taliban- an excellent article on the Hoplite Blog covers this- with AN/PVS-7, Infrared and thermal optics being available to certain Taliban units, but not all, probably down to a highly decentralised supply system. I would expect if this unit pictured had the ability to use and access to high end thermal and optical equipment they would be shown, as per images below. However, they do not seem to be available. Given the images already available showing a range of night-time optics in use, this may be a purely local variation. This also applies to higher-end western weapons systems such as the M16A4 or M4, which are undoubtedly a propaganda boon if seen in the hands of America's enemies.

What is shown in the images above is Gopro-style cameras on the helmets of individuals- similar to those used by armed groups in Syria. Taliban video releases rarely meet the visual quality of Syrian/Iraqi armed groups such as HTS or ISIS, so it doesn't seem that these propaganda images are concurrent with the reality on the ground- especially as the great bulk of Taliban do not seem to wear helmets, which rather impedes the use of helmet cameras. Recent Taliban propaganda videos have not utilised helmet or weapon camera videos.

Following images are from a separate, more recent propaganda release called "Operation Battle of the Trench", also on the "Special Forces". They show a different unit with different surroundings and camo, but roughly along the same lines as the images above, with Weapons remaining basic AK variants.

Note the matching AK Furniture with Uniforms
Taliban with New Pickup - note the Makarov in Thigh Holster
Taliban firing an RPG-7, whilst armed with again an AKM. There's a second RPG in the backpack

These images, whilst utilising a different camo (Likely a clone of Tricolour desert patern, or desert french army pattern), show no essential differences to the previous examples.

Above is an interesting example of a custom Afghan AK. This rifle resembles an AKS-74u, but in 7.62x39. Appears to be an AKM or Type 56 that has been shortened, with 74u sights, top cover and muzzle brake added, along with AKS-74/74u folding stock.  This creation is somewhat resembles the fabled AKMSU- which is itself a Khyber pass creation- but lacking the thumbhole stock. This rifle is most likely to have been created in the Khyber Pass. Many of the rifles pictured in these pictures may well be craft-made examples from the Khyber Pass, but most appear to be well maintained russian AKs, which would align with use by an "elite" unit.

These sets of images show off various "upgrades" that have been made to the AKs on display.

This includes

  • Plastic furniture with some kind of laser attached
  • Top cover rail mount
  • Scope
  • Replacement folding stock

These accessories are universally inexpensive and unlikely to improve the performance of the rifles to any appreciable degree- indeed, the typical inaccuracy of low quality chinese top rover rail mounts is likely to make the rifles less effective.

These accessories can be found for sale on websites such as AliExpress.com. The optic in use is the "Ledarnell 3x42 SAR" or some variation of it. It's available for roughly $30 USD.  The Top Cover is available for roughly $16 USD, so it's clear that this low-quality acccessories wouldn't cause a large outlay, but also would not be effective.

However, as the main purpose of these images is for propaganda to civilian and local audiences, they look the part, and at least are similar in appearance to actual military scopes or upgrades to AKs, such as the Trijicon ACOG and Zenitco or TWS Dog Leg Rail.

Also seen is a custom stock. This is copy of an IMI Galil style stock, and has been seen in the hands of the YPG in Kurdistan. It's likely that this is also a cheap Chinese product too.

This propaganda image is certainly far cry from the "Typical" Taliban image. We can see entirely co-ordinated AKs, Optics and camouflage. Regardness of actual effectiveness, this is somewhat more impressive at first glance than the stereotype. It may be an attempt to ape the propaganda of IS in Syria and Iraq, who use very similar imagery.

These images show the forces undergoing RPG Training with a Chinese Type 69 RPG, a simplified copy of the classic RPG-7. The rounds appear to be romanian PG-7 HEAT clones, but similar rounds are available from many sources. No anti-personnel rounds are visible.

The following images are from a very similar time period to those above, and seem have a number of more distinctive weapons and optics, the militants themselves being dressed in a fashion distinctly more similar to a SWAT or internal security force.

Shown below is perhaps the most potent combination so far- an M249 SAW Para PIP. It's equiped with a Pulsar Apex LRF XQ50 thermal scope, which could enable it to be highly effective operating at night. Effective use of these weapons by Taliban special forces has lead to a large number of deaths as ANA Outposts are attacked at night, which was previously extremely hard. Use of optics such as this that can be used in the nighttime are a challenge to the current Western forces "owning the night"- or having total superiority at nighttime. Use of this scope and similar models if widespread could be a real danger to Afghan/Western forces, especially widely equipped on Assault rifles, however the cost of this scope- $3500+ in the open market- is likely to prove prohibitive.

The cheap stock on the AK on the right has broken- the original fixed stock would have been much more effective!

Above we can see Militants training with M4 Variants (FNH M4/M4A1 or similar), equiped with Trijicon ACOG (Or cheap copies, which is entirely possible), weapon rails, lights, and weapon mounted cameras. The quad rails' utilised appear to be stock to the rifles or clones of western systems. A carry handle mounted optic is also used, which is unusual because these rifles have flat-top uppers that optics can be mounted to.  These rifles are highly similar to captured ANA Examples.

Only these series of image(s) show a real advance over typical Taliban equipment compared to the earlier. The combination of somewhat more modern weapon systems in 5.56x45mm and 5.45x39mm, modern western optics and thermal optics make for a much more effective combination than old AKs with extremely sub-par accessories. This group does contain some of the latter, but if this level of equipment ever reaches wider numbers then it would be a significant upgrade over earlier weapons. However, as always, it must be said that these images are absolutely propaganda, aimed at a non-military audience, and cannot be taken as reality.

It is therefore hard to draw conclusions from these pictures, given how controlled and staged each are, however they do provide visual confirmation of Taliban attempts to modernise and improve camo, weapons and optics, and shows new russian-made thermal optics. (Whilst not accurating indicating level of proficiency and functionality of weapons/optics) These have also spread in the conflict in Syria, and have proven immensely popular (And, presumably, effective) in non-state forces' hands. Taliban night-time attacks have more than doubled from 2014 to 2017, with no signs of this ceasing. The spectre of direct Kremlin support remains, with local officials and american forces directly accusing Russia of direct and indirect supply. The presence of russian night vision devices does nothing to dispel this impression, even though there is no evidence to say that they have been supplied through anything but usual black market channels. As the Taliban's renewed vigour continues, we will likely see much more modern platforms and optics, both in use and in propaganda, and with the "Red Units" spearheading many attacks, it's very possible they'll be showing them off.

Bonus: This image below from "Real Men 2" more accurately portrays militants' operational weapons and appearance. It also includes two other weapons that are less common- an AK-74 with GP-30 UGL, and an anti-personel RPG round.

This post is largely inspired by the following tweet thread, out of which I draw many images, so Thank You to Asfandyar Bhittani on Twitter. Further credits are very numerous! Extra Help on Camo Variants was from: Jesús Manuel Pérez Triana. Give them both a follow.