By Mohammad Stanekzai
LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan (Reuters) - A shadowy new unit run by Afghanistan's main intelligence agency has begun operations in southern Helmand province with a mission to exploit divisions within the Taliban insurgency, government officials and a militant spokesman said.
The aim is to weaken an increasingly dangerous enemy by turning the tables on the Taliban, who boast of placing agents among government security forces to carry out "insider attacks".
The initiative comes as fledgling Afghan forces are struggling to prevent the Taliban overrunning large parts of Helmand and other parts of the country.
Abdul Jabbar Qahraman, President Ashraf Ghani's special envoy for security affairs in the southern province, confirmed the existence of the unit, whose members do not wear uniform, but declined to provide further details.
"The idea for the creation of the new contingent, which dresses like local Helmandis, was mine," said the official, who was a commander fighting for the Soviet-backed government in southern Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Helmand police chief Abdul Rahman Sarjang said the 300-strong unit, created and equipped by the National Directorate of Security (NDS), had conducted several operations and was proving a success.
The NDS headquarters in Kabul did not respond to several requests for comment, although an official from the agency in Helmand confirmed the unit's existence and the broad outlines of how it operates.
He declined to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the press.
The Taliban, who have in the past incited Afghan police and soldiers to desert their posts and attack comrades, confirmed the unit existed, but they dismissed suggestions that it was able to exploit their internal divisions as "propaganda".
"It is true that this contingent exists and operates mysteriously in some parts of Helmand," said Qari Yousuf Ahmadi, the Taliban's main spokesman in southern Afghanistan.
"We have very strong intelligence and find those who want to infiltrate our ranks," he added.
INSURGENCY, RIVALRY AND OPIUM
The NDS unit adds another complication to the conflict in Helmand, a traditional Taliban stronghold and center of the opium trade criss-crossed by a web of tribal and factional rivalries in addition to the insurgency.
In a conflict where deceit and double-cross are commonplace, government forces have often been the victim. In January, four rogue policemen killed nine comrades and stole their weapons, before deserting to join the insurgents.
Both Afghan and NATO officials have frequently spoken of the difficulties faced by the Afghan National Army, a largely Dari-speaking force that relies heavily on recruits from northern Afghanistan, in operating in Pashto-speaking Helmand.
One provincial official said the unit was operating in Musa Qala and Nawzad, two central districts abandoned by government forces in February, as well as Marjah and Nad Ali, where government control is tenuous.
"Now the Taliban do not believe each other. They believe that their colleagues may be infiltrated by the Afghan intelligence agency," he said.
Despite a lull in recent weeks, which officials say was due to Taliban fighters being busy with the annual opium harvest, Helmand has seen months of heavy fighting during which government forces have been forced to abandon several districts and regroup around the provincial capital Lashkar Gah.
The unit's reported successes have come at a price, local officials said.
"It is a very good achievement by the Afghan government and has created splits within the Taliban," said Attaullah Afghan, a member of the Helmand provincial council.
But he said officials had received dozens of complaints from residents in districts like Nawzad and Khanishin where the unit operated.
"Taliban are abusing ordinary people and even arresting some of them as spies of the Afghan government," he said.
According to local sources in Helmand, a battle between rival groups of Taliban in Nad Ali and Marjah districts to the west of Lashkar Gah that ended with as many as 30 fighters dead on Sunday, was set off by the special NDS unit.
They said members of the unit attacked a checkpoint manned by fighters loyal to Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, creating the impression that they were on the side of Mansour's main rival, Mullah Mohammad Rasoul.
The Taliban denied that the fighting was between rival factions of the movement but did point to the role of "bandits newly armed by Jabbar Qahraman".
"There is currently no fighting in the area and the entire region has been cleansed from these newly formed bandits," Ahmadi said in a statement.
(Additional reporting by Mirwais Harooni in Kabul; Writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Mike Collett-White)