Afghan Commandos Emerge
Saturday, April 19, 2008
KHOST PROVINCE, Afghanistan -- Night after night, commandos in U.S. Chinook helicopters descend into remote Afghan villages, wielding M-4 rifles as they swarm Taliban compounds. Such raids began in December in the Sabari District here, long considered too dangerous for U.S. patrols, and have already resulted in the death or capture of 30 insurgent leaders in eastern Afghanistan, according to U.S. commanders.
"The Americans are doing this," the Taliban fighters concluded, according to U.S. intelligence.
But though the commandos carry the best U.S. rifles, wear night-vision goggles and ride in armored Humvees, they are not Americans but Afghans -- trained and advised by U.S. Special Forces teams that are seeking to create a sustainable combat force that will ultimately replace them in Afghanistan.
"This is our ticket out of here," a Special Forces company commander said last month at a U.S. base in Khost, where his teams eat, sleep, train and fight alongside the commandos.
The creation of a 4,000-strong Afghan commando force marks a major evolution for U.S. Special Forces in Afghanistan. After small teams of Green Berets spearheaded the overthrow of the Taliban regime in 2001, they took the lead in combat, with the disparate Afghan militia forces they trained and paid playing a supporting role. Today, by contrast, the Special Forces advisers are putting the Afghan commandos in the lead -- coaching a self-reliant force that U.S. commanders say has emerged as a key tool against insurgents.
Three of six planned Afghan army commando battalions -- with 640 commandos each -- have begun operations over the past five months. U.S. commanders say hurdles remain, from basic logistical issues such as teaching the commandos to conserve water to the larger challenge of ensuring that they are well integrated into the regular Afghan army. Still, the program is a bright spot in the broader effort to train Afghan security forces, a crucial aspect of the NATO and U.S.-led strategy to stabilize Afghanistan -- one that is slowed by a shortage of thousands of trainers and recruits as well as equipment problems.
The new approach also offers the prospect of relief for the Special Forces, strained by years of deployments in Afghanistan, commanders say. At any one time, more than 2,000 Special Forces soldiers and support personnel are on the ground, many operating in 12-man teams partnered with Afghan forces in the country's most troubled districts.
In violent parts of Khost and elsewhere, the commandos play a narrow but critical role: They capture or kill insurgent leaders, financiers and bombmakers as the first phase of the strategy to clear areas of enemy cells, hold the territory and build security and governance. The need for an Afghan force skilled in attacking insurgent networks is particularly pressing, as roadside bombs and suicide attacks have increased since 2006.
In a training camp surrounded by mountains in Khost, Lt. Mohamed Reza, 29, of the 203rd commando battalion counts down for a mock helicopter landing. "One minute . . . 30 seconds . . . touchdown!" His platoon rushes forward, one soldier kicking open the door of a compound before the rest run inside, pivoting into each room. A commando grabs a U.S. trainer impersonating an insurgent, puts him in a painful finger lock and forces him out the door.
"Alaklat!" they yell. All clear!
Looking on, a Special Forces adviser makes sure that the commandos do not miss any rooms and that they deal readily with whatever challenges he throws in their path, such as stray goats or disguised fighters. These rehearsals -- starting with simple drills tracing tape on the ground and rising in complexity to assaults on multistory buildings -- exemplify the exhaustive training they receive.
Commandos compete for selection and go through 12 weeks of initial training at Camp Morehead, south of Kabul, before being assigned to a battalion attached to one of five regional Afghan National Army corps. They then begin a rotation with Special Forces advisers that includes six weeks each of training, missions and recovery.