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Not their job: Turning Afghanistan’s special forces into regular troops

Afghan commandos from the 7th Special Operations Kandak load up aboard Mi-17s to retake the Nawa district center on Oct. 3 (Thomas Gibbons-Neff/The Washington Post)

LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan — It had been six hours since nearly two dozen Taliban fighters overran a district center just south of here. An Afghan army unit, backed by U.S. air power, had been rushed in almost immediately to take back the town, but it was pinned down with more than a dozen casualties.

The Afghan troops, a battalion from the embattled 215th Corps, said they needed commando support. With that, the 215th Corps’ commander, Lt. Gen. Mohammad Moune, requested an assault force from the 7th Special Operations Kandak.

“Those guys can get after it,” one U.S. Special Operations adviser said of his Afghan counterparts. “They know what they’re doing.”

But for the Afghan commandos, an overused group of nearly a dozen battalions stretched across the country, the units’ skill cuts both ways.

[U.S. widens war in Afghanistan, authorizes new action against Taliban]

The Afghan army, a force with inconsistent levels of competence and with nearly unsustainable casualty numbers, is increasingly relying on the commandos as stopgap cover in a campaign it — more often than not without external support — is losing. The reliance on the commandos risks both burning out the elite force and creating a sense of complacency within the regular army, according to U.S. advisers.

“It’s a concern,” said Brig. Gen. Charles Cleveland, the spokesman for the U.S.-led mission in Afghanistan. “It’s not unique to Helmand or the 215th Corps, it happens in other corps as well to varying degrees.”

Units such as 7th Special Operations Kandak, or 7th SOK, were designed to go after Taliban commanders, weapons caches and bombmaking facilities. But, too often, they are used as regular soldiers. And the constant demand for their help in Afghan army operations has frustrated U.S. Special Operations advisers who are in the background using drones and other intelligence assets to help build Special Operations-specific missions for the elite Afghan forces.

The night before the commandos were sent into Nawa, the elite troops raided a Taliban weapons cache in central Helmand, recovering body armor, explosives and heavy machine-gun ammo.

The 7th SOK is responsible for covering all of Helmand and is advised by elements from 1st Special Forces Group, a group of Washington state-based Army Green Berets that operate from an annex in the province called Camp Antonik, named after a Special Operations Marine killed in 2010.

On Aug. 23, a soldier from 1st Special Forces Group, Staff Sgt. Matthew V. Thompson was killed when he stepped on a roadside bomb while accompanying Afghan commandos during clearing operations outside of Lashkar Gah. One Army officer said that the combined unit had found more than 100 improvised explosive devices in the hours before Thompson was killed.

Missions like the one Thompson was killed on — where U.S. Special Operations soldiers go out alongside their Afghan counterparts — are rare now, happening only about two or three times a month because of how difficult the approval process is, said the U.S. Special Operations officer, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss operations.

[U.S. soldier killed in Afghanistan was an ‘exceptional Green Beret’]

Instead, almost all of the commando’s missions are U.S. “supported,” meaning that the Green Berets will be on standby to react if the commandos need them. Medical evacuation helicopters are put on alert and — if it’s a night mission — the commandos will either be inserted by U.S. helicopters or the Afghans’ aging Russian Mi-17 transports will be guided in by U.S. gunships; Afghan pilots have yet to be widely trained to fly using night vision.

The 7th SOK’s mission to retake the district center of Nawa near here was set to be U.S. supported. As the 40 commandos loaded crates of ammunition, sacks of food and weapons into their two Mi-17s, U.S. AH-64 Apache gunships took off from nearby Camp Dwyer to provide cover for the transports before they landed in Nawa.

Afghan flown MD-530 helicopters were also overhead. The bubble-shaped, two-seater helicopters outfitted with heavy machine guns and rockets have, in recent months, become more of a staple in the Afghan’s fight in Helmand as the fleet has grown to 18 aircraft.

While U.S. attack aircraft are coordinated in real time by personnel known as Joint Terminal Attack Controllers, or JTACs, the Afghans are still working on that ability. Instead, the MD-530 crews are shown imagery of where Afghan commanders believe the Taliban are located before they take off.

The targeting process, while rudimentary, appeared effective enough during the fight for Nawa. American drone feeds showed the small helicopters buzzing over the district center.

“We know they shot at something,” one soldier watching the screens said. “We just don’t know where.”

The SOK commandos proceeded to land south of the district center about 4:30 p.m. roughly a kilometer from their intended landing zone. The Afghan units on the ground had wanted to evacuate their 15 dead and seven wounded from the battlefield, but the missed drop meant the causalities would have to stay at least over night.

By midnight the commandos had cleared the district center.

“They see these guys as rock stars,” one of the lead U.S. advisers in Helmand said of the Afghan troops’ admiration for their commando brethren. Modeled after the U.S. Army’s elite Ranger units, the commandos configure their gear like their American counterparts, even sometimes walking like them.

[As U.S. air war over Afghanistan shrinks, a tug-of-war for Afghan aircraft]

U.S. forces in Afghanistan want “to take some of the best practices from the commandos and export them to the conventional forces,” Cleveland said. “Starting with leadership.”

While the commandos are spread thin and have their share of problems — from overuse to difficulty communicating with other elements of the Afghan armed forces — their cohesion has set them apart in Afghanistan’s 15-year-old war, said a former Afghan security official, speaking on the condition of anonymity for security reasons.

The day after the battle for Nawa’s district center, U.S. forces began receiving reports that the Afghan troops that had helped clear the area alongside the commandos were vacating their posts and were walking north toward Lashkar Gah. While the reason for what prompted them to leave Nawa was unclear, Afghan security forces leaving their checkpoints and positions is a regular occurrence in Helmand province.

The commandos, some of whom were still in position, were asked to stay as a defensive force until reinforcements were sent or the regular Afghan soldiers could be cajoled to go back to their posts.

According to U.S. advisers who overheard the request, the officer in charge of the commandos declined to stay, saying it wasn’t his job.

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