CAMP MOREHEAD, Afghanistan — The Afghan military will begin expanding its elite commando units in the coming weeks, Afghan officials and military officers said, in a bid to capitalize on a force that has been one of the few success stories in the nearly 16-year-old war.
Starting in September, the training academy here — an old Russian paratrooper base tucked into a valley south of Kabul — will add an 800-man, 14-week-long commando course atop its current curriculum. Afghan officials are optimistic that in the coming years the 12,000-strong force will be able to almost double, to 22,000 troops.
As the number of commandos grows, the Ministry of Interior’s elite police unit and the Afghan Air Force’s Special Mission Wing will also expand, to 9,000 and 1,000 troops, respectively.
The Afghan military’s decision to invest in its commando forces comes with strong U.S. backing and is a key component of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s recent military reform plan.
The commandos, with their track record of reliability, have become a favorite of U.S. military officials. They see the elite force as key to pushing back the Taliban militants who have taken over broad swaths of the country since NATO forces ended their combat mission in 2014. A recent report from the Pentagon’s Special Inspector General for Afghanistan said the commandos and other special units were responsible for 80 percent of all Afghan offensive operations as of early 2017, but warned that they have been overused.
The commandos “are very tired,” said Maj. Gen Dawlat Waziri, the chief spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Defense. “By raising the number of commandos we will be able to give them a breath.”
Col. Zabihullah, the operations officer for the Afghan Special Operations command, told a small group of reporters that his forces have taken steps to ensure they weren’t being misused, including establishing better relations with regular units and ensuring requests for the commandos are channeled through the Ministry of Defense. It is unclear, however, how effective those measures will be if the Taliban continues to gain ground.
The Afghan commandos were initially designed to act as a raiding force against Taliban commanders and other critical targets, but they have slowly turned into the Afghan military’s premier shock troops. They are frequently tasked to clear areas of Taliban insurgents, often with the help of U.S. air support and Western special operations forces, so that regular Afghan army units can flow in behind them.
Zabihullah indicated that it will take roughly four years for the commando force to nearly double its size, and that with greater numbers, the troops will be able to cover more of the country. Currently, there are about a dozen Afghan commando battalions spread across Afghanistan. Each battalion is responsible for a specific geographic area.
Critics of the plan think that by focusing efforts on increasing the number of Afghan special operations troops, it ignores the roughly 150,000 regular Afghan soldiers who should be able to do many of the same tasks frequently asked of the commandos. Rapidly expanding the elite forces could also dilute the commando units to a point where they are indistinguishable from regular units, suffering the same issues with discipline and morale while increasing the threat of insider attacks.
In June, a commando launched multiple rockets at a group of U.S. Army Green Berets, wounding four. A week before that attack, another commando opened fire on a group of American soldiers, killing three.
The surge in commando numbers also means more Afghan trainers, officers and noncommissioned officers will be needed to ensure the new units remain effective. U.S. Special Operations troops, acting as advisers to the Afghan commandos, said that they are confident that the Afghans can do it without sacrificing their standards or giving up the stringent screening process required for entry to the program.
Afghan Command Sgt. Maj. Mirwais Amiri, the highest-ranking enlisted commando, who is in charge of the Commando School of Excellence at Camp Morehead, said roughly 20 percent of commando candidates don’t make it through the course, primarily because of its physical demands, and, in some cases, a lack of literacy. Amiri added that many of the troops who pass the course replace men who have been wounded or killed or have deserted their units.
Although Afghan commando casualty numbers are not regularly reported, the Afghan security forces suffered roughly 6,000 wounded and killed between January and May, according to a recent inspector general report.