Afghan President Ashraf Ghani formed the plan with Pentagon backing in an effort to invest in units with a track record of success. While conventional Afghan military and police units have often struggled with the Taliban in combat, the commandos are generally seen as more prestigious and effective on the battlefield.
But as more Afghan soldiers are sent to commando school after basic training, fewer of them are available to fill holes in the conventional Afghan army units.
“It’s always a point of discussion over how many we can get from KMTC and how much the Afghan National Army gets from KMTC,” said Army Lt. Col. Karl Johnson, a U.S. Special Forces officer involved in training commandos, using an acronym for the Kabul Military Training Center. “That’s always a point of negotiation.”
The shortage of soldiers has manifested in the Afghan National Army’s 215th Corps, with fewer than 10,000 soldiers serving in a force designed to have 18,500. The unit, based in Helmand province, is locked in a fierce fight with the Taliban in a region with no Afghan military presence in some districts. The top Afghan commander there, Maj. Gen. Wali Mohammad Ahmadzai, said he has been promised 2,000 more troops by the Afghan government, but it is not clear if or when they will arrive. He considers himself about 5,000 soldiers short.
The plan to add commandos also includes sending existing units known as Mobile Strike Force vehicle brigades to commando school. Those soldiers are receiving better training, but their assignment as commandos does not increase the overall size of Afghanistan’s military.
“I won’t say we cheated,” Niedringhaus said. “But the way we were able to rapidly double is by reflagging existing units.”
Commando growth was one of four goals identified by Ghani last year as he released a new “road map” for Afghan forces. It called for dramatically expanding the number of special operations troops, removing senior Afghan commanders proven to be ineffective, placing some police forces under the control of the Afghan Ministry of Defense and doing more to counter corruption in the Afghan ranks.
Ghani wanted the Afghan military to be able to carry out more offensive operations against the Taliban beginning this year, and for Afghan forces “to cover the preponderance of the population by 2020, compelling the Taliban to seek reconciliation,” according to a Pentagon report released last June.
Doing so would require government troops to rapidly improve and expand their ability to hold terrain. A U.S. military assessment said that as of October 2017, about 56 percent of the country’s 407 districts were under Afghan government control or influence. Fourteen percent were under insurgent control or influence, and 30 percent were considered contested, with no side clearly in charge.
But U.S. and Afghan officers see some reasons for hope in changes Ghani has made.
In one significant move, the Afghan Border Police and Afghan National Civil Order Police were moved from the Interior Ministry to the Defense Ministry, taking on the new names Afghan Border Force and Afghan National Civil Order Force in the process. The effort has put police units with a mixed track record holding their own against the Taliban under the control of senior military officers, who will decide how they are deployed.
The Afghan government also recently promoted the commander of the Afghan National Army Special Operations Command (ANASOC), Lt. Gen. Bismillah Waziri, to his current rank. The advancement puts him on equal or superior footing with Afghanistan’s senior regional military commands, an important distinction as the Afghan military attempts to get away from years of commandos being ordered to perform conventional missions, such as security at checkpoints.
Waziri said in an interview that commandos will be used in offensive operations, such as raids to capture senior militant leaders. The expansion of the commandos is going well, he said, but he did not comment on how the growth affects conventional Afghan units.
Commando training takes place at a base a few miles south of Kabul that also includes Camp Morehead, an American Special Forces camp. During an April 10 visit, prospective Afghan commandos could be seen preparing to counter ambushes while operating from Humvees; carrying rubber tires up and down a mountainside path to improve their conditioning; and maneuvering through a shoot house where they learn close-quarters battle tactics.
Niedringhaus, commander of the ANASOC Special Operations Advisory Group, said prospective Afghan commandos must first complete a three-year enlistment with the Afghan National Army. They then go through counterintelligence screening to ensure that they do not have ties to militant groups. About 10 percent of potential commandos are eliminated through the screening, including some who have previously served in the army, he said.
The first class of Mobile Strike Force soldiers with commando training will graduate Tuesday, becoming a newly designated Cobra Strike Force, Niedringhaus said. One Cobra Strike Force unit will be assigned to the eastern and northern parts of the country, with the other focused on the west and south.
The training has stressed using armored vehicles in offensive operations, after years of complaints from Afghan soldiers and independent analysts that they were not used effectively.
“The only reason they should be on the road is to get to their target,” Niedringhaus said. “Then they’re fighting from it as a platform.”