Elite Afghan soldiers stand in formation at the School of Excellence, where Afghan commandos and special-operations soldiers receive training on Feb. 27 at Camp Morehead in Afghanistan. (Tim Craig/The Washington Post)

Sgt. Jawed Hazara, with an elite Afghan army commando unit, chugged an energy drink, grabbed his M-4 assault rifle and hopped into the driver’s seat of a military pickup truck. The 24-year-old was directing a convoy of commandos on night patrol in the southern outskirts of Kabul.

“Now, we do my job,” Hazara said as he fumbled with his radio and sped off the base. “By the grace of God, I will do a good job.”

Indeed, if large swaths of Afghanistan are to be saved this year, that responsibility is likely to rest on how Hazara and 11,500 other Afghan commandos perform as their country staggers into the 15th year of the Taliban insurgency.

Despite more than $35 billion in U.S. support since the Taliban was driven from power here in 2001, the regular Afghan army is still broadly criticized as ineffective because of defections, timidity and an inconsistent command-and-control network. But U.S. and Afghan officials believe
that the army’s commando and ­special-forces units can fill the void and should be sufficient to reassure nervous Afghans that the Taliban won’t be able to fight its way back into power.

“All of the things you read about in the news — the units keeping things from going very wrong” — are the commandos and special forces, said U.S. Army Col. Joe Duncan, commander of the Special Operations Advisory Group, which supports the Afghan National Army’s Special Operations Command (ANASOC). “You won’t find commandos laying down their arms and refusing to fight.”

Afghan commandos eat lunch near the headquarters for the Afghan National Army Special Operations Command (ANASOC) at Camp Morehead in Afghanistan. (Tim Craig/The Washington Post)

But the Afghan army’s heavy reliance on its commandos is controversial, amid sharp disagreements over the effective deployment of elite forces. And especially this year, the stakes could not be higher for the commandos, as well as Afghanistan’s broader security forces, which comprise about 320,000 soldiers and police officers.

Afghan intelligence assessments suggest that the Taliban has 45,000 to 65,000 fighters.

And the Taliban is not the only problem. Security forces will be tested by Islamic State efforts to gain a foothold even as older militant groups — most notably al-Qaeda — show signs of reestablishing bases here. Afghan security forces are at the same time being thrust into bloody battles over the country’s billion-dollar opium trade.

Last spring, after President Obama withdrew most U.S. forces from Afghanistan, the Taliban ­repeatedly overran or outsmarted Afghan army units in rural southern and eastern provinces. Then, in late September, in a humiliating setback for the Afghan army and police forces, the Taliban seized control of Kunduz, a major city in northern Afghanistan.

Within days, however, Afghan commandos fought their way back into the city. Commandos were also instrumental in retaking territory in Badakhshan, Konar and Nangahar provinces last year.

“We can’t do anything without them,” said Abdul Qahar Aram, spokesman for the Afghan army’s 209th Corps in northern Afghanistan.

Farod Aziz, 23, and another Afghan commando on night patrol on the outskirts of Kabul. (Tim Craig/The Washington Post)

Sgt. Jawed Hazara , right, 24, and fellow commando Farod Aziz. (Tim Craig/The Washington Post)

Afghan army commandos stand on a hilltop while on patrol on the outskirts of Kabul. (Tim Craig/The Washington Post)
Elite but strained

The night he led his men out of the base here, Hazara took the convoy into neighborhoods that he said are packed with sympathizers of the Taliban and its brutal offshoot, the Haqqani network.

As the five-vehicle convoy drove down a dark highway, Hazara spotted a man digging a drainage ditch. It was 10 p.m. He slammed on the brakes, jumped out and grabbed the man while other commandos scanned the ditch for signs of an explosive device.

“We worry because the Taliban won’t meet us face to face,” said commando Farod Aziz, 23. “But as soon as we get a report that there are 20 to 50 Taliban somewhere, we will be there, and they won’t be able to resist us.”

Still, the Afghan army’s heavy reliance on its elite forces is raising concerns over training disparities within the army.

With just 9,800 U.S. troops here, the American-led coalition limits hands-on training of traditional army units to a few large bases. Far more attention is given to commando units, which are trained down to the tactical level.

“When we have Americans with us, we feel very comfortable because we also have the best air support,” said Capt. Gul Mohammad Abrahimi, spokesman for ANASOC’s 6th Battalion. “But it’s not like it used to be. They used to be with us 100 percent of the time, and that turned into 10 percent of the time.”

At ANASOC headquarters, tucked in a valley along with Camp Morehead, coalition soldiers and contractors mentor Afghan units and help oversee the School of Excellence. The school trains its students in calling in airstrikes, assessing surveillance and maneuvering bulky armored personnel carriers.

Elite Afghan soldiers sit during a lesson at the School of Excellence. (Tim Craig/The Washington Post)

Commando and special-forces units are designed for short-term operations that should take no more than 72 hours, said Col. Abdul Jabar Wafa, who runs the School of Excellence. But many deployments now take at least 20 days because army and police units are so ineffective, he said.

“The soldiers are not able to do their jobs very well, and also the police, and that is why they send the commandos,” Wafa said. “When we do a mission, they do not send other forces from the army or police to occupy that place, so we have to stay longer.”

And military leaders and analysts worry that the elite units are being degraded by overuse.

Brig. Gen. Besmellah Waziri, commander of ANASOC, said he is so frustrated by the frequent deployments that he recently “ambushed” Afghanistan’s chief of army staff, Gen. Qadam Shah Shaheem, at military headquarters to complain.

“I told him, ‘Sir, we are not a regular army and we are not police,’ ” Waziri recalled. “ ‘These are your commandos, sir, and you should use them carefully, short-term, and for specific missions.’ ”

Instead of defending territory, Waziri said, commandos and special forces work best when they are destroying enemy ammunition supplies, freeing soldiers from Taliban prisons and identifying targets for airstrikes. He added they also need to be kept available for missions such as one in October in which Afghan and U.S. Special Operations forces ­dismantled a 30-square-mile al-Qaeda training camp in Kandahar province.

But casualties are soaring. Between April 1 and Feb. 29, 130 ANASOC soldiers and officers were killed, about double the 2014 fatality rate .

Still, ANASOC maintains a 90 percent retention rate, far exceeding the rates of other army units, officials said. When 1,000 soldiers arrived at the School of Excellence last month, many with freshly shaved heads, instructors began “team-building exercises” — including push-ups on gravel.

“How many types of ambushes are there?” an Afghan trainer yelled out to trainees.

“Emergency and planned!” they yelled back.

Few bullets, bathrooms

Even Afghanistan’s best soldiers, however, struggle with limited resources.

The United States recently spent $19 million upgrading the school, but a severe electricity shortage limits indoor training on new weapon systems, tactics and first aid to six hours a day. There are not enough commando uniforms for everyone. And the mess hall and the dormitory were built to accommodate 600 trainees.

“There are only 16 toilets here,” said Sgt. Akbar Haz, a trainer at the school. “That is not enough for 1,000 men, especially in the morning.”

For an army at war, a far more fundamental concern is the lack of ammunition. To become an expert marksman, each commando should fire 5,000 live rounds over three months, but there were only 800 bullets per student when the new class arrived in late February, Wafa said.

“I keep asking [the Afghan Defense Ministry] for more, but they are saying they don’t even have enough ammunition in their own stockpiles,” Wafa said.

An Afghan soldier stands on a junked Russian tank left behind after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Camp Morehead and ANASOC are located on the site of a former Soviet base. (Tim Craig/The Washington Post)

John F. Sopko, the U.S. inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, said the ammunition shortage reflects broader dysfunction and corruption within the Afghan army.

“We provide enough money, but the problem is getting that funding in the right place,” said Sopko, adding that the drawdown of coalition forces has severely limited the Pentagon’s ability to monitor how money is spent. “The [Afghans] doing logistics, many of them are illiterate, so it’s kind of difficult to ship rifles and bullets when the guys doing the logistics can’t read.”

But for commandos, who are encouraged to take English classes, scraping for supplies is just part of the job.

Hazara, for example, went on patrol with dozens of bullets, a knife and smoke grenades draped on his vest. When he saw a truck idling, he and a half-dozen other commandos climbed into the cargo bay to make sure it wasn’t a truck bomb.

No explosives were found, but Hazara set up a checkpoint — even though Afghan police officers were already stationed at the intersection.

“They can rest,” Hazara said. “We are stronger than the Taliban.”

Mohammad Sharif and Sayed Salahuddin in Kabul contributed to this report.