Special Operations: Afghans Have A Plan


January 6, 2018: In 2017 the ASSF (Afghan Special Security Forces) were carrying out an average of 105 operations a week during the last six months of the year. As was noted in 2016 American SOCOM (Special Operations Command) troops in Afghanistan accompany their Afghan counterparts on about ten percent of combat missions and also help plan or support most of the other 90 percent. In 2017 ASSF were able to carry out 17 percent of their operations without any assistance from foreign forces. That’s up from about ten percent in 2016. The ASSF is also in the process of doubling its strength, from two brigades (about 11,000 Afghan personnel) to four brigades (23,000 Afghans). The Afghan government wants to accomplish this this by 2020 but the foreign advisors (mainly from SOCOM) believe 2025 is a more realistic date. Moreover to make ASSF work you need a lot of support troops (about one for every two special operations soldiers) plus additional foreign aid to hire more foreign support specialists as well. The Afghans want more ASSF troops because they are the most competent and reliable Afghanistan has. The rest of the Afghan Army, by comparison, is hobbled by a shortage of trained officers and NCOS as well as constant pressure from the drug gangs and their Taliban enforcers to take bribes or desert. In contrast the higher standards and longer training for the ASSF attracts Afghans who are looking for a more professional environment. As a result some 80 percent of offensive operations by the Afghan Army are carried out by the ASSF. The main function of ASSF is not commando (“direct action”) operations or even the more mundane (but just as important) intelligence collecting but rather to provide an example of Afghan troops, from dozens of different tribes, working together in jobs that require international standards for skills mastered and put to use. This is a big deal in a country like Afghanistan. While some Afghans have become physicians, pilots, scientists and the like ASSF enables a wider range of Afghans to demonstrate high standards of skill and performance. Moreover ASSF provides accurate intelligence on what is going on in the country so the senior leaders cannot say “they didn’t know.” Moreover the ASSF are relatively incorruptible and the best Afghan combat troops in in Afghanistan. In the largely warrior culture of tribal Afghanistan that is a big deal. So the Western nations that fund and train ASSF are going along with the Afghan plan to double the size of ASSF.

SOCOM personnel now in Afghanistan are supposed to be concentrating on training ASSF operators (troops) s while also helping with planning and preparation for missions. Sometimes that involves SOCOM operators going along mainly to observe and provide backup. In addition commandos from other NATO nations also get actively involved in some ASSF missions. However on 80 percent of their missions the ASSF troops go out by themselves although not without some help from foreign advisors. U.S. and NATO special operations troops generally are not involved in combat but often provide armed backup and battlefield advice and assistance (calling in air strikes or receiving intel from American and NATO UAVs and intel troops back at a base and passing it on).

One of the less publicized changes in the Afghan military has been the slow, but steady, development of Afghan special operations capabilities. These specialists are used, like their American counterparts, for collecting intelligence on the ground, developing working relationships with local armed groups and carrying out raids on key targets. By 2016 the Afghan special operations troops proved capable of doing it all. This meant collecting accurate information on where key Islamic terrorist, especially Taliban, bases and leaders where, merging that with American intel from satellite and UAV surveillance and electronic monitoring. The American intel specialists helped, but the ASSF operators knew the ground and the people and they were able to plan raids or UAV strikes on key Islamic terrorist personnel and that has done more damage to the Taliban than any amount of patrols and attacks using police and regular army units.

The Afghan commandos had the element of surprise and better information on where the enemy was and what they were capable of. These efforts were so successful that the United States allowed, for the first time, UAVs to make attacks on Taliban leaders in southwest Pakistan, a Taliban sanctuary that the Pakistanis had long insisted didn’t exist and was off limits to American UAVs. But it was not off-limits to satellite surveillance and electronic monitoring. So the Americans compiled more and more very detailed evidence of how the Taliban had been using their sanctuary for over a decade.

Creating Afghan special operations forces was first proposed in 2002. But it took several years before recruiting and training could get started. Progress was slow, but steady. In late 2010 Afghanistan deployed its first Special Forces teams, and they were an immediate success. Many Afghans were familiar with American Special Forces, but while these foreign troops spoke the language and knew the culture, they weren't Afghan. Despite that, the American Special Forces often established rapport with the Afghan villagers, and were usually very successful. But the Afghan Special Forces take that rapport to a new level. Afghan villagers admired the skills of the American Special Forces, both as warriors and experts in many other areas. But now they see Afghans doing the same things. This makes a big impression, and the Afghan Special Forces get even more cooperation and trust.

The Afghan Special Forces aren't the only elite military unit the Afghans formed early on. In 2007, the Afghan Army formed its first commando battalion, trained by U.S. Marines. By 2010 2,400 carefully selected Afghan infantrymen have been sent to Jordan for commando and special operations training. The sergeants among this group, served as trainers during the formation of additional commando battalions. In 2007 U.S. Army Special Forces were involved in the forming of five commando battalions, so that each of the five army corps has one of these special operations units. By the end of 2010 there were 7,000 troops in the Afghan Commando Brigade. By 2012 it was 9,000 and by 2015 there were 10,000 Afghan Special Operations troops in nine battalions plus some support units. About ten percent of the Afghan Special Operations personnel were commandos in the Western sense, capable of carrying out quickly, but carefully planned raids night or day and in any weather. By the time foreign combat units left Afghanistan at the end of 2014 the various Afghan special operations units (army, air force, police) had been reorganized as the ASSF and support units (increasing ASSF personnel another 50 percent or so) were added. More importantly the Americans kept enough SOCOM troops in Afghanistan to help maintain the high standards ASSF had achieved.

All this was done in a nation where over 60 percent of the population is illiterate, and the military traditions are more tribal warrior than professional. The tribal culture makes it difficult for soldiers from different tribes to work together. But there are always those who have the desire to do something different, and these are the men who made the cut in the special operations forces. What the ASSF lacked were the specialized aviation, intelligence and support units that are standard with their Western counterparts.

The U.S. Special Forces assisted the Afghans in creating Special Forces units similar to the American ones, where each unit specializes in working with specific ethnic groups, or tribal coalitions. The goal was a force of four Afghan Special Forces battalions, each with 18 A-Teams. Given the success of American Special Forces, that are trained to understand Afghan culture and speak the language, it was believed that Afghans doing the same thing, would perform even better, and more than double the number of Special Forces troops, specialized in dealing with Afghanistan, available. Moreover, this means that Afghanistan will still have a Special Forces capability once U.S. forces depart. Afghanistan is the kind of country (four major ethnic groups, hundreds of tribes and clans) that needs Special Forces long term.

The problem with this approach is that it means picking apart current Afghan special operations units. Especially damaging will be the use of the best Afghan commando officers and NCOs for building the Special Forces units. But this was not a large, or a long term, problem. Initially, all the Special Forces candidates came from the Commando Brigade, and only required ten weeks of training. After that, Special Forces recruiting will be conducted throughout the army, and initial Special Forces training will be 15 weeks.

The initial selection involved taking the 145 commandos who volunteered, putting them through a one week qualification process (similar to the one used in the United States), and finding, as in the U.S., that only about half (69) passed. These men formed the first four A-Teams (of 15 men each). Some of those who passed the training are being used to help American Special Forces troops train the next class. The members of the new A-Teams underwent 26 weeks of on-the-job training, before being considered mission capable.

There were some unique problems in training the Afghan Special Forces candidates. Unlike the United States, there is a much wider social gulf between officers and NCOs in Afghanistan. But for Special Forces to work, there has to be very close cooperation between officers and NCOs. The Special Forces training appears to have solved this, even if it was done by convincing the Afghan officers that this kind of closeness was a special technique unique to Special Forces operations, and essential for A-Teams to succeed. But ten officer candidates dropped out because this kind of relationship with NCOs was too much for them to handle.

There were ethnic problems as well. Most of the Afghan Special Forces will be needed in the south, where the Taliban come from and where Pushtuns (40 percent of the population and historically the dominant group) are the majority. Many of the minorities in Afghanistan (Tajik, Uzbek, Hazara and Turkmen) have long been united in their opposition to Pushtun domination. The Tajik are 25 percent of the population and the Hazara (Mongols, a reminder of the medieval Mongolian invasions) 19 percent. The remainder are mostly various Turkic groups (Uzbeks and Turkmen). All of these groups are wary of the Pushtuns, but will work with them if they do not feel threatened. Because of the war with the Taliban, fewer Pushtuns join the army, and many more Hazara (who have long been persecuted by the other groups) do. Thus there were twice as many Hazara as Pushtuns in the first Afghan A-Teams. But the Hazara are much better educated than the Pushtuns, and make better soldiers. It's expected they will make superior Special Forces operators (as Special Forces troops are called) as well, and be able to work well with Pushtuns. So far they do, but not as well as Pushtun operators.

The original Afghan commandos are more similar to U.S. Army Rangers, although they also serve as a special response unit for emergencies. The Afghan commandos are used for operations where additional skill and reliability are required. The Afghan commandos also carry out raids, and some have been given additional training, so they can operate closely with foreign commando units.

The Afghans take well to commando training, and respect commandos in general. The Russian Spetsnaz commandos were feared and respected by Afghans during the 1980s war, and U.S. Special Forces, and various contingents of foreign commandos, have also impressed the Afghans. While a warrior culture, the Afghans never developed the systematic training that makes soldiers much more effective. Most Afghans realize that it's this training that creates the formidable foreign commando warriors. So, when given an opportunity to get this kind of training, there are plenty of enthusiastic volunteers. Now that Afghan Special Forces have proved that they can do the job, recruiting is easier. Talented young men can aspire to something besides becoming a warlord or leader of a drug gang. There is one potential problem, however; corruption. Tribal loyalty is so strong that it encourages corruption when it is at the expense of some other tribe and enriches your own. While few American Special Forces operators have been involved in corruption, the number of Afghans may, based on the local culture, be higher. There is also the experience in other poor countries, where special operations troops are lured away, by higher pay, to criminal enterprises. So far, none of this is a problem. But based on past experience, it's only a matter of time.


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