Special Operations: Afghanistan Grows Its Own Special Forces


November 12, 2010: The Afghan Army has formed and deployed its first Special Forces teams, and they are a huge success. Many Afghans are 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 often 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 have formed. Six years ago, the Afghan Army formed its first commando battalion. The unit was trained by U.S. Marines. Since then, 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. Three years ago, 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. Currently, there are 7,000 troops in the Afghan Commando Brigade.

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 soldier. 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.

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 is 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 is 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.

U.S. Army Special Forces are a unique organization in military, and intelligence, history. No other nation has anything like the Special Forces, and never had. The idea of training thousands of troops to very high standards, then having them study foreign languages and cultures, and specialize in working with people of a specific culture, is unique to the Special Forces.



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